witchpaper '86

An Irreverent Term Paper from a Decade Ago! Which will serve as an introduction to the theoretical project of linking feminism and feminst theory, the concepts of orthodoxy and deviance, and the mental health system.
-Allan Hunter

One of the more interesting things I've noticed in the course of reading about witches, witchcraft, and witch-persecution is that authors discussing the witch-hunts of the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries speak only in terms of the ludicrous notions of the persecutors, implying that witchcraft was a figment of their imaginations or a euphemistic label to apply to their political enemies to justify eliminating them...meanwhile, the authors who write about Wicca, the worship of the Goddess, the legacy of European paganism, and so forth, rarely even mention the witch-burning times. One is left with the odd impression that nothing more than the coincidental use of the word "witch" ties the two phenomena together; thus, our class has not been a study of the history of the persecution of the practice and practitioners of Wicca/witchcraft at the hands of the organized Christian church.

In this paper, I am going to advance the notion that this is a misleading untying, that what the witch-burners were persecuting was, indeed, the same thing that Starhawk and company describe today as Wicca, the craft of the wise. It is not something I can prove, but I can develop the line of thought, and in the process of doing so, bring out a number of other interesting points relevant to the study of witchcraft and what it's all about.

First of all, I want to comment on the viewpoints of people such as Trevor-Roper, who discounts the idea that there was any "real" witchcraft religion lying behind the persecutions. I am not going to tell you that he was wrong in the sense of what did or did not exist at the time, but rather I seek to argue with his premise about what religion does or does not consist of.

Witchcraft in the eyes of the person who thinks of religion as a body of codified thought and practice, as a perpetuation of orthodoxy and instilled belief, is obviously nothing of the sort. The burners of witches found it necessary to postulate an official set of witch-practices, witch-leaders, and witch-rituals, creating them from their own lurid imaginations, and Trevor-Roper is quite correct in laughing at these fantastic ideas, but he falls prey to the same rigid notions of what a religion, in order to exist and be noteworthy, must consist of. He (along with others who have studied the persecutions) dismisses witchcraft because of the lack of continuity, the nonexistence of formalized "sabbats" and the like such as those hypothesized by the State Christianity of the period. These ideas of what religion is all about are still prevalent today: not only Wicca but many other "free-form" religions, even Unitarianism, are regarded by some as not really authentic due to the lack of dogma and orthodoxy. This view, then, is not unique to medieval Catholicism; furthermore, each of the many orthodox-style religions has this element linking them together like a common thread, and in this respect what they have in common is more important than the differences in their claims and practices: at the core of Orthodox thinking is the notion that important truths must be meticulously preserved and protected from accidental or deliberate loss, mininterpretation, or competing untruths. It is as if religious wisdom were as fragile as the language used by any one individual to express it.

 But I want to move beyond the Orthodox concepts and definitions of religion and include the ideas of witches themselves, for witches do not think of these matters in the same way. Witchcraft worships Nature as God, personified (often, not always) as the Mother Goddess, Creator of All. Traditionally sacred to the witch are such things as fertility and fecundity, human sexuality, natural expression of natural desires and inclinations, and a deep overall trust in the inherent, innate spirit of all of Creation and its tendency to be as it should. And even here, with the exception of the very first and last factors there are differences among witches; there are no obligatory beliefs or viewpoints in the sense of Orthodoxy, and the closest approach to one involves the distinctive disavowal of any need for such a thing.

Because it is a nature-worshipping religion, and the knowledge and practices of nature are permanently accessible and impossible to eradicate, witchcraft survived quite well not merely for years or centuries but for millennia without having found the need to protect itself from dilution, distortion, heresy, or religious malpractice. The witch sees in Orthodoxy -- any Orthodoxy -- the only possible sacrilege. If the truth is apparent to those who look, and the will of Nature would always come to express itself, then the only way possible to interfere with her lessons and her ways would be to implement and forcibly instill an Orthodoxy which held no room for dissent, dichotomy, the personal pursuit of truth on one's own terms, the open mind and uninfringed curiosity of the seeker of wisdom, or the trust in nature that assumes that, left to her own ways, She will cause everything to be as it rightfully should.

If we use the witches' concepts of what a religion is, and then go back to historian Trevor-Roper, we can see that he would agree that this type of religion was very much in evidence in medieval Europe, and that its presence was profoundly disturbing to the Orthodoxy in power, the Holy Roman Catholic Church.

