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The following was posted about a year and half ago. I am re-posting it now because it fits with the deer theme I’ve been focusing on this summer.
Their priests (whom they call Quiokosoughs) are no other but such as our English witches are.
— Reverend Alexander Whitaker, Good newes from Virginia (sermon), 1613.
A question arose after my post on Witches and Wiccans regarding the difference between a shaman and a Witch. The answer is both simple and complex. The simple (and correct) answer is that there is no difference, except that one category is larger than the other. To give an analogy, what’s the difference between a Lutheran and a Christian? They are not different, are they? Not all Christians are Lutherans, but all Lutherans are Christians. The complexity with Witchcraft arises from the illogical but determined efforts of anthropologists to turn “witch” and “shaman” into discrete categories.
Let’s turn to the dictionary definition of “shaman” first. This is from Random House:
(esp. among certain tribal peoples) a person who acts as an intermediary between the natural and supernatural worlds, using magic to cure illness, foretell the future, control spiritual forces, etc.
Witches act as intermediaries “between the natural and supernatural worlds” by performing complex rituals or more simple spells that are usually geared toward healing, divination, or controlling the outcome of events (such as bringing rain or finding a job). Witches are not, however, the “certain tribal peoples” that the word typically refers to. The origin of “shaman” is contested, but most believe it to be of Siberian origin. It has an identical meaning in the Evenki language. It might properly be used only to refer to a similar group of magical practices from Siberia, but it is more generally applied. Attempts have been made to limit the application by specifying that it must refer to a tribal group, indigenous practices, the use of trance states, origin in non-urban societies, long-standing evolution in nature-based societies, and practices which have continuity. Witches contend that their religion meets all of these requirements while many academic scholars contend that it does not. Honest scholarship favors the Witches’ point of view, but some might ask whether the quest for a shamanic definition that excludes Witches is itself rooted in dishonesty about the tenaciousness of Europe’s magical legacy, as well as visceral prejudice against Witches fostered by Christianity.
My definition of a “shaman,” a bit tongue-in-cheek, is someone who doesn’t use that word. All “shamanic” traditions have their own word for their priests and priestesses, and outside of Central Asia that word is never “shaman.” In English, the word is “witch,” with all its baggage.
Nonetheless there is an unmistakable need for a generic word for “a person who acts as an intermediary between the natural and supernatural worlds, using magic, etc.,” because we need a word for comparing practices in a cross-cultural sense. That word has become “shaman.”
Marketing has also created or exacerbated a perception of a dichotomy between Witchcraft and other forms of shamanism. Books and courses that are not related to Witchcraft are frequently described as “shamanic” to their intended audience, with “shamanic” meaning everything but Witchcraft. Quizzing the purveyors of this material, they acknowledge that Witchcraft is a form of shamanism, but they feel that including Witchcraft under their shamanic banner hampers their marketing efforts. Doubtless this relates to the fierce prejudice against witchcraft which still resides with the general public. On the other side of the equation, Witches themselves sometimes object to the word “shaman,” feeling like a word popularized outside of their religions should not be applied to them.
So all Witches are shamans, but not all shamans are Witches. Are all Pagans shamans? No. Paganism and Witchcraft are polytheistic religions with a European or Mediterranean origin, but not all Pagans cast spells or perform magic with the intention of influencing events. So all Witches are Pagans, all Witches are shamans, some Pagans who are not Witches are shamans, but not all Pagans are shamans. Got that?
I’ve had a Tumblr for quite a few months where I reblog pictures of animals and other nature scenes, as well as many of the posts here. It’s a relaxing site to include on your daily browse.
I have been informed that my web host provider is upgrading me to a new server tomorrow (Friday, August 28). The blog will be unavailable starting at 1:00 pm EDT, I hope for a brief period. It should be back up by Saturday.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Greek mathematics was concerned with understanding underlying rules for numerical relationships and concentrated on geometric proofs. Math became a component of philosophy, a pursuit of the leisure class, and a way of discerning the laws of the gods. Mesopotamian practical applied math could not be disposed of because cities now required it to function, but the philosophical elite would not stoop to learn it.
The Greeks liked geometric proofs because they are tangible, irrefutably a part of the real world. There was a fear that if mathematics diverged from the concrete world it would become fantasy, and that the pursuit of this fantasy math would be a rejection of truth by the learned man.
The fear of deviating from truth meant that there were four important concepts, integral to the way we see the world today, that people were unable to accept in classical times.
1) Algebraic proofs (if you can’t draw it, is it real?)
2) Zero as a number, not just a placeholder (how do you define something that by definition does not exist?)
3) Irrational numbers (why would the gods create puzzles that have no solution?)
4) Negative numbers (again, they don’t exist)
Although mathematically speaking the Greeks had their limits, these obstacles were not germane to Greek philosophy. The point where mathematics moves into abstraction is a point of crisis for any society. There was a Hindu mathematician in the seventh century, Brahmagupta, who proposed using negative numbers for accounting purposes without finding many takers. How can you do accounting without negative numbers? It boggles the mind. Yet it was once hard for people to take numbers, the most irrefutable link to objective truth, into the world of make-believe.
Numerical symbolism was an abstraction the ancients had no problem with, or maybe it was a problem that was resolved in prehistory. Using a word to represent a number is itself a construct, as is all written language, mathematical or otherwise. Numerical symbolism as a predictive device, which was widely used, is complex, difficult and not entirely reliable. It was therefore not difficulty, complexity, or uncertainty that early mathematicians bulked at: it was the idea of consciously embracing something intrinsically unreal (negative numbers) or intrinsically imprecise (irrational numbers).
Note: This is the first of a four part series
I must admit that I approach this subject with trepidation. I’m concerned that some of my readers may be those for whom the keys to the numerical kingdoms have been denied, those who have bumped against that iron door and convinced themselves that beyond lies a sterile uninteresting yet unfathomable realm, filled with errors and yielding nothing of significance. I feel like I should sing a song and do a dance, maybe bring out a colorful Muppet cast for a chorus routine brought to you by the number nine, all to convince you that numbers have something relevant to say, something even you can understand.
Women have long been shut out of mathematical worlds. I can identify nine of these worlds, which should be intersecting but which are in some cases hermetically sealed. These nine worlds are those of arithmetical computation (including accounting and finance), applied mathematics (engineering, statistics, economics, physics), number theory, statistics, music, puzzles or riddles, philosophy, geometry, and symbolism. I do not say that there are only nine worlds; I like the number nine because it is the number for human gestation.
What makes nine the number for human gestation? That comes from a basic division of time based on the moon cycle, which at one time ruled the menstrual cycle. The first mathematicians were women, inventing numerical systems for calculating their menstrual cycles and the course of their pregnancies. Mathematics is, literally, in the blood.