I admit, I thought this would be an easy topic to start the year off with, one I thought I had a pretty good handle on. That is, until I started reading up on it and found definitions that were either not close to what I had observed firsthand or varied so widely they were hard to tie together. So I put out a call on Facebook to see what the word meant amongst my occult friends. I was startled to find that the response I got wasn’t from who I expected. It wasn’t the people I knew were practitioners in my local community who answered, instead it was people I knew from past schooling or work. And they all had different definitions of what a witch was.
But first, since I’m a bookworm, let’s start with the reading. Historian Ronald Hutton, author of The Witch: A History of Fear From Ancient Times to The Present says the “standard scholarly definition [of ‘witch’] was summed up in 1978 by a leading expert in anthropology, Rodney Needham, as ‘someone who causes harm to others by mystical means.’” (Hutton ix) Hutton later goes on to say this is a somewhat outdated definition. He expands it to include current Anglo-American ideas of a witch as “any person who uses magic (although those who employ it for beneficial purposes are often popularly distinguished as ‘good’ or ‘white’ witches); or as the practitioner of a particular kind of nature-based Pagan religion; or as a symbol of independent female authority and resistance to male domination.” (Hutton ix-x) Though the second definition comes closer to the witches and witchcraft I’ve experienced than the narrow-minded Needham one, it seemed too simple and academic to really get at the heart of the matter.
So I moved on to Margot Adler with her classic 1979 book (my copy was a 1986 updated version) Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers and Other Pagans in America Today. She says the witches she interviewed bore little resemblance to the dictionary definitions of “(primarily) women who are either seductive and charming (bewitching) or ugly and evil (wicked). In either case, the women are supposed to possess a variety of ‘supernatural’ powers. … Participants of the Witchcraft revival generally use Witch to simply mean an initiate of the religion Wicca, also known as the Craft.” (Alder 10) Again, a far too simplistic and dated definition, especially since many of the witches I knew didn’t practice Wicca at all. It was time to see what I could find out from my brief and very unscientific Facebook survey.
The first responder was Sarah Elliott, a photographer I met through my work with TUBE. Magazine. Though she doesn’t consider herself a “real witch,” she says witchcraft is “the closest thing to spirituality compared to other religions…I would say being an atheist and trying to find something I can connect to, I find that witchcraft has a huge connection with nature and I can connect with that.” She draws comfort from the ritual aspect of the craft: the “candles and stones and stars.”
Next came Isabell Ragazzi, an Italian artist who created this month’s image and one of our recent Creators to Watch at TUBE. She considers a witch to be someone who can “face herself without fear, who can see the light and the dark inside herself, who can see her past and future but can live the present…A person that can see…the Real Soul of the people and who can feel the real fire inside them.” She considers herself to be a witch who can “feel the Moon and [who] has an ancient spirit.”
After that Jonathan Hearn, an old high school friend of mine who is now an outdoor science educator, chimed in, defining a witch as “[s]omeone who completes the circle of past, present, and future through connecting with the ancestors, the spirits, and the gods…This allows you to see into yourself, into others, and into the future.” I called him up to discuss it further and learned he practices Ifa, a Yoruba religion that is the root of several African diaspora syncretic religions including Santeria. He calls himself a bruja because while “witch is cool, bruja is just short and sweet. Witch has this weird connotation. … Bruja differentiates me from Pagan witches from Ireland or the Old Norse style and pays homage to the diaspora through South and Central America.”
As an educator, he’s interested in “how spirits are a metaphor for ways of understanding nature.” There are parallels in how the orishas, who are spirits of various forces of nature interact. For example, Yemeya and Olukun, female and male counterparts respectively, represent different parts of the ocean. Olukun “brings the riches of the deep ocean up to Yemeya and Oshun [another orisha], decking them out in gold and silver. If you want to take that from a naturalistic perspective, that’s the deep ocean bringing the nutrients up to the top ocean. …that’s a metaphor for upwelling.”
Though he doesn’t want to use Ifa specifically, he thinks this metaphorical approach could change the way we teach hard science, for the better. “I really don’t like the way we handle science. …Western science focuses on objectivity and the removal of the self from science. I wanna do the opposite and have people and pupils instead empathize with animals and natural bodies and anthropomorphize abstract concepts as most pre-industrial cultures did. That personal connection with science and nature has been the driving force of the entire environmental movement.”
Markus K. Ironwood, who hosts the Arcane Academy Podcast and founded Swamp Witch Stephanie’s Spell Oils similarly connects science and spirituality. His idea of a witch is “someone who has knowledge and practice and … who has an active relationship with the patterns in nature.” He defines this as “being able to look at the pattern of a leaf and seeing that same pattern in your veins. Or the spiral in a shell and seeing that same spiral in the galaxy. … And knowing that the processes that create both of those forces are very similar. … For me, personally, science plays a big part of it but where it blends into that spiritual realm is how it relates to that force. I have a relationship with that.”
Ironwood calls himself a swamp witch and has studied the Anderson Feri tradition, an offshoot of Wicca for over eleven years. “When I say swamp witch, that’s a little tongue and cheek. Partially that’s because if I don’t have a lot of energy in my life and I let myself fall into some depression, things get messy. I don’t pick up my clothes, I’ve generally not showered… things get a little swampy.” Beyond that, he says it also has to do with the world around him. “I’m not a desert witch, I don’t live in the desert. I’m not a sea witch, I don’t live by the sea. I live around a lot of lakes and it gets pretty swampy,” he says with a laugh.
But what does it mean to be a witch? I asked him as he sat at my table, defending a slice of zucchini-apple bread from the cats. “You wear a lot of black,” he jokes, “That’s about it.” Ironwood laughs then contemplates the question more seriously. “It means that you always kind of feel outside of the normal, but I think that’s true for a lot of different identities, but it’s very true for being a witch. It means, I think, having a pretty clear understanding of various situations because you do have that outsider perspective and you probably have a very large bookshelf or let’s hope you do. So you’re able to go, oh yeah, this is like this myth that I read or this story that I read. You’re able to see what’s happening … very clearly on different levels. It means having a degree of empathy, like the Priestess card in the Tarot: mercy and severity. Being able to act with mercy and with grace and hold judgment and hold a line. And where I get to draw that is up to me.”
Lastly, I spoke over email with Yunuen Rhi, a healer, and medicine woman, who was recommended by my friend Merilyn Hernandez. Rhi considers a witch to be “a person that is complete, one that knows how to dialogue with the elements and themselves. A witch is a type of sage, a wisdom holder.” Rhi, whose pronoun is “we,” considers ourselves “a witch of strategy and poetry, one that uses martial art wisdom as the medium to higher consciousness.” We believes “in the red path, the path of honor that warriors walk in the name of truth and beauty.” This is encapsulated by the Nahuatl couplet “In Xochitl In Cuicatl” meaning “the flower, the song.” We calls it “the deepest and most loving way to live by. We train people how to be in this path, how to grow roots and to be a complete channel by uniting the body, spirit, and mind through an internal martial art practice called Baguazhang.”
So what is a witch? From my findings, it seems that a witch is someone who practices magic of some kind, holds a lot of knowledge, has a connection to nature, and has a sense for things beyond the normal. But beyond that, the definition seems to be very personal and specific to each witch. So I’m curious, what is a witch to you?