So today is Halloween, and it has prompted me to write about a topic that is currently holding my interest: witches.
I’ve never been a big fan of Halloween, nor have I really gotten into the spirit of it, apart from the one year when, as kids, my brothers and I naïvely decided to carve a jack-o-lantern out of a rock hard pumpkin, and spent hours trying to scoop out the raw flesh and carve a face without stabbing ourselves in the process (pumpkins suited to carving weren’t readily available from the local supermarket here in the early nineties). We were never allowed to go trick-or-treating (I’ve held on to that tradition with my kids – mean mum alert!), and the only time I can think that I would have dressed up would have been if a friend happened to have a themed birthday party at this time of year. I actually don’t remember or know a great deal about the origins of Halloween, other than the fact that here in Australia, it’s really only gained in popularity in recent times thanks to commercial reasons. Retailers saw a gaping hole in the market that represented millions of dollars in potential revenue. Get Aussies on board with Halloween, and you can sell a truck load of Halloween stuff to them.
When I do think of Halloween, the standard images come to mind: pumpkins, ghosts, skeletons, vampires, and witches. Scary witches.
I used to joke years ago that if I’d been born a few hundred years earlier, I would have been burnt at the stake for supposedly being a witch; I’ve got red hair, green eyes, I’m left handed, and I have knobbly knees and a boney nose. I look the part. It was a throw-away joke, and it was funny to me – it certainly didn’t upset me that I looked that way. I didn’t really think a lot about what I was referring to – the fact that in times past, innocent human beings actually were killed for being believed to be witches.
I’ve learnt recently that the history of witch trials, which hunts and witch burnings is taught in school curriculums in other parts of the world as a part of history education. It’s a significant piece of human history that I’ve been largely ignorant of.
This topic has landed more frequently on my radar since I began studying energy medicine. Many of my classmates bring up the topic of witches, given the subject matter of what we’re studying. Initially, I had quite an aversion to the topic. I certainly didn’t want to identify as a witch – witches were scary and freaky and horrible in my naïve experience. And yet, here were my friends and teachers and soul-tribe, speaking so passionately about this topic, and many speaking as if that’s what they are: a witch.
My aversion to something that was so openly and commonly discussed amongst my tribe perplexed me. This home that I’d found amongst friends felt so right, and yet this subject matter worried me, because it didn’t bring me the joy that I found in every other aspect of this environment. After some time, I came up with a solution that suited me just fine, even if it turned out to be temporary: I could identify to some degree with being a GOOD witch. Yes! If being a witch was a part of this new world, then perhaps I could be just like Glinda the Good Witch of the North, from The Wizard of Oz. She was all pink and sparkles and love. What made this idea feel all the more pre-destined was that in high school, my graduating class produced a special year book, which included a fictional story in which many students featured as special characters. I had been depicted in this story as none other than Glinda.
As time has passed, and I’ve progressed on my journey, I’ve found this subject matter cropping up more and more frequently, and things have begun to shift. Whilst I certainly wouldn’t describe myself in a bio as being a witch, or when introducing myself to a new acquaintance, I can’t deny that there is an aspect of who I am at a soul level, and what I love, that certainly would have had me burnt at the stake in another time and place. I am devoted to my daily energy medicine practice, and it informs every aspect of my life. I use the White Light to heal. I have a fascination with all things metaphysical. I have a tendency towards using alternative and complementary medicine. I have an open-mindedness towards shamanic practices. I have a penchant for crystals which I cleanse under the light of the full moon, and I wear a treasured necklace with a citrine crystal that has been infused with prayers and White Light. I have a fascination with psychic abilities, and I’ve undertaken education and training to better understand and to strengthen and further develop my abilities. I have undertaken spiritual journeys on different planes of existence. I’ve developed a surprisingly thrilling fascination with hunting for “fairy toadstools”! I’m a student and active community member of the “School of the Modern Mystic” for goodness sake!
Interestingly, I received an energy reading last week, which included a reading of the energy that I am currently emitting which originated in past lives – energy that came about as a result of events that took place during past lifetimes, which has stayed with me and is affecting me in this present lifetime. In one of these past lives, I was a healer. My healing work was my passion and purpose – it lit me up and made me feel brilliantly alive. The circumstances I was living in at that time meant that I had to practice healing in secret – the stereotypical, almost corny image of the woman meeting with her patient under the cover of night in the safety of a darkened forest. This need to hide my true nature angered me, but didn’t stop me – I was brave in my actions, and my passion fuelled my courage. This lifetime did not end well – I was eventually betrayed, and killed for being a witch.
So I’ve begun to research, and learn more about what this word “witch” actually means. I’m very early in my research journey, but I’ve already discovered some things that put my mind at ease, that reassure me that I’m not a freak, I’m not crazy, and that it’s perfectly acceptable for me to embrace this part of who I am.
