Witch Heritage 101: What Happens When Witch Haters Joke about anti-Witch Films
Article ID: 15371
Age Group: Adult
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Author: Treasach [a WitchVox Sponsor]
Posted: March 17th. 2013
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I've gone into some of the pathology on anti-witch bigotry and Blood Libel before, but clearly, there needs to be more said. With movies still being produced that encourage our 'hunting', a gleeful totally non-hateful friend posted on my FB wall, calling it "exciting and informative film about witches". I remain bemused why it is so important to insist that we either never existed, or were exterminated, or are a "traditional folklore monster". Including the insistence that modern pagans are somehow using the term for 'shock value', there is a constant attempt to deny our existence, veracity, tradition, or continuation. There are so many issues with all this that I can't begin to deconstruct it all at once, but it is vital to defend our right to claim ourselves, and fight the dominant Christian narrative of who we are.
I feel a little helpless sometimes. When I have these discussions, I assume that my fellow debater has the basic grasp that they are living in a background radiation of the Christian narrative. When I realize that I have to drop the level to something of a first year University course, or maybe even high school, to have a reasonable exchange, I nearly despair of ever reducing the spectre of oppression and persecution. Hence, the title of this post. I will be using actual public comments as an example to counter some of the most pervasive, harmful, and just bizarrely weird myths.
Claims that still pervade the literature make it nearly impossible for us to legitimize ourselves and our heritage. Here are some public comments on the latest witch hate movie.
"The film's characterization of witches was true to the original traditional folk tale the Bros Grimm collected and published 200 years ago, and that has clear antecedents stretching back centuries before that. Surely all that folklore, i.e. oral history, can't be wrong? Or is it only wrong if it says bad things about witches, but is right if it says good things? ...The film doesn't say anything about modern-day witches. "there are some good "white witches" whose magic heals rather than harms, and the common (evil) witches really hate them. No sign of this in the original folk tales (unless one is re-branding fairy godmothers) , so I think that's a nod to modern ideas of witchcraft (as having good as well as evil elements) ." ...I'm a lot more confident in the existence of Jews than of witches, sidhe, unicorns, or dragons."
He claims that witches are a "traditional folklore monster". Whose tradition? Well, not ours, surely. Though we have many magic 'bad guys' in faerie tales, which translates close to "witches" in Irish, they are usually part of the trial of the heroine or hero; the adversarial mentor they must overcome to learn their lesson or win their prize. It's not a quality of witches per se, but those witches in those stories do have that role. "Folklore" usually applies to stories and beliefs of the peasantry, that is, the country folk, where the term 'pagan' comes from in Latin. So not the learned Christians, then, but the propaganda spread by the power elite to the people, and not the pagan people, either, but their own leadable 'flock'. "Monster' is the most obvious smear. It's used for people who are so evil they are no longer human, which makes it easy to exterminate them without mercy, or even trial, in some cases.
Obviously, if a group tells horrific, disgusting or offensive stories about another people, that must be who they are. No one would make up that stuff up to suppress, oppress, or exterminate them. (First Nations, Gypsies, gays...cough, cough...) I've gone into the (totally non-racist) problem of the perpetuation of the myth of "white" and "black" i.e. 'evil' witches before. Relegating witches to the category of mythical creatures, usually horrible ones, since he later suggests he could call himself an ogre but that doesn't make him one, isn't a harmless or theoretically amusing trivialization. It is deliberately associating us with fantasy, so we couldn't really exist, except in our own minds, and even if we did, we are inherently supernaturally evil. (Hmm... supernaturally evil...Sorry. My mind wanders... Where were we?)
No, my ancestresses did not live in "candy cottages, worship Satan, conjure demons, eat children, ride brooms through the air, or cast spells to dry up dairy herds, blight crops, spread pox, or otherwise harm the community". Defining witches as only those who fulfill that criteria, and then insisting that I therefore cannot be a witch because I don't do all that is a most circular argument, and again, impossible to comply with. Satan is the Christian Antagonist. You have to believe in the Christian worldview to be a Satanist or have any business with Him. Pagans do not, and never have. Besoms are, for most varieties of witches, sacred because of their symbolism, so most of us use them in ritual. We can't fly on them, though, so we must not be real.
