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.
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.”
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.