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The Name of the Witch

by Fritz Muntean

As our movement grows, a need for acceptance by the broader culture is causing a mantle of genteel respectability to be drawn over some of the darker and more powerful aspects of the Witch. Many in the Craft, under the otherwise laudable banner of Pagan public relations, have begun insisting that Witch power is only constructive and good, and that all the darkness surrounding popular Witch mythology is the slanderous work of repressive patriarchal agencies.

At a recent national festival, several examples of this "White Witch" mentality were in evidence. There was yet another video presentation on the "Burning Times" implying that all the Cathars, astrologers, Jews, black-mass monks, alchemists, Unitarians, Protestants, Catholics, heretics, herbalists, Manacheans, midwives and Muslims, who were condemned by the Inquisition as "Satanists," were actually all Witches -- innocent and benign Witches at that -- just like us. (And we wonder why the public confuses Paganism with Devil worship!) Another was the campaign to protest and boycott Jim Henson's movie, "The Witches".

I was very critical of all this, but at the time I felt like a voice crying in the wilderness. Since then, however, I've been delighted to read an excellent review of the Henson movie by Jehana Silverwing in both the COG Newsletter and Enchante magazine (issue #7), as well as a wonderfully harrowing letter in the same issue of Enchante by (NROOGD's own) Leigh Ann Hussey, condemning all forms of censorship, and proudly acknowledging the dark and dangerous side of The Witch. Both the review and the letter (and John Yohalem's reply to the letter) make highly recommended reading.

Thus encouraged by this sudden outbreak of good sense, here are two more bits worth on the subject from my point of view as a student of the social sciences:

In psychological terms, the Witch is what's known as the "Shadow" (the opposite contained within) of the Feminine. The archetypal Witch represents many of the dark and violent aspects within us all, particularly those of the Great Mother. If we abuse, neglect, or mistreat the Great Mother, what will manifest in the world as a result, is the power of the Witch -- in the form, say, of roughly-dressed people chaining themselves to the gates of an arms factory or nuclear reactor.

Back before Zoroaster, people used to have fewer qualms about opposing polarities like good and bad, light and dark transformational and conservative, sublime and mundane, creative and destructive, energies being contained within the same Goddess or God. Ancient deities like Kali -- who gives birth from the waist down, while cutting off heads from the waist up -- embodied both the nurturing Mother and the destroying Witch.

The psychological Witch derives her character from the study of dreams, myth, and fairytales. Much of the popular identity of the Pagan Witch, however (according to writers like Margo Adler), has its roots in the delusional accusations of the Inquisition, and the universal, if paranoid, belief in the persistent existence of "a small clandestine society engaged in antihuman practices." For example, much quoted writers like Marie-Louis von Franz often point out that the Witch of dreams and fairytales is a solitary woman, living far from the habitats of people, whereas the popular concept of the Witch as covener appears to have originated with the Inquisition.

The psychological Witch has great value. Her harsh and violent energy is necessary for the destruction of harmful and outdated institutions. According to Ann Ulanov, in her remarkable book, "The Witch & the Clown, the Witch's voracious and lusty appetites for the pleasures of sex and food help us cut through the harmful paradigms of "virgin-or-whore" and "beauty as thinness." Most important to those of us in midlife, her selfish rejection of the feminine, of the all-giving and self-sacrificing milky-Mother-within-us-all, makes it possible for the hard-handed, steely-eyed Crone to emerge. Archetypally speaking, the Witch is not the Crone, but without this transformational Witch energy, the Crone cannot be manifest, and the conservative Mother will live on, victim and martyr, long after her role is played out, a tragic and harmful institution. (How many Mothers does it take to screw in a lightbulb? "None, I'll just sit here in the dark!")

(Parenthetically, I cannot help but wonder about the wisdom of invoking this Witch energy in those who have not yet begun working out the Mother role -- those young women and men who are adrift in the adolescent passageway between Maiden and Mother. The word cannon fodder" and other not-so-positive terms of soldiery come to mind.)

