By Dawn Davidson, Volunteer Coordinator, San Mateo County Pride Center
In October, the minds of many LGBTQ+ folks turn to the color orange, pumpkin-spiced lattes, the return of Monarch butterflies to California, and… coming out.
Celebrated each year in October, National Coming Out Day was inspired by an event on Oct 11th 1987, where “500,000 people participated in the March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights … generating momentum to last for 4 months after the march had ended.” i I’ve already come out in this blog about my queer identities (I’m Bisexual/Pansexual and Polyamorous).ii But my own first coming out experience wasn’t about being queer; it was about being Pagan.
Paganism with a Capital P
You’ll notice that I capitalized the “P” there, and that’s to distinguish my modern Pagan (also called “Neo-Pagan”) practice from the historical practices of my pre-Christian Celtic ancestors.iii If you call someone a Pagan with a capital P, you are acknowledging that Paganism is a religious practice, generally one that honors the earth and the seasons of the year.iv
If you call them a “pagan” with a small p, the original meaning was that they were a country-dweller, or one who follows country ways. The word took on a pejorative or a negative meaning in early Christianity, and many people today still use it to mean “an irreligious or hedonistic person,” or more broadly, anyone who isn’t a Christian.v
There are several other words often used interchangeably here: pagan, heathen,vi heretic,vii witch.viii In modern parlance, they all have slightly different meanings. In the early Middle Ages, however, they all amounted to nearly the same thing: a person accused of heresy; of not toeing the dogmatic line of the Catholic Church. Over time, accusations of paganism and heresy morphed into accusations of witchery and widespread witch-hunts.ix That’s where things turned deadly.
No One Expected the Spanish Inquisition
It’s hard for me to understand, in ways, how Christianity moved from being a teaching about love,x to being one that condoned the deaths of approximately 50,000 people in a 50-year period. Nevertheless, that’s what happened during the height of the witch trials in Britain and Europe, from approximately 1580 to 1630. Of those deaths, approximately 80% were women, most often those over the age of 40.xi As the institution of the Church grew in secular power, so too did it grow in supporting patriarchy, xenophobia (fear or hatred of foreigners or strangers)xii, anti-Semitism, and other religious intolerance.
Laws of Forfeiture common in Medieval Europe also meant that accusations of witchcraft could be used to redistribute wealth from individuals to the Church or the Crown, or for one neighbor to persecute another or seize disputed lands.xiii It was big business to accuse people of witchcraft.
Our modern idea of a witch – with a hooked and warty nose, cooking up evil potions and wearing a pointy hat – is deeply rooted in anti-feminist, ageist, and anti-Semitic stereotypes.xiv
The hooked nose should be obvious, but the pointy hat is also possibly an anti-Semitic image, with origins in multiple laws in various countries, instructing Jews to wear “Judenhats” with pointy crowns, so everyone would know who they were.xv Jews were long scapegoated and unfairly stereotyped as usurious, greedy, and evil by the Church hierarchy (and many other people), so it is no surprise that these laws came to exist. Nor should it be a surprise to anyone familiar with 20th Century history and the Holocaust that anti-Semitic stereotypes persisted even into recent times.xvi
As to the potions, women had already been excluded from formal education at Universities because of their gender.xvii Since most midwives were women,xviii and many herbalists likewise, they turned to learning their craft as apprentice wisewomen, inheriting recipes and “spells” from their teachers by oral tradition, and relying upon their own lived experience. Not surprisingly, the privileged and educated graduates of the Universities looked with skepticism on the work of the humble village healers who threatened their monopoly on medical knowledge and status, and accusations of witchcraft often followed.xix
Equal Opportunity Oppression
Women and healers weren’t the only people burned at the stake during the inquisition, also known as the “burning times.”xx In fact, according to author Dr. Kate Lister, more men than women were prosecuted for witchcraft in several countries, including Normandy, Estonia, Russia, and Iceland.xxi One early heretical group in particular, the Manichaeans, openly embraced homosexuality and other forms of non-procreative sex that the Church of the time condemned. Thus it was that being a heretic and being a homosexual became nearly synonymous.xxii
As part of their suppression of homosexuality, the Church at the time also enforced gender-defined clothing. Many witches were prosecuted for transvestitism (now known more commonly as cross-dressing)xxiii. One of the most famous of these was Joan of Arc. As author K. Cherry says, “Joan believed strongly in God AND in cross-dressing. She insisted that God wanted her to wear men’s clothes, making her what today can be called “queer,” “lesbian” or “transgender.” Ultimately it was Joan’s insistence on wearing “man’s dress” and armor that led to her burning at the stake in 1431.xxiv
Anti-Oppression and Cultural Humility
Why does all of this matter to us now, and what does it have to do with the Pride Center? Well, we at the Pride Center are all about anti-oppression, honoring diversity, and practicing Cultural Humility.xxv As it says on our About Us page, “Anti-oppression means working against: classism, racism, ableism, white supremacy, cis heterosexism, xenophobia, etc… that harm members of our community.”
