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You know her.
She beckons you with one crooked finger. In the other hand she holds a poisoned apple. From the bottom of the pool of nightmares, from the back of the inhabited closet where the mothballs breathe and the dust dances, from behind the wall she walked through (opposite your childhood bed), from inside the gingerbread house she built with her recipes and spells, she warns you of that fairy-tale world which interconnects with ours in secret, unexpected places.
You may, unwittingly, fall in.
She is the witch.
You know her, yet you do not know her. She has been with you always, yet she eludes you. She is your mother, your sister, your inmost self. You love her and fear her. You hate her, but are drawn to her.
What can I tell you about her?
She is more beautiful (and uglier) than you dream. She is a chimera, yet she is real. She loves you, yet her love has festered into hexes. She hates you, yet she will not hurt you — as long as she can enslave you forever.
She controls love, death, fertility, and the weather — but she will not share her power with you for less than the pledge of your life.
She is the witch.
You wish you were she.
Except when the time comes for burning.
How did the witch come to take on these attributes? Was she really a poisoner, a healer, a maker of love philters, or merely a deranged old woman muttering to her jasper-eyed cat?
Did she create the danger you feel, or did frightened men, seeking to embody their sense of danger, invent the witch?
What is the witch's heritage?
Her great, great, great, great, great, great ancestress is Ishtar-Diana-Demeter. Her father is man. Her midwife, his fears. Her torturer, his fears. Her executioner, his fears. Her malignant power, his fears. Her healing power, her own.
Let us shine the light on her for a while. Let us make her stay. Before we know it, she will slip off into the darkness again. But for the moment, she is here with us, beckoning.
Her presence makes us shiver a little — as if an invisible refrigerator had opened nearby. Under her cloak — which is blue as the night sky — an owl screeches. A bat flaps out from under her conical hat. But let us invite her in anyway. Maybe she will give us a love philter, or the recipe for flying ointment, or maybe even a pair of love poppets, guaranteed to work forever. Maybe she will make our wishes come true before we burn her.
Or maybe we won't have to burn her this time at all.
Some Light on the Subject of Witchcraft
Witch, witchcraft, witchery, witched, bewitched. The very words reek of mystery and magic. Our libraries and bookstores overflow with books on the subject. Adolescents thumb through them, looking for a spell to undo the discontent they will probably outgrow. The poor, the disenfranchised, the chronically unlucky, the ignorant, the helpless, the hapless light candles and chant ancient syllables they do not understand. Poets and novelists are attracted to witchcraft because their daily work consists of tapping an invisible source whose workings are often mysterious to them (thus they wish they could propitiate the muse through some dependable means). The rationalist scoffs, secure in his superiority to all those who claim that intellect is not enough to take us through this life. (But is he really so secure? Doesn't he too wish there were some magic he could believe in?)
We are all drawn to witchcraft — we all wish for a craft of wishing — yet few of us know what it is. Even the "authorities" do not agree, and most of the people who hope to practice witchcraft haven't the remotest idea what the word means. Well then, some illumination on the subject of witchcraft — before we plunge into the fertile, teeming darkness.
The Word Witchcraft
The word witchcraft in its most ordinary, popular connotation refers to the use of supernatural forces to bend the world to one's will. In our society, witchcraft is commonly used as a synonym for sorcery, when it is not used as a metaphor connoting someone's emotional power over us. But the Oxford English Dictionary tells us that witchcraft comes from the Old English word wiccecraeft (also spelled wiccecraefte, wicchecrafte, wichecraft — as well as wesch-craft and wicche craft) and that it literally means the craft — in the sense of art or skill — of a "witch" (the latter being wicca or wicce or wiccian in Old English).
Who is this old "witch" with her ancient "craft"? The noun witch may derive from the old Teutonic verb wik, meaning "to bend," or it may derive from the Indo-European root weik, which refers to religion and magic. (There has been considerable controversy about the true etymology of the word witch.)
In either case, it seems fair to say that the witch is one who uses magic to bend things according to her desires. No wonder we all wish to be witches! How, then, did this rather simple concept come to be so loaded with emotional connotations? In a sense, the whole history of our culture with its religious experiences lies behind the word witch. To understand the word witch is to understand anthropology, history, the history of religion, the history of the relations between the sexes, to understand, above all, the unconscious of the human being. For though there are as many theories of witchcraft as there are scholars in the British Museum library, underlying all of them is a comprehension of the image-making faculties of the human brain, its yearning for myth and magic, its need to denounce what it does not understand, its transformation of common yearnings into images and archetypes, its metamorphosis of desires into demons, wishes — in short — into witches.