In Anthropology, a tribal society's practitioner of helpful magic is usually called a Shaman. The word Witch is used to denote the magical evil-doer, the unscrupulous and selfish magician. The issue, according to Eliade, is not so much whether the magic is good or bad- that's more an matter competence but whether the practitioner is contained within the society or operates from the outside . The positive Shaman most often works and lives inside the village, either physically or in terms of a mutual responsibility. By contrast, the Witch lives at a distance, an outcast, dangerous by way of being out of community control. This concept meshes well with the psychological idea of the Witch as outsider.

It's further interesting to note, that in matrist cultures like the Navaho, Witches are all men.

I think that much of our original enthusiasm for using the Witch word, back in the '60's, derived from the word "witch hunt," used in the aftermath of McCarthyism to denote the unfair and vicious persecution of progressive and liberal elements by the religious or political forces of repression. Our distaste for the twisted powermongering of McCarthyism (and the Inquisition) was so strong that we were all too eager to identify with their victims. A noble undertaking, but it does lead one to ask: "Am I necessarily one with the enemies of my enemy?" I'd say, "Yes, certainly if it serves a good purpose," but perhaps we should be more than a little wary of taking such noble and quixotic gestures quite so literally.

It's one thing to challenge patriarchal authority by adopting the name of the Church and State's worst (if self-inflicted) nightinare -- and quite another to then turn around and insist that Witches were never bad, were always only good, and that any information to the contrary is intentional defamation of our religion.

Ursula LeGuin says that superstition is caused by taking otherwise useful metaphors literally. That's a pretty good definition of fundamentalism as well. I get very concerned when otherwise intelligent and well-educated Pagans neglect the study of psychology and anthropology because of the perceived insult to modern Wicca in the scholar's use of the word "Witch." It reminds me of those who called T. S. Elliot an anti-Semite because he didn't capitalize the word "Jew" in several poems written before the '30's.

Furthermore, what difference is there between the Pagans who protest and picket this movie, "The Witches", and the fundamentalist Christians and right-wing Catholics who protested and picketed "Jesus Christ Superstar" and "The Last Temptation of Christ"? I think that all these groups have been equally and deeply offended by being asked to look beneath the surface of their metaphors.

I've been calling myself a Witch for some time now -- over a quarter of a century. I believe the name of the Witch is a name of power, and that the power of the Witch is a power that can truly change the world.

But I have felt from the beginning that some elements of the power of the Witch are dark, destructive, and dangerous -- and none the less valuable for being so. And that the wielding of Witch energy therefore requires serious training, great restraint, deep humility, and above all -- enormous compassion and love.

This attempted sanitization of the Witch is not only having the effect of trivializing the powers involved (a sort of "Pagan Disneyfication," complete with cutesy unicorns, friendly dragons and Barbie doll elves), but I'm afraid that something far worse is happening. I'm afraid that by denying the darkness and the destructive energies inherent in the power of the Witch (and in ourselves) -- and by the concomitant de-emphasis of training, restraint, humility, and compassion -- we stand in great danger of turning this darkness loose upon our own Community. The tendency of conflicts in our Community to get immediately out of control, to seemingly take on "a life of their own," and to turn into endless Witch Wars takes on new meaning in light of these concerns.

I don't believe that we are, necessarily, trying to work with forces beyond our control. I do believe that the forces involved require more respect than we're giving them, if we insist that Wicca is nothing but sweetness and light. I don't believe we have anything to gain by publicly emphasizing the darker and more dangerous aspects of our Craft -- there is, after all, no need to unduly frighten the broader public. I do believe that if we start taking our own PR literally, we stand great danger of losing control of what I have always believed to be the most powerful and effective forces available for the restructuring of our culture and the preservation of our planet.

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This work is copyright The Witches Trine and the author, 1997. All rights reserved.

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