Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Witches' Bigghes

I remember coming across that odd, evocative word bigghes as a child, though I've long since forgotten just where I first found it. Most likely, it was in one of my cherished weird paperback witchcraft books, the kind I came across on occasion in dusty boxes at Saturday-morning yard sales to which my parents often toted me. (How many modern-day witches owe their early awakenings to the 1960s occult explosion that produced so many trashy-great paperbacks?) I've failed to turn up a provenance for it, even in the reams of traditional materials I've amassed over the years; and if the answer to the riddle lies locked in one of my many books, it may be yet awhile until I'm able to ferret it out. The closest thing I can give to a definition right now comes from Raymond Buckland's The Witchcraft Book: The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft, Wicca, and Neo-Paganism:

The Jewels of a Witch Queen, or a Queen of the Sabbat, they consist of her crown, bracelet, necklace, and garter. They might also include a ring.
 This brief post at Witches and Pagans links bigghes with the Old English béag, a word which refers to a neck-ring or torc (not to be confused with Irish or Scots Gaelic béag, meaning "small"). Beyond that, there are very few references to be found on the internet, save for a couple of dubious mentions from even more dubious sources--one from a notorious "Christian" writer of occult conversion narratives, the other an alleged "ex-vampire" who was also apparently a Very Powerful Majgickyan" or somesuch.

So, bigghes. Just what are a witch's jewels, anyway? Let us take Mr. Buckland's list and work from there.

In this photo, the Lady Olwen is wearing a full complement of bigghes.

She has a crown, which is traditionally a circlet with a large central crescent moon. In older photos showing trad witches in regalia, you will invariably notice that the moons on the crowns are far larger than those typically found today. (Of course, the crowns worn by our ancestresses were hand-made for them by witch craftsmen, and not mass-produced by foreign labor for cheap resale online.) Silver is the preferred metal, though I have seen brass and copper models available. It can be worn straight across the forehead, or higher up at an angle like a tiara or headband.

She is wearing a pair of bracelets, though one is sufficient, and most common. The distance, angle, and lighting of the photo don't allow us to make out much detail on the bracelets, but these would ordinarily bear the wearer's witch name and/or the sigils of her degree. (My own bracelet has my name in Theban, plus my degree sigils.) 
The photo to the right  of Doreen Valiente shows one of the bracelets made for her by Gerald Gardner.

Both Olwen and Doreen are wearing necklaces. The traditional teaching was that the necklace was to be made of large, conspicuous beads and unbroken by a clasp; here, Doreen's appears to fit this bill while Olwen's does not. Amber and jet (a topic for another time and a post all its own) are favored materials, and very popular today. I have two such necklaces, one gifted to me by my partner and one made by a sister-witch.

The garter is not seen in either of these photos, and of all the "jewels" listed it seems to be the least popular today, at least among certain witches. For those who do not work skyclad, the garter makes the least amount of sense, because who would ever see it or know that you were wearing it? Traditionally, it was made of leather or snakeskin, and had a buckle for each daughter coven that had hived from the witch's own. I have heard very specific rules as to the material and color of the garter, but these are likely trad or even line-specific.

Lastly, the set may include a ring. Most witches I've met enjoy wearing jewelry, and may wear many rings at once. Some trads and lines do specify a particular type of ring for initiates to wear, but this is by no means universal. A lapis ring was our particular custom for many years, but it was our own innovation and not something that was passed to us.

There is, of course, no way to tell by looking at the regalia who is a "real" witch or of what trad (if any) these days; a quick scout of Google will turn up dozens of options for any aspiring Witch Queen's adornments, and anyone with a Paypal account can that easily be the possessor of a parure worthy of the highest of High Priestesses. Typically, however, the bigghes tend to be reserved for ritual wear and occasions of high ceremony; one doesn't go off to the grocery in full drag (unless one is Laurie Cabot, perhaps), and anyone seen swanning around thus at a Pagan Pride Day or pub moot when not conducting a formal ritual should probably be given a wide berth. Doreen was famously quoted as saying that the only Queen she recognized lived in Buckingham Palace, and for most witches today the title of "Witch Queen" is a purely ceremonial one, when used at all. Outside one's own coven (and rarely even therein), it is almost never necessary to descend to the indescribable vulgarity of reminding others of one's exalted witchly status!