Most of my clothes are black. I have a black cat. My favorite holiday is Halloween. I have perpetually unruly hair. Given the right company, I will happily chatter on about astrology, magic, herbs, and divination. I write books of magic spells. So perhaps it’s not surprising that periodically I’m asked whether I’m a witch.
Invariably, my response is to say that my answer depends upon the inquirer’s definition of witchcraft. Inevitably this leads to frustration (and often to anger) on the part of the inquirer: they think they’ve asked a very simple, straightforward question because, of course, every child, any idiot so to speak, knows the definition of “witch.” Their perception is that I’m being snippy and evasive (stereotypical witch behavior, incidentally) when in fact I’m just wary. I’ve already experienced too many unpleasant encounters with those whose definitions of witchcraft did not correspond with my own—or with each other’s for that matter. I’ve learned that, just like beauty, what constitutes witchcraft is dependent upon the eye of its beholder.
Don’t believe me? Let’s look in the dictionary.
The following definition is from Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary:
WITCH (n ME wicche fr. OE wicca, masc. wizard and wicce fem. witch; akin to MHG wicken to bewitch, OE wigle divination, OHG wih holy—more at victim)
1a. Wizard, Sorcerer
1b. a woman practicing the black arts: SORCERESS
1c. one supposed to possess supernatural powers esp. by compact with devil or familiar
1d. or Witcher: Dowser
2. an ugly old woman: HAG
3. a charming or alluring woman
Oh boy, we’ve got some contradictions right there. Which witch does my inquirer suppose me to be? Should I take the question as a compliment or as an insult? It’s probably safe to presume that most women wouldn’t strongly object to the insinuation that they’re charming or alluring but what if the witch this particular questioner has in mind is actually that ugly old hag or Satan’s minion?
Hags, wizards, compacts with the devil: these definitions, or at least the words used to express them, demonstrate an archaic tone. In all fairness, I grabbed the first dictionary at hand. The definition quoted above comes from a well-worn 1965 edition, not that long ago considering the entire scope of time, but still, perhaps a newer edition might offer a more modern definition. With the wonders of modern technology and automatic updates, Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary is about as up-to-date as dictionaries get, yet its definition of the word witch is similar to the one from 1965 with but one significant addition:
1: one that is credited with usually malignant supernatural powers; especially: a woman practicing usually black witchcraft often with the aid of a devil or familiar: SORCERESS—compare WARLOCK
2: an ugly old woman: HAG
3: a charming or alluring girl or woman
4: a practitioner of Wicca
Now in addition to “practicing usually black witchcraft” the witch may also be “a practitioner of Wicca” although whether Wicca and black witchcraft are different or synonymous is not addressed.
Both dictionary definitions link witches with women; at least that much seems clear. Or is it? The further one searches for a definitive definition of the witch the more elusive and labyrinthine the subject becomes.
Other references suggest a narrower definition of witchcraft, albeit with greater flexibility regarding gender. According to Dr Margaret Alice Murray, the controversial scholar who wrote a long-standing definition of witchcraft for the Encyclopedia Britannica, the word “witch” has been used since the fifteenth century almost exclusively to describe persons, either male or female, who worked magic.
Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend further clarifies this issue of gender. That book defines a witch as
a person who practices sorcery; a sorcerer or sorceress; one having supernatural powers in the natural world, especially to work evil and usually by association with evil spirits or the Devil: formerly applied to both men and women but now generally restricted to women. Belief in witches exists in all lands, from earliest times to the present day.
Although Margaret Murray’s definition is neutral in tone, the others possess, to varying degrees, an air of malevolency. So perhaps I should be insulted at the suggestion that I’m “witchy.”
You want a really virulent definition of “witch”? Try this one:
“Witches are the devil’s whores who steal milk, raise storms, ride on goats or broomsticks, lame or maim people, torture babies in their cradles, change things into different shapes so that a human being seems to be a cow or an ox and force people into love and immorality.”
