This morning I woke, as usual, to the irritatingly cheerful, generic alarm tone pulsing from my mobile phone. After turning it off with a one-eyed squint and slamming it against my bedside table for good measure, I began the Gen-Y ritual of aimlessly scrolling through my Facebook feed to see if anything particularly mind-blowing had occurred in the six hours I’d been unconscious. Had it? In short, yes it had. A post from a distant relative I’d never met revealed that I’m descended from an 18th century Irish … witch. My immediate reaction: “Wicked.”
While pontificating to the hordes about my new-found identity, I noticed the variation in people’s reactions: from keen interest, to quizzical looks, to getting off the elevator two floors early. It seems that my somewhat exultant declaration of my family history and new identity raised the question: why would you want to associate with or identify as a witch?
Growing up with the wonderful world of Disney, we learnt that witches are old, jealous, ugly, and above all, evil. We all watched in horror as the jealous queen transformed into an evil witch in Snow White (or we cowered behind the couch cradling our teddy). We cheered when Dorothy melted the bitch in The Wizard of Oz. “Take that you ungodly cretin”, we shouted joyously. Life was gloriously black and white; witches were evil women who deserved to be put to death. What a wholesome upbringing we had. But then, as the late 1990s set in, the sexy “white” witchcraft trope began to take hold, and perhaps, some of us started to question: what does it mean to be a witch?
Alyssa Milano in Charmed and Alyson Hannigan in Buffy the Vampire Slayer were a far cry from the age-old depictions of a haggard old woman in a black cloak on a broomstick. So what does the term ‘witch’ mean to us in 2017? Indeed, what did it mean 2000 years ago?
The term ‘witch’ is a loaded concept with many different interpretations. Though the notion and practice of witchcraft may date back to the ancient world, the earliest record of ‘witches’, at least in European history, is in two Old Testaments, Exodus and Leviticus, written in 560 BC. Exodus 22:18 reads: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”, while Leviticus 20:27 contends: “A man also or woman that hath a familiar spirit, or that is a wizard, shall surely be put to death: they shall stone them with stones: their blood shall be upon them.” Both of these very uplifting excerpts are thought to have been written by a male, Jewish priest – male being the operative word here.
It is my belief, as well as the belief of many before me, that the reason why the term ‘witch’ came to depict an evil woman who should be put to death at the earliest convenience, is because men in all their precious masculinity, felt threatened.
In her recent lecture Women in Power, Mary Beard, professor of classics at the University of Cambridge, explores the cultural underpinnings of women’s disempowerment. The denial of women’s power, Beard argues, is perpetuated by a longstanding cultural template dating back to the ancient world. Beard uses the story of Medusa, arguably one of history’s most iconic witches, to demonstrate the culturally entrenched opposition to powerful women. Though the story of Medusa has many variations, at its core it tells the story of a witch with supreme power who was beheaded by the ‘hero’ Perseus. With phallic snakes emerging from her head, Medusa was the epitome of (unwarranted) female power, and her beheading remains a cultural symbol of the rejection of said power. Theresa May, Hillary Clinton and Margaret Thatcher have all been compared to the legendary Medusa and each have been depicted with their heads cut off. Indeed, within three days of Margaret Thatcher’s death, Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead sky rocketed to number four on Britain’s official singles chart.
After Pope Innocent VIII (no that’s not tongue-in-cheek) ordered the publication of Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches) in 1494, judges and prosecutors were equipped with an official guide of what may constitute witchcraft. Conveniently, the amount of land a woman may have owned or inherited did not appear in the publication, because of course that wasn’t a humungous factor in the accusations (extreme sarcasm). The exact number of witches that were executed during the infamous witch trials in Europe between the 15th and 16th centuries remains a contentious issue among historians – some estimates place the number between 50,000 – 80 000, others say it’s much higher.
Though western countries may have put witch trials in the history books and now use the term ‘witch’ only as a political weapon, it is important to note that for many women in the world, the accusation of witchcraft is still a very real threat. Around 500 ‘witches’ are put to death each year in Tanzania and approximately 2100 women were executed in India between 2000 – 2012 on the charge of ‘witchcraft’. We cannot forget these women and their children as we forge a new path in the discourse of witches and witchcraft.
In her new book Witches, Sluts, Feminists: Conjuring the Sex Positive, Kristin J Sollee explores the concept of the witch, emphasising the link between witches and political radicalisation. Sollee commends the witch identity as a parallel to feminism: “In this new age of sexist turmoil, it’s fitting she [the witch] be resurrected once more to teach us, inspire us, and remind us how far we’ve come – and how much further we have to go.”
Not unlike the way homosexual people have reclaimed the once offensive term ‘queer’, women are now taking back the label ‘witch’ as a sign of empowerment and solidarity. Let us be feminists, witches and nasty women. In 2017, when a pussy-grabbing, toupee-wearing, brainless warthog can become the president of the United States and the purported leader of the free world, we need feminism, empowerment and solidarity more than ever. To arms witches! Or more accurately, to broomsticks!