Why I Hate Witches

Greetings, friends!

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.

hocus-pocus-30th-anniversary-look-back-2I 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?)

5fa6aaab9ca67f6b2fa458d375f978ca--wiccan-altar-witchcraft-altar-ideasWhich 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.

1200px-Witchcraft_at_Salem_VillageThe 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.

Witch_Burning.jpgAnd 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.

witchcraft6

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

Blessed be,

Xx

Advertisements

Spooky Symbols and from Whence They Came

Halloween. All Hallow’s Eve. Hallowtide. Hallowmas. All Soul’s Day. Samhain.

Black-Cat-Sitting-On-Pumpkin-Happy-HalloweenA night split fairly evenly among the modern western world as the best night of the year and an insufferable Hallmark nightmare. Me, I’m the former. I’ve always loved Halloween, even when I didn’t know why. Something was different about this one day. Something special. A chance for creativity and mischief. But that’s a topic I’m not getting into in this post (you’re welcome).

So Halloween is approaching! And every home and business is decked out with pumpkins, spiders, and all the typical critters and iconic symbols of the spooky holiday. And after years of seeing this, I became interested in the origins of all these symbols.

Below are some famous subjects, ideas, and traditions with which we are familiar regarding Halloween here in the United States. Again, in later posts I will tackle more in-depth history of some of these traditions and figures and howthey’ve changed with time, beginning with the Celts and the Romans and the spread of Christianity and word travel and all that. But as a result of centuries of political, social, and religious reformations, there are multiple sources and traditions for some of the items on this list. Traditions change over time, so there may be more than one!

Let’s start with the date…

OCTOBER 31

Halloween began in Europe with the Pagan tradition of Samhain [sow-en], which is the celebration of the harvest during which the deceased are honored and the Pagan New Year begins. This is also the time where the veil between the physical world and the spirit world is believed to be at its thinnest, which will come more into play later.

(“Hallow” translates to “a saint or holy person”…if you’re wondering how All Hallow’s Eve and All Saint’s Day are connected)

And now for the rest…

JACK O’ LANTERNS

Celtic folklore dictates “The Legend of Stingy Jack”, which told of the spirit of a miserable drunken man who pissed of Satan AND God and was sentenced to wander the earth aimlessly with a burning coal (from Hell) inside a turnip to light his way, hence “Jack of the Lantern”. Traditionally, people would hollow out turnips and carve scary faces into them leave them by their doors (lit with coals or candles) to frighten Jack away. When Irish immigrants came to the US, they found many more pumpkins than turnips and began to use those instead. Tra-la.

COSTUMES

Remember the thin veil? Okay! There are a few sources I’ve found on this one—the first being that adults would dress their children as doctors, lawyers, etc so their deceased relatives (who are existing among the living) would see their costumes and guide them on the path toward that profession. Another source claims that people would wear masks and disguises to protect themselves from the spirits of the dead that were out and about. There are also sources that suggest that, during periods of time where Halloween was a night more meant for trickery than spirituality, masked mobs of mischief-makers that formed also lead to this tradition of guising, or disguising, oneself for a night out in the dark.

TRICK-OR-TREATING

Before the frost set in, children of lower class families would knock on the doors of local wealthy families in hopes of obtaining some of their rich harvested crops. In exchange, the children would offer prayers and songs for the wealthy’s deceased relatives. Not quite begging for food, but close enough.

GHOSTS, SPIRITS, & DEMONS

Spirits of the dead. Need I say more? Though a common misconception is that all spirits are evil, and while encountering the manifestation of a deceased person can give us goosebumps, there are supposedly as many well-intending spirits as there are living beings. And vice versa. Demons and poltergeists are other kettle of fish, but they’re pretty understandably frightening and straightforward about it.

VAMPIRES & ZOMBIES

The UNdead. You know. Like some paradoxical opposite of the dead. And the living. Or something. (Though Dracula has some pretty nutso up origins and if you’re looking for a real life spooky story, that’s a good one. Google “Vlad the Impaler” and see for yourself!)

WITCHES

This is a loaded one. I’m going to be making another post on “witch” stuff, but in terms of Halloween, a “witch” is one term for a person (usually female, but it’s not gender specific) who observes pagan/neopagan/Wiccan/etc religious practices. They celebrate the feast of Samhain and are essentially the cause for Halloween in the first place. Abbreviating the history, many “witches” started out as midwives and healers, and once universities and hospitals became widely established, European governments scared people from approaching these “witches” for help by accusing them of worshipping the devil etcetc…all to bring people to the government-regulated healthcare systems and churches ($$$). Real witches are known for casting spells, making potions, being in regular contact with the spirit world, having familiars, and all that good stuff, so they’re a natural fit for Halloween. The overall image of witches is broken down below, but the pointy hats, brooms, cauldrons, etc. began their spark in the Middle Ages when women were often employed as ale brewers at home. Since clean water was scarce, ale was a common substitute and these women would advertise with pointed hats and whatnot to make sales.