Martin Luther, 1522
Perhaps not. Maybe I should be flattered. Author Raymond Buckland, a pivotal figure in the evolution of modern Wicca and an authority on magic, divination, and witchcraft, acknowledges the very same etymology quoted in the dictionaries yet proposes a positive understanding of the word “witch”:
The actual meaning of the word Witch is linked to “wisdom” and is the same root as “to have wit” and “to know.” It comes from the Anglo-Saxon wicce (f) or wicca (m) meaning “wise one,” witches being both female and male.
On the other hand, many would advise me to absolutely not engage in discussion with anyone who wishes to know whether I’m a witch, not because of any potential insult but because the whole notion of witches and witchcraft is absurd. Their definition of “witch” doesn’t extend to living, breathing human beings. I can’t possibly be a witch; it’s not even worth discussing, because witches are made up, fictional: they don’t exist outside fairy tales, stories, and legends. Obviously anyone asking me this question is simple-minded, delusional, mentally ill or just teasing. Those adhering to this definition may in fact love witchcraft very much—in its place, which is fiction. Their witches exist in realms inhabited by trolls, ogres, fire-breathing dragons, and handsome princes who miraculously arrive on white horses at the very last second. They are integral to fairy and folk tales but are not perceived as belonging to “real life” except as a story-teller’s device.
Sophisticated minds, especially those of a Jungian bent, might also dispute the reality of a living, breathing, practicing witch—although their objection is based on a completely different definition of “witch.” For them, the witch is not an individual belonging either to real life or fairy tales but is an extremely powerful archetype, a reflection of human fears and desire. That the witch-figure is universally recognized and understood all over the globe is hardly surprising because, of course, human archetypes are universal and shared by all.
In true Jungian terminology—as defined by Carl Jung, a man not averse to metaphysical study—witches are projections of the dark side of the anima, the female side, of human nature.
Furthermore, that archetypal witch, the one so prominently featured in Halloween iconography, is recognizable as a “witch” virtually everywhere on Earth: the concept of the solitary person (depending upon culture it is not always a woman) in touch with the secret powers of nature and willing to put those powers into practical use resonates around the world, although the general attitude towards this person may differ greatly.
Have we exhausted all possible ways to define “witch”? Oh, no. Not yet, not hardly, not by a long shot. We’ve just begun to explore the many ways the word is understood by different people. Yet another definition’s many adherents possess no consensus regarding whether witches really exist, but they do agree that, whether witches live and breathe or are merely fantasy figures, the witch is not truly human. This witch is defined as a supernatural being, living in our midst, who only appears to be human but is actually some sort of different species, possessing hereditary superpowers and performing feats impossible for a mere mortal. This type of witch is the kind most frequently seen on television and in movies. Often they’re unhappy because they’d really like to be human: think Bell, Book and Candle or Bewitched. Sometimes, like Harry Potter, they’ve had miserable, unhappy existences as human beings, but are delighted to discover that they are really witches and whose lives are much happier spent in an alternative witch universe. Witchcraft is not learned or achieved through compact with either devil or angel but is hereditary, a matter of genetic destiny.
If my inquirer subscribes to this notion of witchcraft, mere verbal affirmation will not be a sufficient answer for him. He will want a demonstration of my powers because these witches can do things other people can’t, such as fly or teleport. If he’s really convinced I’m a witch, my protestations that I lack super-powers won’t be believed; he’ll think I’m just being coy or secretive, snippy and evasive once again.
Yet another definition also identifies witches as a product of biological destiny, although of a very different kind. This definition’s witches are human, albeit perhaps only partially. The Book of Genesis recounts the tale of the Watchers: the rebel angels who fell in love with human women. They had children who then had more children. Some believe witches to be among the results of this forbidden miscegenation. Angelic ancestry created special “witch blood,” which, even highly diluted, bestows magic power, metaphysical interests, and a rebellious, disobedient nature. There are those who hope that someday this theory can be proven, in the same manner that one’s percentage of Neanderthal DNA can now be calculated via genetic testing.
