Reclaiming The Radical Legacy Of The Witch

Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about witches. Not just because top ten lists of hot tv witches and sexy Halloween selfies currently swamp my social media feeds, but because my tables and shelves are currently so laden with herbs, plants, berries, phials and bottles that if an inquisitor of old were to enter, I’d find myself quickly tied to the stake. And while this worry seems remote, it’s a plain fact that women in developing countries are still hunted down, tortured and set aflame for the crime of witchcraft.

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In 2019 it was estimated that the #witch hashtag has been used over seven million times on Instagram. For more on the witches of the social media generation click on the image.

Sure, the witch is emerging from the world of taboo and shadows onto the world stage. Sure, she’s being touted as a feminist icon  – a “powerful feminine model free from male influence or ownership”. But I’m not so sure. Whether we’re talking magazines, tv, movies, or our social media platforms, the image of the witch, once associated with everything transgressive and beyond the realm of normative society, has grown positively mainstream. Is it really a feminist step forward that W magazine dedicated a recent issue to the season of the witch, replete with pouting models in gothic dresses, chains and black lace underwear?

W Magazine, Salem Issue

And while many believe the witch of the middle ages was a spectre created by the church, I believe she was real. Yes, many put to death were just ordinary women who practised folk magic, herbalism and midwifery, but according to Max Dashu author of Witches and Pagans: Women in European Folk Religion, many were powerful spiritual leaders of the indigenous, animist faith traditions of the old world –  and their magic was earned through a lifetime of spiritual discipline spent in communion with nature.

Her make-over into nubile fashion siren not only obscures this history but her true relevance as a role model to us today. One that if resurrected, would be just as subversive and dangerous to the powers that be.

Today the witches tall black hat and burbling cauldron have become icons of Halloween kitsch, but they were once hallowed items of the holy women and priestesses, the healers and herbalists, the oracles and diviners of old Europe. Their conical hats and cauldrons date back to the 2nd Millennium BCE and were connected to the female shamans of the Indo-European peoples.

Scythian Princess and her cauldron, 4-5th century BCE

Their cauldrons (as well as crystal balls and magical wands) were still being used thousands of years later by the “witte wieven” or wise women, the sibyls, seers, and female druids of Celtic, Anglo Saxon, and Norse traditions of the middle ages. According to Max Dashu, these “dream-readers, soothsayers, and herb-chanters, fire-gazers in Switzerland, or water-gazers in France and Spain”, practised “all the elements of shamanism: chants, prophecy, healing, weather-making powers, and shape-shifting”. Their knowledge of plant magic and herbal healing burbled in their sacred cauldrons, and legends tell of mysterious herbs simmered to produce ” a drink of immortality and resurrection.”

These holy women presided over holy sanctuaries, temples and shrines located on islands, forest groves, near springs, wells and rivers. Their magical powers derived from religious practices  (as described by Dashu) of “sitting-out” on the land “gazing, listening, gathering wisdom”. And until the middle ages, they were highly respected, sought out and consulted for healing and divination by common folk, nobility and clergy alike.

According to Barbara G. Walker, it was during the 14th century that the Catholic Church, during its relentless expansion and appropriation of land, began to distinguish between witchcraft, perpetrated by women, and sorcery, a legitimate pursuit of men. Books on sorcery were condoned well into the enlightenment, female witches, in contrast, were said to “magically injure crops, domestic animals, and people, and in general “outrage the Divine Majesty”.  It was clear that women, magic and nature (along with their sacred sites and land) were to be brought under Church and Crown control. 

These women did not take usurpation of their holy sites and old ways lightly – after all, it took the Church hundreds of years to hunt them down. And so it seems likely, at least to me,  that the stereotype of the vengeful witch, casting curses and blighting crop, was real, at least for the Church.

The most serious charges levelled against witches was damage to property. And if you consider that the Church was the biggest landowner in England, controlling between a fourth and a third of the arable land in 1450, it easy to see these witches as the original eco-feminists, fighting the patriarchy with one of the most powerful tools at their disposal, magic. And there is plenty of evidence that the Church took it pretty serious indeed.