Here at the Center, we are obviously working against classism, racism, and cis heterosexism, and it’s clear how these things harm members of our community. What may be less clear is how these stereotypes against “witches” continue to harm people today.
Modern Persecution of Witches and Witchcraft
Sadly, the persecution of witches is not behind us, and there are places in the world today where an accusation of witchcraft can still lead to imprisonment and/or death. In fact, the problem is so persistent that August 10th has been declared a World Day Against Witch Hunts. Many charismatic churches in the Dominican Republic of Congo and elsewhere blame diseases such as HIV/AIDS or female infertility on witchcraft. Illegitimate children become scapegoats and are labeled as witches or as tainted by sorcery, and blamed for problems such as crop failures, greed, jealousy and more.xxvi
Closer to home, one of the most common myths about witches is that they “worship the devil.” This is untrue. Satanists do exist, but they generally don’t identify as witches.xxvii Conversely, witches don’t worship Satan, and many if not most people who identify as Witches are practitioners of Wicca, which was recognized as a legitimate religion by a US Court of Appeals in 1986.xxviii
Contrary to the ideas of placing hexes or evil spells on others, Wicca opposes the use of negative, harmful magic, and discourages people from hurting others physically or emotionally. Most Wiccans I’ve met believe in the “Three-fold Law,” which says that whatever energy a person puts out toward another – good or bad — will come back to them three times over.
Nevertheless, this confusion is so common that I myself had to fight an accusation of “Satanism” in a suit for custody of my stepdaughter in the mid-1990’s, after her mother’s boyfriend had molested her older sister. Fortunately, the conservative Christian judge heard our case fairly and determined that our religion was not inherently dangerous, and that removing her from that environment would be “in the best interests of the child.”xxix
Many families have not been so lucky.xxx The fear of losing custody of children is one of the biggest reasons that many Pagans choose to “go back into the broom closet,” and hide their religious practice from the world.xxxi Of course, choosing to hide the truth of one’s identity is often a painful decision, and not without consequences. One of those consequences is that such secrecy can itself promote the atmosphere of ignorance that allows these incorrect beliefs to persist, sometimes ironically increasing intolerance and persecution if one chooses to come out later, or worse yet, is involuntarily “outed.”xxxii
We in the LGBTQ+ community certainly understand the dangers of being outed,xxxiii as well as the dangers inherent in choosing to remain closeted.xxxiv It’s a tough choice, either way, and a very personal one. (If you are struggling with some of these questions, you might consider calling the Pride Center for help at 650-591-0133. We have trained counselors on staff, and we also have access to other resources and supports that may be helpful.xxxv)
Think Before You Witch
So with all of that, do I think that no one should dress up as a witch for Halloween? Well, that depends.
As with the “N-word,” the word “witch” is complicated. In part, whether you should use the word or dress up as a “witch” is dependent on who you are. I’d argue that it’s a personal decision for practicing Pagans and Witches. I myself chose to dress up as a Traveling Witch for our SMCPC Staff Karaoke Costume Party just last week, though it wasn’t without a certain amount of thought, as I was already writing this blog. As Alice Markham-Cantor said, “It’s a privilege to dress up as a witch and not die.”xxxvi
In the same way that queer, dyke, or faggot can be used as slurs or as words indicating pride and membership in the LGBTQ+ community,xxxvii the word witch can also be either. A lot depends on what the attitude of the speaker is, and the aim of the communication. If your intent is to mock, humiliate, or do harm to another human, I’d definitely say don’t do it. If your intent is more neutral and you aren’t yourself a Pagan or a Witch, I’d say think about it. Might this upset or harm someone you know, or perpetuate a harmful stereotype? If so, maybe refrain. If your intent is to reclaim the word as a feminist (or humanist) statement of power, then go for it! It’s important for Witches to be seen, and for people to start to understand that they aren’t some evil person “over there,” but real life flesh and blood people who live next door, bake cookies, and drink pumpkin-spice lattes just like other people.
Similarly, substituting “witch” for “bitch” to avoid “saying a bad word” is probably not the best choice. Using the word in that way is drawing on a long history of prejudice and oppression, and serves to reinforce these negative stereotypes, especially of women. It’s “othering” and dehumanizing, and I’d argue it’s no better than the dehumanizing inherent in characterizing a person (especially a woman) as a female dog.
