Monthly Archives: July 2015

What’s in a Name? Part II (Witch)

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This is the second of a three-part series. A discussion of the word “pagan” is here

When I say I’m a Witch, people sometimes ask if I mean Wiccan, and whether those two words mean the same thing. The answer is sort of but not really.

The dictionary (Random House) tells us that “witch” means

1. a person, now esp. a woman, who professes or is supposed to practice magic, esp. black magic or the black art; sorceress. Cf. warlock.

2. an ugly or mean old woman; hag: the old witch who used to own this building.

3. a person who uses a divining rod; dowser.

The etymology of the word is controversial and contested but here is what John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins has to say:

The close Germanic relatives of witch have died out, but it seems that it may be related to German weihen ‘consecrate’ and even, distantly, to English victim (etymologically ‘someone killed in a religious ritual’), so the word’s underlying signification is of a ‘priestess.’ Wicked was derived from Old English wicca ‘wizard,’ the masculine form of wicce, ancestor of modern English witch.

So to recap here, “witch” is derived from Old English and is related to a Germanic word having to do with religious sacrifice, which connotes something like our modern understanding of the word “priestess.” Another word we associate with witches, “wicked,” comes from the Old English “wicca,” which means a male wizard. The feminine form of this is “wicce.” So now we have the derivation of “wicca”: basically the Old English word for a male sorcerer.

You may have noticed that the underlying meaning of “witch” is neutral in tone. The word began to have its negative understanding under Christian persecution. The record is clear, from Augustine of Hippo (354-430 c.e.) to the publication of the Inquisition manual Malleus Maleficarum (1487), that the witch persecutions were a culmination of a very long campaign to eradicate worship of the old gods and the practice of (non-clerical) magic for any purpose, including healing. While witches of both sexes were persecuted, women were especially targeted, hence definition 2: “an ugly or mean old woman; hag.” Theologians traced suffering in the world to the supposed pact between witches and the Christian embodiment of evil, The Devil. In reality, The Devil is a deity peculiar to the Abrahamic religions, and both the word and the priestly function of “witch” evolved prior to Christian influence. Under Christian suggestion some rebels did take up bizarre practices imagined by the Inquisitors, but most of the accused witches were innocent of magic of any kind and virtually all considered themselves Christian. Church officials pressured local governments to prosecute witches in their own courts, and as control of these prosecutions passed to secular authorities the arrests skyrocketed, with large numbers of people (mostly women) imprisoned, tortured, or even killed.

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In the 1950s Gerald Gardner took surviving magical practices on the British Isles, included a bit of folklore from other places, added a few innovations of his own, and presented it to the public as “Wicca,” proving that a witch under any other name isn’t nearly as scary. Gardener’s more easily accessed form of witchcraft spawned many permutations, which went under names like Celtic Wicca, Saxon Wicca, Eclectic Wicca, or Dianic Wicca. Taking a religious tradition, modifying it to suit your own purposes, and then calling it by the same name is the essence of appropriation, but consciousness around this issue was virtually nonexistent at the time. Most witches agree that “Wicca” should properly refer to Gardnerian Witchcraft, but the horse has left the barn on this one, because the general public has gotten the idea that the “Wiccans” are the good witches, as opposed to those other witches in storybooks who cast black magic spells. The practitioners of the woman-only Dianic religion, especially, were on the bad end of a joke, discovering belatedly that “wicca” means “male witch.”

How does Witchcraft relate to Paganism? All Witches are Pagans, but not all Pagans are Witches. “Pagan” is an overarching term for a variety of polytheistic nature-based religions. Some, but not all, of these Pagan religions are a form of Witchcraft. That answer probably leaves you with more questions than you had before, but this is the best I can do in a short blog post.

By the way, if you want to annoy a practitioner of Witchcraft, ask if she is a “white witch.” That phrase is part of a Christian framework, rooted in dualistic schemas of white/good and black/evil. Witches operate under a different paradigm, and use the color black frequently in their (very good) magic. While “white witch” is an irritating term and “black magic” means something different than Random House thinks it means, “Green Witch” is an acceptable term, usually denoting a Witch that is well-versed in herbology.

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Gone Fishing

I’m taking the week off. Enjoy some black magic with Rachel Price.

“That Old Black Magic” Rachel Price from her 2008 album, The Good Hours. Music by Harold Arlen. Lyrics by Johnny Mercer. First released by Glenn Miller 1942.

