We would all know a witch if we saw one, right? I don’t mean someone who practices Wicca, I mean an old-timey, Disney-like witch, the sort that people want to burn at the stake, the sort of thing used to scare children during Halloween. The popular imagination pictures an ugly old unmarried woman, stirring a pot full of magic potions or riding off on a broomstick to meet with the devil, a little black cat as her tagalong animal companion.
I started thinking about the archetypal witch figure a few years ago, and I began to realize just how misogynist the whole construct is.
First of all, the very idea of witchcraft as illegitimate power comes from the authority-hungry medieval church. The idea is two-pronged: Spiritual power gained outside the official church structure is seen as innately evil, and besides, women are not allowed to have spiritual authority or power of any kind. This second point of course would not apply to male witches, but the archetypal witch is female and thus a symbol of doubly illegitimate spiritual power. Also there’s a lot of ugly stuff about how women are more easily tempted by the devil, are more ignorant than men, and so forth, meaning they’re more likely to be entrapped by dark forces seeking human allies (after all, wasn’t it Eve who was deceived by the devil?)
Second, witches are typically portrayed as unmarried older women living alone. They’re called crazy and shunned by their communities because of this fact. In a world where a woman’s primary job was to marry and have children, an older unmarried woman would be viewed with suspicion. She would be especially suspicious if she had a vocation in herblore or folk healing, wisdom passed down through generations of women rather than through the church or through scholars. Again, the practices used by witches are the sorts of things that would be learned from other women, meaning that not only was the power illegitimate, the accompanying knowledge was also gained through illegitimate sources.
Third, it has been generally agreed that witches are ugly. Feminists will appreciate this stereotype, as we are constantly accused of only being feminists because we’re too ugly to get a man. The idea behind both stereotypes is the same: if a woman is seeking power for herself rather than seeking a husband, it must be because she’s already tried seeking a husband and failed. In a special twist of misogyny, witches are permitted to be beautiful sometimes, but only in order to trick men and then cast a spell on the unsuspecting man and/or revert to her original hag-itude to the dismay of the man in question. The warning to men implicit in this narrative is: beautiful women are going to screw you over or at the very least not remain permanently beautiful and young (shocking! How dare women succumb to natural aging processes?)
So, to recap: Witches are evil and to be feared because they are women who seek power for themselves through channels not sanctioned by those in authority, they pass on wisdom from other women instead of seeing men as authorities, they are totally okay with not being married, and they don’t adhere to societal standards of attractiveness. (This is also what most of the arguments against feminists boil down to.)
But as I thought further about the popular stereotypes, I also found what is known as “symbolic reversal.” The symbolic reversal is a rhetorical method which is exactly what it sounds like: taking a symbol and turning it on its head, usually in order to derive power from something formerly oppressive (see, for example, some feminist organizations reclamation of the term “bitch.”)
A witch’s methods involve use of ordinary household objects, objects which a woman would use every day in her home. What was so frightful and so alluring is that witches took these objects, soup cauldrons and brooms and so forth, and turned them into something completely different. They took symbols of female servitude and turned them into channels of female freedom. A cauldron no longer cooked soup, it cooked spells. A broom no longer cleaned the floor, it launched a woman across the moonlit sky. And every woman held in her hands every day these same tools. How many of them dreamed, as they swept, of stepping outside, sitting astride their brooms, and mounting to the skies themselves?
Whatever the actual acts of these archetypal popular witch-figures, whether folk medicine, hexes, or attempts to summon the dead, they stand as an empowering idea for women everywhere. Throughout history there have been women who refused to bow to the patriarchy’s demands. They were called crazy, they were called ugly, they were shunned and persecuted. But they continued to pass along female wisdom, they continued to seek power for themselves rather than power through the accepted channels. We’ve all experienced the misogyny that suffuses the witch-symbol. So let’s choose to experience the symbolic reversal as well and learn how to take the very things that are symbols of oppression and turn them into symbols of freedom.