Wednesday, March 26, 2014

A typical example: "'Witch' is a bad word" (On Tess Dawson on Witches)

I recently happened across an interesting 2012 blog post at Kina'ani, a blog devoted to "Canaanite religion, Natib Qadish, polytheism, and polytheist communities, oracles, and inspiration...". The post in question, by Tess Dawson, is titled, simply enough, "Witch" is a bad word.

Although it's a little dated, the post in question is important to look at not because it says anything new, but because what it says is all too typical and pervasive. Tess Dawson's post perpetuates the insidious notion that Witchcraft is intrinsically harmful and evil, and that all positive associations with Witchcraft are modern, romantic contrivances dreamed up by feminists and/or Wiccans.

What makes Dawson's uncritical repetition of these tired old anti-Witch and anti-Wiccan talking points all the more galling is that she is herself a prominent leader of a modern polytheistic religion (Natib Qadish). That is to say, she should know better.

Here is how Dawson frames her discussion of the historical meaning of the English word "Witch" in the opening paragraphs of her post:

Allow me to clarify: witch is a bad word, i.e. it is a poor word choice for the magic that we do.

For centuries, the word “witch” in English has had a connection with improper use of magic, and even with evil. In recent years, many people who work with magic in the New Age and Pagan communities have tried to reclaim the word “witch” and understand it as a beneficial term despite centuries of use as a malevolent term. In the English language, fewer words mean bad-magic-user quite like the words “witch” and “sorcery” have for generations. As such, scholars of texts exploring Canaanite history, religion, and magic, use the words “witch,” “witchcraft,” and “sorcery” when they translate Canaanite terms which basically mean "bad-magic-user" or "bad-magic". It is ungainly to keep using "bad-magic-user" or "bad-magic" when the terms “witch,” “witchcraft” and “sorcery” are understood to be that.

Why is all this consideration and contemplation over words important? Because there were prohibitions against “witchcraft” and “sorcery,” since these were unlawful forms of magic in Canaan and ancient Mesopotamia. In ancient Mesopotamia, the law went so far as to punish some offenders with death. Let’s take a look at the terms often translated into English as “witch,” “witchcraft” and “sorcery.”

Later on, toward the end of her piece, Dawson claims that anyone who uses the word "witch" in any positive sense is ignoring "the centuries during which 'witch,' 'witchcraft,' or 'sorcery' were evil terms ..."

In the remainder of this post I will not be concerned with Dawson's careless conflation of the very different terms "Witchcraft" and "sorcery". Instead I will focus solely on the words "Witch" and "Witchcraft" and provide a summary of (some of) the evidence that clearly refutes Dawson's contention that "witch" is "an evil term".

First up in the witness box are the authors of The Dictionary of English Folklore, Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud, who begin the entry for the word "witch" in their dictionary as follows:
"The Old English word ‘witch’ meant ‘one who casts a spell’. Intrinsically neutral, it could be applied to those using magic helpfully."
In their entry for "white witch", Simpson and Roud also have this to say:
"This term ['white witch'], together with the equivalent 'good witch', or even 'witch' on its own, might be applied in Tudor and Stuart times to people who used healing spells and performed other useful services."
So, according to these two noted folklorists, going back as far as Old English (a thousand years ago) and all the way up to "Tudor and Stuart times" (bringing us up to the early 18th century) the word Witch was a "neutral" term without any automatic negative (let alone "evil") connotations, and which was definitely used to refer to "those using magic helpfully", including "people who used healing spells". For more on Simpson and Roud see this previous post of mine: Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud on Witches and Witchcraft.

Second, let's take a quick look at the historical records of the Scottish Witch-hunts. Half or more of all Witchcraft trials conducted in the English language took place in Scotland, so this is obviously an important source of information for the meaning of the English word "Witch". According to the research done by the folks at the Survey of Scottish Witchcraft, there exist records from 873 Scottish Witchcraft trials for which we have surviving documentation that tells us what those accused of Witchcraft were actually accused of having done. (Parenthetically, this is only about 1/4 of the total surviving trial records, but only these 873 cases tell us anything about the actual, or at least purported, activities of accused Witches).