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What’s in a Name? Part I (Pagan)

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The words “pagan,” “witch,” and “heathen,” as with any words with a long pejorative history, require careful reflection on how they are used.

Random House dictionary defines pagan (noun) as

1) one of a people or community serving a polytheistic religion, as the ancient Romans and Greeks.
2) a person who is not a Christian, Jew, or Muslim.
3) an irreligious or hedonistic person.

The Dictionary of Word Origins by John Ayto has this to say about pagan:

The history of pagan is a bizarre series of semantic twists and turns that takes it back ultimately to Latin pagus (source also of English peasant). This originally meant ‘something stuck in the ground as a landmark’ (it came from a base *pag- ‘fix’ which also produced English page, pale ‘stake,’ and pole ‘stick’ and is closely related to pact and peace). It was extended metaphorically to ‘country area, village,’ and the noun paganus was derived from it, denoting ‘country dweller.’ But then this in turn began to shift semantically, first to ‘civilian’ and then (based on the early Christian notion that all members of the church were ‘soldiers’ of Christ) to ‘heathen’ – whence English pagan.

We will leave “heathen” alone today and note that “pagan” originated in Latin and that its association with polytheistic religions relates to the idea of country dwellers and non-Christians. Early Christians tended to be urbanites while rural areas were Christianized much later. “Pagan” could also mean Muslim and sometimes Jew during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. After the Reformation it was also used to refer to a hated Christian sect. Calvinists especially liked to call Catholics “pagans,” referring to the nonbiblical pre-Christian religious elements that became syncretized with Catholicism. “Pagan” essentially referred to a person who was not a Christian, or not considered a true Christian. Less frequently, the word meant a nominal Christian who was not following the tenets of the religion, “an irreligious or hedonistic person.” The professed need to rid the world of “pagans” was used to justify the Crusades as well as violence against Muslims, Jews, rival Christians, stubborn adherents of pre-Christian religions, Christians who clung to animistic practices, and people (mostly women) who were alleged to cavort with the Christian Devil. It was also used to justify expansionist wars against countries which had not yet been Christianized.

From the late sixteenth century on, Christianization of so-called pagans provided the moral grounds for European colonization, which was primarily driven by economic rather than religious concerns. (Interestingly, the economic problems in Europe at this time were caused partly by Christian practices.) Colonists predictably enough branded the polytheistic nature-based religions they encountered in Africa, India, Australia, and the Americas “pagan,” and the word began to return to its rural roots. Now the world was divided into Christians, Muslims, Jews, atheists, and pagans.

Greek healing goddess Hygeia with her snake. Photo by Sailko.

Greek healing goddess Hygeia with her snake. Photo by Sailko.

In the nineteenth century, as Europe strove to cast off the legacy of religious wars and witchhunts, practitioners of pre-Christian European religions cautiously began coming out of the woodwork. These people faced (and still face!) considerable ridicule, derision, and discrimination, as well as occasional violence, but the danger of imprisonment was for the most part past. In the United States, a religious renaissance blossomed in the Burned-Over District of western New York State, enabled by constitutional rights of religious freedom. Europeans and people of European descent returning to nature-based polytheistic worship began embracing the term pagan.

At the same time, people practicing analogous religions of non-Western origin began objecting to the word. Although initially accepted as the English word for their spiritual practices, many came to see the word as inextricably bound with colonization and rejected its offensive connotation. For aboriginal peoples who became Christian while seeking to retain some of their spiritual practices, the word also created a dilemma, since pagan has always been defined in opposition to Christian.

No one is quite sure who coined the word “neo-pagan,” but it first arose in the nineteenth century and was used occasionally by pagans and non-pagans. The idea behind the “neo-” was to differentiate the old pre-Christian pagans from contemporary pagans. Whether it was scholars or pagans themselves who felt the need to make this distinction is unclear, but in the twentieth century academicians began using the term “neo-pagan” religiously. The idea was to distinguish legitimate religious practices arising before Christianity from the wacky made-up religions that became openly practiced in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. From the point of view of Pagans, there is no discernible reason why the term should be embraced. No Mediterranean or European person before Christianity referred to themselves or their spiritual practices with this word, so from a scholarly point of view the “neo-” is meaningless. “Neo-” is usually, though not always, used in a political and often pejorative sense. Think neo-Nazi, neoliberal, neoconservative, neo-feminist. We don’t talk about neo-Christians or neo-Jews, although both religions have changed considerably over the centuries. While some Pagans use the term innocently, believing it to be more scholarly, it is an offensive term, deliberately employed to belittle Pagans, and it should be challenged wherever it is encountered.

