A few days ago there was an interesting question posted on the Facebook Group about the power of 3 (3 knocks, 3 am is the witching hour, etc) and how it came to be. Although I didn't participate...it immediately piqued my interest and I began my research into why 3am is so widely regarded as the Witching Hour.
The first thing I'd like to dive into is WHEN exactly the Witching Hour is, because some sources don't even say it is 3am at all. For example, Merriam-Webster has two definitions:
1: the time late at night when the powers of a witch, magician, etc., are believed to be the strongest
2: 12 o'clock at night :midnight We arrived home shortly before the witching hour.
So, it could potentially be any time late at night when the powers of magic are supposed to be strongest...and/or midnight.
Okay, but what do other sources say?
The Collins English Dictionary seems to say something similar:
the hour at which witches are supposed to appear, usually midnight
What about handy-dandy Wikipedia?
In folklore, the witching hour or devil's hour is a time of night associated with supernatural events. Creatures such as witches, demons, ghosts, and gremlins are thought to appear and to be at their most powerful. Black magic is thought to be most effective at this time. In European tradition, the hour between 3 and 4 a.m. was considered a period of peak supernatural activity, due to the absence of prayers in the canonical hours during this period. Women caught outside without sufficient reason during this time were sometimes executed on suspicion of witchcraft
Okay, I think we're finally getting there! It appears that the Witching Hour can vary slightly but MUST be in the middle of the night, sometime between 12-3am. I like to think of this as the "happy hour" approach. Sure, happy hour implies it is only one hour...but on most bar menus you'll see that happy hour really lasts from 4-6, or from 5-8.
Now that we've slightly defined when the Witching Hour is, let's dive into the folklore surrounding it.
One of the biggest reasons the Witching Hour is so vitally in the middle of the night (even though it is technically the beginning of the day) is because the liminality that the time offers. This is why, I think, many people focus on midnight just as much as 3am because midnight is the time between two days and many believe that the veil between the worlds is at a weak point, allowing for a heightened level of communication between our world and another. Because the veil is thinner at this time, too it is the perfect time to swap ghost stories, try to communicate with spirits, and even whip out a ouija board or perform spells (please note that 'spells' here does not mean contemporary witches or Wiccan spells).
Additionally, even back in the centuries ago, the hours between 12-3am are usually when most people are dead asleep. The cover of darkness and the sleeping world allows for witches and other creatures to convene publicly, but without being seen or otherwise persecuted for meeting.
Another thing about the Witching Hour you'll notice is a lot of people wake up around 3am. Although this is said to be in relation to something wicked, Storypick argues that "Generally, you’d be in your REM sleep cycle during the time bracket. Your heart rate, cardiac pressure, breathing rate and arterial pressure becomes irregular at this time which is why you may feel anxious when you suddenly wake up at those odd hours." While this may be true, it is still incredibly interesting that we are irregular and on alert at those hours naturally. Is it a coincidence, or is it an evolutionary tactic developed to better protect ourselves?
The above image is cuisine des sorcières Jacques de Gheyn, from the Staatlich museum, Berlin and is liscensed under public domain.