Apparently, the notion that the word witch is related to the Old English witan, "to know," constitutes false etymology. Modern witches have claimed the connection between witan and witch as a basis for calling modern witchcraft "the Craft of the Wise," but witch seems to have different roots than wise and wisdom. Those modern witches who call their religious organization the Church of Wicca have merely gone back to the Old English word for witch in the hopes of purifying it of the negative connotations that are the result of generations of persecution.
Let the doors to your prejudices swing open. In order to understand witches we must put aside our automatic beliefs that the deity is male; that the moon is sinister, while the sun is friendly; that the female principle is dark, unruly, anarchic, while the male is orderly, rational, wise. We must strip away, in short, all the preconceptions our culture has heaped upon our bowed heads. We must understand that most of the major religions in the world today (Moslem, Jewish, Christian) function, in one sense, as apologias for a patriarchal world view, that this is not the only possible world view, that it is neither absolute nor immutable, that human beings have worshiped gods and goddesses in many forms — tree, animal, human (female as well as male, androgynous as well as genderless), and that the way we characterize the deity is less important than that we do acknowledge a divine spirit both within and without ourselves.
From Mother Goddess to Witch
Few of us realize the extent to which our notions of the deity are informed by patriarchal assumptions. We claim that God is raceless and genderless, yet we visualize God as white and male to such a degree that the very notion of a black, female God is enough to raise guffaws in response to a hardy, perennial joke. Most of us have never been taught that the concept of God as male is relatively new to human history and may not necessarily represent progress. Five thousand years ago in ancient Babylonia, our ancestors worshiped the supreme deity as the Queen of Heaven, and it took several millennia of warfare, oppression, genocide, holocaust, idol-smashing, book-burning, and deliberate rewriting of myths and legends for the father-god, Jahweh (and His son, Jesus) to be finally enthroned in our minds and imaginations.
Yet the battle was never completely won. In our myths and in our dreams, in the archetypes we invent and the fantasies we fear, the Mother Goddess still holds sway. She cannot be eradicated as long as man (and woman, too) is born of woman. If the sad day ever dawns when we all become clones or "test-tube babies," perhaps the Mother Goddess will lose her awesome power; but so long as every human being remembers that she or he is born out of a woman's womb, the myths and legends of the Mother Goddess will infiltrate our poetry, our works of art, and even our religious yearnings.
It has been a long decline from the Babylonian Queen of Heaven to the withered figure of the old witch, but it is a decline worth tracing. For it shows us how religions build their imageries and myths one upon the other. It shows us, too, the condensations and precipitations of legends within the communal unconscious, and it shows us, finally, how an established religion may drive out (or at least drive underground) an earlier way of conceiving the Creator.
The concept of the Mother Goddess is a thing apart from the myth of a Golden Age of Matriarchy, postulated in the nineteenth century by Engels, among others. The notion that humans were primordially matriarchal, then declined into patriarchy, constitutes a very hardy myth, favored by many disparate religious traditions, long before it was rediscovered by contemporary feminists. But no one has ever proven the existence of ancient matriarchies. We can, however, find many provable instances of all-powerful female deities. In fact, as Elaine Pagels has recently demonstrated in The Gnostic Gospels, Christianity itself originally saw God as both female and male, before the androgynous deity was forcibly overthrown in favor of a patriarchal god. The myth of an ancient matriarchal age, on the other hand, may be a constant of the human psyche — the longing for the peaceable kingdom of infancy, ruled by benevolent female despots.
Our knowledge of the religions of five thousand years ago (in what our schoolteachers used to call "The Cradle of Civilization" — a nice maternal image, that) is necessarily fragmentary. Not only is the archaeological record incomplete, but it has been sifted largely by male archaeologists, wearing the blinkers of patriarchy, assuming that monotheism represented an advance over polytheism and paganism, and seeking to justify the holy books upon which their patriarchal civilization was based.
As the feminist theologian Mary Daly has shown, one need not be a practicing Catholic to be infected by the Catholic Church's world view. And, as Merlin Stone has demonstrated in her excellent book When God Was a Woman, one need not believe in Judaism or Christianity to have their shared creation myth thrust upon one's imagination at every turn. Adam and Eve, snake and apple, even the Avenging Angel with his sword are to be found everywhere in our culture — from the art gallery to the television commercial, from the sophisticated New Yorker cartoon to the crassest pop song lyric.
