The first thing I learned about the occult was that words have power – they shape people’s perceptions and thereby shape reality.
Recently, an article posted by WitchVox’s FaceBook channel has caused some rather lively debate, and got me thinking about the way that the Pagan community describes and defines itself and its practice.
In short, a man in the USA has, during the course of some genealogical research, uncovered a death in the 16th century that was attributed to witchcraft. He laments the trivialisation of witchcraft on contemporary pop-culture and ends the article with an expression of his Christian faith. The comments got a bit rowdy – “we’re being slandered AGAIN!”, “further evidence of women’s oppression throughout history” and so on.
Having just finished Wilby’s Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits, I was left wondering something else entirely: ‘Why ‘witches’?’
Why have Pagan magical practitioners chosen the word ‘witch’ to describe themselves? It is a loaded word, heavy with history and with negative connotations. We could describe ourselves as ‘good witches’, white witches’ (for those that don’t get squicked by the inherent racist connotations) or ‘healing witches’, but it all seems like qualifying or mitigating a word that – in my opinion – didn’t need to be used in the first place. There are lots of words to describe magical practitioners – magician, pellar, wizard, cunning wo/man, druid, sage, mystic, occultist (actually, that’s not much better in terms of negative connotations), mage or magus, medicine man, priest/ess, duivelbanner, toverdokter, Hexenmeister, kloge folk, klok gumma/gubbe, curandero, saludador, benandanti, dyn hysbys, seiðr, shaman, táltos, houngan, devins-guérisseurs, leveurs de sorts… – some of them are inappropriate for the intended purpose and others shouldn’t be used outside of a specific tradition, admittedly, but the point is that we aren’t limited to words in current use, or English words, or even words that are real words. At some point, for some reason, we’ve chosen ‘witch’ as our go-to word to describe (almost) any Pagan magical practitioner.
It could be reasoned that ‘witch’ is any magical practitioner, and certainly that fits with the etymology of the word, but in CF&FS, Wilby shows that a distinction was made between cunning folk, who use their spirit familiars largely for beneficial purposes, and witches, who use their spirit familiars largely for malevolent purposes. That’s a distinction drawn by the witches’ peers, not the academics and authorities, and even that definition was based on the way the familiar relationship was utilised most of the time. Some witches healed and some cunning folk cursed, but in terms of encountering or acquiring these spirits, in the descriptions, behaviour, demeanour and demands of the familiars there are profound similarities.
‘Witch’ has been used to describe bad people for a long time, and the archetype is entrenched in our mythological and cultural history. While it isn’t be impossible to reclaim or redefine a word, it’s going to take a long time and a lot of effort to do it with a word still in common parlance.
Which is which I find it curious that strident voices are being raised every time the word ‘witch’ is mentioned in a negative context. It’s a negative word. If Pagans don’t want to be confused with people who curse their neighbours over a perceived slight and worshipped devils (as the authorities saw it), they shouldn’t call themselves the same thing! The men and women who were killed during the witch trials era were not Pagans (they certainly weren’t Wiccans), they were Christians with lingering pre-Christian beliefs, and they were tried and punished for (in most cases) doing nasty things to other people using magic.
I’m not the boss of anyone’s pants but my own; I’m not trying to make anyone change what they define themselves as, but I’ve given it some thought, and I am not comfortable with calling myself a witch. I won’t do it, I won’t let other people do it and I won’t support them if they get a bee in their bonnet about people calling witches evil. If a person wants to get snippy about how they and their religious practices get represented in the media, perhaps they should try giving some considered thought to the words they use when describing them to others.
They shape their own reality with those words. If they don’t like it, change it. In the end, that’s what magic is for.