White-Washed Witches

Author: BellaDonna Saberhagen

Witches are good. They were the great priests and priestesses of the “Old Religion” that everyone turned to in times of need. They were healers and seers, guides and advocates. It was only when the big bad Christians came and burned the Witches (nine million women, to be exact) that they were seen as bad, malevolent, evil things seeking to destroy all that was good and holy. Christianity maligned the good people of the earth, demonized the gods, and spread the hatred and fear of Witches that survives until this very day.

The above sounds familiar, doesn’t it? It’s what many Pagan authors believe and would like their readers to believe. The only problem is, it’s not true. It’s rewritten history. Every bit of it. If we’re to grow beyond the haphazard anthropology of Margaret Murray, we have to accept that. Many Pagans do accept that (most Pagans by now, I would hope) ; but there is one part of it that seems to be ignored: that Witches are good, and in fact MUST be good.

Historically, often the opposite is true. I’m not speaking of Celtic or even Norse tales; one can argue that since they were not written down until after Christians took over their respective regions that they may well have been changed to suit Christian morality. However, the Greeks had tales of witches that far pre-date the Christian take-over, and even these do not paint witches too kindly.

Medea was a princess well skilled in magic. In the tale of Jason and the Golden Fleece, she plays a key role. Hera takes an interest in the success of the mission and asks Aphrodite to have her son Cupid strike Medea with love for Jason so that she would be willing to help him with her “dark knowledge.” Medea’s father was King Aetes, the keeper of the Golden Fleece. After being struck with love for the enemy of her father, Medea considers killing herself with one of her deadly potions rather than betray her father or her love. However, she decides to betray Aetes and help Jason, which sets the tone for future actions. She gives him a balm that makes him invincible for a day and tells him how to win the trial her father has set before him to win the Golden Fleece. After the trial is won, she learns that her father has no intention of honoring his bargain and handing over the Fleece. She tells Jason of this and he and the Argonauts steal the Fleece and take her with them as they flee. During the pursuit, Medea is responsible for allowing the Argonauts to escape by causing her brother’s death; either by asking him to rescue her and sending him into a trap or by cutting him into pieces herself and forcing her father to stop pursuit to gather the remains of his dismembered son.

Upon arriving home, Jason finds that his father, the rightful king, was forced to suicide by the evil Pelias (the entire expedition for the Fleece was a bargain made between he and Jason, if Jason could bring the Fleece, Pelias would relinquish the kingdom back to its rightful ruler) . Jason needs to bring Pelias down and again turns to Medea. Pelias is an old man, so Medea approaches his daughters with a magical way to make the old young again. She cuts up an old ram in front of them, puts the pieces in a pot of boiling water, says a charm and out springs a lamb. That night, the daughters happily cut their own father to ribbons in their effort to make him young again. Jason becomes king. Medea bears Jason two children, but he does not marry her. Instead, he marries the princess of Corinth in order to gain that kingdom as well and forces her and her sons to leave his realms because she threatens harm to his new wife and he has seen what she can do. In exile, Medea sends a poisoned garment that kills Jason’s wife. Once Jason finds out, he threatens to sell his sons into slavery, so Medea kills them herself so that they would not be so tortured and shamed; then she escapes as Jason curses her.

While some of her magic may have been for what she saw as good, she certainly did not live by the codes modernly associated with Witches. She was a Witch, but not a good Witch. Her early magic may not seem so bad, helping Jason to win the Fleece through the trial; but she had to betray her own family to even go that far and that was certainly seen as evil in those days. Circe was a “most beautiful and dangerous witch.” She turned every man she came upon into a beast, but with a human mind so that they remained conscious of their predicament. When Odysseus sent a scouting party out to check the island, she turned them into swine, save one who got away and ran back to tell his captain. Odysseus went alone to face Circe, having been given an herb by Hermes to prevent her magic from affecting him. That he was able to resist her magic sparked Circe’s romantic interest and she freed his men and told him what he must do next on his long journey home.

In another tale, Glaucus sought a love potion from her to make the woman he desired love him. His story made Circe love him, but he was not interested. She decided it was the fault of the woman for which he longed. Circe turned this woman into a monster that destroyed all that tried to get close. Her name was Scylla; she became a monster that different sea-farers worried about in several tales. She was another Witch doing evil things, possibly in the name of love, possibly for her own selfish aims.

The concept of Witches as evil is older than Christendom. These tales prove this. In fact, the idea of Witches as good is more modern than many would prefer to believe. The book, The Wizard of Oz was banned in some places for daring to have good Witches in it. Even Leland’s Aradia has Witches doing bad things (the age of this text is up for conjecture, I date it to Leland, since his claimed source was never heard from again; others consider it to be based on a much older text) . Aradia is told by her mother: “And thou shalt teach the art of poisoning, Of poisoning those who are great lords to all; Yea, thou shalt make them die in their palaces; and thou shalt bind oppressor’s souls; and when ye find a peasant who is rich, then ye shall teach the witch, your pupil how To ruin all his crops with tempests dire (…) And when a priest shall do you injury By his benediction, ye shall do to him double harm and do it in the name of me, Diana, queen of witches all!”

I find that Leland’s Aradia states that Witches should out-right harm those who oppose them (and even those simply better off than they are) very interesting since some of his writings were clearly taken and applied to some forms of modern Wicca. The Charge of the Goddess as written by Doreen Valiente states, “Whenever ye have need of any thing, once in the month, and better it be when the moon is full, then shall ye assemble in some secret place and adore the spirit of She, who is Queen of all witches. There shall ye assemble, ye who are fain to learn all sorcery, yet have not won its deepest secrets; to these will She teach things that are yet unknown. And ye shall be free from slavery; and as a sign that ye be really free, ye shall be naked in your rites.”

From Aradia: ”Whenever ye have need of anything, Once in the month, and when the moon is full, ye shall assemble in some desert place, or in a forest all together join to adore the potent spirit of your Queen, my mother, Great Diana. She who fain would learn all sorcery has not won its deepest secrets, then my mother will teach her, in truth all things as yet unknown. And ye shall be freed from slavery, and so ye shall be free in everything; and as the sign that ye are truly free, ye shall be naked in your rites.”

I only hope Valiente gave Leland credit and did not just outright plagiarize him. This piece is clearly taken from Aradia, but the morality taught in that book (what I took as proof of Witches doing bad things was from the very same chapter as the “Charge” was “borrowed” from) was discarded and the Wiccan Rede placed in its stead. Since, by what most modern Witches would prefer to believe, all Witches follow the Rede, there are no bad Witches; and if you believe Wicca is the “Old Religion” of Europe, there never were bad Witches.

This belief creates individuals who become indignant every time pop-culture and media portray Witches as anything but good. They cry everything from “Christian persecution” to “the patriarchy gets nervous about powerful women, so they have to make them evil, cruel and sometimes insane.” While these beliefs may not be baseless, it must also be understood that Witches are not always good, just as Christians are not always good, just as your five year-old is not always good. Witches are humans and as humans, we can make mistakes, get angry, be selfish, exact revenge and wish to protect our families and property at all costs. If modern Witchcraft really wants to strive to be one with nature, then we cannot go against nature. Nature is both destructive and creative, we need to be the same or we are unbalanced. It may well be true that “The Witch that cannot hex, cannot heal.”

I see the modern good interpretations of Witches to be like old B-rate horror day-for-night shots (outdoor scenes filmed in broad day-light with a filter over the lens trying to create the illusion of darkness and usually failing) ; they give the darkness lip-service but stay within the circle of their white-light lamp. Sometimes you have to step outside your comfort zone to get in touch with reality; you might not always like the reality you see, but at least it is real and not a fantasy. The Witch as always good is just as much a fantasy as the Witch that is always bad.


Footnotes:
Mythology by Edith Hamilton
Aradia or Gospel of the Witches by Charles LeLand
The Charge of the Goddess by Doreen Valiente

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