Attempts to pin down a rigid definition of witchcraft, one shared by all, are something like entering a carnival fun-house, a hall of mirrors, where asking someone to define what is a witch reveals more about that person than about either witches or witchcraft. We look at the same image but see different things. We use one word but mean different things. So many people love, loathe, and are passionately fascinated by witchcraft, yet there are so many conflicting definitions of what constitutes a witch, each of which may be deeply, sincerely, and passionately held.
Although most people are absolutely sure that they can precisely define the word “witch,” there is profound disagreement and contradiction amongst their definitions. For instance, although I recognize that every one of the preceding definitions possesses adherents, not one of them entirely satisfies my own personal perception of witches. And yet, had I not in recent years come into contact with so many whose definitions of the word differed so much from my own, I, too, would have been absolutely sure that I understood exactly what everyone else would understand to be a witch.
What isn’t expressed in any of the definitions given above is a perception of the witch as a figure of female empowerment: in a world of good, polite, agreeable, well-behaved, passive girls, the witch is an independent, empowered, autonomous, frequently assertive, and defiant woman, beholden to no one. (Unless, of course, you subscribe to the notion of the witch as a minion of Satan, in which case she couldn’t be more beholden.) Candace Savage, author of Witch: The Wild Ride from Wicked to Wicca, describes the witch as embodying “bad girl power.” Whether one admires, detests or fears powerful women will have a lot to do with how one defines and perceives the witch.
Of course, there is another significant reason, perhaps the most crucial of all, as to why one shouldn’t casually identify oneself as a witch without first understanding what that word means to others: safety. Does the other party perceive witches as admirable beings to emulate, or as evil beings to avoid or even exterminate? If you identify yourself as a witch, are you a role model, a kindred spirit, or the enemy?
Despite definitions linking witches to evil and malfeasance, historically it has been the witch who has been victim rather than perpetrator, most notoriously in Europe during the era known alternately as the Burning Times, the Witch-hunts or the Witch-craze. This was quite a long period, spanning roughly from the fourteenth through the eighteenth centuries and affecting to varying degrees, with very few exceptions, virtually the entire European continent. During this period attempts were made to root out all facets of witchcraft and witchery. Those accused of witchcraft were arrested; brutal torture was used to obtain confessions as well as identification of still more witches. Estimates of the numbers killed as witches during the Burning Times range from the tens of thousands to millions, depending upon one’s source.
This isn’t just old history incidentally, cautionary tales of long ago. Although the Witchcraze eventually burned itself out in Europe, today’s newspapers periodically, with some frequency, report the brutal murders of people identified as witches in India and throughout Africa. It is still not safe, depending where you’re located, to be branded a witch.
Frankly, the more one discusses witches, the more confusing the matter becomes. Perhaps if one could accurately define “witchcraft,” defining the witch would be easier. Think again. The only thing more elusive than a single, definitive definition of the witch is one precise explanation of the craft that she practices!
Let’s take another look at the dictionary. How does that 1965 edition, for instance, define witchcraft? Three possibilities are offered:
1a. the use of sorcery or magic
1b. intercourse with the devil or with a familiar
2. an irresistible influence or fascination: ENCHANTMENT
The definition suggesting that witchcraft is “the use of sorcery or magic” is widely accepted. Many people, including many self-professed witches, perceive it to be an obvious fact that witchcraft is synonymous with the magical arts. Where they differ is whether that practice is perceived as natural, and worthy of respect and admiration, or whether it is perceived as sinful, evil, and unhealthy.
Have we finally reached a consensus? Is a witch, then, someone who uses sorcery or magic? Not so fast. That definition leads to even more questions. For instance, exactly how much magic or sorcery does one have to use to be considered a witch? At what point are you a witch? Do you need a year and a day of study, as some believe, or does one single spell or experiment with divination define you as a witch? Teenagers playing with ouija boards: are they witches? Does dabbling in witchcraft make you a witch or is some dedication to the magical arts, some mastery, required? Do your spells have to be successful? What if you stop casting spells but retain the knowledge, are you still a witch? Are you a witch if you want to cast spells, or dream about spellcasting, but, for one reason or another, don’t?
