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.
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?
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.
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.”
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.
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.