Speaking of witch…(hahahaha kill me) here are some witchy qualities that have interesting origins as well:

Flying on Brooms:  This is sorta funny. Supposedly during the full moon closest to the harvest, people would stand in the street holding brooms, rakes, hoes, and whatever other gardening tools they had (I’m picturing watering cans right now and giggling). They’d run at the moon and jump as high as they could, calling on the universe to help next year’s crops grow to be as high as their jumps.*

Also, during the “Burning Times”, many accused witches were said to rid3768bf7ac02d199912096bdfcd664449e on brooms, long sticks, flying dogs and goats, or just on their own (Still giggling, btw). They were believed to apply a “flying ointment”, which was a concoction of herbs that functioned as a hallucinogen and was applied to the more sensitive and nether areas of the body (you see where this is going) and what better tool to ensure you get it all up in there than a staff, stick, or broom? These experiences lead to the sensation of flying and whatnot, so of course this was used as evidence for witchcraft.

*I need to confirm the source of this one, as I’ve only seen it once.

Spellbooks:  A given for anyone practicing spells, but for the midwives and healers, it was much easier to write down “symptoms: hot, red skin; causes: been in sun all day; solution: aloe plant” than it was to memorize every last detail for every possible ailment. Kind of like Grey’s Anatomy or WebMD (WitchMD? hahaha I swear I’m gonna get blocked from this site).

Cauldrons:  A home staple in the western world through the 19th century. These were used for everything kitchen-related. Many tonics and antidotes (or “potions”) were made here. So was Grandma’s soup. But go ahead. Torch grandma. It’s fine.

Green Skin:  Again, two sources on this one. The first claims that, as the remarkable technicolor element was employed in TheWizard of Oz in 1939, the Wicked Witch of the West was made to be green just to stand out against the other Oz inhabitants. This added to the mysterious, eerie, other-worldly qualities of the character. This also was the first and most iconic image of a “witch” that still exists today. The second theory is that, as midwives worked so much in the gardens with herbs, their skin held a green tint that eventually didn’t ever go away (“green thumb” anyone?), which also could lead to a reputation.

Pointy hats:  Before Margaret Hamilton’s portrayal, witches were often depicted wearing Puritan bonnets, hair flying free (gasp!) or wearing semi-pointy and coned hats. There have been so many pointed caps in history that it is unclear where this started, but eventually pointed hats became a sign of dark magic (perhaps its ability to make one seem taller, sharper, and even relate back to Satan’s horns, but that’s my guess).

Being Old and Ugly:  Plain and simple…during witch hysterias, it was much easier to target social outcasts, especially those who were quiet, disagreeable, and off-putting. People who lived alone with no one to vouch for them. People who didn’t always go to church. People who were vulnerable. And usually with a lot of property and no one to give it to. AKA old widows who lived alone with—you guessed it—cats. Yes, that’s right, most witchcraft hysterias were schemes to make money and inherit land. Again, topic for another post.

BLACK CATS

Regarded since ancient Egypt through medieval period and even to the modern day as friends of the supernatural, cats are the perfect spirit guide (or “familiar”) to witches, and their dark, all-knowing, mysterious qualities certainly add to the ambiance. Black is easily associated with darkness, night, the unknown, death, and shadows. You know, the root of most people’s fears. This has slowly given them the reputation as a common familiar for a witch or sorcerer, and therefore deemed “bad luck”. However at one time, black cats were considered good luck and white cats bad luck. Who knew?

BATS

Samhain and harvest rituals called for lots of bonfires. Which attract bugs. Which attract bats. Voilà. Also vampire bats literally feast on the blood of their prey, not the flesh. So…there’s that.The theory that vampires turn into bats came later on. But they’re night predators that are also associated with the supernatural, becoming the “after dark” equivalent to birds (who also have had spiritual connections). Crows and owls can fall into this category of supernatural winged creatures as well.

SPIDERS

Since Ancient Greece they have been connected to the moon and the underworld, and have been a symbol for the “web of life” being woven. Also they’re creepy crawlies that are often dangerous, so I think this is a pretty obvious one.

SKELETONS & MUMMIES

Symbols of death and decay. Fairly obvious as well. Dead people. Very spooky. Especially when they start moving.

FAIRIES, GOBLINS, & ELVES

These are other elements of the spirit world. There is a LOT of folklore and belief surrounding all three of these beings, but the short version is people’s explanations for things that go bump in the night. Or day. These creatures of the air and earth have been believed to steal from, torment, and also help humans throughout European and North American folklore. Celtic traditions have centuries of beliefs surrounding elves and fairies who were banished from the human world and would abduct humans and replace them with changelings (clones), which often resulted in some gruesome “purging” rituals that tortured and killed thousands in hopes of “returning the human home”. But that’s a little grim for this post, so let’s wrap this up…

trick-or-treat-nyc

Fear is a funny thing; we don’t want any part and yet we always want more. But again, for another post. ANYWAY that’s all I’ve got for you for right now. There are a TON more symbols and “characters” that are connected to Halloween, but most of them fall into the “Generally Spooky, Scary, or Unpleasant” category (demon doctors, murderers, aliens, etc), so I won’t waste your eye scrolls. Plus I’ve rambled long enough, don’t you think?

I hope I’ve shed even a spark of light into these origins and you can impress all your friends at your next Halloween party! Or just forget all of it and move on with your day. Live your dreams.

Also I’m a big podcaster, so here are some you may find interesting:

  • Lore by Aaron Mahnke
  • Spooked by Snap Judgment & WNYC Studios
  • Unexplained by Richard MacLean Smith
  • Myths & Legends by Jason & Carissa Weiser

Happy haunting!

Xx