Mythology of a Southern Witch
Author: Seba O’Kiley
I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable, I sound my barbaric YAWP over the roofs of the world. — Walt Whitman, Song of Myself
I am the Southern Kitchen Witch. I am the stuff of legends and myth, honeysuckle and red-clay dirt. In my small frame, I carry the histories of my people: Celt Irish, Cherokee and African heritages that manifest in small fires, fried okra and the tribal beat of a semi-tropic sunset. My people are both the backbone of a continental history and the brunt of a universal myth that hints at ignorance and simplicity. But history has lied to you before.
My grandmother lived along a country river, just under the Tennessee line, and cooled her milk in a stream. She renamed (or re-spelled) herself in the sixth grade, quit school to pick cotton and came right back to “learnin” out of a deep need to “better” herself and her people. Her own folks were farmers and builders, and from that heritage, she became a self-taught blueprint artist and landowner of her own right. Let’s be clear here: my people had goat stews and said “ain’t, ” spit “chaw” and put the evil eye on you if you weren’t right. Somewhere down the line, someone decided that this denoted ignorance. As my dear Grandma once told me: we talk slow so as you can understand us. There’s much to say between the lines.
You see, our cadence and diction have little to do with our intellect or spirit other than the sweet, syrupy transference for which it allows. We have spawned several Presidents, dealt harshly with our demons and even held down an army or two in defense of our historical architecture. I was the first in my line to earn a doctorate — not on account of my ancestor’s lack of intelligence, but rather their lack of new money and time away from the fields. There exist within me two voices: one down-home, countrified low-river gal and one highly educated, trans-atlantically published sharp academe. Pick one? Hell, naw. Like any goddess, I refuse fracture. I am all things and one, the tenacious echo of the Divine, myth personified. It is a subject that both “chaps my bum” and “intrigues my sensibilities, ” but both are me. I label myself Southern and Witch and Dr. and Mom. Today, these things are Seba. When I am gone? Myth.
But what of this earthly phenomenon? Why this primal need for naming, signification, legend and myth?
Recently, my (Pagan) students and I were waxing long in front of a fire on the subject of myth. It was probably the most exhausting lesson I have ever thrown down on a hearth (literally, fire and all) but was worth every deep breath and three cheap bottles of red. As a Hereditary, I cannot divulge much–but I can note the obvious. Lacanian theory speaks of the signifier and the signified, the psychological need (born of desire) to name that which is illusive, transitory and slippery.  As Pagans, I believe that this concept is not one that denotes weakness or ego, but rather is a critical tool in our endeavors to surpass the somewhat rigid boundaries of the physical realm. We, as humans, need this tool–and you can’t get it at Lowes. As careful as I am with Christian sensibilities, I will forge into territory that may or may not be offensive. However, there comes a time for truth-telling and unadulterated bravery, so here we go.
30, 000 years ago, a diminutive statue was formed by Paleolithic man.  Her name, given by her excavators, is “Venus of Willendorf.” While other, larger, statues have been found as far as Siberia, the diminutive stature of most Goddess images have been noted by scholars as intriguing. How could a people emblazon their Holy One in such a small frame? Ah, well. Most of my Christian friends would tell you that they understand their Higher Power as fantastic in size, looming large over their world (usually, not universe) and a bit reserved in His demeanor unless provoked. I have noticed, in my teachings of expatriate Christians, a certain sense of removal from their access to the Divine and have queried that this phenomenon is due, in part, to those early religious sanctions. “He” is all knowing, I remember hearing, easily angered and removed from His people by the hierarchy of a chosen half-human child and a ghost or two. “We” are in a state of terror from birth that there awaits a scathing hell into which we could be cast for loving the wrong flesh, saying the wrong words, or even wearing the wrong t-shirt. “God” is, to use an analogy, THE FORCE. One does not sit down and chat with THE FORCE. In effect, He is unsignifed–and for some of us humans, this breeds terror.
The problem for a large faction of us rebellious souls is our need for a bit more materiality–a little more personal, please, when our souls are on the line. Michel Foucault, a French theorist, wrote that the “rule of materiality that statements necessarily obey is therefore the order of the institution rather than of the spatio-temporal localization; it defines possibilities of reinscription and transcription, ” and this, my friends, is what myth exists to do.  In layman’s terms this means that: what has been named can be co-opted. What has been co-opted can be then reclaimed.
