Labels are funny things. The individual can be quite certain of what a word means in terms of their self-identification. But they can never be so certain the label will translate to everyone else who uses it, or its meaning outside of the identifying group. Not so surprisingly, I use the label witch for myself, and I know quite a number of other people who use the word as part of their self-identification label-maker as well. On the inside, that is amongst us witches, there’s an understanding that not all witches are created equal, because we use the term specifically to define things for ourselves, we understand that it’s likely there will be no two alike in any given set. But, it is also the term that binds an otherwise disparate set of people, beliefs and practices by something else, something more wild and primordial, something that yes, we might say is why witches have always had a bad reputation outside of their own in-crowd, and even within it. On that unspoken, back of brain level, there are in fact fewer people who I understand as witches than those who use the term. And I would suspect many people who call themselves witches will probably nod at that statement. The further a person descends into “witch”, the more unspoken its meaning, the more we understand why it is a term that has always garnered fear “out there”, and the less we are inclined to give any care to its use by those we don’t recognise as such.
Because the whole world could decide to use it, and the individual loses nothing. The world does use it, and it describes something fanciful, and very often horrifying, and the individual witch herself, sitting at the laptop writing her blog post, as it were, loses nothing. You can remove all the fantasy, the nose twitching, the hand flapping, the broom flying, the dead raising one sees in film and television, and reads in all the books, and it’s likely the horror will still exist, and the witch at home tending her herbs and honouring her spirits might be inclined to raise an eyebrow and shrug, she loses nothing.
Time.com published an article in the spirit of the season in the U.S., Halloween, ‘Why Witches on TV Spell Trouble in Real Life‘. It has the funny ability to be completely correct and entirely inaccurate at the same time. Which is very odd, but, interestingly, made possible only by the very real human witches who would read it.
So what’s wrong, and what did they get right?
Firstly, witches are human people, they practice witchcraft in various forms, and believe many things, or none, participate with various religious, theological and philosophical systems. The “fantasy witch” is just that. Because they are sometimes immortal, have supernatural powers and etc. Human witches, real ones, throughout all history, from the Sorcerers of West Africa, the Völvur of Scandinavia, shamans, cunning men, Rootworkers and all their guises and monikers, are most definitely mortal human men and women and other, without the ability to fly, freeze things with their eyes, or turn men into toads. They are not historically, legally, or in anyway shape or form “unreal”. People be witches. In the same way as homo sapiens are also artists, and priests and scholars and athletes. We do a thing, believe a thing, practice a thing. And we eat, sleep, screw, and die.
This next point is really all about me and my frustration with the fact people can’t even get their fanciful witches right! Maleficent is NOT a witch. Try to get your head around it people! She is The Mistress of All Evil, and most certainly not human, and most definitely a fae creature. A non-human, otherworldly creature who could only die by non-human, otherworldly means. Witches, in contrast, even the fanciful ones, are usually human, and die, usually by fairly normal means that would kill any human, like drowning, oven, gun shot, and beheading.
The article rests on the premise that real witches don’t exist, which is to say people are not witches. Fascinating stance for an article that details the historical and legal precedent to the contrary. Which, actually existing on almost every continent makes the legislative changes to the laws prohibiting witchcraft and allowing the persecution and prosecution of witches in the law, entirely real, historical, and necessary in order to protect the religious rights and freedoms of actual living people. And ongoing in countries in Africa, South America etc.
What the article does suggest, and gets right to my mind, is that fanciful witches in art emerge particularly in social periods where society, and the individuals within it, feel disenfranchised and dis-empowered. Thus the fanciful witch emerges as an avatar of empowerment, of individual power and, I might add, an agent of progressive social reform, or perhaps, the agent through which justice and right social order and the freedoms of the individual are maintained or brought about. Samantha, of Bewitched, our “every woman witch” fights to fit in, and really just wants acceptance, as a witch, and a housewife, and a woman, at the very least in her own home. The Charmed sisters actively keep their secret, not only for their own protection, but because the idea of magic being revealed to the world is detrimental to the right way the world needs to work, thus the secret is for the sake of all the “innocents” as well as sisters. Even the non-evil fighting, curse throwing witches belong to this group. Mary of Salem, as evil as she is, murdering innocent people left right and centre is still our champion. Because let’s face it, many of the Puritans in the Salem world are heinous and have it coming, Mary has been oppressed as a woman by society, and her husband, she has lost a child, and really, we all feel someone ought to get a toad shoved down their throat to even a few things out. Tituba’s torture inspired story of slavery, dis-empowerment and her personal path to the Craft make us all want to punch someone! And we cheer for her personal success regardless how many Puritans need to die to achieve it. The idea of a Witch-Nation on the east coast of the U.S. in contrast to the horrid, strict, paranoid, oppressive Puritan settlement depicted in the TV series, feels like the right thing, with fewer corsets, less slaves, fewer ditches full of dead children, and less abortions in the woods.
The Time article also suggests the opposite is true:
[Emerson] Baker, a history professor at Salem State University, argues that it [today’s renewed obsession with witches] could have its roots in the post-9/11 panic over terrorism and what could be seen as a Salem-like erosion of civil rights in the name of security — or, more recently, in the revelations that the National Security Agency seems to be spying on ordinary citizens as stealthily as neighbors spied on neighbors in colonial Salem.
Historically, fantasy witches are often precisely as Baker describes. Rather than the identifying character as I’ve described above, they represent the force which must be overcome by the hero, like the cannibal witch of Hansel and Gretel whose demise brings about the children’s wealth and eventual reunion with their father.