Today the word Pagan usually refers to any Western polytheistic and/or animistic religion. It includes reconstructed religions such as those that revolve around ancient Egyptian deities, and religions that survived in varying forms throughout Christianity such as Witchcraft. Some other examples of Pagan religions would be Druidry, Heathenism, Wicca, and Strega. I also categorize hybrid religions that arose in the Americas, such as Voodoo, as Pagan, although some would disagree with me. While these religions usually have an West African and Christian base, sometimes with significant Amerindian influence, they also incorporate European pre-Christian beliefs and practices. Paganism refers to religions of Western origin or legacy, but Pagans are not necessarily of European, Semitic, or North African descent. The geographic marker refers to the origin of the belief system, not to the practitioners themselves. Some non-Western people still refer to themselves as Pagan, particularly in Africa and India, but the word is increasingly employed to mean polytheistic and/or animistic religions of European and Middle Eastern origin. A word is needed specifically for these Western religions because, while all animistic belief systems are more similar to each other than they are to Christianity, when we remove Christianity as a touchstone the belief systems begin to look very different.

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On Marriage and Motherhood

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Patriarchy is the control of women and the ownership of children through institutionalized marriage and fatherhood. That’s what it is, on it’s most fundamental level. Seeking legal status of a romantic partnership, with its privileges and obligations, means being an active participant in patriarchy.

Legal guardianship of a child by a man is also patriarchy. Except under very unusual circumstances, when a mother is unable to care for her child, legal responsibility for a child should remain with the biological mother. We need to get away from the concept of parenthood as ownership and children as property. Being a parent means investing time, energy, and money into a child. It is not a set of rights, and it doesn’t come with guarantees. An adult who is not the biological mother of a child should not have legal guardianship except under extreme circumstances. Legal guardianship of a child by a non-biological mother is patriarchal, by definition.

We need to get away from the concept that certain things that we want, including parenthood, should be ours simply because we want them badly. We also need to recognize that in nearly all cases the best person to care for a child and make decisions on their behalf is the child’s biological mother. No mother is perfect, and some mothers do make poor decisions, but that does not justify the control of mothers and children through the institution of fatherhood. That is patriarchy.

When a gay man or a lesbian marries under the law, as opposed to simply cohabitating or making private commitments, they are extending a patriarchal institution beyond biological sex. When a gay man adopts a child who has a mother, or a lesbian adopts the biological child of her partner, they are extending a patriarchal institution beyond biological sex. Gay marriage and gay adoption are patriarchal, regardless of sex and regardless of what the couple wants.

I am not condemning anyone, gay or straight, male or female, for marrying or for asserting legal rights regarding children they love. We all collude to some extent with patriarchy, because we cannot live outside of it. But it is important to recognize when we are colluding and when we are resisting, and it is even more important that we do not label our collusion resistance. Gay marriage and gay adoption, like fatherhood and heterosexual marriage, furthers patriarchy.

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No, I’m Happy About Gay Marriage. Really, I am.

Supporters of gay marriage rally after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Friday that the U.S. Constitution provides same-sex couples the right to marry at the Supreme Court in Washington June 26, 2015.     REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Supporters of gay marriage rally after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Friday that the U.S. Constitution provides same-sex couples the right to marry at the Supreme Court in Washington June 26, 2015. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

We’ve all seen the charts that advocates for marriage equality have drawn showing all the legal rights married people have that single people don’t. Why shouldn’t gay couples, like straight couples, have access to those privileges that singles, gay and straight, can’t have?

And if heterosexual women are subjected to social, economic, and legal pressures to marry, why should lesbians have a get-out-of-jail-free card? Shouldn’t they be subject to those same pressures for (on average) fewer economic benefits?

And inheritance laws are a huge factor here. If capitalistic greed is fueled in large part by a desire to create a dynasty, shouldn’t gay men be given an incentive to strive for their progeny?

And if married gay couples, like infertile heterosexual couples, have begun exploiting Third World women through surrogate pregnancy, isn’t that a small price to pay for equal access to a heterosexual institution designed to cement property rights and enslave women?

I mean, how could I be against such equality? I’m all for “gay marriage.”

Now ask me what I think about marriage.

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