In Praise of Witches

Jacques de Gheyn II,

Jacques de Gheyn II, “Witches in a Cellar”

1. “We are an evolving, dynamic tradition and proudly call ourselves Witches. Honoring both Goddess and God, we work with female and male images of divinity, always remembering that their essence is a mystery that goes beyond form. Our community rituals are participatory and ecstatic, celebrating the cycles of the seasons and our lives, and raising energy for personal, collective, and earth healing.”

Starhawk, “Spiral Dance”

2.“Like the word wild, the word witch has come to be understood as a pejorative, but long ago it was an appellation given to both old and young women healers, the word witch deriving from the word wit, meaning wise. This was before cultures carrying the one-God-only religious image began to overwhelm the older pantheistic cultures which understood the Deity through multiple religious images of the universe and all its phenomena. But regardless, the ogress, the witch, the wild nature, and whatever other criaturas and integral aspects the culture finds awful in the psyches of women are the very blessed things which women often need most to retrieve and bring to the surface.”

Clarissa Pinkola Estés, “Women Who Run with the Wolves”

The witch is the most important archetype for contemporary women, claims Wojciech Eichelberger, a well-known Polish therapist in an interview I have read recently. Author of the bestselling A Woman Without Blame and Shame, believes that a wise woman in close contact with natural cycles, one who does not need patriarchal go-betweens between herself and the sacred realm, is back for good and is becoming more and more mainstream. What still seems to stop Her is the legacy of the witch burning era, which continues to loom over the feminine psyche. There has been no atonement, no apologies for the mass extermination of witches (up to 9 million victims are postulated) that started in the sixteenth century. In the span of three hundred years as many as an estimated 9,000,000 women were incarcerated, degraded (the humiliation included shaving their bodies looking for marks left by the devil) and burnt at the stake or hanged. This mass trauma to this day continues to instill fear and anxiety in women, who wonder what might happen if they dare to go against the established social order.

Francisco Goya, “The Witches’ Sabbath”

Francisco Goya, “The Witches’ Sabbath”

One book deserves a dishonorary mention here – The Malleus Malleficarum (The Witch Hammer or The Hammer of the Witches), a fifteenth century treatise which served as a sort of manual for witch hunters of the time. The book enjoyed wide popularity, at one point almost as high as the Bible. Here I offer a handful of quotes pertaining to women that can be found in that learned tome:

“When a woman thinks alone, she thinks evil.”

“…they have slippery tongues, and are unable to conceal from the fellow-women those things which by evil arts they know; and, since they are weak, they find an easy and secret manner of vindicating themselves by witchcraft.”

“But because in these times this perfidy is more often found in women than in men, as we learn by actual experience, if anyone is curious as to the reason, we may add to what has already been said the following: that since they are feebler both in mind and body, it is not surprising that they should come more under the spell of witchcraft.”

“For as regards intellect, or the understanding of spiritual things, they seem to be of a different nature from men; a fact which is vouched for by the logic of the authorities, backed by various examples from the Scriptures. Terence says: Women are intellectually like children.”

“But the natural reason is that she is more carnal than a man, as is clear from her many carnal abominations. And it should be noted that there was a defect in the formation of the first woman, since she was formed from a bent rib, that is, a rib of the breast, which is bent as it were in a contrary direction to a man. And since through this defect she is an imperfect animal, she always deceives.”

Via http://www.malleusmaleficarum.org/downloads/MalleusAcrobat.pdf

William Blake, “The Triple Hecate”

William Blake, “The Triple Hecate”

Barbara G. Walker, author of Women’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, in the entry dedicated to witches, emphasizes that all persecutors of witches greatly feared their victims. This fear can be read as the fear of the wild, the dark, the unbridled, the instinctive and the natural. All victims were forced to confess by torture. Looking in a witch’s eyes was considered dangerous, crossing oneself constantly was highly recommended. Charges of witchcraft were bandied indiscriminately, as Walkers retells:

“The so-called Witch of Newbury was murdered by a group of soldiers because she knew how to go ‘surfing’ on the river. Soldiers of the Earl of Essex saw her doing it, and were ‘as much astonished as they could be,’ seeing that ‘to and fro she fleeted on the board standing firm bolt upright … turning and winding it which way she pleased, making it pastime to her, as little thinking who perceived her tricks, or that she did imagine that they were the last she ever should show.’ Most of the soldiers were afraid to touch her, but a few brave souls ambushed the board-rider as she came to shore, slashed her head, beat her, and shot her, leaving her ‘detested carcass to the worms.’”

It is easy to understand why the self-blame tendency is still something women find very hard to shake off:

 “If crops failed, horses ran away, cattle sickened, wagons broke, women miscarried, or butter wouldn’t come in the churn, a witch was always found to blame…. Witches were convenient scapegoats for doctors who failed to cure their patients, for it was the ‘received’ belief that witch-caused illnesses were incurable.”

Women were given no right for defense, and denying of the accusations was considered “contrary to the libel” and taken for a confession.