Not without reason. Orthodoxy depends on the sanctifying powers of ritual and liturgy to make things holy. The practicing witch may value ritual for its focusing and ceremonial functions but often feels an amused contempt for our culture's obsession with ritual and ceremony in lieu of actual meaning. Point out to the witches that witchcraft lacks codified thought, hierarchical sutructure of church leadership, and perpetuated belief systems, and they won't argue with that. Why should they? A witch not only finds nothing legitimate in these concrete trappings, but is quick to point out that in those stodgy and inflexible workings of Orthodoxy, there is none of the living spirit of receptivity and growth that makes witchcraft special and valid. Ultimately, it boils down to a basic unresolvable conflict that makes witchcraft and Orthodoxy enemies of each other. There can be no room for "tolerance". Tolerance implies that one allows without interference the presence of those things which one personally does not hold with. But to "tolerate" witchcraft is to accept it; to be Orthodox (in the sense that I use the word) is to believe that one's beliefs and practices should be universally observed, if necessary at all costs. Embedded in any given orthodoxy is the intolerant drive towards the monopoly of Orthodoxy, and witchcraft rather than a conflicting orthodoxy is the ultimate threat to that goal.

In order to fully understand the conflict between Orthodoxy and witchcraft, it is necessary to take a look at the different beginnings of the antithetical modes of worship. Witchcraft, as I have said, has been around for a long long time as a noninstitutionalized and casual (though serious, not trivial) folk religion. Orthodoxy, meanwhile, apparently dates back to the beginnings of agrarianism and (as far as we can discern) patriarchy, about 9000 years ago (or less, depending on which part of the world you're looking at). As patriarchy spread, its adherents quickly noted that the old religion was intrinsically diametrically opposed to the verticalized hierarchy of social order that patriarchy includes (and to some extent, actively consists of).

No distinct line can be drawn between the functional concepts of politics and social organization and the metaphysical symbolizing spiritualism of religion. They blur into and are inextricably linked to each other. In a very real sense, then, there is no such thing as separation of church and state: the true religion of the people gives rise to the social order and vice versa. Witch-religion is expressed and is an expression of an almost-anarchy in which an individual's wisdom is respected but disagreement and personal automony for everyone else are equally respected. Orthodoxy, on the other hand, is the religion of and blueprint for the rigid social control, power of people over other people, and punishment for disobedience that are constituted within patriarchal society. The two social forms are no more able to coexist than are their respective religions.

To the patriarchy, then, the practice of witchcraft was a threat to the established Holy Order of Things. Witchcraft did not and does not represent an organized threat -- for that matter, many of those who fit the description of witchcraft I've developed here might never have used the specific word or phrase "witchcraft" or see themselves as part of a religious body -- and yet still, in their unOrthodoxy, they embodied witchhood as well as the potential for undermining patriarchal authority.

Once we begin talking in terms of patriarchy as well as Orthodoxy and establish a correlation between the two, it would appear almost too easy to point towards the special victimization of women at the hands of the witchhunters; but patriarchy is not an overt design for the methodical elimination of females simply because they are female. Actually, patriarchy seeks (and sought) to possess and control women.

The identification and persecution of women as witches actually stems from a complex pattern of interwoven factors. First of all, State Christianity sought to rechannel sexuality and reproduction away from its natural form in manners which any student of classical psychoanalysis knows requires repression. This makes sexual feelings threatening to the indoctrinated. Of course, the persons in charge were male, and to them sexuality was embodied in women. Add to this the fear of the oppressed that oppressors generally feel -- Janeway proposes that in a culture where women are taught that femininity consists of being passive, pleasing, subordinate, and dependent, those women who were driven to reject their roles would invert them, stand against that non-working role and embody the opposite: domineering, powerful, active, and displeasing/threatening-- these factors give you the foundations for a fear of women, and of women's sexuality. Closely tied to sexual repression was reproductive repression. If Goddess-worship enshrined the mystery of childbirth, Orthodoxy saw in it something which needed controlling; and medieval State Christianity had decided that childbirth should be painful (not rendered easier through the ministrations of midwives and their herbs). Abortion and contraception were also tainted with the image of the old gynocentric religions. Since midwives and healers were traditionally women, their persecution as witches was a persecution of women. More generally, the people who would be a threat to the established Order would be those who were individualistic free-thinkers who might represent options to others. This would at first glance seem not to be a gender-specific distinction, but because a patriarchy has more to offer to the conforming male than to the conforming female, and because the old religions concentrated a much higher degree of social esteem and importance in women, it was women who were the most inclined to question and discard patriarchal/Orthodox programming, whether openly or discreetly, and thus they were more inclined than men to be witches. Eccentric women, old and wise women, and unmarried or single women symbolized independence and were perceived (accurately) to be more of a threat to the Orthodoxy.