Once upon a time, as Merlin Stone points out in When God Was a Woman, there was a Female Divine.  A “barbaric yawp, ” as Walt Whitman would put it, sounded through peoples across continents long before Facebook and MTV.  She had names, so many they cannot be listed here, and held an interpersonal relationship with her subjects. Sure, there were priests and priestesses, medicine women and soothsayers, but these were the equivalent of wise ones whose purpose were to be the conduit, if you will, rather than the police of spirituality. Foucault’s “rule of materiality” applies neatly to ancient understandings of the Great Mother: so expansive, so omnipotent, she allowed herself to be signified in order that her subjects could better reach her, hear her, feel her. There was a time before myth and a place before ours that allowed for the human condition: fallible, faltering and in deep, abiding need for signification. Why was she depicted in such small form? Why, to carry her, my dear. You see, a goddess doesn’t need to impress you. You need to impress Her.
Then what of myth? Why have these amalgams, legends and analogies to reach the Great Divine? Ah. Because we are still in this physical realm. We are signifiers, storytellers, history builders and operate in linguistic patterns that our subconscious demands if it is to participate on a higher plane. Let me give you an example:
I create a lesson that explains why we need a “name” for our goddess.
I get confused looks, scuffling feet and scribbling pens.
I turn to an analogy, the cousin of myth (very Southern of me, yes?) that relies upon the movie Men in Black.  “The universe is on Orion’s bell.” How can something that, um, phantastmatically GRAND be so small? (See the Christian upbringing here?)
It’s simple, really. Why would “It” be removed from its subjects? The only thing small here, folks, is our mind. Women walk around every day with glorious, little microcosmic moon cycles in their core that wax and wane, go full and go black. Men, it’s been proven, have mini-cycles within the course of one day. We have always harbored the universe, grand and omnipotent and strange and beautiful, within us. Why would She mind a little signification? We are Her echo, after all, in bloody, breakable flesh.
I remember a movie from 1991 called The Butcher’s Wife.  Like any movie that has a reference to Pagan precepts, it did not do well at the box office. Yet, there was this moment, on a rooftop, when Demi Moore explains the existence of the human belly button as the scar of the separation of man from woman. It was riveting. Of course, it also was unscientific, ridiculously impossible and utterly born of myth. I sat and cried for an hour with a bottle of Jim Beam. You see, myth breaks my heart in a way that science does not. I have this theory that science is our own millennial mythology: provable, measurable, crystallized myth. Do I know it’s true? Why, yes. Am I primally torn at the fracture of science from its ontology? More. Touch me; I’m real. Cut me, I bleed. Love me . . . I’m legend. Prove that, I dare you. And take note: I’m 5’2 and 124 pounds, soaking wet. See?
I’m as small as a bell around a cat’s neck and still throb like a universe. I am signified.
Which brings us ’round to our original musings: why myth? Why signification?
I’ve always felt that it is the inherent right (or rite) of a soul to signify its own self, rather than exist as the victim of signification. We are untranslatable until we translate ourselves. I cannot imagine a Goddess in need of the same, for She is already, well, everything. Translating her is our need, not the other way around. Indeed, on this plane of existence, we crave myth as the signification of our heritage, of our transcendence and of our paths. Myth is our secret weapon, you see, the Orion’s bell around our neck that holds the universe.
And just for good measure and some final signification of all the myth that I embody:
Y’all know that thump in your core that smells like home and sounds like buffalo? Have you felt the way your soul heals right up when you eat butter smeared on homemade bread or nestle yourself under a worn quilt? Seen someone you love smile with the sun laying down on his or her face all gold and worn in the late afternoon? That’s the echo of the Divine. That’s Southern. And down here, we share myth like it’s homemade wine and signify you as kin.
Seba (aka Dr. PD)
1. I am particularly working with Lacanian theories of the signifier as it relates to psychoanalytic studies of desire. This theory was originally attributed to Saussure. See: Saussure, Ferdinand de. Course in General Linguistics (trans. Wade Baskin) . London: Fontana/Collins, 1974. Also see: Gates, Henry Louis. African American Literary Criticism, 1773 to 2000. ed. Hazel Arnett Ervin. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1999: 261.
2. I find it altogether fascinating that many, if not most, of found Paleolithic sculptures and drawings of the Goddess had tapered or nonexistent feet. While we, as humans, must “ground” in order to find balance, She is always already embedded in her earth.
3. Foucault, Michel. “The Order of Discourse, ” The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present 2nd Ed (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2001) , 1458.
4. Stone, Merlin. When God Was a Woman. Florida: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1976.
5. Whitman, Walt. “Song of Myself, ” Leaves of Grass. Philadelphia: David McKay, 1900.
6. Men in Black. Dir. Barry Sonnenfeld. Columbia Pictures, 1997. This particular line was misheard as “Orion’s Belt.”
7. The Butcher’s Wife. Dir. Terry Hughes. Paramount Pictures, 1991.