(urth) The Witches function

b sharp bsharporflat at hotmail.com
Tue May 23 21:41:45 PDT 2006

Macronaut asks:
>What is the Cumean doing for humanity?  How does her
>interaction with the obscure Witches' guild or her
>equally obscure presence in a disused part of the
>Botanical Gardens help redeem humanity?  Or is she
>around for some entirely different reason?

I don't think there is a clear answer but here is my take:  First, in the 
Claw appendix, Wolfe idenfies all the inhabitants (except Ultan) of the 
Citadel as belonging to the class known as "servants of the throne".  So in 
trying to discern purpose of the witches we should keep the needs of the 
autarch in mind.

The Cumaean is described as "The Mother" by Merryn the witch and is probably 
their leader.  The witches are described in various vague ways which tend to 
confuse them with our medieval concept of witch. Maybe there is some 
overlap.  To understand them I look for the Wolfe pattern of giving one 
explicit, direct clue, out of context, then a lot of vague hints scattered 
here and there.

I think we get the explicit clue when we are told that witches raise the 
dead.  Taking this literally I will say there are five ways on Urth to raise 
the dead. One is direct re-animation which only Severian (with one 
exception), as the head of his race and savior, can do.  Another way is to 
create an eidolon from a dead person's memory.  Only Tzadkiel and his agents 
appear able to do this.

So that leaves three ways for the witches to raise the dead and perhaps they 
are involved in all of them.  We directly observe them sort of spiritually 
raising Apu-Punchau from an alien's memory in the seance scene, during a 
thunderstorm.  Severian has a memory of the witches dancing wildly on nights 
of rain.  I think this dancing is the same thing as the seance.  Perhaps 
seances work best in the rain or perhaps it is the seance which causes the 

Another way to raise the dead is to use a pharmicon such as alzabo juice or 
the one in the old Autarch's phial to bring back their memories in another 
person's brain.  We aren't told who procures these potions but the witches 
are associated both with Vodaulus (through Hildegrin), and the Autarch as 
servants of the throne.  The Cumaean herself, when seen in four dimensions, 
shows hundreds of faces.  It is also noted that those who come to see the 
Cumaean often don't come back.  This could mean the Cumaean is mining 
humanity for memories though we would hope a hierodule would show better 
behavior than that.

Another means of raising the dead would be cloning.  Regarding cloning we 
are told only that kaibits are, "grown from the body cells of exultant women 
so an exchange of blood will prolong the exultants' youth". Who performs 
these cloning and leeching procedures?  Are there any clues that the witches 
are involved in cloning?

When Severian is a boy he gets a tour of the witches tower. It is archaic 
and in disrepair.  He sees gnostic designs, a lack of furniture, notes a 
colder temperature than outside.  He sees The Cumaean "staring through a 
glass tabletop at what appeared to be an artificial landscape inhabited by 
hairless, crippled animals".

This mysterious table is never explained.  The only clue I can find comes 
when Severian sees Hethor thrown into the antechamber. He compares Hethor 
to- "one of the Chatelaine Lelia's hairless rats, rats that ran in circles 
and bit their own tails when one clapped one's hands." To me these hairless 
creatures seem similar to those in the Cumaean's terrarium.  It also reminds 
me of #5 in Fifth Head of Cerberus though for him it was usually mice that 
were used for his experiments in cloning, nerve splicing, limb grafting etc.

Master Gurloes tells that he received his introduction to sex from the 
witches but hints that it isn't such a pleasant experience and sends 
Severian instead to the House Azure.  Severian later notes that the 
torturers try to send only pre-pubescent boys to visit the witches and the 
older apprentices tell terrible stories and even the bravest boys are afraid 
to go.  The unpleasant aspect is not explained but perhaps they are treated 
like sample donors.  Perhaps forced to perform again and again and 

Severian also notes that screaming can be heard  from the top of the witches 
tower, screams different than those of lunacy or agony that the torturers 
hear from their clients.  Are these sexual screams?  Severians notes it 
can't be their clients screaming, "for in the sense we used that word, they 
had none".  Perhaps it is autoeroticism or Bacchanal lesbianism?  I don't 
see how that adds to the story at all.  But there is another part of 
reproduction during which women might scream, and clones do need a place to 
grow.  Or perhaps the witches treat themselves as sample donors. Egg 
harvesting is supposed to hurt.

On Urth, it is the cacogens/hierodules who provide all the advanced 
technology.  There seems to be numerous examples of advanced biotechnology 
going on but for some reason it is always veiled from the reader.  Perhaps 
there is some convention that such things aren't to be discussed.  
Baldanders is clearly doing human biotech, but as to the process we are only 
told about:  machines standing in impenetrable relation to one another with 
uses beyond conjecture,  a "homunculus" or two and an eviscerated woman.  We 
do see his monstrous results.

Typhon had his head grafted onto another body and probably had some cloning 
done too (mandragora).  In his round room we also find many impenetrable 
devices and structures though Severian's descriptions here are thorough 
enough that we might suspect microscope lab cubicles and maybe morgue type 
shelves.  The old leech who treats Severian in the ziggurat is similarly 
secretive about his knowledge though his technique suggests something 
similar to the exultant-kaibit relationship that the old Autarch divulvged.  
Note that Gurloes is unaware of where the kaibits might come from or their 
true function.

So, I propose the reason the witches are so veiled and mysterious is because 
most of their activities involve biotechnology.  I know this evidence  is 
not conclusive but this the best I can come up with using the clues I was 
able to find.

One last speculative note:  We know that the one of the autarch's primary 
goals is to keep society stagnant and in stasis until the New Sun comes.  We 
learned in Fifth Head of Cerberus that cloning is a path to stagnation and 
stasis.  And witches are servants of the throne.


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