A preliminary web-surf of Wikipedia has shed a surprising amount of light on the subject. The following except from the entry on “witchcraft” sums things up rather succinctly:
Witchcraft (also called witchery or spellcraft) broadly means the practice of, and belief in, magical skills and abilities that are able to be exercised by individuals and certain social groups. Witchcraft is a complex concept that varies culturally and societally; therefore, it is difficult to define with precision and cross-cultural assumptions about the meaning or significance of the term should be applied with caution. Witchcraft often occupies a religious, divinatory or medicinal role, and is often present within societies and groups whose cultural framework includes a magical world view. Although witchcraft can often share common ground with related concepts such as sorcery, the paranormal, magic, superstition, necromancy, possession, shamanism, healing, spiritualism, nature worship and the occult, it is usually seen as distinct from these when examined by sociologists and anthropologists.
This says a lot for me: witchcraft means different things to different people, particularly across different cultures and societies though out human history. There is no one singular definition that encompasses all the practices, beliefs and nuances that fall under the umbrella of witchery.
What I have discovered is that there have been numerous periods throughout history in which a terrorising fear of witchcraft has led to mass hysteria, resulting in witch hunts, witch trials, and witch killings. Ignorance and religious influence have played key roles. Men, women and children believed to be witches have been subjected to assault, abuse, torture, and killing. Wikipedia states:
The period of witch trials in Early Modern Europe were a widespread moral panic suggesting that malevolent Satanic witches were operating as an organized threat to Christendom during the 15th to 18th centuries. Those accused of witchcraft were portrayed as being worshippers of the Devil, who engaged in such acts as malevolent sorcery at meetings known as Witches’ Sabbaths. Many people were subsequently accused of being witches, and were put on trial for the crime, with varying punishments being applicable in different regions and at different times.
Punishments for those found guilty of witchcraft have included imprisonment, exile, fines, and capital punishment by hanging, beheading, or burning at the stake. Methods for determining guilt throughout these periods included such bizarre practices as tying the suspect up and throwing them into a body of water. If they floated, they were deemed guilty and sentenced to death. If they sunk, they were deemed innocent, but many drowned in the process. The estimates of how many people died as a result of these witch trials varies greatly, but the “scholarly consensus” according to Wikipedia seems to be in the region of 40,000-60,000.
I’ve begun reading a book* about the “Salem Witch Trials”, in which two dozen innocent men and women were hung from the town gallows in 1692 in newly colonised America (New England). This horrific injustice came about for many complex and startling reasons, but was largely influenced by ignorance, religious and spiritual beliefs, a profoundly deep-seated fear of God’s wrath, and a religiously motivated desperation to build a colony that upheld the morals of Puritan Christianity, in addition to a shockingly inept justice system.
Disturbingly, this isn’t a topic confined to the past. In various parts of the world today, men, women and children are still accused of witchcraft and subjected to assault, abuse, torture and killing. According to Wikipedia, approximately 750 people were killed for witchery in India between 2003 and 2008, 1000 children over the past decade have been murdered in the name of witchcraft in Nigeria, Saudi Arabia continues to issue the death penalty for sorcery and witchcraft, and in Britain there is an ongoing problem with (particularly immigrant) children being accused of witchcraft and subsequently being abused and tortured, including money making scams in which a pastor accuses a child of witchcraft and the family subsequently pays for an exorcism.
I’ve also read a little about Paganism and Wicca, sub-categories which are certainly worthy of further exploration, but that I don’t feel are especially relevant to my particular interests. Presumably, further research would also expose evidence of people who did (or are) indeed practice malevolent forms of witchcraft, justifying accusations and promoting the fear-inducing archetype we’re used to associating with witchcraft in popular culture. This convoluted narrative of history isn’t only about innocent victims.
As already outlined, it’s evident that the concept of witchcraft and witches is complex and variable. The witches that we associate with Halloween in modern Western culture are largely a product of folklore, story-telling and Hollywood’s characterisation of this multifaceted and mercurial archetype. I have a long way to go in my research (Wikipedia doesn’t really cut it for a thorough and in-depth education!), before coming anywhere close to fully grasping the intricacies of this topic, and this brief overview barely skims the surface of this broad subject. Nevertheless, my preliminary reading has brought me to a place where I can drop the fear associated with witches. What does being a witch mean for me in my personal experience? Well to be honest, the word itself still doesn’t quite sit comfortably with me, but it represents the wise woman, the healer, the seer, the psychic, the magician, the shadow-hunter, the light-worker, and the holy, the regal woman who knows her power as the individualised expression of God.
For me tonight, Halloween presents an opportunity to do something different and somewhat unexpected: to light a candle and say a prayer for the souls of the men, women and children accused of witchcraft, who have suffered assault, abuse, torture and murder across the ages.
* Francis, Richard (2006) Judge Sewell’s Apology, The Salem Witch Trials and the Forming of a Conscience, Harper Pernial, London.
Main image credit: by gliss.gliss, used under license.