What Is The Witching Hour? – Origin & Meaning

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Danielle McLeod

Danielle McLeod is a highly qualified secondary English Language Arts Instructor who brings a diverse educational background to her classroom. With degrees in science, English, and literacy, she has worked to create cross-curricular materials to bridge learning gaps and help students focus on effective writing and speech techniques. Currently working as a dual credit technical writing instructor at a Career and Technical Education Center, her curriculum development surrounds student focus on effective communication for future career choices.

The English language is rich in adaptations from other countries, cultural slang, and historical references. One of the most interesting things about language, in general, is the history behind words or phrases and the various ways words have changed in their usage through the years.

The witching hour is a great example of this and is a recognized term worldwide. This ancient phrase is referenced in the Bible and is likely even older than that. Even though the exact term itself was not used until the 18th century, the idea has been documented for thousands of years.

Let’s look at the witching hour’s use and its long, illustrious history.

What Is the Meaning of the Witching Hour?

What Is The Witching Hour Origin Meaning

The witching hour is the time of night when some believe that the devil, witches, demons, ghosts or other supernatural beings are most active or when magic is most likely to be most potent or to occur.

The idea of a “witching hour” or time frame within which evil is likely to happen is biblical in nature. However, the term itself was not documented until the 17th century when it was mentioned in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

For example:

  • Nearing the witching hour, he finally revealed the purpose of their late-night meeting as he led them toward the wailing cliff.
  • She woke regularly night after night during the witching hour until she finally asked somebody to cleanse her house of disruptive spirits.
  • We arrived home on the heels of the witching hour, feeling somewhat creeped out due to the misty darkness that seemed to swallow the light.

When Is the Witching Hour?

The exact hours of this time frame have been debated through the years, with some people claiming it occurs at dusk, others at midnight, and the majority near 3 am. The 3 am time frame is the most agreed upon due to the biblical references to Christ’s death upon the cross at 3 pm, placing 3 am exactly 24 hours later.

Origins of the Witching Hour

Witching Hour Ngram
Witching hour usage trend.

A lot of misinformation surrounds the naming of the witching hour, with some sources claiming it was named such by a pope in the 1500s—except no documentation of this exists. That and most of these sources claim it was from a pope who wasn’t even a pope for another 400 years.

However, the idea of an hour within which the devil walks the earth, or evil abounds, was referred to in the Bible, making the superstition quite old indeed.

Psalm 91:5-6 states,

“You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness, nor the destruction that wastes at noonday. “

Luke 22:53 also references a timeframe within which the power of darkness rules:

“When I was with you day after day in the temple, you did not lay hands on me. But this is your hour, and the power of darkness.”

Shakespeare refers to the “very witching time of night” in Hamlet, written and produced between 1599 and 1601:

‘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.…

And the actual phrase, “witching hour,” is first seen in Elizabeth Keene’s poem Nightmare, published in 1762:

‘Tis the baleful witching hour,

Lo! the moon withdraws her light;

The phrase has since been used in various literary publications, plays, and cinematographic movies through the years. It is a term that may not carry the same weight in the modern day as it once did, but it is still definitely associated with the supernatural.

Let’s Review

The idea of a witching hour is thousands of years old, if not longer. It refers to a specific time of night, generally agreed upon as 3 to 4 am, in which evil or the supernatural is more active.

Enjoyed reading about this idiom? Check out some others we covered: