On being a Zebra in a herd of Horses.

Naming ourselves “Witches” paints a great big bull’s-eye on our backs. So why do we keep doing it?

Witches, like terrorists, “threaten to wipe out everything you believe in. If they could, they would overthrow your government, overturn your faith, and destroy your society,” Baker writes. The difference, of course, is that terrorists are real, while witches are not.
— Jennifer Latson (October 28, 2014) Time magazine
Why Witches on TV Spell Trouble in Real Life

It seems safe to say that the U.S. doesn’t suffer from an epidemic of magical evil-doers, but until last week, Americans were far more likely to believe in witches than to worry about contracting Ebola.
— Derek Thompson (October 20, 2014) The Atlantic
The Dangerous Myth of America's Ebola Panic

Why do they hate us so much?” This plaintive query surfaced yesterday during a discussion of the Time magazine essay I’ve quoted above. This puzzled lament came from a mature, well-spoken witch of my acquaintance.

I’ll admit, I punted. “Read my editorial in the upcoming issue,” I responded, thus drop-kicking my response downfield for a later play. Well, time is up, and here’s my response: “You claim the title of witch. Why on Earth wouldn’t you expect to be hated?”

Of course, neither the Time, nor The Atlantic writers quoted above actually hate witches — they just hate the idea of witches. They can’t really hate us for the simple reason that they don’t believe that we actually exist. They are simply using the image of “witches” as an example of the stupid things that people shouldn’t be afraid of, but are anyway.

That reaction — reflexive disdain hiding unconscious abhorrence — is what we get for picking up and running with one of the most vilified words in the English language. I mean, what did we actually expect to happen when we embraced a name which has meant “a malevolent magic user” as far back as the 9th century C.E.?1

Mind you, I’m not condemning our community’s conscious embrace of our society’s shadow — after all, I name myself a witch, and have been doing so for a quarter-century. The real question is — why?

If we are honest with ourselves, we admit that saying “I am a witch” is a claim to power. Not just any power, either: we are claiming occult, magickal knowledge; power sanctioned by neither Church nor State. In point of fact, claiming the title of “witch” is making a rude gesture in the face of the Establishment. It says, symbolically, “you don’t control me, I refuse to be domesticated.” Every self-named witch today is a zebra in a herd of horses.2

Back when I was a newbie Pagan, I fell for the Pagan trope that “witches are just harmless nature worshippers unjustly maligned by the patriarchy.” But I’ve learned better, and today I say proudly: “harmless witches? What a load of hooey!”

I understand the motives for this decades-long whitewashing campaign: after all, nobody enjoys being rounded up and burnt at the stake. The tactic is even relatively sound for avoiding persecution in a secular and materialist culture. Nobody strings up a covey of harmless eccentrics, and that’s how we’ve been promoting ourselves for some time.

But there’s three serious problems implicit in this “friendly-up witchcraft” public relations project.

  1. The term “witch” is not a religious designation: it’s a vocational one. There’s a reason that the classic phrase is “what witches do,” not “what witches believe.” Clearly, there is this little problem of the disconnect between the outrageous powers attributed to legendary witches (and further juiced-up in Hollywood depictions) and the subtle arts practiced by the likes of you and me. But I will be blunt: take away a witch’s use of magick, divination, and any and all associated mystic arts, and you might as well call yourself a Unitarian.3
     
  2. Wicca and witchcraft are two different things. This has gotten terribly confusing in the sixty+ years since Wicca’s founders brought English magick out of the shadows. But it’s quite simple: Gardner created — or co-created, with Doreen Valiente (and maybe the help of English traditional witches) — a modern, nature-based mystery religion, complete with theology, rituals, ethics, and all that goes with an organized religion. However, Gardner did not create witchcraft, as the magickal arts have been traced back to the ancient civilizations of Sumer and Babylon. Witchcraft — the use of magick as a functional art — is a fundamental part of human cultures from the earliest to the modern.4
     
  3. Perhaps most importantly: When we renounce our power, we destroy our identities as witches. The primary reason that people have persecuted “witches” over the millennia is because they are afraid of them. Why? Because they believe that the witches have power. But remember that old adage: “if you cannot hex, you cannot heal.” There’s a logical inconsistency in putting out the idea that witches are harmless, and then expecting to do efficacious magick. If we, as witches, claim to be able to heal, offer counsel (using divination) or perform any of the magickal arts, we cannot also assert that there is no reason to fear us. That’s like saying you are a karate black belt, and not expecting people to think twice before they start a bar-room brawl with you.

So, why do we put that great big bulls-eye on our backs? I can only answer for myself. I say, with pride, “I am a witch.” What I mean is: “I claim my own power, I am not afraid to seek knowledge, and I will use what I discover in service of me and mine: my family, my community, and my planet.” By claiming witchhood I am not trying to scare anyone: but I do have to expect to encounter disdain, disbelief, and, upon occasion, fear and hostility. If I wanted to kneel down before gods and men, and to be thought of as “harmless as a dove” I wouldn’t use the “w” word.

Blessed be you and yours,
Anne Newkirk Niven

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Backnotes
1 “witch.” Dictionary.com. Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper, Historian. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/witch (accessed: November 03, 2014).
2 Why a zebra? Simple: zebras, unlike other equines, can’t be domesticated, and those big black-and-white stripes are just about as noticeable as wearing a pointy hat and carrying a black cat while riding on a broomstick.
3 Unitarians are completely cool, but let’s face it, it’s not the same thing as being a witch. You can, of course, be a Unitarian witch. That basic premise — that being a witch is based on what one does, not what one believes — is why it’s perfectly possible to be a Christian witch. (Or a Jewish, Buddhist, atheist, or naturalist witch. You get the idea.) Nowadays, most witches are Pagans, which is a religious designation. (Albeit, a loosely-defined one.)
4 Bengt Ankarloo & Stuart Clark, Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: Biblical and Pagan Societies, University of Philadelphia Press, 2001, p. xiii.

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