To be sure, in Scotland as elsewhere during the Burning Times, simply being accused as a Witch could mean any number of things, from practicing midwifery to being able to fly, to plotting to murder the King. What we find when we search through these trial records is that less than half of those cases in which specific information about the charges is preserved involved any reference to the use of magic to cause harm, while over 20% of these same 873 trial records explicitly refer to the  performance of various kinds of beneficial magic (folk healing, midwifery, and what the researchers at the Survey simple denote as "white magic"). For more on the surviving data from the Scottish Witch-hunts see these three previous posts:
A third category of evidence is comprised of written sources drawn from medieval and early modern English literature. Two notable 14th century sources in which one finds Witchcraft explicitly associated with beneficial magic are Piers Plowman (which refers to Witches as healers), and John Trevisa's (Middle) English translation of the Polychronicon of Ranulf Higden (which tells us about sailors seeking out Witches to perform beneficial weather magic). In the late 15th century we find Malory's redaction of the tale of Sir Balin, in which the "poor knight" is suspected of practicing Witchcraft not because he has harmed anyone (or, more generally, done anything "evil"), but rather because he was the only one of the knights (including Arthur himself) who could come to the aid of the "damsel, the which was sent on message from great Lady Lylle of Avelion." See these three posts for more on Piers Plowman, John Trevisa, and Sir Balin:
From the 16th century we have James Sanford's 1569 English translation of Cornelius Agrippa's The Vanitie and Uncertaintie of Artes and Sciences (De incertitudine et vanitate omnium scientiarum et artium liber). Chapter 44 of that work is titled "Witchinge Magick". In that section, Agrippa includes discussion of such beneficial forms of magic as "charmed drinckes for love, and ... medicins ... whereby happy and fortunate childerne maye be begotten," and also  the ability to "understand the voices of birdes." Also according to Agrippa, the "pocions" of Witches make it possible to change one's shape. Agrippa also includes beneficial weather magic under the category of "Witchinge Magick", and he specifically refers to the wondrous ability of Oprheus to calm the seas with his songs, as related in the famous tale of the Argonauts. For more on this see: Cornelius Agrippa on "Witchinge Magick".

By the time we reach the 17th century, finding literary sources documenting the association of Witches with beneficial magic becomes increasingly easy. The works of William Shakespeare, John Fletcher, Robert Burton, Thomas Middleton, John Webster, Henry More, Samuel Collins, John Dryden and Joseph Addison (although Addison actually brings us into the 18th century) all provide such examples. For more on these and other sources, explore the links found here: Beneficent Witchcraft: One Hundred And Seven Sources .

An especially interesting source of literary evidence from the 17th century is provided by thee different English dictionaries from the period. Robert Cawdrey's 1604 A Table Alphabetical defines "magitian" as "one vsing witchcraft". Thomas Blount's 1656 Glossographia Anglicana Nova tells us that a Witch is a woman who is capable of "Prophecying". Edward Phillips' 1658 The New World of English Words tells us that "Enchantress" and "Prophetess" are other names for a "Witch"; and that "Magick" is another word for "Witchcraft", which is defined as "the black Art whereby ... some Wonders may be wrought, which exceed the common Apprehensions of Men." In all of three of these dictionaries we find that "Witches" and "Witchcraft" are associated with magic generally, and that, as such, they are "evil" only to the extent that Christians considered all magic, outside of the "miracles" sanctioned by them, to be the works of their Devil. For more details see: Looking It Up: Witches and Witchcraft in some early English dictionaries.

Fourth, and finally, we should go back even further and flesh out what Roud and Simpson had to say about the meaning of the word "Witch" in Old English sources. If we look at the earliest known Old English laws on the subject, "wicca" (or "wicce" or "wiccecræft") usually appears as just one member of a list of proscibed magical practices, along with "wigleras", "scinlæcan"/"scincræftcan", "lybblac",and "gealdorcræftigan". In none of these lists is "wicca" singled out as especially associated with harmful or "evil" activities. Rather, these laws clearly represent sweeping efforts to eradicate surviving Pagan magical practices among people who are supposed to have been "converted". The one time when "wicca" does not appear alongside other terms for practitioners of magic, it appears, instead, in an explicitly religious context in a law (Cnut 1018) intended to root out "hæðenscip". In addition to these laws, we also have other surviving Old English sources documenting the fact that Witches were sought out by those seeking healing, financial success, and longevity. For more details and sources see:
The executive summary is that it is completely wrong-headed to apply moralizing labels such as "evil" to Witches and Witchcraft as if this were some kind of objective, historical fact. And it is especially wrong-headed for modern-day polytheists to mindlessly apply such moralizing labels, because they are borrowed directly and uncritically from Christianity's obsessive hatred for all magic that it does not control, whether that magic is beneficial and highly sought after, or potentially harmful and greatly feared.