Of course, all this ignores the even bigger question at the root of this definition of witchcraft. These considerations presuppose that you accept the reality of magic power: a minority position in modern Western society. Most people don’t believe in magic, or at least officially say they don’t. If magic and sorcery don’t exist, does witchcraft?
Well, yes, maybe it could, depending once again upon your definition. Another definition harks back to the original Anglo-Saxon meaning of the word. “Witchcraft: the craft of the wise, the knowledgeable.” This may be understood to refer to magical workings, however Raymond Buckland proposes a definition of witchcraft not included in the dictionary: witchcraft
is an ancient Pagan religion with a belief in both male and female deities, with a reverence for nature and all life, and recognition of a need for fertility among plants, animals and humans. In western Europe Witchcraft grew into a loosely formalized religion with its own priesthood.
Witchcraft, then, is no longer sorcery or magic but religion, with the witch, the wise one, a member of its priesthood.
Buckland’s definition envisions witchcraft as a specific religious path with doctrines and practices as well defined as that of any other religious faith, even if loosely formalized. Others also perceive a religious root but differ on other aspects: according to these authorities the whole concept of “witchcraft” is a construct created by Christians who had hostile perceptions of Pagan spirituality. Pagan deities were degraded into demons and devils, their devotees maligned as witches: one person’s god transformed into another person’s devil, in other words. These spiritual traditions aren’t one but many: what unifies them is the Christian perception of them as evil and devilish.
Witchcraft as religion? The scary old woman in the forest doesn’t wish to harm you but only wants to practice her religion in peace? That concept would surprise—and perhaps disappoint—many people. Witchcraft as religion does offer the possibility of witchcraft without magic. If you accept the definition of witchcraft as being a suppressed Pagan religion, then it exists even if magic doesn’t. One can celebrate the cycles of the year, the inherent sacredness of Earth, without recourse to magic.
Witchcraft as religion, witchcraft as magical art: Margaret Murray recognized that one single word was being used to express different concepts. She distinguished between what she termed “operative witchcraft,” defined as the casting of spells or charms, for either good or ill and common to every nation as part of shared human heritage, and “ritual witchcraft,” the ancient religion of Western Europe.
Various definitions of “witch,” including Carl Jung’s, make frequent reference to the female sex. During the Burning Times, victims were overwhelmingly female. In fact, your greatest risk factor for being accused of witchcraft and killed during the Burning Times in most of Europe (exceptions: Finland, Estonia, and Iceland) was being a woman. Some would argue that this is because witchcraft is the surviving remnant of women’s ancient shamanic arts. Once sacred and valued, over the centuries these shamanic arts became denigrated, diabolized, feared, and driven underground: surviving practitioners, the “witches,” would be regarded with fear or respect, depending upon the perspective of the beholder.
On the other hand, maybe there is no “witchcraft,” only misogyny. Maybe magic and spirituality are irrelevant to my questioner; what he’s really trying to tell me is that I’m not “nice.” The word “witch” is often used as a pejorative for women, a slur, a derogatory insult-word. As an example, a recent letter to the editor from a reader of People magazine described a particularly unpopular female participant in a reality-television show as “a real witch.” It was emphatically not meant as a compliment. The letter-writer makes no assertions whatsoever regarding this woman’s spiritual beliefs or magic power; instead it was intended as a description of character. A “witch” is understood to be disagreeable, deceitful, immoral or amoral, strident, defiant, arrogant, unpleasant, overly assertive, “unfeminine,” not “nice” or “lady-like,” in short, an uppity woman.
