Q From Laura Perry: I’ve been asked a seasonal question by friends and am on a search for the origins and original meaning of the witching hour. I checked your website (always my first resource in matters like these) and found no entry. Does the phrase refer specifically to midnight? I’ve seen references to the devil’s hour that seem to refer to 3am rather than midnight.
A The direct origin is easy enough to find: it comes from this:
’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, by William Shakespeare, 1603. We think that Shakespeare invented it, but can't be certain — some other phrases previously thought to have been coined by the Bard have now been antedated.
Obviously enough, it refers to a time that belongs to the witches (and by extension, ghouls, ghosts, demons and other unearthly beings), when they are abroad doing their awful deeds. Shakespeare himself was sure, presumably because of the beliefs of his time, that the witching time was midnight:
THESEUS: The iron tongue of midnight hath told twelve.
Lovers, to bed; ’tis almost fairy time.
PUCK: Now it is the time of night
That the graves, all gaping wide,
Every one lets forth his sprite.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, by William Shakespeare, 1600.
Witching hour came along much later, as a reference to a specific time of night. This is the earliest example I can find, embedded in some verse that’s garnished with Gothic extravagance:
Now Midnight spreads her sable vest
With starry rays light tissu’d o’er;
Now from the Desart’s thistled breast
The chilling dews begin to soar;
The owl shrieks from the tott’ring tow’r,
Dread watch-bird of the witching hour!
A Fragment, by Mary Robinson, in the European Magazine and London Review, 1 Apr. 1793. Mary Robinson, as well as being a poet, author and actress, was a notorious figure in London society in the 1780s. She was for a while mistress to the future George IV, whom she threatened with publication of his letters when he dumped her.
Most modern references are to midnight, the time when witches are supposed to be most active. But the time of night has varied a good deal, perhaps curiously in view of the implicit assumption in witching hour that a particular hour is meant. Some writers have taken it to be the twilight time just after sunset, when the world is still and the landscape seems bewitched. Others allow it to be the whole period between midnight and dawn. Members of some religious faiths do prefer the time that you mention. Some Christians, for example, hold that the true witching hour (which they would rather call the devil’s hour) is 3am, because it is said to be an overt mockery of the supposed hour of Christ’s death on the cross at 3pm.