In popular imagination, witches have not been rehabilitated yet. As Starhawk puts it, “Witches are ugly, old hags riding broomsticks, or evil Satanists performing obscene rites. Modern Witches are thought to be members of a kooky cult, primarily concerned with cursing enemies by jabbing wax images with pins, and lacking the depth, the dignity, and seriousness of purpose of a true religion.” For me, the witch connects to the goddess Hekate, whom Robert Graves called the Goddess of Witches. Hekate was a primordial goddess, older than the whole Greek pantheon. Once the most powerful Neolithic goddess, she subsequently got relegated to demonic fringes, which did nothing to lessen her power. As the guardian of the threshold, she ruled cosmic order and creation on the one hand, and chaos and destruction on the other. Our culture being at a crossroads, which is one of the main symbols of Hekate, we had better open up to the possibility that the witches are going to usher in a new era. Her name is related to “hecatomb” (sacrifice of a hundred). Hopefully, the sacrifice of the millions of witches will never again be brushed off or forgotten.

Jusepe de Ribera, “Procession to a Witches’ Sabbath” (“Hecate was the ancient Greek goddess of magic, whose retinue included the souls of those who died before their time, particularly children, or who were killed by force. Hence she is here shown picking up children and putting them into a brazier, while the heroic figures in her train also represent those who died before their time.” Via http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/paintings/hecate-procession-to-a-witches-sabbath)

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16 Responses to In Praise of Witches

  1. litebeing says:

    If witch is associated with wit and Mercurial types are incredibly witty, can we make the leap to say that Gemini is a season of the witches?

    Great post 🙂

  2. Thank you, Monika. This is a beautiful homage to so many women (and some men, too) who died simply because they were adept in the old, Indigenous ways of Wisdom, and also to those who have shepherded the Wisdom through hidden and underground streams (and/or who are remembering and reclaiming the Wisdom now). Hail, indeed. We remember them. Blessings, Jamie

  3. herongrace says:

    On a witching Sagittarius full moon, I love this. Thank-you and blessings to you.
    I grew up with deep anxiety in regard to having different knowledge I suppose, and keeping it quiet. While I didn’t have a religious upbringing, I have always felt a fear and distrust of institutionalised so called Christianity. Their leaders seem to have a distrust of me too. We kind of snarl at each other at first contacts. I feel there are deep past life experiences there. I am so glad witches can finally come out. I think of any strong woman in touch with natural rhythms a wiccan, wise woman.
    I see in the Arab countries where men oppress women, that our old history of Western women is only being repeated her with this age old fear and suspicion of women, and my heart bleeds for them and their children.

    • Anti-clericalism is deeply felt by me as well, and I also believe it has to do with past lives. But that is not as important as another thing i have heard from someone. They told me that I am one of those women that deserved to be burned at the stake! That person really meant it.
      Thank you very much, as always.

  4. Maria F. says:

    “A wise woman in close contact with natural cycles, one who does not need patriarchal go-betweens between herself and the sacred realm, is back for good and is becoming more and more mainstream.,” makes me feel also how this archetype may have evolved honoring the menopausal stage of women. Menopause was probably seen as the stage when women’s bodies change and rejection of men may have been very common. Due to this physical change, women may have been rejected regardless of socioeconomic status, and in return left the home to become wise and independent, overthrowing oppressive values of the typical era. I can see Hekate in her triple aspect of the Goddess: Maiden, Mother and Crone.

  5. alohaleya says:

    This is such an important post. I was a Women’s Studies student back in college and we read The Malleus Malleficarum. I was horrified – but at that time, I didn’t understand the connection to me personally. I’m now feeling that I’m very much affected by the collective trauma from the witch burning era – I’m getting more signs that it is very much part of my psyche. This is a good thing, in that my system is now ready to acknowledge and integrate these fears and memories, in order to move forward in individual and collective service to the Divine Feminine. Thank you Monika! Aleya

  6. Great post, Monika. I will try not to take up too much space on my comment 😉

    Regarding Starhawk, there is no question that “The Spiral Dance” was influential to the revival of wicca. I own the book, and have read it, but honestly, did not care for it all that much. Personally, I found “Drawing Down the Moon” by Margot Adler to be much better. If you have not read it, I highly recommend that you do. I think you would get a lot out of that one.

    The Malleus Malleficarum is one that is on my list to read. I read excerpts and discussed it briefly in college, but have not read the entire text. Like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion or Mein Kampf, I feel it is probably worth reading just to get a sense of how detestable ideas are formulated and spread. This knowledge helps one identify new and insidious writings as they make their way into the public sphere.

    As always, love your posts. Sending my best.

    Jeff

    • Thank you, Jeff! I appreciate all comments no matter how long.
      The Spiral Dance is a very important book I think, though perhaps it is visible she is not a writer. Still, a great soul. The book you recommend I would really love to read. I had never heard of it. So now you are enriching my to-rad list. I am not adding Mein Kampf there, though 😉
      Thank you very much, as always.
      Monika

      • LOL – yeah, that one is very low on my list, too. Although, in college, I wrote a paper analyzing a small section and compared it with a political speech from a current leader (who I will leave unnamed). I got an A, so I suppose it was good 😉 Also, while in college, I did an internship at the Wolfsonian Museum, which houses a huge collection of propaganda arts. I wrote a pamphlet on Leni Riefenstahl and how she incorporated Goebbels’ ideas into her films. As you have probably figured out, I think it is important to understand history to ensure we do not allow the same atrocities to happen again.

        Jeff

  7. lampmagician says:

    Reblogged this on lampmagician and commented:
    “For as regards intellect, or the understanding of spiritual things, they seem to be of a different nature from men; a fact which is vouched for by the logic of the authorities, backed by various examples from the Scriptures. ♡♡

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