Tuesday, 25 August 2020
What Being a Witch Has Meant to Me Over the Years
Back when I was a kid, in the 1960s, witches were scary things from dark tales and nightmares. At my infants school there was an illustrated book of fairy stories, and the witch from Hansel and Gretel in that book haunted my dreams. She seemed like a nice old lady when she lured lost children into her house with the offer of sweets and gingerbread. There she trapped them with the intention of shoving them in her oven and cooking them to eat. She was actually a monster, and I saw her shadow coming for me in the night.
I think that was the general view of witches back then and in earlier times. In fact, Ronald Hutton’s book The Witch: A History of Fear, shows that in bygone centuries the word “witch” was generally preserved for evil spellcasters who used curses; blighting crops, cattle and children. There were beneficial magical service providers, but they were called things like cunning folk or pellars or fortune tellers.
My own family were among those beneficial magical service providers to some minor extent. My grandma was an astrologer, and my dad used to run the palmistry stall at the local fete. Folk traditions, new Age practices, superstitions and even a few spells were a part of my family life as a kid, but we didn’t call ourselves witches. Some people might have called us that behind our backs, but not in a good way.
When I was about 11 I had another vivid dream about witches. I woke up with a certainty that there were witches in my back yard, gleefully dancing around a bonfire and calling to me to join them. I was convinced that if I went to the window, I would see them there, and they would look up at me and beckon. If I did go to the window, I felt certain I would not be able to resist. I would creep downstairs, open the back door, and join them in their dance. Then I would be one of them forever, there would be no going back.
I didn’t go to the window. I was too scared. Even then, witchcraft seemed dangerous and possibly evil, although it plainly had its lure.
In my 20s, I began to take part in modern pagan seasonal celebrations with a boyfriend who followed a Celtic-style spiritual path, but I still didn’t call myself a witch. However, I met people who did identify as witches, and I went on to read books on modern witchcraft, including Starhawk’s The Spiral Dance and Marian Green’s A Witch Alone. I discovered the term had taken on a positive meaning.
Just as I was about to embrace the name myself, I started training with a Gardnerian Wiccan coven. The High Priestess taught us that only initiates were allowed to call themselves witches. Until I was initiated, I was only allowed to call myself a pagan. She believed that initiatory Wicca was a surviving line from the ancient Witch Cult, the old religion as described by Margaret Murray in her book The Witch-Cult in Western Europe. I trained for just over a year until I gained that title.
Of course, we now know that isn’t true. Ronald Hutton’s The Triumph of the Moon explained that Wicca isn’t ancient. There have been witches in all cultures and all times, and Gardnerians can’t claim exclusive use of the term. Nor can any other group. Over the past couple of decades I’ve become increasingly drawn to traditional magical practices, which often get called traditional witchcraft. These days I’m far more likely to use older forms of folk magic when casting spells, although I still happily take part in Wiccan rites from time to time. I call myself a modern pagan eclectic witch, although that’s rather a long term. It is easier just to say I’m a witch in most situations.
I’m pretty much a solitary witch these days – particularly since lockdown. However, when this pandemic is over I intend to invite fellow witches over for a celebratory rite. Perhaps we will light a bonfire in my back yard and dance around it gleefully. And, maybe, I will look up at my bedroom window and call back through time to my younger self, and invite that little girl to join us, and promise her, she has nothing to fear from becoming a witch.
Pictures: Hansel and Gretel by w:Arthur Rackham; A Witch Alone