Exploring Witchy History And The Myths Surrounding These Early Feminists

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Witches. I can feel the remnants of my overly-religious bones shudder as I type that word. Even though I grew up immersed in the worlds of Sabrina Spellman and Hermione Granger, there was a strict understanding that their magic wasn’t real and wasn’t to be overly indulged in or sought after; it was bad, an evil practice done in service to a Darkness. 

What I didn’t know then – what I was never taught in history class, or church, or from books – is that women have their own unique history and culture, the mainstream narrative of which has (unfortunately) largely been controlled by men. We all learned in high school that primary sources are the gold standard in good research and reporting; why, then, have we let these secondary (or even tertiary, or farther removed) narratives of “witches” dominate what we know of them and their practices?


Some Witchy History

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Would you believe me if I told you that neolithic societies were actually egalitarian? Hierarchy and patriarchy were nonexistent – women’s skills were crucial to the group’s survival. Their ability to give a child quality care ensured the growth of the society. Hunter-gatherer communities didn’t have much sexism because they couldn’t settle; they were constantly on the move, focused on survival.

With the discovery of farming came the ability to plant some roots (pun intended). The very nature of community demands some sort of organization and hierarchy, and this is where sexism took hold. Women were seen as a commodity. After all, they are valuable – they produce offspring which can be used to farm, hunt, gather, or fight in territory wars. Don’t want to have a kid? Too bad. Your community needs you to.

The psychological subordination of women happened very slowly, over the course of generations. Men utilized rape (which is still used in warfare today), mothers’ acceptance of enslavement in order to protect their children, and the severing of familial ties as a way to dishonor women and reinforce their inferior status in order to psychologically dominate them over thousands of years.

Unsurprisingly, there were women over the centuries who sought to escape from the oppressive mold they were born into. A term was finally given to women who attempted to live life on their own terms by rejecting the patriarchy’s oppressive regime – “witch.” 

Witches (aka everyday women who didn’t want to put up with bullshit) were women who exercised their divine femininity, female sexuality, agency and autonomy within the oppressive patriarchal structure. The patriarchy didn’t like this very much, and “witches” were used as scapegoat explanations for the mysteries of death, illness, grief, and even just fear.

Witches and Broomsticks

I have a fun fact for you: it was often overtly sexual women who were accused of witchcraft. Ever wondered where the whole witches-ride-broomsticks thing came from? I’ll tell you…and yes, this is going exactly where you think it is.

Female sexuality and their sexual autonomy has always been threatening to patriarchal societies that have sought to control womens’ reproduction. So it follows that a woman being sexual on her own terms was a big no-no. 

You know that thing when something is taboo or not allowed, and it just makes you want to do it even more? Well, 15th-C women/”witches” for sure did. Enter: sex and hallucinogenics…and now I’m thinking that if I’d been a woman back then, I’d probably have been a witch, too.

Plant-based hallucinogenics were popularly used in witches’ salves, brews, “oyntments,” etc. and someone somewhere along the line discovered that anal/vaginal depositing of hallucinogenics allowed them to bypass liver metabolism and the resulting intestinal discomfort. I’m not sure who got the idea to stick a hallucinogenic up their vag, but I can’t say I’m surprised – apparently, humanity’s been trying weird shit for a long time.

I know what you’re wondering: “But Emily, how on earth did the witches get the hallucinogenics in their vajayjays?”

Yep, you guessed it: broomsticks! And the resulting hallucinogenic experience was one of extreme drowsiness, often accompanied by a weightless, “flying” sensation.

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So, yes – the witches on broomsticks trope has its roots in masturbatory experiences with hallucinogenic-soaked broomsticks. You’re welcome.

What is Witchcraft?

We want to credit this source for much of the information found in this section.

The line between magic and science is blurry. Women who worked in their communities as midwives, cunning women, or wise wives were accused of being witches. Many of them worked as what we would call today herbalists, healers, mental health therapists, botanists, ecologists, and doctors. 

Women even found that plants such as Queen Anne’s Lace, pennyroyal, and columbine, could be used as birth control. As you can imagine, this was super threatening to the patriarchy, which was quick to label these women “witches” and denounce their medicine as evil. As such, much of the knowledge surrounding these plants has been hidden or erased, along with the generations of knowledge these “witches” collected and shared through oral traditions. Silphium, one of the most effective pregnancy-preventing plants, has even become extinct. Instead, we put random hormones in our body (formulated by men, yay) that frequently cause depression and ruin our natural sex drive. Wooooo.