And I’m sure that if they were here today, these “witches” would be doing a lot more than striking a pose, they’d be busy protesting our dying forests, fighting the polluting of our waters, and protecting the planet. I like to think they might even have been part of The Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell or W.I.T.C.H. a radical feminist protest group whose manifesto stated witches “were the original guerrillas and resistance fighters against oppression — particularly the oppression of women — down through the ages.”

W.I.T.C.H. casts a spell

Their first action took place on Halloween 1968 when WITCH members marched down Wall Street and place a “hex” on New York’s financial district. (The Dow Jones Industrial Average is said to have declined sharply the next day.) And isn’t this the radical role model rendered invisible in the witches new fashion-friendly image?  One that explains why corporate interests would rather have us dressing the part than actually taking her seriously?

And as the image of the witch grows ever whiter, more privileged, prettier, and objectified in the west, women accused of being witches in Africa, Latin America and New Guinea are increasingly being hunted down. Long before the dawn of colonization, female shamans, healers, diviners and prophetesses in Africa were respected, and many were revered leaders in the fight against colonial oppression.

Now those accused of witchcraft lose their homes and their identities as mother, daughter and wife. Sent into exile many live in witch villages and have to fear for their lives.  And it’s important to note that many are also suspected of “political involvement”. Professor Denise Sidonie Nebie/Zoma studies witchcraft allegations and claims many accused are “Rebellious, economically independent women who insist on their right to speak freely, to choose a spouse, to plan their pregnancy, to be active outside of the home, come and go without prior authorization etc.” Many of them are poisoned, strangled, drowned or burned alive.

Images from Witch Hunts A Global Problem in the 21st Century (click image for link)

I can’t help wonder what this all means for the “western” witches here and now?  Today young black women are leaving Christianity in favour of their ancestors’ African spiritual traditions and finding a sense of power in the process. Online witch groups who “hex” Donald Trump have already engendered a backlash amidst Christian Evangelicals and Nationalists who accuse them of being league with Satan himself. How long will it be before they hear the inquisitors knock at the door?

Accusations of witchcraft have long been used to control women’s behaviour. And if we take any lessons from history, what might happen to those who refuse to behave? Just who benefits when the radical legacy of the witch becomes no more than a pouty pose?  Certainly not the environment, the earth, the sacred lands and waters from which the original “witches” drew their magical powers.

That said, I do find something hopeful evoked in witchy selfies that abound on social media platforms. Like photographic spells, they evoke the long-repressed archetype of the holy woman of old. And while they may be romanticized, they offer a vision of a forgotten time when wise-woman communed with the land for healing, guidance and visions, creating magic and blessing for themselves and their communities.

It is this age-old impulse in the female psyche that is reemerging as the popularity of Wicca, herbalism, kitchen witchery, flying ointments, tarot, crystals and gemstones, continues to grow. An impulse, perhaps, that still threatens the powers that be?

And it’s why I resonate deeply with Max Dashu when she writes, “In a world in extremity, we are searching for the wellspring, the inexhaustible Source known to all our ancient kindreds. Many of us have been cut off from our deep roots, and especially from the ancient wisdom of women, and female spiritual leadership.”

And as I look over the drying plants and herb craft spread around me, her words remind me of my childhood ways of spending hours alone in the woods, gathering stones, listening to the whispering wind and watching it move through dancing trees. But I had no guide to show me how to “hear”, no wise-woman to teach me how to “gaze” or “see”. And it is perhaps one reason I’m so drawn to the wisdom and magic of the old witches of fairy tales, folklore and legends.

Silvia Federici, author of Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation, believes the burning of witches, the subjugation of women, the desacralization of nature, and modern capitalism went hand in hand. And she asks us to consider – just what was eliminated when these women were condemned to the stake?

