The Meaning of the “Witching Hour”

Written by Gene Lafferty 


Tis the witching hour of night,

Or bed is the moon and bright,

And the stars they glisten, glisten,

Seeming with bright eyes to listen

For what listen they?

-John Keats, (1795 – 1821)

“Tis the witching hour of night.” Is there any other phrase in the paranormal that gets your blood pumping as fast as the witching hour? But what exactly does it mean?

Photo by Michigan’s Otherside 

According to the Compact Oxford English Dictionary, the witching hour is “regarded as the time when witches are supposedly active.” Gee, that’s helpful.

In a search of the Internet, the phrase “Witching Hour” will produce over a half million (527,000) hits. It seems that the majority of these hits reference the same clichéd, under-explained and uncited definition. It should be no surprise that this phase is also available on Wikipedia (talking about clichéd, under-explained and uncited):

“In European folklore, the witching hour is the time when supernatural creatures such as witches, demons, and ghosts are thought to be at their most powerful, and black magic at its most effective. This hour is typically midnight, and the term may now be used to refer to midnight, or any late hour, even without having the associated superstitious beliefs. The term “witching hour” can also refer to the period from midnight to 3 am, while “devils hour” refers to the time around 3 a.m.”

What is wrong with that definition? Where is the cited source? Any late hour is a witching hour? The 3 a.m. time reference is in there for what reason? Sorry, I just cannot accept this as credible. I still find myself asking where this phrase came from.

In 1816, Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus. Lord Byron gave the idea for this book to her while she was in Geneva. Byron suggests that she, and a group of friends, should write ghost stories as a way to pass the time. (Did you know, at this very same gathering, the first modern Vampire novel was inspired?) There is an excellent essay on “The Summer of 1816” that can be found by following this link.) Frankenstein would be her only story published as a novel. In the introduction, Shelley wrote:

“Night waned upon this talk, and even the witching hour had gone by before we retired to rest.”

This is believed to be the first time the exact phrase, “Witching Hour” was used in a published text. However, this is not the first reference to the Witching time. Around 1601, William Shakespeare penned, The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. In this play, Hamlet expresses:

“Tis now the very witching time of night, when churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out Contagion to this world: now could I drink hot blood, and do such bitter business, as the day would quake to look on.” -Hamlet, Scene II

Could this be the source of the Witching Time (Hour)? Hamlet was written over 400 years ago. In this play, Shakespeare cited the Hour so there must be an earlier reference.

In one of the best paranormal reference books available, The Encyclopedia of Witches and Witchcraft, Rosemary Ellen Guiley gives one of the most complete definitions of the Witching hour:

The hour of midnight on the night of the full moon. This is a time of transformation and change and the height of witches’ spell-casting powers. The roots of this notion go back to ancient times, to the worship of goddesses associated with the Moon, fertility, and witchcraft.  As the Moon waxes in its phases, so do the powers associated with it and its deities, until the culminate at the full moon.

Now I feel like we’re getting someplace. But which goddess of the moon – there are several – and how far back in ‘ancient times’ do we need to go? Let’s narrow down on the goddess.

In my opinion, the goddess Selene seems to be the most likely candidate. She is one of three faces of the triple goddess who is seen in the waxing and waning moon. The powers of the moon goddess (Selene) are at their fullest during the full and dark of the moon, which were times of the monthly cycle sacred to her worship.

How ancient are the Greek gods? Our knowledge of the Greek gods was traced back to the writings of Homer in the Iliad and the Odyssey (8th century BC). It is believed that the myths were heavily influenced by the Mycenaean culture that existed in Greece between 1700 and 1100 BC. This is a little more than 3,700 years ago. I think that qualifies as “ancient.”

Associating the Greek goddess Selene and the Witching Hour seems to make sense. The moon has been worshiped for centuries. It seems that the full moon would have the highest impact on the people on Earth. Therefore, it makes sense that the Witching Hour would only be on nights with a full moon.

We now have the goddess, but what about the midnight reference? Midnight, after all, is 12 a.m. Well, no. “Midnight” means the mid-time point between sunset and sunrise. How did the ancient people know when midnight was? We can track timekeeping back to the Egyptians at around 3500 BC. However, it was not until around 600 BC that man discovered a method to tell the time in the dark – since all other timekeeping methods used the sun as a reference, i.e. obelisk, sundial, etc., this nighttime device used the stars. It was called a Merkhet.

Wow, that is about 1000 words to explain the true meaning and source of the Witching Hour. The next time you are on an investigation, or just want to impress (ok, annoy) your friends, at 12 a.m. and they say that the witching hour is about to begin, you can discuss with them the facts and the myths.

Explain to them that there is no specific time (midnight changes every night) and it must take place on the night of a full moon. If they want to debate the specific time of being exactly 12 a.m., just ask them “which midnight?”

What do I mean about which 12 a.m.? Remind them of time zones and Daylight Savings time. For reference, there are at least 31 time zones. They range from 12 hours behind GMT (Kiribati) to 13 hours in advance (Tonga), which makes 26 zones. In addition, there are some zones, which are half an hour displaced from the ones next to them. Now if they are just interested in the ‘standard’ time zones, then there are 24. Time zones are divided into 15-degree (longitude) segments, so 360 degrees divided by 15 equals 24 time zones. In short, that makes at least 31 different 12 a.m.’s per 24 hours around the world.

Now with all of this said, I cannot deny that we do seem to collect more evidence the later the night becomes. Perhaps there is something to the time after all.

 Written by Gene Lafferty, February 2010 for Buckeye State Paranormal & Haunting Investigations 

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