Christian churches also used the “witch trials” as a way to win more members and credibility. There was contention between midwives who were women and doctors who were religious men. Thus, witchcraft became associated with worshipping the devil (TY, religious men) when in reality, many of these women were highly in touch with nature, femininity, empowerment, equality and empathy. Those accused were often mentally, physically and sexually tortured by their captors which led to false confessions and the naming of other “witches.”

Thanks to History.com for the following excerpt:

“Witch hysteria really took hold in Europe during the mid-1400s, when many accused witches confessed, often under torture, to a variety of wicked behaviors. Within a century, witch hunts were common and most of the accused were executed by burning at the stake or hanging. Single women, widows and other women on the margins of society were especially targeted.

Between the years 1500 and 1660, up to 80,000 suspected witches were put to death in Europe. Around 80 percent of them were women thought to be in cahoots with the Devil and filled with lust. Germany had the highest witchcraft execution rate, while Ireland had the lowest. The publication of “Malleus Maleficarum”—written by two well-respected German Dominicans in 1486—likely spurred witch mania to go viral. The book, usually translated as “The Hammer of Witches,” was essentially a guide on how to identify, hunt and interrogate witches. “Malleus Maleficarum” labeled witchcraft as heresy, and quickly became the authority for Protestants and Catholics trying to flush out witches living among them. For more than 100 years, the book sold more copies than any other book in Europe except the Bible.”

The Modern Witch

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You know the romanticized, fantastical story of the witch. You know the historical stereotypes, you’ve read The Crucible, you’ve donned the pointed black hat on Halloween to watch Hocus Pocus and eat candy. Or, maybe, witches were a taboo topic to you growing up, as they were for many of my religious friends (TY, parents, for letting me watch Harry Potter). But do any of these images of the spell-casting, potion-brewing, non-sexual-broom-riding witches resonate with the witches of today? And moreover, why does it seem that many modern women are eager to reclaim the label that quite literally destroyed the lives of many of their spiritual predecessors?

Well, I’ll tell you why the label is attractive to me (my parents are cringing right now – don’t worry guys, I’m far from being a devil worshipper). The label “witch” represents independence, the divine feminine, female sexuality and a reclamation of the power that too many generations of us have been denied. It’s the ability to have autonomy, to exercise my spiritual gifts in a way that brings healing to myself and others, to honor my feminine instincts and intuition that I was taught to ignore growing up in religion. 

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(This is a side note, but one that I couldn’t bring myself to omit. Over my past couple years of moving from religion into a more expansive, inclusive spirituality, it’s striking to me how many Christian practices emulate what we call “witchcraft.” We take communion – eat the body and drink the blood – as a way to cleanse ourselves. We “pray” verses akin to incantations, believing we’ll derive from them a certain outcome. These practices, in churches, are good, holy, Christian; outside of churches, they’re evil instruments of the devil. It makes zero sense to me, but oh well. C’est la vie.)

The witchy motif is also readily apparent in pop culture, especially in music written by – surprise surprise – strong-minded, independent women. Taylor Swift’s ‘I Did Something Bad’ at once claims and calls out the label so often used by the patriarchy to denounce “threatening” women:

I can feel the flames on my skin 

Crimson red paint on my lips

If a man talks shit,  then I owe him nothing

I don’t regret it one bit, ’cause he had it coming

They say I did something bad

Then why’s it feel so good?

They’re burning all the witches even if you aren’t one

They got their pitchforks and proof, their receipts and reasons

They’re burning all the witches even if you aren’t one

So light me up 

And Miley Cyrus’ ‘Mother’s Daughter’ reclaims generational feminine power:

Don’t fuck with my freedom

I came up to get me some

I’m nasty, I’m evil

Must be something in the water

Or that I’m my mother’s daughter

Hallelujah, I’m a witch, I’m a witch, hallelujah

And then we have my personal fav, self-professed witch Maggie Rogers, whose unconventional use of sound effects in her music (such as rattlesnake tail shakes and bird calls) causes each of her songs to cast a sort of spell of its own. Maggie is who I think of when I think of the modern feminist witch – an unapologetically alive woman, filled to the brim with nature’s unique joys and magic, and irrevocably in tune with her own divine feminine and the power that holds. 


Did you know all the brilliant history about witches before this? Comment below!

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