Another attack is confusing medieval Christian propaganda with modern reClaimist, largely Wiccan mythology to make them seem somehow equitable and equally untrue. Modern witches, the argument goes, have created themselves, and historical witches are fantasy, because they are both story sets. "Medieval Christians told stories of women who served Satan and hid in forests eating children. Modern-day witches tell stories of women who followed pre-Christian traditions and harvested forest herbs for healing. I don't actually believe either set of stories - each served or serve a purpose for the people who told/tell stories of them." Medieval Christians told stories about their rivals, the witches, in a propaganda extravaganza. Just because those stories are ludicrous doesn't mean the real witches didn't exist. They told nasty stories about the Pope being Satan, too. Does that mean he didn't exist?
The Church adopted pagan traditions when it couldn't destroy them. Many forms of paganism survived under a veneer of Christianity. Many of those were a discrete, independent faith and tradition surviving under those very priests, and would have resulted in accusations of witchcraft if the more orthodox and especially non-local authorities got wind of it.
The word Witch is of middle Germanic origin. Similar traditional beliefs and practices were called by a different names in different languages, but they would be called 'witch' in English, and would be persecuted by the same people in the same way with the same accusations were they discovered. Witches were and are real, regardless of what they were called in that language or area, and some of those caught in the net of persecution were authentic. Many were not, of course, and some were simply heretical, which is quite different. However, the term has been co-opted by the Christians to define us, especially in the English tradition. Healers, seers, midwives, abortionists, and local authorities were often accused of witchcraft by the Church, and yet many of those were in fact authentic pagan practitioners, even with a touch of Christianity for camouflage.
It's actually impossible to believe that so many of these 'hunts' went on wherever fundie European Christians went without a shred of real witchcraft traditions to back up their claims. One could only consider it willful ignorance. Social science backs up the claims of these traditional aboriginal beliefs and practices, known as witches in English, from all over Europe, in a continual line to this time. From Estonia, from Bulgaria, from Germany, from Hungary…
Every culture has its magic workers, and some are professional or semi-professional, serving their communities, usually with varying degrees of respect and local power. Witch is a real term that was used with pride, and described a very specific group of English professional pagans, usually women. It was therefore the term used when the Christians wanted to usurp the power positions and land the pagans owned. In other areas, they were called by their traditional names, of course, though when translated into English, the term 'witch' is the equivalent. In Ireland, it was often 'faerie' or various forms of Druid. In Italy, it was Strega. In German, it was Hexan. All of those terms and professions were attacked by the Christian fundie patriarchy that coveted their land and power. Nearly all of those terms are now being reClaimed by the traditional witches in their homelands, too, by the way...
Of course, each variety of magic worker had different traditions, but most still go by certain general roles and specialities: healers, seers, shamans, and sub-sets of those. Many had a mystical relationship with animals and plants, some could communicate with or visit the Other World, many told fortunes, some were priestesses and priests of the Old Goddesses, Gods, and Spirits of their area. Many were local judges, who carried the authority of common law and officiated at life events - another reason they were tempting targets.
When the push from the Christians began, many collaborators saw it as an opportunity to remove the balance of power, which was usually more egalitarian in pagan societies, and grab everything they could. So the anti-witch hysteria was blown up as much as possible. Not only was your local professional witch suspect, but anyone who also did a bit of usual pagan magic, or healing or seeing, or hinted of it was now in the line of fire. Most weren't going to believe it at first, and even at the height, most didn't believe it anyway. But like the Communist McCarthy trials, it because political death to defend or even fight the anti-witch craze when they got going. Adding to the fuel was the bizarre torture porn of the sexually deprived monks, who conceived all manner of disgusting intercourse with Satan, and all manner of punishment for these suspected deviants. Of course, that was all part of the attack on traditional cultures. As the saying goes, a people is not gone until "the hearts of its women are on the ground", and the Christian fundie takeover was entirely patriarchal.