And that’s why in a world of ecological crisis, where the witch’s hat is cheap Halloween merchandising, where the cauldron’s medicine is replaced by pharmaceutical labs, where nature is a “raw resource” without spirit or sentience – we are in need of the witches radical magic more than ever.


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Whether its through wildcrafting, plant medicine, kitchen witchery or seasonal celebrations, I believe we can enhance personal, community and planetary well-being by connecting with mother nature!

42 thoughts on “Reclaiming The Radical Legacy Of The Witch

  1. Thank you for speaking the pure truth. I partner with you in this radical place.

    I think its important to understand, in this world today where it is so easy to grieve the absence of flesh and blood seers as teachers, that if it is a soul’s mission and path to be and serve as this role for people and Earth, then there are no true obstacles that can stop this. The wisdom, the knowing, the way, and specific skills will arise from the soul or deeper self. I wouldn’t say this if I have not been witness to it, more times than I can number. If I had not been knocked from my feet by them.

    Visions will come, the path to miracles will lay out before you. All the helpers flock from every direction.
    I could never have dreamed or imagined the divinity that has punched my “little self” in the face already in this lifetime. It’s marched in like a torrent, one luminous dream, one vision, one angel, one demon at a time. Despite every effort of society’s conditioning against it throughout my entire upringing.

    There is no place, no time, where love will not enter. Even, and especially in the darkest of times.

    Much warmth and appreciation-

  2. Love your post! I also love to dress up as a witch almost every Halloween…not to be sexy, but it feels more like something is calling from long ago to be remembered. It makes me feel at home. It is so much more than a costume. It is a reclaiming of something very precious.

    1. Thank-you! Wonderful. And I hear from more women all the time that feel exactly as you do!

  3. Yes, every kind of witchy flavour of yesness to this! That is exactly it; the more the witch becomes objectified and tamed by our society the more important it is that we reclaim our wildness and freedom and connection to our indivisibility from all that is. Let the wild rumpus begin, let us not be silenced or made invisible. So may it be!

  4. Thank you for laying out in such a clear and heartfelt manner exactly that which I’ve been thinking! Such a good reminder of the necessity of doing the real, inner & outer work of magic as women & as soul-seekers—of truly choosing the path rather than being merely sucked in by the aestheticized, commercialized branding of it (though I too find pleasure & camaraderie in some of the Instagram community and think there so many lovely, witchy souls reaching out to kindred spirits in it!). A lovely, thought-provoking article. Thank you!

  5. Thank you for writing an article that I’ve longed to find words to articulate and write as eloquently as you have.

    I created an album last year about this.
    Prior to the word “witch” , we were known as “wicces” .
    We are inter-dimensional mediums and guardians of Earth’s magic.

    Please feel free to download the album for free @

    It is now time that we all rise.

  6. I answer the call, Sisters! We cannot deny what we feel deep inside, and our journeys will continue to lead us home, no matter the twists and turns along the way. Blessed Be!

  7. Indeed. People have been too concerned with being viewed as ‘safe’, as being very willing to go long with the show. By doing so power was given away which is rarely ever a good thing. Blessings.

  8. How about the Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from HEL? Hel is the Norse goddess of the Underworld and the daughter of Loki and a giantess.

  9. This article was so well written. I identify so much with “witches”. You taught me a lot and have really made me look at the history of the these women in a whole different way. I am really digging this website too!

  10. True, totally agree with everything… and witches are still here, some of them are aware of their role and power, some not… but the world is changing again and their role is growing

  11. I am a devout Christian, so proclaiming myself a witch isn’t going to happen! But there is much about the traditional “witch” that calls to all women. For example, in the context of history, I find myself fascinated with the intersection of magic, mysticism, and medicine, all three rooted in the feminine throughout time. (Check out a Catholic saint, Hildegard von Bingen.) I am an avid historian, drawn to the Middle Ages and alchemy – disparaged as witchcraft but in large part the beginnings of chemistry which I also study. We all know that the Christian holidays co-opted pagan celebrations, so I have no problem remembering the ancient beliefs while celebrating my own. Having a farming background, being a gardener – and a woman! – the phases of the moon certainly have significance to me. I am also an herbalist with an extensive apothecary which I use for medicine but of course the same herbs used for healing have their magical uses as well. Spells and incantations are a sort of prayer, I would say, and would you agree?

