This post was prepared for the Pagan Blog Project on Saturday, November 15, 2014.
“Ellen Ripley: Our Lady of Survival,” by Spencer Salberg. Please visit his website to see more of his art!
Despite what many Pagans often believe, the association of witches with nefariousness is nothing new. The sad truth is that witchcraft was already demonized (and even considered a criminal offense, punishable by death) in pre-Christian cultures like ancient Babylon. (Just look at Hammurabi’s Code.) Even indigenous cultures that are only now being exposed to Christianity in the 21st century have already been murdering accused “witches” within their communities for centuries. So the idea that Judaism, Christianity and Islam deserve all the blame for re-defining witchcraft as “evil” is purely and simply wrong. In almost every culture for the past 4,000 years at least (since Thuban ceased to be the North Star circa 1900 BCE), witchcraft has consistently been associated with maleficia, murder, cannibalism, night terrors, and the Monstrous-Feminine.
The Monstrous-Feminine is found in any female figure who threatens the patriarchy. For example, let’s compare the characters of Penelope and Circe in Homer’s Odyssey. Penelope, the wife of Odysseus, is a “good girl” who remains faithful to her husband for twenty years, despite the fact that (1) there’s every reason for her to think Odysseus died in the Trojan War and (2) she has several strapping young bachelors pining for her attention. But Circe’s a “bad girl” who plots to get Odysseus in the sack so she can possess him forever. She’s clearly depicted as being “wrong” for wanting to dominate the hero, and Odysseus ends up getting her to do what he wants instead (with a little help from the God Hermes, no less). So the woman who allows herself to be dominated by her man (even when he might be dead) was the socially acceptable role model for Hellenic women, while the woman who dares to seek power for herself was socially unacceptable. Penelope is Homer’s version of the “good” and “dutiful” wife who does what’s expected of her, while Circe – who’s unmarried, has mysterious powers, and turns men into swine – is the witch.
Another example would be Lady Ishtar (the Goddess of lust and war), who’s not really an “acceptable” female even by ancient Babylonian standards. She was definitely considered desirable to both Gods and men, but as Gilgamesh observed, Her lust eventually burns Her lovers to a crisp, sending them straight to the Underworld. She is not a plaything who lets males have their way with Her; She’s the one who has Her way with them. She also refuses to accept Her allotted place in Her pantheon; She steals the sacred mes from Ea, and She threatens to start a zombie apocalypse when Anu hesitates to give Her the Bull of Heaven. It’s funny that Gilgamesh is a “hero” (even though he’s a tyrant and a rapist) while Ishtar is the “treacherous” one (even though She’s divine and transcends all human understanding). And why is it “okay” for someone like Yahweh to subject the Israelites to battered person syndrome throughout the entire Old Testament, but not for Ishtar to bust Gilgamesh’s balls? In both cases, it’s a wrathful Deity asserting dominance over human beings; but since Yahweh’s male, it’s “justice”; since Ishtar’s female, it’s “capriciousness.”
Yet another example can be found in such fairy tales as “Sleeping Beauty” and “Snow White.” In these yarns, the “good” females are always helpless princesses who are “beautiful,” but who have no real power and function only as property to be “stolen” and “rescued” by others. The antagonists are also female, but they’re “bad” and “ugly” because they actually have power and choose to exercise it. (Many of them are also queens.) The long and short of all this is that witchcraft is the female assertion of power, which is demonized in patriarchal cultures. Hence why so many religious conservatives are so vehemently against abortion, which they perceive as being the “murder” of unborn children. There’s probably no other issue that better represents the role of witchcraft than this one, for if a woman is forced to carry a fetus to term (whether she actually wants to do so or not), she is a slave to her biology and to the expectations of others. Bearing this in mind, it’s somewhat understandable that witches have been thought to “kill children” and “cause miscarriages” (even though this isn’t literally true by any means whatsoever). A woman who’s free to terminate her own pregnancies (whether she actually chooses to do so or not) has the ability to control her own body and choose her own fate, which makes her a very powerful woman indeed.
Many Pagans think the medieval Inquisition targeted witches, but it was actually more concerned with heretics, or Christians who defied official Catholic doctrines (and who were even more anti-pagan than Catholics were!). It wasn’t until after the Protestant Reformation that the European witch hysterias really took off, and it’s also important for us to realize that “witches” and “cunning folk” were originally considered to be separate categories. Cunning folk were people who actually practiced folk magic, while “witches” were usually just Protestant women who were unfortunate enough to be marginalized. Ironically, cunning folk considered themselves to be Christians and were generally accepted as such, while accused “witches” were blamed for local misfortunes (e.g., crop failure) because they didn’t conform to their expected gender roles (e.g., they remained unmarried; they had sex out of wedlock; they wouldn’t “put out” to their suitors or husbands; they were widowed and refused to re-marry; they had miscarriages or abortions, etc.) And with only a few exceptions, the cunning craft was almost never illegalized or made punishable by death; in fact, cunning folk often played key roles in identifying so-called “witches” during moral panics.
Men were sometimes accused of “witchcraft” as well, and many people prefer to think this term is gender-neutral. But it seems to me that when most people hear the word today, they think of women first; the entire concept of witchcraft is just so firmly linked to female spirituality and empowerment in particular. For what it’s worth – and with all due respect to Gerald Gardner, Raymond Buckland and others – I don’t think we men have any business reclaiming the word “witch” for ourselves. The way I see it, this word belongs specifically to women (whether they are cis- or transgender). There are already so many other terms that belong to males (e.g., sorcerer, wizard, etc.), and there are so few female terms that aren’t just feminized versions of the same (e.g., sorceress, necromantress, etc.). Don’t get me wrong; if you’re a dude and you think of yourself as a witch, no one can stop you. But this is my blog after all, and if I can’t share my honest opinions here, I can’t share them anywhere. My honest opinion is that men just shouldn’t touch the word “witch.” I think we owe it to all the women in history who were ever burned, drowned, hanged or otherwise tortured and killed for things that should never have been considered “crimes” in the first place.
If you ask me, witchcraft doesn’t always have to be a spiritual or magical thing; it can also be purely social or political. Any female assertion of power can be counted as a form of witchcraft, whether it’s Susan B. Anthony fighting for women’s suffrage, Christine Jorgensen becoming a respected celebrity, Hillary Clinton running for President, or Ellen Ripley rescuing space marines from a horde of carnivorious xenomorphs. A witch can be a Pagan or a Christian; she can pray to a Goddess or a God; she can even be an agnostic or an atheist. All she truly needs to be a witch – in my humble opinion at least – is to be female and to seek some kind of power in her life. And unlike certain other members of my sex, I don’t find witchcraft the least bit threatening at all. If anything, I find the persecution of witchcraft – which I see as a form of wizardry gone excessively wrong – to be the real threat. But I’ll discuss this further when I’m ready to post my thoughts about what it means to be a wizard. For now, let’s just close this out with one of my favorite quotes about witches:
“I think that all women are witches, in the sense that a witch is a magical being. And a wizard, which is a male version of a witch, is kind of revered, and people respect wizards. But a witch, my god, we have to burn them. It’s the male chauvinistic society that we’re living in for the longest time, 3,000 years or whatever. And so I just wanted to point out the fact that men and women are magical beings. We are very blessed that way, so I’m just bringing that out. Don’t be scared of witches, because we are good witches, and you should appreciate our magical power.”
– Yoko Ono