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.
What's in a Name?
Posted: Oct 7th/99
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
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
- 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.
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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