Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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In Praise of Cackling

Zombies shamble. Werewolves howl. Witches cackle.

I'm not sure just when witches first began to cackle. Personally, I suspect the cackling witch to be a fairly recent development, perhaps even as late as the “Twentieth” Century. It may even be that we owe our cackling—as with so much else—to the Great Green-Faced Mother of Us All, the immortal St. Margaret Hamilton.

Still, whenever it is that we first began to cackle, we've made the sound our own. You hear “cackle” and you think “witch.” It's pretty delightful to have a verb of one's own.

It was not always thus. “Cackle” is an old word—all the Germanic languages have some version of it—denoting (probably imitatively) the sound made by a hen when she lays an egg.

The ancestors were astute observers of the world around them. If you've ever actually heard a hen cackle, you know what a distinctive sound it is: shrill, brittle, with a note of triumph to it.

The underlying metaphor here, then, is witch : hen. This actually makes a good deal of mythological sense. The sacred bird of the God of Witches is the—well, let me be coy here and say “rooster.” A cock's head figures on the coinage of the Dobunni, the Keltic tribe ancestral to the Anglo-Saxon Hwicce, the original Tribe of Witches. Witches, so they say, are hens to the Devil's cock, cows to the Devil's bull.

Oh, those earthy ancestors.

A good cackle takes practice. You need to cultivate a cackle. It can take years to get your cackle where it needs to be: hitting just that right note of triumph, with the perfect balance of control and abandon, of atonality and musicality.

As his Discworld novels demonstrate, Terry Pratchett knew his witches pretty well, but even he didn't always get it. For him, cackling was something that witches start doing when they go to the bad.

Well, Goddess rest him, in the end, Pratchett was a cowan. There are certain things that even the brightest ones never quite understand.

If you've ever heard a cackling competition—and here in Paganistan, we could field some Olympic class cacklers, let me tell you—you know that a good cackle can be a thing of (terrible) beauty.

Why else would the Goddess of Witches be known as the “Great Cackler”?

Who else but Herself, in the dawn of days, laying the World Egg?

Hers is the Primal Cackle, first of sounds, proclaiming the Birth of a Universe.

 

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Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.

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