All of these elements set the stage for persecutions such as the witch-hunts and witch-burnings of the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries. They were inevitable; there should be nothing surprising about their arrival. The practice came about shortly after the successful expansion and ascension of the Catholic Christian brand of Orthodoxy all across old pagan Europe. The new authorities had apparently gained control of a vast territory, but as soon as they stopped gazing greedily outward and glanced inward, they found to their distinct shock that in many places all they had done was spread an official Holy Veneer of Orthodoxy over the ancient beliefs, which continued to thrive, sometimes underground, often more openly. Naturally, the religion that was enmeshed with the real life and traditional culture of the people was not going to be supplanted by some irrelevant religion that was rooted in other concepts and forms.

Like a teacher suddenly conscious of the fact that the students are not paying attention and are, in fact, whispering, talking about something else, and maybe even sneaking out the back door to play in the woods instead, the Orthodoxy of State Christianity sternly began laying down the law, insisting that these antics were nontrivial and dangerous deviations from what they had in mind for the people, and something had to be done to eliminate the problem. They looked at the deviancy as a decay that threatened not only their control there in the area, but (since they were not generally cynical about their own belief-systems) actually threatened to cause the Great Truths of Orthodoxy to rot and crumble, the purity of its truth lost forever to the random deterioration brought about by this sinful lack of discipline. The Holy Correctness had to be preserved from these easygoing lazy licentious folks, with their willingness to think wrong thoughts, their overall promiscuous participation in naughty things sexual and otherwise. So the fires were lit and the witches were brought before the inquisitors. The infection of heresy was to be sterilized of its contagious nature- tendencies towards irrepressible and non-repressive living.

And, if you are willing to grant that their agenda was a righteous one, they were right: these witches were a real threat to the supremacy of patriarchal Orthodoxy.

Now, centuries later, it is important to recognize two things. First, the witch-hunters were not successful. To a large extent, they lost. The war between the two antitheses is far from over, and Orthodoxy continues to be the major danger for witches such as myself. But the attempt to create a monolithic enforcement system able to eliminate witchcraft from the society, able to prevent loosening or liberalizations within the overall Orthodoxy was a failure. As the extent of the witch-persecutions grew, it became apparent that no line could be effectively drawn so as to get all of the wrong-thinkers and eccentrics and misfits, yet leave behind a safe and sanitized world of Normal, Orthodox folks. In fact, what happened was that things got increasingly out of hand to the point that no one was safe, and the practice was grudgingly disbanded. Meanwhile, unOrthodoxy was too elusive to be absolutely apprehended, and we have always had our number of competent movers and shakers effectively acting to open up the possibilities, to widen the permissible realms of life-options, and dilute the enforcement of Orthodoxy's coercions. Ultimately, the centralized Orthodoxy of One State Religion lost its stranglehold, in stages; it did decay. And today, many of the worst nightmares of the worried old persecutors have happily come true.

Secondly, however, it should be recognized by everyone that, just as the definition of "witch" is not a tangible and concrete thing, but is instead a somewhat slippery construct, so does the form of witch-persecution vary according to time and place. If you, after studying witches and witching and persecuting, think of the witch-persecutions as something that occurred in the past, you are missing the point. The battle continues to rage, and unOrthodoxy is no more tolerable to patriarchal society today than it was in the late middle ages. The mere fact that we seem to be winning, and now can openly and freely dissent, does not mean that the Enemy has grown any less frightened of us and what we represent; far from it! No, while it may be true that I can say "I am a witch" here, or on the street corner, or in the public announcements column of the New York Times, it is also true that if I successfully do anything that would challenge today's Orthodoxy (which isn't State Christianity any more, but preserves many of the same patriarchal forms and assumptions nevertheless), I will not be any more tolerated than the dangerously unOrthodox witches of the past. We may have pushed the limits back a ways, but just try overstepping them and see what happens! In the tumultuous decade of twenty years ago, there were some very witchlike people who called for an end to the Vietnam War, the legalization of marijuana and LSD, the elimination of the money system, the replacement of the institutions of patriarchal marriage and family with free love, voluntary and permissive sexuality, communal cooperative living, nudity, "doing your own thing"...I'm sure you know the times and the people to whom I refer. You can probably see with ease that these foks embodied precisely the definition of witchcraft I've been working with here, and eventually, especially after the modern radical feminist movement blossomed out of that social trend, it was openly acknowledged as such. Starhawk and Margot Adler and company did not resurrect any long-dead religion so much as they reclaimed a long-dormant name for a never-dying religion of Nature worship. But that's really beside the point I'm trying to make here: here were witches, unorthodox people whose ideas and activities threatened the foundations of our Orthodoxy, and yet for the most part, it could be argued that they were not doing any harm, they weren't endangering any people, and (many would admit) enrichened life for all of us in their passing. Okay,...were they tolerated? No. They were persecuted with considerable enthusiasm.

