portrait of the witch as a feminist
November 7, 2002 01:30 PM

This is my long-overdue response to an older We Have Brains question about witches. Very Halloween appropriate (and as we all know, I missed Halloween).

Talk about witches rarely includes much discussion of the political and social climate of the Dark Ages. But it should. Widespread familiarity with the concept of "witch" postdates the start of the Renaissance. And that's no mistake - the common idea of witches as dark consorts of Satan was spread by a political structure with a vested interest in converting people to the new Christian social order, in part by demonizing previous religious practices.


Even the term "Dark Ages" echoes this notion. Were the dark ages, in fact, dark? Not necessarily. And certainly not if you were outside of the ruling class or the growing city environment. It was a time period relatively free of major disasters (in Europe, which, I should add, is the primary setting of this discussion) and not without artistic and spiritual development.


Various pagan practices continued to predominate rural spiritual life, but none of these religions were organized (by any definition of that term). While rural pagan groups may have been loosely connected, they shared a common element - healing and planting traditions - and were likely to be reasonably egalitarian as far as gender was concerned.


the sign around the graveyard says that satin lives in hell

they may love the devil, but his disciples sure can't spell


Written knowledge and practices were rare (all the better to eradicate and rewrite the history of them), and the people (often women) who came to be thought witches were generally responsible for passing this knowledge along. This wasn't radical. It was simply how things were done. Of course, the rise of organized Christianity and the written religious text would change that. [For more detail on the connection between writing and misogyny, try Leonard Shlain's Alphabet vs. the Goddess.]


Given that egalitarianism, do I think witches were feminists? Well, maybe. Certainly there are aspects of feminism in certain paganisms, but post-Christian, pre-Papacy Europe was still quite divided by class, and there were very clear definitions of what one could and could not do (based on a number of factors, gender included).


That said. There are certainly arguments for "witches" as early practitioners of civil disobedience, as simply continuing their daily practices was radicalized by the Renaissance and the Inquisition.


Given the rise of a religion-driven ruling class, teachers and healers become "witches". After all, what better way is there to gently control a populace than to control information distribution? That's exactly what new religious institutions did by first dismissing paganism as "superstition" and then by declaring paganism as "ungodly". And what else could they do? People weren't converting, and the authority of a monotheistic government kindof depends on people buying into the whole "one god" thing.


So, defying the newly powerful Church? Pretty darn radical. Feminist? Well, maybe. Of course, the Sapphists were perhaps "more" feminist - and predated the newly named "witches" by some hundreds of years. And matrilineal and egalitarian social structures predated even them. Were witches the first feminists? Not at all. But I can see making a case for the witch as feminist.


I do not, however, see the modern "witch" (whether you use that term to mean either a spiritual practitioner of Wicca or one who actively pursues a form of majick) as inherently feminist. Not that majick or neo-paganism can't be feminist. Rather, the basic premises of Wicca and majick are neither feminist nor anti-feminist.


As a feminist, I see problems with the biology-as-destiny implications of Wicca (the goddess fulfills nearly every feminine stereotype, with a great deal of focus on fertility), and I've known too many majick-makers who held anti-feminist, even anti-female, attitudes. That doesn't mean that people who follow those paths can't also be feminists, simply that being on those paths doesn't make you a feminist.

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