Within the metaphysical, magical community, “witch” may be a badge of pride and a title of respect, although even here, that’s not consistently so. Outside that community, the use of the word “witch” is quite often intended as an insult—very often the insult-word of choice for those who prefer not to sully their lips with that other common slur-word for women with which witch rhymes. Used to describe a spiritual devotee or a magical practitioner, “witch” is most often a woman but may refer to a man; used as an insult, a “witch” is always female.
So does “witch” refer to a specific type of woman, to specific behaviors some perceive as unattractive or dangerous in women, or does it refer to all women, “every woman a witch” as the old saying goes? “Witch” as slur doesn’t preclude a magical understanding. Some perceive that inherent in the female sex—going right back to that first woman Eve with her too familiar snake—every woman is a witch or at least potentially so, that latent witch in the making. This perspective is expressed most explicitly—and dangerously—in The Malleus Maleficarum, the most influential of witch-hunter’s manuals, but it didn’t disappear with the witch-hunts, making frequent modern appearances, as for instance in Fritz Leiber’s novel, Conjure Wife, whose hero, a distinguished anthropology professor, an expert (or so he thinks!) on magical practices, is shocked to discover the truth about the female sex—including his own wife.
On the other hand—and when discussing witchcraft there seems always to be another hand—some would agree with that old statement “every woman a witch” yet understand it as a positive affirmation: every woman’s potential for witchcraft perceived as every woman’s personal connection with the divine Feminine; every woman a magical goddess on Earth, a living conduit to the sacred, something to be encouraged, cherished and protected, not discouraged and exterminated.
So when someone asks whether you are a witch, are they trying to determine whether you are a practitioner of the magical arts, a living goddess, a danger to society, a snippy, evasive woman, a follower of a specific spiritual path, or some or all of the above?
Maybe it’s none of the above. We haven’t run out of definitions yet. Another definition suggests that witchcraft derives from the healing arts, once largely the domain of women. Once upon a time, women held significant, prominent roles as community healers. As medicine became an exclusively male profession, legally enforced as such, women who attempted to maintain their former roles were branded as dangerous “witches.” Women were forbidden to study medicine, forbidden to practice medicine—leading to a medieval definition of witchcraft: “If a woman dare to cure without having studied, she is a witch and must die.” Essentially these witches are practicing medicine without a license, a practice that remains illegal today, although with far less dire consequences.
Of course, one can argue that healing is (or was) a spiritual practice, that healing is (or was) a magical art and that some would define those law-breaking practitioners, those “witches” who continued to practice in secret, as uppity, defiant, arrogant women, although others might call them heroines.
We’re going in circles. With all these contradictions and ambiguity one would imagine the witch to be some obscure figure. This couldn’t be further from the truth. It would be extremely difficult to find anyone, from the smallest child to the most remote villager, who doesn’t know what a witch is—or at least a witch as defined by their definition.
This passionate debate regarding the true identity of witches only underscores how deeply the witch resonates in each person’s consciousness. Because one’s own individual personal definition rings so clearly and profoundly, any other definition seems inadequate, misguided or just plain wrong. Witches evoke a passionate response, whether that passion resonates as fear or as love. People emulate witches. They long for witches in times of trouble. They run from witches as sources of trouble. Witches are held up as role models or as examples of exactly what not to be. Even those who fear, hate, and despise witches can’t leave them alone, as history has too often tragically proved.
If one attempts to remove the witch-figure from worldwide folklore, you promptly eliminate the vast majority of fairy and folk tales. Think about the Western canon of fairy tales: if there’s no witch, then there’s no Hansel and Gretel, no Beauty and the Beast, no Snow White or Rapunzel. Witchcraft doesn’t only figure in entertainment dating from days of yore; the witch continually reappears, evolving with the times. Need we even say “Harry Potter”? If there’s no witch, count the movies, books, and television shows that no longer exist. Now some might protest that these works do not reflect the reality of witchcraft, but as we’ve seen, there is no single, simple reality of witchcraft. Witchcraft is important precisely because it’s so fluid, so mysterious, so resistant to definition, so able to touch so many different buttons in so many souls.
