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What is a Witch?

I am often asked if I identify myself as a Witch, and I always say that I do. I’ve always wanted to have a shirt that said “This is what a Witch looks like” and I have a great idea for a children’s story on that very subject. Recently, a colleague of mine started to deconstruct the identity with me, which left me confounded and puzzled by my self-chosen label of Witch.

A Witch, he said, is a label given to somebody else–a way of identifying those on the fringe of the community. Witches are magic users who defy the church’s (read: Medieval Catholic) definition of reality, in favor of a more natural view of the world which may or may not include the Old Gods. Witches are said to be adept in herbal magic, but can harm as easily as they can heal, and be midwives, usurping the role of the church/science sanctioned doctors.

The church had created a doctrinal paradigm, and taught its followers to see the world in a certain way. It utilized the creation story from Genesis, and incorporated a whole host of angels and saints from local understanding of them, but Christianized it all. You had Christian monks going into local areas and building churches on pagan worship sites and Christianizing the Gods there. A quick way of discovering a pagan site is to look for churches to St. Michael, the archangel said to have brought Christianity to the pagans (I saw that on Rick Steves, so it must be true!). Christianity of medieval times was hierarchical, with everything existing on a vertical continuum with God at the top, and Satan on the bottom. Everything good was near the top, and bad near the bottom. The Earth was seen as a sinful place, where people’s basest instincts went wild, so any uncultivated place was seen as dangerous.

Witches had a place in that continuum as someplace between normal Christian society and those wild fringes, but were closer to the Devil than church officials would have liked. Anyone who spent time in those woods, moors or swamps were venturing into the uncontrolled and the unknown–a place without God. So Witches were understood, and had a place, within that paradigm. They were people worthy of saving if they weren’t too dangerous for the community. Anyone deemed too dangerous had to, for the sake of their soul, be sent to God for judgment and removed from a goodly ordered society.

So who the hell would want to identify with those people?

Old-school feminists see the European Witch Craze as being a Woman’s Holocaust. They aren’t wrong, but they aren’t all correct either. The death toll, record-keeping, and political climate varied drastically by region: where some areas killed exclusively women, others had more of a balance, and still other countries targeted more men–or at least, that is what their records show. It is hard to say how many Jim Crow-style vendettas were carried out during that time under the protection (even sanction) of the church.

At any rate, lots and lots of women were definitely killed, and some feminists attached to the word Witch to reclaim it. They re-imagined the medieval Witch under a modern paradigm. A Witch was powerful, self-supportive, a powerful judge of people and a compassionate healer–an early psychologist. People came to her for magic spells to control their own lives when the church offered no answer or solution to their desires. Witches knew the wild ways of the woods and the meaning of each plant in the garden. She held old customs for the village like a matriarch of the family, just out of reach of the church.

Did medieval women accused of being Witches feel this kind of feminist power? Very unlikely. People were generally poorly (if at all) educated beyond the church back then, and it is hard to tell where a woman might have gotten this knowledge of these big ideas.

Still, it is that feminist re-imagining that I identify with. The trappings of the medieval witch are absurd and funny to me, and by calling myself a Witch, I point that out to them. In my own community, we ironically both embrace the medieval identity and push it away. How many times have we said “we don’t ride on brooms”? Yet I keep at least two besom in the house, and have ridden the broom in ritual and in meditation. I have a pointy hat because it is fabulous, and striped socks to match the ribbons on it. I even have a black cat, but that was an accident.

If you came to my house, you would know I was a Witch because I announce it in my decoration, in the magic that protects my property, and in the cutesy Halloween signs I enjoy year-round. What must the neighbors think!

For me, being a Witch can be separate from being Wiccan. Witchcraft is the stuff I do in my practical life to align it with my magical intent. Wicca is the ritual and relationship with Spirit that I work with to make that happen. A Witch might never do a ritual of worship, or never contact the Gods for anything, but for a Wiccan it is almost essential.

My identity as a Witch is political. My identity as a Wiccan is spiritual. A Witch’s job is to challenge the status quo, whether it is the church, societal mores, patriarchy, or the government. As a woman, I challenge men who are afraid of strong women. I challenge women to make their own boundaries and not be stopped by limitations. I work on my Witchcraft to build my self-esteem, my own power as a human being. My worldview comes, not from a church dogma, but from the world around me, as I see it. I am empowered to see the world directly, not through another’s filter.

I think men can be Witches as much as men can be feminists. Feminism is really about equality of choice and opportunity for all genders. But Witches do it through magic and personal power. I think that is something a man can get behind and find empowering.

I don’t really know why Gerald Gardner chose to call what he and his friends were doing “Witchcraft” and later “Wicca”. Perhaps he too enjoyed the trappings of the medieval Witch but wanted to see it evolve. He could have easily made up another word to describe what he was doing. I suspect that he wanted to hearken back to that time and show how old what he was doing might have been. And indeed, Wicca as he conceived of it looked much more like a Witches Sabbat out of The Hammer Against Witches. Perhaps it is we who have changed the definition of the word as we continue to weave Witchcraft into our modern lives.

What does Witch mean to you?

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  1. Liz
    March 13, 2010 at 8:18 pm

    Great post! I never thought about being a witch like that, thank you!

  2. KJ
    March 13, 2010 at 8:44 pm

    Wow, Really that was touching. “My identity as a Witch is political. My identity as a Wiccan is spiritual.” I think that quote actually sums it up quite well for me.

  3. March 17, 2010 at 6:01 am

    I’ve seen those t-shirts on CafePress

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