The effect of this constant brainwashing is a set of unconsidered assumptions about the deity that are neither historically accurate nor religiously inspiring. In an attempt to retrace the roots of religious awe, poets and artists have let their unconscious minds wander freely back through the human past. All that is left of the ancient Mother Goddess in our spiritually bankrupt civilization are three figures: the Wicked Witch, the Virgin Mary, and the folk concept of "Mother Nature" — a powerful paradigm of female generativity now debased into a cartoon character. The Wicked Witch, for her part, is mother as crone — evil, full of forbidden sexuality which has festered into spells, poisons, and enchantments. The Virgin Mary is a sanitized version of the Mother Goddess — sanitized and fragmented. She is Woman devoid of her sexuality, Woman giving birth without human intercourse, Woman as unbroken hymen, the child-woman, the ideal of the "female eunuch" which Christianity has imposed upon one-half the human species as the price of their very survival upon this earth.
Why does it matter if we split off Woman from her sexuality and if we allow her only two roles in the world: Wicked Witch or Sanitized Virgin? It matters because it is a lie. Women do not give birth without impregnation by men, and the female sexuality that patriarchy regards as evil is, in essence, the origin of all human life upon the planet. If we deny this evident truth, if we make Woman into a passive vessel, and allow a male god to usurp her generative functions, we do both sexes a great disservice. For Man is doomed to be ever out of touch with his own origins (his mother's womb), and Woman is doomed to be either Witch or Virgin — though neither role embraces the totality of her being. Christianity claims to honor the woman as mother but does not acknowledge her power to give life. Thus, Woman is doomed to live in a double bind which is at once psychological and physical: she is damned for doing the very thing that keeps the race alive. Man, for his part, is damned for partaking of that guilty sexuality, and doomed to wander the world turning virgins into whores, then cursing his fate in having no true mate to love.
The myth of the Mother Goddess promises both sexes integration. That is why it has held such sway over artists of both genders. To the woman, it promises both sexuality and creativity. And to the man it promises the same in the form of a muse-wife-mother who does not cut off her body to spite her soul.
To the Goddess
Goddess, I come to you my neck wreathed with rosebuds,
Impermanence — all is impermanence.
Goddess, I come to you wreathed in tears, in losses, in whistling winds.
O goddess, teach me to praise loss,
The White Goddess and the Witch
The yearning for the Mother Goddess takes many forms, and the archetypes of good and evil witches are only two of them. Perhaps the most famous evocation of the Mother Goddess in recent literature is Robert Graves's description of her in The White Goddess. He associates the Mother Goddess with the muse and the moon goddess and he goes so far as to say that no poem is a true poem unless it is an invocation to her:
The test of a poet's vision, one might say, is accuracy of his portrayal of the White Goddess and of the island over which she rules. The reason why the hair stands on end, the eyes water, the throat is constricted, the skin crawls and a shiver runs down the spine when one writes or reads a true poem is that a true poem is necessarily an invocation of the White Goddess, or Muse, the Mother of All Living, the ancient power of fright, and lust — the female spider or the queen-bee whose embrace is death.
Who is Graves's White Goddess and what does she have to do with witches? She is "a lovely, slender woman with a hooked nose, deathly pale face, lips red as rowan-berries, startlingly blue eyes and long fair hair; she will suddenly transform herself into sow, mare, bitch, vixen, she-ass, weasel, serpent, owl, she-wolf, tigress, mermaid or loathsome nag."
Excerpted from "Witches"
Copyright © 1981 Erica Jong.
Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Table of Contents
Some Light on the Subject of Witchcraft,
The Word Witchcraft,
From Mother Goddess to Witch,
The White Goddess and the Witch,
From Paganism to Christianity,
Witchcraft vs. Witch-craze,
On the Subject of Torture,
Some Questions for Witches,
Witches and Heretics,
Satanism and Witchcraft,
Becoming a Witch,
Theories of Witchcraft,
What Does a Witch Look Like?,
The Witch's Equipment,
The Witch's Costume,
Some Witch Rituals,
Sexual Union with the Devil,
Witches and Impotence,
Puppets or Poppets,
Love Spells and Why We Need Them,
The Witches' Year,
The Witches' Organization,
Witches and Flight,
Witches and Weather,
The Witches' Herbs,
Poisons and Cures,
A Deadly Herbal in Verse,
The Gathering of Herbs,
Flying Ointments: Some Recipes,
The Witch and the Fairy,
Some Legendary Witches,
Famous Witches in History,
In Conclusion: The Communal Myth of the Witch,
A Biography of Erica Jong,