I am writing to you today from a place of intrigue, aggravation, and hyper-awareness. With that comes a hefty amount of rambling, so I’ll just dive right in.
In the last several years especially, the term “witch” has snuck its way into popular culture and, more predominantly, everyday speech. It’s suddenly become a new pet name for your friends or yourself, replacing “bitch”, “queen”, and a plethora of other terms for females. Yes, this term has always existed, often for comedic use. And it has been funny! Singling out a person for being left-handed, for instance, resulting in a rousing “burn the witch!” can spark a volcano of laughter in a room. I’ve done things like this countless times. But there’s a bigger situation I want to address here.
And before anyone gets their undergarments in a knot, I am a cis-white-homosexual-male-witch-who-was-raised-Catholic writing this post. So now you know my background. Release the hounds.
Okay SO. Here’s my issue with the casual toss-around of the term “witch”: if you aren’t one, DON’T CALL YOURSELF ONE.
“Okay but like why are you yelling”
Here’s why: like with any other religious, social, or ethnic group, there is a certain level of respect that comes with the territory. I’m the first person to poke fun at a friend for literally anything, knowing full well they’re welcome to do the same to me. Again, pot calling the kettle gay here.
I have personally experienced, with gay males and straight females especially, a toss-around of the word “witch”, which is fine, but a constant and fairly consistent use of it over months at a time leads me to feel differently. Halloween aside, this happens the rest of the year too. I get it. It’s fun. It’s fun to allude to having powers and being feminist and mysterious and dark and sexy and having familiars and things. I really do get all that. I aspire to that to a certain degree myself. Where I lose it is the fact that people don’t acknowledge or respect the religious, spiritual, and historical weight the term “witch” carries. I’m going to unpack some of that here, so hit the “back” arrow before it’s too late.
If you’re still reading, thanks. I appreciate your willingness to learn and read what I have to say! Moving on…
Witchcraft is, like any world religion, full of denominations, traditions, holidays, and such-and-such. While modern witchcraft differs from the Pagan teachings in terms of the changing world and expansion of other cultures, it still is greatly rooted in many of the same teachings as it was 500+ years ago. It has evolved through the years into Neopaganism, Wicca, and other denominations (similar to Christianity having Catholicism, Protestantism, etc), which have also differed between country and culture since its beginning.
Many religious traditions in the western world are derived from—or deliberately stolen from—Pagan holidays and practices. Without going into too much detail, please allow me to provide an example: the Pagan festival of the winter solstice, Yule, has traditionally included decorating a spruce/pine tree; exchanging gifts to one another; celebratory colors red, gold, green, silver, and white; twelve days of celebration; wreaths of holly; sweets; antlered reindeer representing the horned Pagan god…(have I made my point?)
Which brings me to the church. Ah, the church. Comedian Louis CK does a bit where he talks about how “they won”, how the Christian faith took over the world. And it did. Time was measured before Jesus supposedly was born, by countless religions and peoples all over the globe. Now we all abide by BC and AD (which have changed names in more recent years, but initially referred to Jesus Christ). Christmas is a huge capital holiday worldwide, even for people who aren’t Christian. Easter (also Pagan) is another common time for candy and merchandise in stores. But so is Halloween (we got ’em there!). I’m not here to talk about media and capitalistic exploitation, but I think you get my point. Much of the world abides by this calendar and it is a testament to the forced spread of this religion—which, sidebar, has some really beautiful stuff in it—and how it has been used as a weapon, a means of snuffing out anything deemed “abnormal” or “threatening”—a way to gain control.
Like many twenty-somethings in the twenty-first century, I have major issues with the church. The church (mores than the religion) has over thousands of years been used as a destructive force, an oppressive force, a means to keep straight white men in power. I’m just not interested in that. And much of the world doesn’t seem to be, either. There is extremism in every group, but you see more people using Christianity as an excuse to hate gays, women, ethnic groups, and oppressing much liberalism and human kindness (the basis of said religion, by the way) more than any other religious group in the United States (sidebar: if Jesus existed, he was middle eastern, so enjoy banning him from your “Great Christian America”, Trump administration). There are so many hate groups that use Jesus as an excuse. A burning cross as a symbol. A chance to picket and hate and chastise. I know there are other religions that do this too, but I’m not at liberty to speak about them as I am not knowledgeable enough on the subject. Okay, digression over.
The crusades and the forced sweep of Christianity worldwide allowed those in power to take the religious practices, figures, and traditions of various forms of spirituality and apply their own belief systems into them in order to better integrate them (Yule, for instance). Paganism does not believe in Satan or “pure evil”, but he is depicted as a horned man with goat horns and legs (like the Pagan god is often depicted). And the pentacle (five-pointed star enclosed in a circle) often is used to represent Satanism, when in fact, it represents one’s connections to the five elements (earth, water, air, fire, and spirit) and the balance of them all. Much of this came to rise again more recently during the “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s. That is not to mention the plethora of witch hunts and hysterias that brutally tortured and massacred hundreds of thousands of people in the thirteenth through sixteenth centuries across Europe. I have learned great amount about the “burning times” and encourage anyone else to do so as well. The use of the term “witch” sparked a maddening paranoia that tore families and communities apart. Many cases resulted in the government (or sometimes the accuser) inheriting the land, belongings, and fortunes of the accused witch:
“How convenient that the old widow Margaret O’Leary lives up the road on that huge ranch with her dead husband’s entire inheritance at her fingertips. She did walk by my house the other day and now my cow is sick. It must have been her! Go find the constable! I must get her fortune—I mean send her back to hell!”
