Seasons have shifted with a turn of color, a shift of lighting, and a drop in temperature. I startled a flock of ravens perched in trees overhead while I was out walking the other day; their beating wings and caws of alarm ushering an additional atmospheric effect. We’ve recently seen a full moon, Mercury retrograde, and two new moons within a single month (known as ‘black moon’). The energies of mystery and enchantment have always seemed to me to increase at this time of year in ways that inspire my imagination and challenge my enthusiasm as the shifting seasons accentuate transitions and the impermanence inherent as leaves fall, many flowers cease blooming, and preparation for hibernation begins.
This year I’m renewing a book review that has been some time in the works and is a seasonally-apt discussion for this month of costume preparation for our alter-egos, thinking of our identities not so much in terms of who we are but who we wish we could be or even who we are happy we are not.
The figure who represents both of these attraction/aversion impulses?
I’ve been accumulating witch books the past few years, and I have been a student of religion (Judeo-Christian and pagan) and spiritual practices for many years. For this reason, I do not associate witches only with Halloween costuming. I think of such an identity as a question of belief. A year or so ago, as I read the introduction to The Penguin Book of Witches (Penguin Books 2014), I latched onto a question articulated by the editor, Katherine Howe. Her’s is a question of identity dependent on distinction:
“The figure of the witch, the idea of the witch, and the need to flush her out of her hiding place and into the light served as a binding agent among fragile communities that were subject to waves of arrival and departure, living with uncertain rights in unsecured territories. The witch—ever the embodiment of the oppositional—served a vital role in the formation of what would eventually be a new united nation. That’s one of the reasons that she and the events of Salem persist in our political discourse and in our popular culture. We need her to in order to know who we are not so that we can begin to imagine who we are (xiii).”
After reading the quote above I realized I would not be writing a review of her book, as I had planned, so much as a discussion of several books as a means of approaching this notion of individual and cultural identification (or refrainment from) as it applies to the figure of the witch.
Howe formulates her question (and it’s a great question) with an academic distance from her subject. For this discussion, I’d like to rephrase her wording to question her assumption that the witch is not to be identified with. It is significant to my counter argument that I’m approaching this question from outside of academia, influenced by the literature of practicing pagans. Howe is not ignorant of such influences—she describes finding a stash of “post-New Age” witchcraft books at the home of a deceased neighbor (xv)—but the neopagan and Wiccan movements and their challenges are not the focus of her book. In a way, it’s a disservice to her work to discuss it in this context, but I do so ultimately in order to show a similarity and agreement of thought.
Howe’s anthology is an annotated collection of primary and secondary source documents pertinent to definitions of and reactions to witchcraft. Each section contains a paragraph or two of her commentary, addressing both the writings and the scholarship that has shaped contemporary ideas. “In the historiographic tendency to interpret witch trials as proxies for other, real conflicts,” Howe writes, “the fact that witchcraft itself was a category of reality for early modern Christians gets lost…The reality of the Devil was never in question. The reality of his ability to affect change in human lives was also never in question (182-3).”
As a collection of English-language historical documents relevant through the 1700s, The Penguin Book of Witches is difficult to fault, but the loss Howe refers to is a loss of a connecting thread to contemporary belief systems in her own interpretations also. Although this mentality may also have seeped into Howe’s reading, as first quoted, she is conscious of her own blind spot in the quote above. She does not entirely want to negate witchcraft to a category of non-reality, though she’s unsure of what makes it a reality or how to discuss witchcraft as a reality (perhaps an effect of also being the author of supernatural young adult fiction). She says of finding the above-mentioned books at the home of her neighbor:
“Even after witchcraft disappeared as a deadly legal problem, the belief in witchcraft persists, continuing to do its cultural work, hiding in plain sight in the staid bedroom communities of Boston (xv).”
Actually, witchcraft is still a legal problem and civil rights/religious freedoms organizations such as The Lady Liberty League struggle to correct the misconceptions of the above-mentioned persistent beliefs in witchcraft—for a recent example, read the response posted on their facebook page to a much-publicized triple murder in Pensacola, Florida that has been said to have motives of “witchcraft.” Earlier this year, a man was convicted in Taos, NM for killing a woman he thought was a witch (the victim was a practitioner of Wicca and the person who killed her a self-professed witch hunter, according to a witness.) These reports are among numerous other reports of violence attributed either to witchcraft or witch hunts.
If the present day ‘cultural work’ of witchcraft (according to Howe’s quote in the first paragraph) is to assist us in separating from our past so that we can shape our future, Contemporary Wicca is articulating and re-visioning its identity as much as those who distinguish themselves from it. Voices from communities of belief demonstrate that witchcraft is still a “category of reality,” and they are also concerned with what a witch is and what she isn’t, though such a category remains shifting and challenging to define (just as it was in the 17th C when rivaling branches of Christianity pointed fingers in witch accusations).