Since witches in most European aboriginal cultures are primarily women, it was the women who were the primary targets for extermination, humiliation, and disempowerment, whether they were pagan or not. Pretty young girls were accused by local power mongers and disappeared, never making it to trial. Old women who had land were accused, and charged for every part of their own incarceration, like bits of rope to tie the witch with, soldiers to guard her, the food she ate... It was hugely lucrative, and completely transformed the political and social structure of Europe.
Options for survival were limited. Like the Jews who were persecuted in places like medieval Spain and more modern Germany, if one wanted to remain, and not flee (and where would all the magic workers go?) , you had to hide in plain sight or hide out of sight. Now, in most of their persecutions, some of the Jews chose to get baptised, even though they kept most of their family traditions intact. In a few generations, they seemed like other Christians, but sometimes the family would recover and reconvert to their traditional heritage when the all-clear was visible, and the danger largely passed. Are they still real Jews? The pagan shrines and priestesses and priests who survived with most of their traditions intact did so by making a deal with Christianity: they got to keep their deities, put Saint on the front of their name, stick a cross on the lot, say your vows to Christ, and you got to keep most of your land, sacred stuff, and culture. The nuns at Kildare did that, for example. Before it was a Bridgetine Christian nunnery, it was a pagan Bridgetine nunnery. Kildare's sacred Flame to Bridget as the Sun aspect didn't go out for over a 1000 years, quite seamlessly with the Christian takeover, too. Many of the Abbeys and monasteries made the same deal. Their holy orders carried on much as usual, but under a new banner. The families experienced the same problem, and usually opted for the same solution. We are always there, however, passing on our knowledge to our children, helping out our neighbours, worshipping in the Old ways and places, even if those places now have crosses on them, and we use Saint in front of their names. During less dangerous times, however, like the Jews and Gypsies, we tend to sneak back out, just to test the waters, because the myths encouraging self-loathing and living under a veneer are always oppressive.
We can see how long it takes for pagan beliefs to be truly usurped, and what happens when fundie Christianity finally takes over. Iceland, for example, was the last place in Europe to officially convert, in about 1000 CE. Yet they still maintained much of their egalitarian society, including their matriarchal naming system, and the oldest continual democracy in the Western world. As spirits of the earth, elves are still very real and negotiated with during any building project. In this recent economic crisis, the largely women leaders let the banks fail, jailed their CEO's and saved the people who were suffering. That's what even the shadow of European Aboriginal paganism can do. It takes an aeon to destroy most of our systems and beliefs and replace it with the unnatural and exploitive patriarchy. The rest of Europe was taken over much earlier, so less of our original systems are left. In some cases, only traces remain, except where the deals were made. Cultural archaeology is useful for uncovering those traces, and many folklorists and fam trad witches are recovering their heritage with these techniques and researches. Are they still witches, even when the rest of the family for generations called themselves Christian, believed they were Christian, and did Christian things in public? Were the Jews who recovered their heritage generations later really Jews? I'm no Rabbi. Maybe I'll ask one, but I certainly can't decide for them, nor can non-witches define who we are, either.
Wiccans, which was never used as a noun for magic workers in any language, are a modern amalgam of a gathering of presumed pagan traditions from around the world, largely from Western Europe. It's very recent, but obviously satisfies, since it's one of the fastest growing religions in North America. Few therefore have a sense of long-term history, like the traditionalists, or of future centuries. They usually feel the threat of persecution as an empathy of possibility, as social slights, not an imminent personal danger. They are a valid subset of witches, new pagans for a modern age, and rely on the legitimacy of traditionalist beliefs, rituals, and reClaimed and recovered paganism from many areas to form their systems.
We are still here. We will always be here. Just like Aboriginals from around the world, the only way you can truly be rid of us is to exterminate us all. Like all oppressed people, we will hide, sometime for hundreds of years, but we will rise again the moment we can. Women led, women powered, women held, we hold the key to healing the Earth, bringing forth real change and egalitarian democracy, and creating social and environmental justice. I have always stood with my FN sisters, and my sisters all over the globe, since I have always known who I was and where I had come from. Women's magic can save the world, and I will do my part to nurture, illuminate, support, and disseminate it, against the context of the Christian fundie oppressors. We, too, must be Idle No More.