The popular image of the witch…

September 4, 2016

Witch1

When I was researching Witches fifteen years ago, it was considered rather kinky to talk about the female aspects of divinity or to attempt to rehabilitate witches from the libels perpetrated on them by their inquisitors. Witchcraft was a bog of myth, misinformation and Halloween gear. There were people who called themselves contemporary witches or Wiccans — and I met plenty of them — but they seem as confused about their origins as anyone else. Some called themselves goddess — worshippers or contemporary pagans. Some were feminists rediscovering the female roots of divinity, and their rituals were as muddled as they were sincere. Nobody could quite decide whether to be a white witch and do good with herbs or — more exciting — to be a bad witch and go to bed with devils.

The popular image of the witch reflected this confusion. There were both good and bad witches in picaresque movies like The Wizard of Oz, and only bad witches in scary movies like Rosemary’s Baby. Did witches worship Satan or did they worship a benevolent mother goddess? Hardly anyone would have posed the question that way. It fell to this book to put the question to a popular readership for the first time — and that has been a large part of its appeal.

The truth is that the witch is a descendant of ancient goddesses who embodied both birth and death, nurturing and destruction, so it is not surprising that she has both aspects. But when religions decay and gods are replaced, there is a consistent dynamic: the gods of the old religion inevitably become the devils of the new. If serpents were once worshipped as symbols of magic power, they will later be despised as symbols of evil. If women were once seen as all-powerful, they will become relegated to obedience to men and feeling pain in childbirth. The symbols remain but their values are reversed. The snake in Genesis is now the devil. The first female, Eve, has gone from being a life-giver to a death-bringer. Good and evil are reversed. This is the way the politics of religion work.

The contemporary image of the witch incorporates detritus from many religious sects over many millennia. Like the wall of a Crusader castle in the Middle East, it rests upon a foundation of remnants from a variety of periods. Like Hecate and Diana, the witch is associated with the moon and lunar power. Like Aphrodite and Venus, she can make love potions and fly through the air. Each attribute of the witch once belonged to a goddess.

All over the ancient world goddesses were worshipped. These goddesses represented womanhood distilled to its ultimate essence. Ishtar, Astoreth, Aphrodite (as she was eventually known) held sway over love, procreation, fecundity — and most of the gods obeyed her urgings. Many-breasted, in love with flowers, wheat, all blossoming, she echoed something primal in the human heart. Born of woman ourselves, we find godhead natural in womanhood. Any faith that renounces the mother is bound to see her creep back in another form-as Mary perhaps, the mother of the sacrificed god.

Witchcraft in Europe and America is essentially this harkening back to female divinity within a patriarchal culture. If you insist long enough that God is the father, a nostalgia for the mother-goddess will be born. If you exclude women from church-rites, they will practice their magic in the fields, in forests, in their own kitchens. The point is, female power cannot be suppressed; it can only be driven underground.

Take a little honey in a jar. Write your deepest wish on a bit of brown paper and hide it in the honey. Focus all your energy on your intention (which must be sweet) and eventually your wish will be granted. Intention counts for everything. It must be positive. And the more witches there are sitting in a circle practicing communal intention, the more potency the magic will have. The desire for magic cannot be eradicated. Even the most supposedly rational people attempt to practice magic in love and war. We simultaneously possess the most primitive of brainstems and the most sophisticated of cortexes. The imperatives of each coexist uneasily.

We may even prefer to see the witch as an outsider, a practitioner of the forbidden arts because that makes her even more powerful. Perhaps we are slightly ashamed of our wish to control others and would rather pay a maker of magic than confess to these wishes ourselves. Perhaps we would rather not be in charge of magic that might backfire.

Since we believe witches can make wishes real, we both need and fear them. If they have the power to kill our enemies, couldn’t they also kill us? If they have the power to grant love, couldn’t they also snatch it away? Witches remind us of the darkness of human wishes. That is why we periodically find reasons to burn them.

In The White Goddess, Robert Graves asserts that all real poetry is an invocation of the triple goddess of antiquity — she who controls birth, death, procreation — and that it is the poet’s fealty to her that determines the authenticity of his work. “The main theme of poetry” Graves says, “is the relations of man and woman, rather than those of man and man, as the Apollonian classicists would have it.” The male poet woos the goddess with words in order to partake of her magic. He is at once her supplicant and her priest. Where does this leave the female poet? She must become an incarnation of the triple goddess herself, incorporating all her aspects, creative and destructive. This is why it is so dangerous to be a female poet. It is a little like being a witch.

Adelaide Crapsey’s poem “The Witch,” evokes this well:

When I was a girl by Nilus stream
I watched the desert stars arise;
My lover, he who dreamed the Sphinx,
learned all his dreaming from my eyes.
I bore in Greece a burning name,
And I have been in Italy
Madonna to a painter-lad,
And mistress to a Medici.
And have you heard (and I have heard)
Of puzzled men with decorous mein.
Who judged–the wench knows far too much-
And hanged her on the Salem green.

Adolescence is a time when witchcraft exercises a great fascination. Disempowered by society and overwhelmed with physical changes, teenage girls fall in love with the idea of forming covens. Whatever bric-a-brac of magic is around, they will pick up and shape to their own uses.

This book has made me a heroine to my friends’ daughters. It has also been the most banned of all my books — probably because the idea of female godhood is still anathema to many people. Once, I received a Polaroid picture of this book showing it burned around the edges. The letter accompanying it said: “My father burned this book. Could you send me another copy?” So much for the efficacy of censorship.

The more disempowered people are, the more they long for magic, which explains why magic becomes the province of women in a sexist society. And what are most spells about? Usually procuring love, with the hexing of enemies running a close second. When men turn to magic, they are more likely to seek knowledge and power (Dr. Faustus), or immortality (Walt Disney). The men who spend fortunes to assure that their corpses will be frozen are not likely to be attracted to love spells. Their love is self-love. They want their own DNA to endure singly, not to commingle with a lover’s.

So witchcraft remains a woman’s obsession. John Updike captured the nature of the beast in his novel The Witches of Eastwick. Disempowered women use their coven to become the secret legislators of their little town. Their magic cannot be separated from their sexuality. That is, of course, the point.

Erica Jong
Witches

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