Is there any common denominator that underlies or unifies all these differing theories of witchcraft? Maybe. There is yet another theory of witchcraft. This vision understands witchcraft to be the surviving vestiges of ancient Paleolithic culture originally shared by all human societies all over Earth: witchcraft as the original religion, the cult of Earth’s powers, the mother of spirituality. As people spread out, migrated and diverged, variations emerged; however witchcraft’s roots remain universal. As Funk and Wagnalls succinctly put it: “Belief in witches exists in all lands, from earliest times to the present day.” This primal witch is our shared human heritage, although whether one reacts to her with love, awe, fear, and/or revulsion depends upon many factors.
Modern religions/spiritual paths as well as magical practices of all kinds, including the healing arts, may be understood as descending from this primal “witchcraft”’—or as reactions against it. Those who understand witches to be not flesh-and-blood reality but stories and archetypes can also trace the descent of their witch from this primal witchcraft.
Another way of understanding this primal witchcraft is as a worldview, a way of seeing, looking at and understanding the universe. Looking at the witch reveals more about the gazer then the witch. Instead, let’s try looking through that primal witch’s eyes. In witchcraft’s worldview, Earth is a place of mystery and wonder, full of powers of which one can avail oneself, if one only knows how. The witch is the one who knows. A good majority of the words used around the world, in various languages, not just Anglo-Saxon, to identify the concept of the “witch” involve acquisition of wisdom. A Russian euphemism for witches and sorcerers translates as “people with knowledge.” The witch isn’t just a smart person, however; what the witch knows is more than just common knowledge. The witch knows Earth’s secrets.
Whether you perceive the witch as powerful or evil may depend upon whether you perceive knowledge as desirable or dangerous; whether you perceive that human knowledge is something that should be limited. The witch doesn’t think so. She, or he as the case may be, wants to know. This may be the heart of the matter.
Saint Patrick’s Breastplate, a famous Irish prayer attributed to that snake-banishing saint, begs God’s protection against “incantations of false prophets, against the black laws of Paganism, against spells of women, smiths and druids, against all knowledge that is forbidden the human soul.”
Although in Christian myth, Original Sin, triggered by the serpent’s temptation of Eve, is often understood to be sex, a close reading of the Bible reveals that what the snake really offers Eve is knowledge. In fact, wherever snakes and people exist together, snakes are associated with wisdom—and with witchcraft. In various subversive retellings of that biblical tale, ancient Gnostic as well as neo-Pagan, the snake is attempting to assist Eve, to be her ally, not to entrap her.
Looking through the witch’s eyes may offer a very different perspective than that which many modern people are accustomed. One sees a world of power and mystery, full of secrets, delights, and dangers to be uncovered. However it is not a black-and-white world; it is not a world with rigidly distinct boundaries but a transformative world, a world filled with possibility, not what is but what could be, a blending, fluid, shifting but rhythmically consistent landscape.
• It is no accident that the heavenly body universally associated with witchcraft is the moon, whose shape changes continually, although her rhythm is constant
• It is no accident that the element universally associated with witchcraft is water, whose tides are ruled by the moon; water appears, disappears, changes shape, shifts continually, but remains rhythmically constant
• It is no accident that the human gender most associated with witchcraft is the female one: the female body, like lunar phases and ocean tides, changes continually, often to the despair of the individual woman herself, although the rhythms also possess consistency if we let ourselves feel them.
Although this may resonate in the souls of witches it doesn’t explain the allure witches hold for so many who do not identify themselves as witches. Why the almost universal fascination with witches? Maybe because they’re fun. Yes, there are tragedies associated with witchcraft (just look at this book’s section on the Burning Times), sorry days in the history of witchcraft, but those tragedies are not witchcraft’s defining factor. So many in both the general public and the magical community are attracted to witches precisely because they are fun, and in fact that’s a very serious point about witchcraft.
