Should we be offended?
It comes up every Halloween. You’re walking down the aisle at Rite Aid, intent on getting a big fat bag of candy, when you inadvertently find yourself in the Seasonal aisle. You’re surrounded by latex masks, spider’s webs and skeletons. And then you see her: the green faced, be-warted old hag stirring her cauldron, calling for strange and esoteric ingredients. The Halloween Witch. The conical hat, the straw broom…it reeks of stereotype.
In the group I help run on campus at Western Washington University, Pagans and Students Together, this conversation came up, and the question we had to ask ourselves was this: Should We Be Offended? What, if anything, should we do about it?
One member suggested that we simply ask the store managers to remove the offending images, so as not to perpetuate the stereotype. Still another suggested we try to sell a “…mock ‘scary’ Jesus on the Cross with real-life like blood oozing from his wound (buy now and we’ll throw in the spear of destiny for free!) ” Another said we were just being too sensitive.
What do you think?
The word “witch” has a loooong history. A witch used to be a social outsider, who, for better or worse, was imagined to be in league with the Devil. She (most likely she, sorry guys) was said to have the ability to cast spells. Perhaps this was because she seemed to have some sort of in-understandable power over her own life, or the elements. Perhaps she just carried herself high, forming her own opinions. The word ‘witch’ was placed upon them, whether or not that was an accurate description of who they actually were or what they personally practiced. This was mostly during Medieval Times. It didn’t help that documents like the ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ came out in 1486 CE with the authority of the Pope, which announced how to identify and kill a witch. These people called witches were persecuted, with the help of this document, in what we call “The Burning Times”, but you already knew that.
I read recently a hypothesis of why the witch has a hideous face. The original article was posted to a discussion group, but I’ll sum it up here for you: imagine you’re a pretty girl (or not) and you’ve been accused of witchcraft. According the the inquisition rules, you are going to be tortured. They are going to pull out your teeth, one by one. They are going to beat you and starve you, half-drown you and crush you with rocks until you confess to practicing witchcraft. And when you can’t stand it anymore, and you “confess” to everything they said about you, whether or not it is true, they are going to parade you through town and make an example of you. Imagine the facial swelling, the bruising, the straw-like hair. I’ve heard people come out of torture experiences looking much older. So an ugly toothless green-faced hag is what you get (I figured you’d come with the wart: it is medieval Europe, after all). And that’s what the townspeople saw and was told were witches. (written by Angel 6/99. Posted to an online messageboard so I can’t cite the source).
But the witch didn’t leave the popular imagination. She still wound up in stories; she became an Archetype as the scapegoat, the healer, the one with some sort of outside knowledge. She was the villain in Hansel and Gretel, but a force of good in The Wizard of Oz. Shakespeare used the commonly thought of role of witches in his Scottish play, “Macbeth” where we get much of our images from, I believe.
So, with the Age of Reason (1700’s-ish) , the predominant thought was that such superstitious mumbo-jumbo was, well, old fashioned. The persecutions all but stopped (except in Salem, Mass. But that epidemic quickly died out too) . Witches were put away from the prevailing thoughts of the time
By the Romantic Era (1800’s) , Nature was coming to be revered. Writers longed for simpler times and Classical (ie: Greek) antiquity. Suddenly that outsider was thought of as being…not so bad. But these thoughts were not taken up by everyone. Keats, Shelly and Wordsworth honored the Oracles of Greece, gave praise to women, and saw nature as alive, beautiful and bountiful. It was awesome, in the original sense of the word. To create a relationship with the land in any way was perfectly accepted. And to personify that wild wood as Pan, or to write about a water nymph was ok for the first time in hundreds of years. A Witch took on a different connotation. One could tease out the symbolism and remove the Christian Devil-worship aspect, and be left with that strong-willed person, who knew (and perhaps controlled) the secrets of nature.
Then came Aleister Crowley. His love of pleasure and mischief-making had some calling him ‘Witch’ like in the Medieval sense. He took the title gladly, and as his infamy spread far and wide, so did the title follow him. I mean, come on! Here’s a Victorian who claimed that every morning he sacrificed a child of above-average intelligence (meaning he…you know). At a time when people didn’t talk about sex at all in public, let alone masturbation.
Then Gardner started a different movement, and the word has changed again. Folks called “witch” at that time were seen as more Nature-revering folk, and the word was more closely akin to the word as it was used in the Romantic Era. Only instead of a vague idea to be worshipped in poetry, these witches were real. The word, again, spread with the literature of Gardner and the practitioners of a new faith.
Now we live in a culture wherein we get to choose our identity. We have mobility and can come out of the closet and are protected by the Constitution, no matter how weird our practices are (so long as they are within the law) . Those people were being called witch, and we said, “Yes. We are. But there’s more to us than casting spells.” And we’ve been explaining ourselves ever since.
That being said, the popular conception of a green-faced witch sitting ’round her cauldron stirring bat eyes and toe of frog…well, we know it’s not us. It’s an Archetype, a powerful symbol of the Outcast, the All Knowing, of She Who Has the Power to Cause Change. So it comes out that she has a wart on her nose. Big deal! I think they are cute. I’m not offended, because I know they don’t mean me or mine.
The best way to combat stereotypes is to walk the talk for yourself. You become a representative to others. You change society one person at a time. How tolerant would we be if we told people that an image or psychological construction, which is merely reflected in popular culture, was wrong? They won’t see it that way.
I remember a particularly crappy incident in which my hometown of Puyallup, Washington last year. Of course, it wasn’t until I left town that I learned there is a rather large population of Witches and Pagans living in the area. Many of them were new to the Craft, just learning of their new identity, and I guess they got a little…uppity. The moral of the story is that they got Halloween celebrations and costumes banned in schools because the pointy hat and green face was offensive to a few people. Boy! Talk about BAD press! We HARMED them! We took something away from the rest of the culture that they valued immensely. Last time I checked, we weren’t supposed to do that: witches think through their actions to see how they will affect other people. And why? For our own pride? I was embarrassed to be called Witch that day. Look. They aren’t trying to offend. We just have two (or more!) different meanings on what the word ‘Witch’ means.
I’m proud to be called Witch. I love seeing what Hollywood and popular culture does to the image. It’s nice to be represented in the culture at large, somehow, even if it’s not very accurate. When people complain about the stereotype of Witches in popular media, I point out all the good things floating around. Like the Witches in ‘Practical Magic’, or Sally in ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’, or Katrina in ‘Sleepy Hollow’. I point out the good parts in ‘The Craft’ and Disney’s ‘The Black Cauldron’. And what Witch doesn’t wish she could cast spells as easily as Harry Potter? Here’s an opportunity to generate discussion. We should all get T-shirts that say “This is what a Witch looks like.” But understand this: the Witch is an archetype that is needed, right now, in this culture. You and me are just one part of it. The Wicked Witch of the West is another. In time, when the traditional archetype of the old hag is no longer needed, what will it be replaced with?
You and me: Witches!
Yes. This article has been reposted from another site. But I am the author, and I’ve made revisions. See the original article here.