Reclaiming The Radical Legacy of The Witch

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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 third world 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. Because how can it be that the witch, once associated with everything transgressive and beyond the realm of normative society, is now so trendy and positively mainstream?  Is it really a feminist step forward that W magazine declared Fall 2016, the season of the witch, replete with pouting models in gothic dresses, chains and black lace underwear?

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W Magazine, Salem Issue, 2016

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 practiced folk magic, herbalism and midwifery, but 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.

And I worry 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. 

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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.

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Tarim Mummies, 1800 BCE

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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, author Witches and Pagans: Women in European Folk Religion,  these “dream-readers, sooth-sayers, and herb-chanters, fire-gazers in Switzerland, or water-gazers in France and Spain”, practiced “all the elements of shamanism: chants, prophecy, healing, weather-making powers, and shapeshifting”. Legends tell of their sacred cauldrons in which “they simmered mysterious herbs to produce a drink of immortality and resurrection.”

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The Magic Circle,  John William Waterhouse

These women were the guardians of the earth, the protectors of the sacred groves, lakes and springs, from which they derived their magical power. And until the middle ages they were highly respected, sought out and consulted for healing and divination by common folk, nobility and clergy alike.

But according to Barbara G. Walker , it was during the 14th century that the Catholic Church, during its relentless expansion and appropriation of sacred land, began to distinguish between witchcraft, perpetrated by women, and sorcery, a legitimate pursuit of men.

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While 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”. And thus their religious practices (as described by Dashu) of “sitting-out” on the land “gazing, listening, gathering wisdom” were extinguished by a priesthood that sought to bring nature, magic, women (not to mention their land and property) under male control.

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These women did not go easily, or take usurpation of their holy sites and old ways lightly – it took the Church hundreds of years to hunt them down. And so it seems likely, at least to me,  that the stereotype of vengeful witch, casting curses and blighting crop, was real, at least for the church. She must have been the original eco-feminist, fighting the patriarchy with one of most powerful tools at her disposal, magic. And the Church took it pretty seriously indeed.

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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.”

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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?

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As her image grows ever whiter, more privileged, prettier, and objectified in the west, women accused of being witches in Africa, Latin America and New Guinea continue to be hunted down and burned alive. I can’t help wonder what this all means for the “real” witches here and now?

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 don’t (or won’t) look the part, or otherwise refuse to behave?  How long will it be before they hear the inquisitors knock at the door? Just who benefits when the witch becomes no more than a fashion statement or pouty pose?

But that said, I do find something hopeful evoked in the trend of witchy selfies found on Instagram and Tumblr. 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.

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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.”

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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”.

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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Rewilding & Ecofeminism & The Reclamation of Magic

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Okay so let’s start by going back to the very beginning – women and wild food. Because once upon a time all food was wild – and it was the women who gathered it. But what we’ve forgotten today was that no aspect of food, from harvest to preparation to consumption, was left untouched by magical ritual. And because the banning of magic, the subjugation of women, the domination of the earth – and the birth of agriculture – all went hand in hand, I see rewilding and food foraging as a site for ecofeminist intervention.

Many ‘rewilders’ seek to return to a more undomesticated state, a time when prehistoric hunter-gatherers lived “in harmony” with the earth. Roaming over the land, these ancestors foraged the food freely provided by the fields and woodlands, rivers and oceans.  Men were mostly in charge of hunting and women were largely responsible for the harvesting and cultivation of plant foods as well the processes that accompanied it, cooking, baking, food processing, and food storage (basketry, pottery, and granaries).

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With the shift to farming and the ownership of land and crop, things changed. Food went from being a ‘gift’ of mother nature freely available to all to a ‘product’ of human labour, a commodity to be bought, sold and earned by the sweat of our brow.  And this meant removing women from the centre of food production which fed families and tribes and replacing them with a ‘labour force’ that created food for profit.

While the new system of agriculture is believed to have been a boon, providing more food for all on a predictable basis – this was hardly the case. Early farming was estimated to produce only about three-fifths of the food gained from foraging— and it took way more work too! So why farm?

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The answer is still not clear. But Jacob L. Weisdorf of the Institute of Economics, University of Copenhagen, believes it was all about money. Agriculture left the food supply in fewer and wealthier hands and its continued control was “ultimately necessary to the rise of modern civilisation by creating the foundation for the later process of industrialisation and sustained economic growth.” 

And according to feminist Silvia Federici, what this meant for women was that they no longer had access to land, and control over the crops they cultivated (which ensured their economic independence.) Now “their work and their sexual and reproductive powers were placed under the control of the State and transformed into economic resources”.

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But the point of this post is recognising that this “women’s work” in early societies was about waaay more than production. Food gathering and preparation were not just labour in the way we define it today (as an economic measurement). They were processes full of spiritual ritual which honoured the sacred network of all living things, and our place in it.