During a particularly dour era in Europe, between the fourteenth and eighteenth centuries, witches were consistently condemned for, among other things, having fun. Among the charges typically brought against witches was that instead of attending church and being solemn and serious, they were out partying, whether with each other, the devil, with fairies or the Wild Hunt. Among the crimes associated with witchcraft was having fun at a time when fun was suspect. What exactly were those witches accused of doing at their sabbats? Feasting, dancing, making love. So-called telltale signs of witchcraft are those stereotypes that automatically brand a woman as a witch: among the most common is loud, hearty laughter—the infamous witches’ cackle.
While others mortified their flesh, the witches applied sensual unguents. While others deprived themselves, the witches indulged. It’s not surprising that on Halloween, a night when repressions are set free, so many don the garb of the witch. In a time of repression, witches danced secretly in the forest. They were accused of flying away from their husbands and responsibilities to consort with the devil, portrayed by the witch-hunters as a being of tremendous, unflagging sexuality. The devil, at least as portrayed in trial transcripts, never gets tired and never demands that you do your housework.
Cards on the table. According to the tenets of French postmodernist literature, it is impossible for an author to remove themselves completely from the content of their work. In other words, no author is capable of writing a completely unbiased work and thus should address their personal beliefs and biases up front. This is probably particularly true when writing about a topic like witchcraft that inspires such passionate emotion. Therefore, I feel I should come clean about my own perceptions of witchcraft.
I confess: ever since I was old enough to toddle, I’ve dressed up as a witch on Halloween, never as anything else, even into adulthood. Even now, I own a “Morticia” dress. Once at a masquerade party a man who knew next to nothing about me commented how comfortable I seemed in that dress, my “costume.” It’s true: as a child, had I been this articulate, I would have said that Halloween was the only night of the year that I wasn’t dressing up.
I love witches and have done ever since I can remember. I craved fairy tales as a child: the witch resonated in my soul (my version of her anyway) and I identified with her instead of fearing her as I knew, even then, was the expected response.
What is it that I loved about the witch? These are hard things to articulate because, as the Jungians write, the witch-figure touches such deep primal emotions that an exploration of what attracts or repels us about witchcraft becomes an exploration of one’s deepest self. Certainly the magical aspect of witchcraft attracted me; I was simultaneously attracted to astrology, divination, and occult philosophy. But I also think that, as a child raised to be very “good,” “well-behaved,” and “obedient” the defiant quality inherent in witches was extremely attractive. Of course, the witch can afford to be defiant (at least in folk tales) because she has the power to back up her disobedience. As a child raised amid adults possessing many psychic wounds, a child raised to have a lot of fear, the witch’s lack of fear, her knowledge of secret defenses, her willingness to have fun and break rules, as well as her ability to instill fear in others resonated deeply within me, as I think it does for so many regardless of spiritual affiliation or belief in the existence of magic, although that resonance may inspire either devotion or revulsion depending upon the individual.
If you read studies of witchcraft, especially older or more academic ones, it’s clear that it never occurs to many authors that were the witch-hunts to resume they too might be accused, condemned by their very interest in the topic. However, it is not the victim with whom they identify, hence the focus on the witch-hunters, judges, and general public. For a variety of reasons, I have never had any doubt as to which end of the stake I’d find myself on.
I identify with the witch, always. As a child, my least favorite fairy tales were the ones where the witch is made to appear irredeemably grotesque—Hansel and Gretel, for instance. Even then, I understood this as defamation and distortion and perceived that in some way it was directed toward me. Frankly the French postmodernists are right: I can no more write neutrally about witch-hunters than I could about Nazi genocide, white supremacists or serial killers. (Although, as the French postmodernists would point out, neither can anyone else, whether they realize it or not.)