    Although many would find it shocking and even damning, you can see how it happens that an old Christian lady would come here to see the nice photos, find useful recipes, and learn more history along the way.

    This is a lovely website and one I will revisit, without considering my immortal soul in peril 😉 Indeed, wouldn’t it be nice to see women of every description reclaim their connection to the earth and recognize the “magic” that dwells in us all?

  12. So glad to belong to a spiritual community (Unitarian Universalists that honors our Earth-based traditions and some communities actually have pagan groups (CUUPS)…………Blessed Be!

  13. Thank you for sharing this precious wisdom…in a day that my country burns…i needed to read this.
    We can bring balance again to our mother earth, we just need to conet again with nature and with ourselves…
    Blessings <3

  14. In addition to reclaiming our connection to our bodies and healing through natural means, we need to reestablish connection with others to allow healing thought energy to permeate. Our minds have been invaded by an unfeeling, materialistic culture that serves no one, not even its masters. Evict that enemy of womankind.

  15. Thank you for this well writen piece. I am based in Germany and read some time ago a scholary book (in German) on magic beliefs and rituals in the middle ages. I can tell you a lot was not pretty, and not nice and there was a notable absence of any “female creative magic healer spirit”. Rituals included murder, the use of fingers from the dead, and other parts from corpses. There was a notable subversion happening in the magical culture over time – it slipped into the criminal and perverted. This in turn gave rise to the claims of the church against magical culture which is present to this day in the claims of psychiatry against people who believe in the magical.

    Wicca rose on the back of Alistair Crowley, who was a perverted old sack, really. I have not found anything meaningful in his writings, just a continuation of the same old perverted story and women (and children) being used.

    I highly recommend work by authors such as Paul Levy who describe the creative process as a magical process, including the intimate encounters with the darkness, and the forces who try to supress the creative free spirit.

    1. PS – If we truly want to resurrect and safe the magic of our Earthangel Mother Earth we need to dig into many wells and sources. I for my part have found deep and plentyfold treasures in the wells of the Islamic teachings before they too got poisoned. 🙂 The beauty of esoterical Islam is that it connects us with the esoterical teachings of antiquity. Aloha!

    2. Thank-you! Of course I hear you, and yes there are always both sides. Very interesting & valuable points you make and I will definitely check out Paul Levy!

  16. Worry not, we/you/us are here. Maybe pain is burnt in our DNA, but those memories only tought us to go smart about it in this cycle.
    And you have had teacher, the wind whispering that you hear, she was there with you as she was and is with me in my countless visitation to nearby forest. Even more so they (our predecessors) they are in us and around us and we know exactly how to invite them and ask for advice. I think every one among us knows how to ”dial” the other side with herbs, trance, dance, incantations. And I am not talking about any of commercial mumbo jumbo, we know real, deep, serious spells. They come when we need them, when we are ready. Step by step I’ve been gaining mine, first my trip to death, then ability to see future, then skill and strength to cast spirits and demons, then power of healing. I am sure lots of you knows exactly what I am talking about.
    And yes, stupid costumes, I am wearing mine most of my days every day, overstretched sweat pants and worn out hoody with big enough pockets for leafs, and berryes and stones and acorns all that my wish to come home with me and be my guest and share wisdom with me. That is real witch dress up, our ancestors just like us never cared much about money or fashion, hence that medieval version of homeless dress up. It has to be comfy and functional. But hood is important.
    And as I always say: ‘but what do I know, I am full of shit’, and the world goes on, the ones that need to hear it will hear it, I am still alive ;p

    1. Oh I love it. So beautifully written. It’s really a process of remembering isn’t it? Thankful there are real witches still in the world!

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