In the ancient world “magic” meant knowledge of the workings of nature. Every plant, tree and flower had a purpose and no food activity from gathering to eating, was unblessed. Magical symbols of fertility to promote bountiful harvest were woven into gathering baskets and carved into pots. And ritual foods were consumed in communal celebrations.

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 Some remnants of these sacred foods still remain today. In Sweden buns dedicated to St. Lucia date back to midwinter “pagan” festivals of light occurring at the time of the winter solstice. But their twisted and sun wheel shapes were originally magical solar symbols for abundance, as the saying for St. Lucia intimates: “Honor St. Lucy with great good cheer, and you shall have plenty for all of the year!”

Today de-toothed today as folklore, wive’s tales and quaint superstition, we’ve forgotten this food magic once formed the basis of a ‘women’s religion’ that sought to harmonise with the life-giving powers of nature.  And it was the destruction of their old earth worshiping ways that were a top priority for the church and the state (the new capitalistic order).

By the middle ages, women’s magic was designated as witchcraft and punishable by burning. No longer could they paint or carve magical symbols on their hearths, pots and dishes. No more weaving corn dollies for fertility, or offering honey mead, milk, or eggs to fruit trees in wassailing rituals – or else!  In her book Caliban and the Witch Federici asks us to consider why this war was waged against magic and women? “Just what is supposed to be eliminated when these women are condemned to the stake?”

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The persecution of women’s ‘old ways’ as witchcraft not only contributed to the desacralization of nature (paving the way for its transformation into a “resource”) but as Federici argues, it set the stage for “the “housewifization of women”. Now reduced to  second-class status they were confined to the unpaid labour of raising children, caring for the elderly and sick, and maintaining the home. This process was repeated with the colonisation of indigenous peoples whose land was appropriated as they too became second class citizens.

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Many ecofeminists see the domination of women and the exploitation of nature as fundamentally connected– and many place a priority on environmental activism in their work. Others seek to revive our spiritual connection to the earth i.e. if we see nature as ‘sacred’ then perhaps we might think twice about ploughing down ancient rainforests or spraying fields with toxic chemicals. But I’d like to take it one step further because I think it was the banning of ‘earth magic’ that severed women from their source of empowerment.

Reclaiming magic is about recognising who those witches actually were – women who lived outside the bounds of societal constructs of being good wives and obedient daughters. They were women, who Alex Knight writes in “Who Were the Witches? – Patriarchal Terror and the Creation of Capitalism “represented a whole world that Europe’s new masters were anxious to destroy: a world with strong female leadership, a world rooted in local communities and knowledge, a world alive with magical possibilities…”

Many of these women were herbalists and midwives, but most were just everyday women – not ‘witches’. They just stubbornly clung to the old pagan and nature rituals, the crafts and magical foods traditionally used to bless their families and communities with good fortune and prosperity.

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Today the rewilding movement is reviving many traditional women activities such as wild food harvesting, pit cooking, basket weaving, fermenting, herbal medicines– but what is still largely neglected is the ancient connection to women’s magic. (I want to acknowledge that there was also men’s hunting magic and rituals, but these too seem to be overlooked). The rewilding focus on “primitive skills”, “ancestral skills”, “survival skills”, or “bushcraft” rarely acknowledges their original spiritual/magical context. I would love to see a magical basket weaving workshop that focuses on the history of patterns and motifs originally intended to enhance the fertility of the land and promote a plentiful harvest.

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Seeking balance with nature may be the goal of many rewilders, but that means more than just living sustainably. For our hunter-gather ancestors these ‘skills’ were deeply spiritual activities, and living in balance meant ritually and magically acknowledging and thanking nature for her life-giving gifts. 

So as a rewilder and an ecofeminist, I see the work we do at Gather as a way to revive the ancient ways of knowing, of being in “right relationship” to nature and the great cycles that govern all life on the planet. We see foraging the “wild” food that nature provides freely each season, as deeply subversive to the patriarchy (and by this I do not mean men in particular but a political and economic system that benefits the 1% off the backs of many).

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Returning to the magical ways of harvesting, processing and preparing wild foods reminds us that food is a sacred gift of mother nature, not just a commodity to be bought and sold on Wall Street. Harvesting plants in tandem with moon cycles or creating a recipe for wild pesto (utilizing the magical properties of wild herbs) may seem a bit of fun, but we think it is deeply important that we revive our foremother’s fundamental faith that by ceremonially harvesting and ritually preparing our food, we can create an energy of blessing for ourselves, each other and our communities.

Our early hunter-gatherer ancestors saw no division between themselves and nature, between spirit and the material world. They believed that our souls and the soul of earth (anima mundi) were inextricably intertwined. And so like my foremothers before me, I understand magic as a way to honour and enhance the life-giving fertility of the earth, integral not only to the well-being of ourselves and our communities– but to nature herself.

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