You get the idea.
Women especially, as it was believed that women were more susceptible to dark magic and seduction than men (I’m rolling my eyes so hard it hurts), but also men and children were accused of attending sabbats (midnight musical merriment gatherings) with the devil, cursing people, and any number of absurd things. Often the accused would be searched for blemishes, moles, and other bodily imperfections (AKA “witch marks”) as evidence. The infamous “water test” had people tossed into a river bound hand and foot. Cus, yknow, THAT’S a good idea. Countless absurd forms of “evidence” were used during these times. People were ordered to be tortured in various deeply disturbing ways, often resulting in a confession, anything to get it to stop, which lead to a traditional burning at the stake.
And I find witch burnings to be fascinating. But more than anything I find them deeply disturbing and saddening. Hundreds of thousands of people were literally cooked alive in the name of the “Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” when speculation and greed ruled over common sense and basic humanity. I have read and heard countless stories about families that were destroyed, communities tarnished, all ripped clean of their wealth as well, because of “witchcraft”. It’s really humbling.
Fast forwarding to today, I personally have always had a flair for the magickal arts. I’ve always loved fantasy, divination, magick, the supernatural, and all the “witchy woo woo” that comes with it. I got my first tarot deck in middle school. And a crystal ball. And after college I found a community of people who also practiced the Craft and helped me to jumpstart my serious learning and personal practice. I am from Massachusetts and had the fortune of visiting Salem fairly frequently (another witch hunt that fascinates me to no end). I use crystals, herbs, incense, candles, cards, meditations, and all the other “hocus pocus”. And I read. I learn. About the history of witchcraft. About the times it was real and the times it was not. About different denominations of witchcraft and what works for me and what doesn’t. Many of the teachings from Neopaganism/Wicca/Witchcraft really speak to me. Again, no time on this post. But it works for me. It helps me gain control of my life, to find the best version of myself. And I’m not alone. It’s amazing how we are able to find each other, without tattooing pentacles onto our foreheads and dressing in black 24/7. You can sometimes just…feel it.
However, I’m still somewhat new to the Craft. I’m still learning vast amounts daily about the practice and how it works for me and how it doesn’t. It’s a religion that lets you do what feels right and allows you to make of it what you wish, without a strict set of rules and demands. There are holidays, traditions, customs, and other attributes to the Craft, but again, not so heavy on the punishment, shame, and chastising. I will most likely get around to doing a post about witchcraft as a spiritual/religious practice, but not for some time.
I resent the casual use of the term “witch”. As I said, I get it. Pop culture has painted various images of witches through the years (I love The Wizard of Oz, Hocus Pocus, and many other witch-related media), so don’t get me wrong there. I’m just not interested in the casual throw-around of the term as it disrespects me, my faith, and thousands around me and those who have died in the name of it. Every peak of the moon phase I try to do a ritual. Every sabbat I try to do a ritual. I try to grow and expand in my practice. And I take it seriously. I rarely indulge my friends who ask joking questions about it because it makes me uncomfortable. But again, I get it. Witchcraft has been painted into a certain light and many people see it that way.
I’m also aware of the “bruja” in Latinx culture and how it comes into play in feminism. Spirituality, Christianity, and Witchcraft all blend into one in some spiritual practices, and I admire and respect that greatly. But that’s not what I’m talking about here. Being accused of witchcraft is one of the wars against women (primarily) that has existed, so fighting back and using it as a positive is an understandable outcome to a degree (I’m recalling the pink kitty hats from the Women’s March back in January 2017), but wearing this kind of history as an accessory or kitsch devalues centuries of death, torment, spirituality, and human existence.
I am still new, but I do take my practice seriously. And I have gotten into uncomfortable conversations with people who repeatedly call me and others “witches”: when I respond by trying to discuss my religion with them, they are confused and don’t understand and are often put off. Why is this thing, this spirituality that connects one to the elements, the spirit world, and to one’s higher self, made into a mockery or term of snarky endearment? Yes, I know it’s all in good fun, but at what point does it cross the line into “offensive” territory? It takes a lot for me to be offended (I’ve been called fat publicly before and didn’t really bat an eye), and yet here I am feeling like my experiences, some immeasurably strong and others less so, are things that can be made fun of and misused?
No, I’m really asking.
And I’m sure you’re exhausted from reading this. But I greatly appreciate your taking the time to do so.
Again, I love podcasts, so here are some you may enjoy:
- Witch Hunt by Nancy Mades-Byrd
- The History of Witchcraft by Samuel Hume
- Lore by Aaron Mahnke