Witchy Women: What's in a Name? Wicca and Witchcraft history and articles:


Why do we use the word Witch, and what is the relationship to modern the modern Pagan religion? A brief run down on wicca history and the witches sabbat. An opinion essay on a modern pagan debate.

Witchy Women:

What's in a Name?

Posted: Oct 7th/99

Written: Dec/98

I have often wondered about the word 'Witch'. Why, in Goddess' name do we use such a heavily-laden, potentially dangerous word with such negative connotations? We could have simply called ourselves 'Neo-Pagans' and be done with it. Even 'Goddess Worshippers', 'Eco-Deitists', or 'Totemists' would have sufficed. Levi-Strauss eat your heart out. There are even some Pagans who think less of us for the use of the word. Using such a laden term, we are forced to constantly explain ourselves; constantly redefine ourselves, and 're-educate' those who might not 'understand'.

But what is to understand? Having only been studying Paganism for a year and a half now, I fail to see the reasoning behind the terminology. A new (meaning "different") way of thinking can always be accepted by an open mind. But we predispose others to reject us by the use of the word 'Witch'." I'm a Witch" summons up images of black cats, cauldrons, and obvious social rejects. People think of that crazy old lady down the street with the strange stuff in her yard. Or maybe it's that weird girl in class who always dresses in black and probably does drugs (but actually doesn't).

So what is the real issue here? Are we arrogant in imposing our own meaning on the word; or is everybody else just misled by centuries of propaganda? We know what the Inquisitors told us; we know what Gardener told us; we also have our own views. Is a Wiccan automatically a Witch, and can't there ever be a right answer?

- A Little Bit of History -

Well, maybe just this once. What are the facts about the word 'Witch'? There is some debate as to the origin of the word. Originally thought to derive from the word meaning "Wise", it was then attributed to the word meaning "To Bend". Newer studies suggest that it comes from a word meaning "Sorcery". In Old English, 'Wicca' was pronounced "Wee'cha". Historically, the Witch was the village healer and counselor. The 'Wise Woman' or 'Cunning Man' was sought out for physical and emotional ailments, as well as serving the community in various other ways. The local Witch was healer, lawyer, advisor, priest/ess, magician, and wise one.

The Burning Times saw millions of people tortured and killed. It is a known fact that the majority of these people were female. Anne Barstow asserts women were 80% of those accused, and 85% of those killed during the witch-hunts. In England, 92% of those accused were women. Women were also economically dependent on men, and had little knowledge of the judiciary system. It is easy to see that the witch hunts and the Inquisition victimized women in particular.

During the Inquisition, Witches were most accused of sexual indecency. The authors of the Malleus Maleficarum, Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, seemed to suffer from a form of sexual repression. The entire book is laden with sexual innuendo, twisted fantasies, and fears of impotence. Women were seen as weak-willed creatures with a virtual addiction for the sexual act. When the Devil came along offering sex, they willingly followed.

A typical Witch's Sabbat during the Inquisition is described by Norman Cohn.

Apparently the Witch anointed them self with a special salve which made them fly to the sabbat. The Devil attended in the physical body of a half-man, half-beast, with horns and claws. The witches all worshipped the Devil for a while, kissing various parts of his body. They also renounced the Christian faith. Then witches who had not done enough harm since the last sabbat were whipped for punishment. The Devil would then perform a mass, preaching the evils of Christianity and warning his followers not to revert. He then accepted gifts from the witches. The witches then adored his body

again, and a parody of the Eucharist was given. There was then a meal consisting of rotting, tasteless food, involving cannibalism and infanticide. There was then a dance which ended in an orgy which permitted incest and sodomy. At the height of the orgy, the Devil would copulate with every man, woman, and child in attendance. He would then send everyone flying home with instructions to do as much harm as possible.

- A Little Bit of Opinion -

And this is the label that we allow into our own lives today? How can we even begin to comprehend the magnitude of this word, 'Witch'? The most incomprehensible part of this is that the Inquisitors honestly seemed to believe what they were saying. People really did fly through the air, and the Devil really did exist in bodily form to have sex with human beings. To this day, most of these connotations exist in the word. Say the word Witch, and people will think of sexual license, the Devil, flying on broomsticks, and evil. Why would we possibly want to associate ourselves with that?

Putting aside the earlier Pagan cultures, and the earlier role of the 'Wise Woman', the Witch was a woman with Power. She dared to oppose the status quo. In a society ruled by fear of the unknown, the Witch controlled and dominated. The Witch was the one who called up storms, controlled nature, and changed things to suit her purpose. The Witch was in control of those same unknown forces. The Witch acted, not simply reacting.

Many scholars state that the rights of women were severely limited by the actions of the Inquisition. Some state that the aftermath of this time remains with us even today: reflected in wife abuse, rape, and

the 'glass ceiling'. Whether this is true or not is hard to say, and there is a distinctive lack of agreement across disciplines. What is important is that women are searching for a common meaning, a sense of connection, and a belief in their own power. This is where the word 'Witch' comes in.

The Witch, both before and after the Inquisition, was the strong woman. She was the caregiver, the healer, the shoulder to cry on. She was needed. The Witch, both male and female, was considered wiser, stronger, more knowledgeable, more spiritual, more connected. S/he knew about the Gods, the Goddesses, the Elements. Above all, the Witch was the symbol of wisdom and power. After the Inquisition, this role was restricted to knowledge and power only, but this is still a strong symbol.

Today we don't have the deep-seated, widespread misogyny that may have existed just 40 years ago. I certainly wasn't around then. But it does seem that although we have gained much ground, we are still searching for that one definitive symbol of self-empowerment. Women have started to think more like equals, but there is still ground to cover before true equality. Meanwhile, we are bombarded with ideologies declaring equality is already here, and statistics that wife abuse is up, and women's quality of life is down.

The Witch is the true symbol of unapologetic female power. The Witch is not ashamed of speaking out and acting. The Witch does not hide her power so as to not scare off potential partners. The Witch's power comes from within, from the very knowledge of what it is to be a woman. What it is to be alive. And men are not excluded from this power. The Witch understands balance in all things, from the whole universe down to the tiniest atom. In the wholeness of the universe, all things are connected, all things equal.

When we call ourselves Witches, we are invoking that power into our lives and our very beings. We are taking responsibility for our own lives. We are remembering those who suffered, and saying "We Know. We Remember. And we won't let it happen again".



Cuhulain, Kerr. The Law Enforcement Guide to Wicca, 3rd ed. Horned Owl

Publishing. Canada, 1989.

Barstow, Anne Llewellyn. Witchcraze: A New History of the European Witch Hunts. Harper Collins. USA, 1995.

Cohn, Norman. Europe's Inner Demons: The Demonization of Christians In Medieval Christendom. England, 1993.

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