I can testify to means and methods of persecuting witches today, chief among them being the practice of institutional psychiatry. The parallels are overwhelming: the notion of "mental illness" is about as scientific as the notion of satanic pacts and broomstick-riding, whereas the diagnosis depends on symptoms of deviancy from the social norm; the "treatment" is imposed against the will of many "patients" for their own good, despite the fact that the psychiatric system consistently demonstrates that it believes the conditions it claims to treat to be "chronic", or incurable. The parallels with "confessions" strike me as convincing and correlative. Look upon the treatments of choice for the labeled "mentally ill", and you find yourself examining poisonously dangerous chemicals used to paralyze the brain , followed by electrocution and intentional destruction of healthy brain tissue as backup modalities. Manifestations of spiritual experiences are now pervasively identified with this thing called "mental illness":

"Six of the women are none too many to hold her. Her mouth is open. Inarticulate words and cries are heard. She stamps the ground with her feet. She twists her arms to free them from the grip, she shakes her head in every direction...Four of the women carry her, singing, Behind my eyelids/the dream has not reached my soul/whether I sleep or wake/there is no rest.

-- Wittig

The concept of "mental illness" has permeated society to the point that not just the psychiatrist but the average person on the street is ready to "call schizophrenic" on a person known to exhibit such trance-like behavior.

The function of modern psychiatry and its hospitals is to sanitize the Orthodoxy and remove the threat of deviancy. The bureaucracy dealing with such matters is actually called the Department of Mental Hygiene! Sanity, like sanitation, bespeaks the application of disinfectants. We are those who threaten to infect with the contagion of natural freedom.

But I fear that I have still managed to leave the impression that witchcraft consists of merely being one's self (somewhat passively minding one's own business) and being considered dangerous by the paranoid repressive Orthodoxy. There's more to it than that. Witches do not care so much about the content of any given orthodoxy, but are aware of the ortho-doctrinal inclinations towards oppression. Orthodoxy is perceived as sacrilegious and dangerous by all good witches, who actively seek to fight it according to their own abilities. Sure, many witches were and are persecuted merely for "breaking even" -- their witchcrimes limited to nonconformity -- but many others consciously and actively attempt to increase the range of spontaneity, the unRegulated and freely chosen, the Natural, whenever we can. Being a witch is a revolutionary practice for those with the insights and inspirations to be effective change-mongers and social-blueprinters. Our powers of social control are totally different from what social control usually implies. They are seldom rooted in recognized authority ("sway"), positions of Power (as defined by the patriarchal hierarchy), but depend more upon interpersonal emotional latticework and relationships, on reputation and sensitivities, and various subtle powers of influencing. This is often accomplished in tandem with other witches: at best, it is a social religion. These powers are not unNatural, but are uncommon as are Naturally-inclined people; they develop in those with the mind that has spent years grasping concepts, interpreting life by new, internally developed patterns of understanding instead of (in replacement of) liturgical, pre-programmed cultural belief systems. They come from the exercise of mind by nonconforming individuals as a result of contending with unusual situations that the average person does not have to vye with; and it comes about from the inspirations and teachings of the Goddess/ Nature/ (supply your own terminology), since prayer and communion and revelation are not unreal phenomenae. This is no dead religion with charades and "recipe" prayers. SuperNatural they are not, but the powers of the witch are not discerned nor understood by the most of people today much more than was the case in the past.

Interestingly enough, one is often as one's most witch-effective when only a smidgen away from being targeted as dangerous (and being dealt with as such). Let us suppose, for the sake of example, that I had the intent and the skills necessary to make this particular paper controversial and public to the extent that it began altering the ways that people around here thought about rigid course requirements, differentiation between teacher and student, degree, gradepoint,...or, by changing the aim just a bit, that I caused it to precipitate a general hilarity and contempt towards government red-tape bureaucracies and their supposedly necessary formats. Either way, let's pretend that my paper (perhaps in conjunction with other stimuli in that direction) seemed to be precipatating insistent calls for change and reevaluation. If I drew too much attention to my personal role in it, and/or frightened the Orthodox too much too soon, I would not get very far before being discredited, dismantled, discharged from my studenthood, or something of the sort. But if like a good dancer I can pirouette past retaliatory efforts, if like a tightrope walker I can balance between alienating and tantalizing my audience, and if like the devious magician I can misdirect and orchestrate the responses of those to whom I'm performing this enchantment, I can accomplish a lot without getting singed. Now, I may have decided to use something other than this paper, or to move according to a different schedule; and I may not be revealing my true intent. Who knows? But the potential for the witch to cast a spell or two, within the context of the laws of human nature (foggily understood at best by Orthodox sciences!!), is one of the principle factors that makes the Craft more than just a permissive liberalism or a modern feminist-chic alternative to patriarchal churches, and validates its position as the ancient and timeless practice of spiritual religion.


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