What these two manifestations have in common is simply that the witch sits entirely outside the social norm. The witch is always the possibility of other, another way, a different idea. It doesn’t matter whether or not that other is a negative, or a change for the better, or inspires the defence of things which are threatened, or the active pursuit of new things. They are always and forever, outside of the fold.
And it is in that space, well outside the hedge, often alone, in the wild, and doing things which are not socially acceptable, that our fanciful witches and the real life human witches meet.
Witches source their power from sources not prescribed in social norms, they source their power from places outside of those which recognised authorities allow everyone else to. And that is why no matter how many people use the word for good or bad, no matter how anti-feminist, silly, drama-llama, ridiculous and fanciful witches are in pop culture, regardless of how evil, ugly, abhorrent people might think them, real witches are crazy and don’t give a shit what you think. Real witches, just as their fantasy counterparts do, represent the ability to garner power and self reliance where other people who are not witches fear to tread. The wild, alone, in non-hetero-normal sexual and gender expression, in death, in philosophies and ideas that are not Western rational-enlightened-Christian and or secular.
The very best test for whether or not you’ve encountered a real witch is in the expression of fear, yours and hers. If her manner, way, expression is everything you fear to be, she’s probably a witch, and feminists, progressive, left wing tree hugging hippes, LGBTQI folk are all often labelled “witch” for that very reason. The witch, and all those other folk threaten to expose the power you think you have, as a sham, a construct of those who would and do have power over you. Never so perfectly expressed in Australia than when Tony Abbott (our now PM) stood at a rally in front of the now notorious “Ditch the Witch” sign, the witch being ditched of course, none other than our then Prime Minister, and the first woman PM, and rather progressive in her policy, Julia Gillard. The placard was one of several with various messages including “JuLiar” and “Bob Brown’s Bitch” (Bob Brown was then Greens leader, senator and also a homosexual). Later, Gillard said in Gravity: Inside the PM’s office during her last year and final days by Mary Delahunty (Hardie Grant) (read the excerpt here) of the placards and sentiments:
I wasn’t shocked that some people had those sentiments, not shocked by that, but shocked that it was so visibly called forth into the public debate and that it didn’t get the sort of odium from mainstream commentators that it should have.
I think for a brief moment after her rise to the top job and taking her place as the first female Prime Minister, we all forgot what the mainstream actually was, and that essentially, Gillard didn’t fit inside it.
Though obviously, Gillard is not a witch in the spiritual/philosophical practice of witchcraft I am speaking of, whilst witches “don’t exist” in the mainstream society, or in Time articles, the word will be used to describe people who play similar roles, that of outsider and other. But it will always be a perfect demonstration of power, either that power owned by those who claim the term, or the lack thereof of those who would throw it as insult.
Power and fear, that’s where witches and witchcraft live. I have always thought that witches who call themselves thus are better evaluated by their levels of fear and how well they understand power. Powerful witches, even now, live in extreme ways. At one end they shun society wholesale and do their funky thing in general isolation, (at least comparatively speaking) and live fearlessly by their own rules. They don’t play by societies rules, and they don’t care for the mainstream at all, and they are not diminished by society’s view of their general anti-social weirdness. Because they do not source their power from social authorities. At the other end of the scale are those who not only understand their own power, but the dynamics of power manifest in the mainstream, Western, capitalist society, and actively work within it, save the forests, working towards Indigenous and LGBTQI rights and such like. They’re out and proud, and they are not diminished by society’s view of their general anti-mainstream weirdness. Because they understand power is not something another can give you. At both ends, and everywhere in between there is danger. Danger that ideas and systems will be, or are broken down, and even physical danger. Danger that non-witches fear, and witches actively court. Like fantasy witches, real witches can be good or bad, and that’s always a matter of perspective.
I like to remember that fearlessness. It is evident in many the testimonies of witches during the trials of both Europe, the U.K. and the U.S. There are those that simply said yes, that’s what I am and this is what I do. I love the defiance, the idea underneath the hows and whatfors, that some people felt Christianity was the short end of the stick, and went to see what the Devil had to offer. That there were those who did everything to preserve their pagan beliefs, even when all manner of punishments lay before them.
The Time article finishes on this point:
In some cases, it seems that the return of the witch is both personal and political: Witches of East End, for one, intertwines the two in the story of two young witches who’ve lived many lifetimes already, including one that ended in execution in 1693. The joke was on Salem, however: Even death was no match for their powers.
This time around, the sisters don’t discover their supernatural nature until their 20s. One of them, a shy librarian, at first can’t believe she has abilities beyond book cataloguing. An everyman figure, she reveals the key to such stories’ enduring appeal: witch fulfillment.
“I am a rational skeptic,” she protests. “I am a wallflower.”
“Baby, no,” her mother counters, with an assurance we all secretly want to hear: “You’re magic.”
And the point is a good one. Witches, real and fanciful ones, understand the nature of both person and political power, and how they are entwined and choose to work with both in different ways. What real witches know is that you only ever protest in the beginning, disbelief in one’s own abilities doesn’t last long, and is constantly being tested and broken down. That’s what witchcraft is, what the author here terms “witch fulfillment”, the promotion and growth of one’s power. The witch herself is always the product of her own craft and art. And it is not something another gifts the witch with, nor can another take it away.
It is why real witches can discuss these things, but in doing so are in no way moved to consider they don’t exist because someone else tells them they do not. We know better than that. And therein lies the reason why real and fanciful witches will always spell trouble. It is why we use the label, and why what other people think it means will almost always result in a shrug.
P.S. ‘W’ is for ‘Witch’. This post participates with The Pagan Blog Project 2014.