Season of the Witch

We are well into the Fall season and just weeks away from Halloween. The trees are vibrating with color, the air is crisp and smells of earth and dew. I’m brimming with excitement as I break out the scarfs, scented candles, and generous dashes of cinnamon on everything.

In the spirit of the season, my daughter and I had a conversation about witches. I told her that witches actually existed in history. She was astonished! Then, her eyes lit up with hope as she asked if unicorns are real too. I told her I’m not 100% sure. All I know is that unicorns have not been documented in history while witches were.

I can see why she was so surprised. Her image of a witch is a wart-nosed, old lady in all black, huddling over a cauldron or cackling as she rides through a moonlit sky on a broomstick. I can see why she believes this because that’s the way witches are portrayed in stories and movies in many cultures around the world. Where did this dark and frightening image come from? I decided to do a bit of research to find out.

The true origin of the witch is far less dark and sinister than we have been made to believe. In the earliest centuries, witches were the wise people and healers of their communities. These wise women (and some men) made house calls, delivered babies, and treated infertility. What was called “witchcraft” included the use of incantations and calling upon spirits to help bring about change. They were also very knowledgeable about medicinal herbs from which they made “potions” to heal the sick. These people understood that nature was superior to human beings and that human beings were simply one of the many parts of nature, both seen and unseen that combine to form one whole.

So how did this benevolent image of a wise healer turn into the dark and sinister figure that we know today? Why did so many of them become feared and subsequently persecuted?

Between the years 1500 and 1660, up to 80,000 suspected witches were put to death in Europe. Around 80 percent of them were women. Witch hysteria spread to America in the 1600’s. One of the most well-known trial was known as the Salem Witch Trial. Around 200 people were accused and 20 were put to death. Six of them were men.

It was a time of deep paranoia and scapegoating. If a child grew ill or crops failed to grow, people looked for a witch to be blamed. If a group of women gathered together, they were accused to being in a coven and doing the work of the Devil. If an unmarried woman was financially independent, if a woman appeared younger than her age, or if a woman had spoiled milk her in house, it was enough for her to be put on trial. And it was all done in the name of ridding the world of anything unpure or ungodly.

It is unknown exactly when and why these witch hunts started. Some say that it emerged in the late Middle Ages, after Roman influence spread throughout Europe. The church outlawed ceremonial magic, relating witchcraft to worshipping of Satan.

Others think that the answer may be linked to events long before the birth of Christ, when Indo-Europeans expanded westward, bringing with them a warrior culture that valued aggression, expansion and control of the physical world.

What I gathered from my research is that, at the root of these horrific events, was a fear of the unknown and the mysterious. What is unknown cannot be controlled and what cannot be controlled was to be eradicated. Witches were “othered”, dehumanized, and persecuted because their powers were not fully understood.

This Halloween season, I want to embrace this powerful archetype that we call, The Witch. If a wicked woman is someone who stands in her own power, honors the cycles of nature, believes in the magic of the unseen, heals others and imparts wisdom, then I want to honor the witch within me. I feel that many of us have tried for too long to control and cast away the “witchy” aspects of ourselves in order to live up to what society expects of women: gentle, nurturing, compassionate, and even agreeable.

I hope this season reminds us that we all have darkness within us and there is much power in owning our sovereignty, our magic, our fierceness, even our rage. We can use more wicked women in the world.

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