That said, I also appreciate that many who perceive the witch as evil, corrupt, and devilish do so from sincerity and religious conviction, not from foolishness and superstition. Witchcraft touches enormous chords within the human soul and not all perceive these chords as positive. Denying the reactions, making fun of those who perceive the witch as dangerous, further denies the complexity of the witch.
As a child, I loved pretty much anything featuring a witch: Wendy Witch, Bewitched, Baba Yaga, Andrew Lang’s fairy tales. The only entertainment featuring a witch that I didn’t enjoy—positively dreaded when it appeared on TV annually—was the film version of The Wizard of Oz. The winged monkeys did scare me, although the wicked witch didn’t. I found Margaret Hamilton much more frightening in her guise as Miss Gulch. What really terrified me, though was Dorothy’s family, her aunt and uncle, who would not defy Miss Gulch and save Toto, either openly and defiantly or sneakily and surreptitiously. I found their passivity terrifying. I thought Dorothy was an idiot for returning to Kansas and the people who, although she loved them, had already demonstrated their unwillingness to protect her and her interests.
My perspective may have been unique and probably reflects my experiences as a small child raised amid an immigrant community of adult survivors of concentration camps, extermination camps, labor camps, displaced persons camps and European prison camps. I was always aware of how crucial and vital it is to have people who will protect you, defend you, hide you, take risks for you and not deny you.
Thus, unlike to many scholars and witches alike, the Burning Times are not an abstraction to me. They are very real. It is not a coincidence to me that the extermination of witches occurred in the same areas of Europe that would but a few hundred years later exterminate Jews and Gypsies, my family among them. It is not a coincidence to me that the genocide associated with World War II began in the same areas of Europe where killing witches was most virulent. According to records, there were towns in Germany left without women, just as years later there would be towns left without Jews.
Except for studies specifically devoted to them, history books rarely discuss the witch-hunts except as a footnote or as an aberration, as an example of how superstitious and ignorant people used to be. It’s treated as an embarrassment to be rushed over (and of course, honest discussion of witches and witchcraft, as we’ve seen, introduces all sorts of sensitive issues); focus tends to be limited to the nature of the perpetrators (why were they so crazy about killing witches?) and of the victims: were they or were they not really witches? More sympathetic studies tend to emphasize that they were not, as if this somehow makes the killing more tragic.
Then the witch-hunts just go away. We mourn the many dead. There is little if any focus on the impact that this era, an era that lasted for centuries in some areas, not mere years or decades, had on the survivors, including those who narrowly escaped the clutches of the witch-hunters, those whose families were tragically affected, the many who profited from the witch-hunts as well as those who watched on the sidelines. Yet I can personally guarantee you that that impact must have been tremendous, having spent my life with similar survivors.
After the witch-craze was over, presumably the survivors, bystanders, and perpetrators all went back to a normal life together, side-by-side. And the impact? Women of the Victorian age and beyond, basically until the 1960s (coinciding coincidentally with the resurgence of public witchcraft), are frequently criticized for their passive, submissive, obedient natures. I suspect that this passivity is a survival skill, learned in the wake of the witch-hunts. Even today the word “witch” used as a pejorative holds an implicit threat: behave yourself or else …
It’s fun to revel with the witches, but any honest examination of the history of witchcraft and perceptions toward witches reveals a lot more than fun and games. Among the topics concealed within the history of witchcraft are secret histories of spirituality, cultural attitudes toward women and parenthood, the evolution of modern medicine and agriculture, perceptions of race, gender, ethnicity, and the untold tales of many nations. Abortion wars didn’t begin with Roe vs. Wade; their long roots are entwined amidst the history of witchcraft, as are those of other modern issues like animal rights, eating disorders, ecology, environmental practices and more.
Studies of witchcraft are somewhat like that old legend about the blind men examining the elephant: one attempts to define the creature solely by its tail, another by its trunk, still another by its foot. Most studies of witchcraft focus on one definition or aspect of witchcraft—modern Wicca for instance, or the witch trials—satisfying some readers but inevitably leaving others searching for the witch that resonates in their hearts.