Tuesday, May 19, 2009

What the Heck is a Witch, Anyway?

I love research. It gives me an excuse to spend big chunks of my day reading, following leads, and talking to people about… say… the intricacies of binding spells or the difficulties of practicing witchcraft in the modern world.

But anyone who’s ever done research for a book knows that only a tiny fraction of the fascinating stuff you dig up ever makes it onto the printed page. This blog is my forum to share some of the interesting history of witchcraft; an occasional spell or book review; some specialized terminology; and occasional excerpts or deleted scenes from my Witchcraft Mystery Series, the first installment of which, Secondhand Spirits, will be released July 7, 2009, from Obsidian (a Penguin imprint).

I invite you to correct me when I’m wrong, elucidate further on subjects of interest, ask questions about my posts or my books, and fill us all in on anything witch-related that you might know about.
Soooo, What the Heck is a Witch, Anyway? According to the third edition of the American Heritage Dictionary:

Witch [wich] n.

1. A woman claiming or popularly believed to possess supernatural powers and practice sorcery, and often believed to be aided by spirits or a familiar.
2. A believer or follower of Wicca; a Wiccan.
3. A hag.
4. A woman considered to be spiteful or overbearing.
5. Informal A woman or girl considered bewitching.
6. One particularly skilled or competent at one's craft: "A witch of a writer, [she] is capable of developing an intensity that verges on ferocity" Peter S. Prescott.

Dontcha just love the juxtaposition of #5 with numbers 3 and 4: A charming woman might also be a spiteful hag….

But as Walt Whitman would say: Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.

Women in general and witches in particular are no stranger to the concept of duality.

Throughout history and across the globe, witches have been treated with reverence and adoration for their skills in physical and mental health and healing, as well as their talents for “seeing” into the future or other realms. But those very same witches have also inspired fear and loathing, often rooted in fear of their rare abilities. In a later post I will discuss the direct link between the suppression of witches as lay healers in Europe and the creation of the male-dominated medical profession. For now, suffice it to say that powerful women are scary to many male-centered social structures, especially during times of social and economic stress and upheaval.

Most recently, followers of the Wicca religion have taken on the moniker of “witch” in an attempt to reclaim the label so often association with the negative. As is the case with most religions, the practice of Wicca has many different interpretations and I wouldn’t presume to try to define the various belief systems here. But in general, Wiccans may or may not lay claim to particular supernatural powers, but they do tend to practice a pre-Christian, female-centered tradition that worships nature and the seasons, pagan goddesses, and the beauty of humanity. Their coven meetings might include rites such as drawing pentacles, casting a cone of power, and invoking the Lady and Lord – but they are in no way Satanists, and typically do not even believe in the concept of Hell or the Devil. Their beliefs are pre-Christian rather than anti-Christian,

From Secondhand Spirits:
In the old days –the burning times—there was a distinction made between sorcerers and witches. It was said that a sorcerer learned magick through training, while a witch was born with innate talents and connections to the spirit world. The latter was true in my case, to an extreme degree. I hadn’t chosen this path; it had chosen me. One of the many curses my status bestowed was a near-perfect memory, and I could recall every alienating episode, every isolating incident, of my thirty-one years.

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