Modern Wicca takes pains to distinguish itself from Devil worship, emphasizing that Satan is a Judeo-Christian construction and therefore not recognized by pagan religions, but that’s not to say they don’t see wrongdoing. I have not encountered a Wiccan text that suggests you find benevolence anywhere and everywhere you look. Indeed, some of the incidents recounted in the depositions and trial transcripts [reprinted in Howe’s book] describe physical and psychological violence on both sides of the issue. Conversely, passages of trial transcripts are so exaggerated, they are difficult to take seriously, beckoning sarcasm and satire. Attempts at humor do not resolve the difficulties, though.
Confusing the issue of Wicca and Satanism, are the writings of Anton Szandor LaVey, founder of The Church of Satan and the author of the Satanic Bible and The Satanic Witch. LaVey was influenced by Aleister Crowley, who was among the same social and intellectual circles as Gerald Gardner, the founder of Wicca as a modern practice. LaVey’s Satanism is also misunderstood. It’s an extension of 1960’s pop culture and occultism, a reaction against the restrictions of traditional Christian morality, which he thought was more harm than good.
Doreen Valiente, who studied with Gardiner for years and who is sometimes referred to as the “mother of modern witchcraft,” states in a title of hers, Witchcraft for Tomorrow (1978):
“Contrary to the picture of witchcraft drawn by the sensational Press, genuine witches do not indulge in ‘devil worship’ or Satan. They believe that their Old Religion is the aboriginal creed of Western Europe, and far, far, older than Christianity; whereas ‘Satan’ is part of a Christian mythology and ‘Satanists’ are just mixed-up Christians (20).”
George Gifford, an author highlighted by Howe, may have been attempting a similar point when he stressed in 1593 that to prosecute witches was simply another expression of the devil at work (23).
Valiente doesn’t mention LaVey, but she says:
“Satanism, in so far as it is genuine and not either a literary invention or an excuse for an orgy, seems most probably to have arisen from the oppressiveness of the Church, in either Roman Catholic or Puritanically Protestant counties, which engendered a spirit of revolt…Sometimes the expression of this spirit of revolt took on much darker hues. When it shaded into real black magic, an aberrant mind might conceive the idea of deliberately committing evil deeds, and even ritual murder, in order to propitiate that evil power which some religious people believed to be everywhere…This ghastly belief, however, is really nothing to do with the old religion of witchcraft, nor is it really very much to do with Christianity, or at any rate the Christianity Jesus taught (36).”
On the other hand, Valiente’s remarks beg the question, what prompted such authoritative and condemnatory remarks in Biblical writings as:
“There shalt not be found among you any one that maketh his son or daughter pass through the fire, or that useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch, or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer. For all that do these things are an abomination unto the LORD: and because of these abominations, the LORD thy God doth drive them out from before thee.” Deuteronomy 18:10-12 (quoted in Howe 4).
Both sides could be asserting something to the effect of: “Be careful with your extremism.”
In the context of such an ambiguous and uncomfortable question, I find it helpful to include Scott Cunningham’s insistence in the preface to his book Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner (2004):
“The Wicca as described here is ‘new.’ It is not a revelation of ancient rituals handed down for thousands of years (ix).”
He recognizes that not all contemporary minds are going to resonate with ancient teachings—whether pagan or biblical or from the Koran. Although Valiente has a tendency to stress the ‘old ways,’ her title is also an indication that she is moving away from the traditions of “yesterday.” In a way, then, Howe is in agreement with a New Age/post-New Age Wiccan authors/practitioners that there is a need to establish a category for the witch that was, the witch that is, and how our own identities may or may not be influenced by these archetypes and conscious or subconscious cultural imprints.
I don’t necessarily need the excuse of Halloween costumes to identify with witchy ways. I don’t distance myself from the subject to the degree that Howe does (that’s not to say that there aren’t many identities out there that carry qualities with them that I don’t care to explore, but that’s another conversation). I’m not advocating a religion or a spiritual practice, although I have argued partially in favor of recognition of contemporary communities and individuals for whom such issues are quite real. My main purpose with this post is to highlight what seems to me a common thread running through each of these writings pertaining to the figure of the witch–an almost cautionary tone when (in play or in seriousness) navigating channels of reality and identity.
I’ll leave you with that thought and wish you a happy and safe Samhain/Halloween as you disguise yourself–or opt not to dress up–this October. If you’d like to explore the historical aspects of witch trials, Howe’s book provides a varied selection of primary and secondary source documents from England and the American colonies along with her thoughtful commentary. For a sampling of the modern spiritual practice of Wicca, titles by either Valiente or Cunningham are a good place to begin.
Leighann Goodwin, a former co-worker at the metaphysical bookstore where I previously worked, is one of the people who brought Katherine Howe’s book to my attention. Also with thanks to my friend Melissa Cigoi for directing me to resources pertaining to civil rights and religious freedoms in regard to pagan religions.
Cunningham, Scott. Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner. Woodbury:
Llewellyn Publications, 2004.
Howe, Katherine. The Penguin Book of Witches. New York: Penguin Books, 2014.
Valiente, Doreen. Witchcraft for Tomorrow. London: Robert Hale Limited, 1978.