I’ll close with the words of Alice Markham-Cantor again:
“The witch has never been a simple being. Depending on context, she can be a cultural archetype, a historical figure, or a current corpse; she is a fictional character and the excuse for the torture of hundreds of thousands of people; she is the ultimate scapegoat and a feminist lightning rod of resistance.”xxxviii
Whatever you choose to do, do it thoughtfully. We are all in this together, and it’s up to us to lift each other up, and to do our best to be anti-racist, honor diversity, and practice cultural humility. As Emma Lazarus said – and as many others including Maya Angelou and Martin Luther King Jr. have echoed – “Until we are all free, we are none of us free.”xxxix
Now, where’s my pumpkin-spice latte?
i https://nationaltoday.com/national-coming-out-day/ Retrieved Oct 23, 2020.
iii Graham Harvey, Contemporary Paganism, NYUP, 2nd edition 2011, as quoted in https://www.change.org/p/university-of-chicago-press-associated-press-capitalize-pagan-in-chicago-manual-of-style-ap-stylebook Retrieved Oct 23, 2020.
iv https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Modern_Paganism Retrieved Oct 27, 2020.
v https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/pagan Retrieved Oct 23, 2020.
vi https://www.rationalheathen.com/2016/06/11/so-what-is-a-heathen-exactly/ Retrieved Oct 28. 2020.
vii https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/heretic Retrieved Oct 28, 2020.
viii https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/witch Retrieved Oct 28. 2020.
ix https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Witch-hunt Retrieved Oct 23. 2020.
x https://biblehub.com/1_corinthians/13-13.htm Retrieved Oct 27, 2020.
xi https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Witch_trials_in_the_early_modern_period Retrieved Oct 27, 2020.
xii https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/xenophobia Retrieved Oct 28, 2020.
xiii https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences-and-law/law/law/forfeiture Retrieved Oct 28, 2020.
xiv Fox, Mackenzie, “Medieval Ailments: Healing Others, Misogyny, and Anti-Semitism” (2020). History Student Papers and Projects. 11. https://digitalcommons.providence.edu/history_papers_proj/11 Retrieved Oct 27, 2020.
xv https://slate.com/human-interest/2013/10/the-history-of-the-witch-s-hat-origins-of-its-pointy-design.html Retrieved Oct 27, 2020.
xvi https://www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/the-holocaust Retrieved Oct 27, 2020.
xvii Minkowski, William L. “Women Healers of the Middle Ages: Selected Aspects of Their History.” American Journal of Public Health, vol. 82, no. 2, Feb. 1992, pp. 288–295, as quoted in Medieval Ailments by M. Fox, above.
xviii https://people.howstuffworks.com/midwife1.htm Retrieved Oct 27, 2020.
xix https://www.history.com/topics/folklore/history-of-witches Retrieved Oct 23, 2020.
xx https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=34ow_kNnoro Retrieved Oct 27, 2020.
xxi https://inews.co.uk/opinion/comment/the-long-and-underappreciated-history-of-male-witches-and-the-countries-where-more-people-accused-of-witchcraft-were-men-354563 Retrieved Oct 28, 2020.
xxii http://rictornorton.co.uk/homopho4.htm Retrieved Oct 28, 2020.
xxiii https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/transvestite Retrieved Oct 28. 2020.
xxiv Cherry, Kittredge, “Joan of Arc: Cross-dressing warrior-saint and LGBTQ role model,” May 30, 2020 https://qspirit.net/joan-of-arc-cross-dressing-lgbtq/ Retrieved Oct 28, 2020.
xxv https://sanmateopride.org/about-us/#mission-vision Retrieved Oct 27, 2020.
xxvi https://www.dw.com/en/witch-hunts-a-global-problem-in-the-21st-century/a-54495289 Retrieved Oct 28, 2020.
xxvii https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Satanism Retrieved Oct 28, 2020.
xxviii https://www.livescience.com/39119-myths-about-witches-wiccans.html Retrieved Oct 28, 2020.
xxix https://www.divorcenet.com/resources/child-custody/child-custody-california-best-interests-child.htm Retrieved Oct 28, 2020.
xxx https://wildhunt.org/2011/08/religions-role-in-custody-battles.html Retrieved Oct 28,. 2020.
xxxi https://www.dummies.com/religion/paganism/keeping-silent-or-telling-the-world-the-wiccan-dilemma/ Retrieved Oct 28, 2020.
xxxii https://d-scholarship.pitt.edu/28559/1/Hoadley_BPhil_Thesis_Final.pdf Retrieved Oct 28, 2020.
xxxiii https://www.thetaskforce.org/why-outing-can-be-deadly/ Retrieved Oct 28, 2020.
xxxiv https://www.outsmartmagazine.com/2016/03/staying-in-the-closet-5-ways-you-damage-your-mental-physical-health/ Retrieved Oct 28, 2020.
xxxv https://sanmateopride.org/programs/crisis-intervention/ Retrieved Oct 28, 2020.
xxxvi https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/witch-costume-halloween/ Retrieved Oct 28, 2020.
xxxvii https://www.refinery29.com/en-us/2017/11/177829/anti-lgbt-slurs-reclaiming-words Retrieved Oct 28. 2020. xxxviii https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/witch-costume-halloween/ Retrieved Oct 28, 2020
xxxix https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/145483-until-we-are-all-free-we-are-none-of-us Retrieved Oct 28, 2020.
Image sourced from Wikipedia Commons: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/1e/Witch_cutout.png