It seems like lately we’ve entered an age where people are obsessed with labels. Personally, I’m not someone that likes to be pigeon holed into a category. If you’ve watched my videos, you’ve probably noticed that I drawn upon many different traditions, including Christianity, Buddhism, Shamanism, Paganism, etc. I prefer not to limit myself and have greatly benefited from having an expanded access to wisdom.
Interestingly enough, people liked me who do not have a particular religious affiliation are on the rise here in the United States and elsewhere. We are now a large enough group to be included as a “top 5 world religion”. This is a shift that has only happened during my lifetime. But what shall we call these individuals? Some may be fine with the term “spiritual seeker”. Personally I prefer Witch.
To me, the term Spiritual Seeker implies that you have gathered your spiritual knowledge from a particular teacher or guru. Although I’ve been lucky to have had a couple of mentors along the way, I’ve always been a solo practitioner, and I always will be. Observing nature as well as the cycles within my own life has always been my greatest teacher and source of inspiration.
But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s take a moment to review the history of the word Witch. For a lot of people out there, if they hear that someone calls themselves a Witch, it wouldn’t be any different from calling yourself a Goblin or a Pixie. To them, Witches are mythological, something that people used to believe in, but were never real. What you are going to learn in this post is that Witch is a title of respect that was used to describe a very real group of individuals. Women that were deliberately demonized and erased from history.
Let’s take a moment to address the typical depiction of a witch as wearing a black cloak and a pointy black hat. It’s no accident that every Halloween witch costume looks like this. Historically, people wore specific clothes to indicate their trade or profession. In many parts of Europe, this is still the case. If you’ve ever been to an October Fest celebration, you may have seen people wearing lederhosen. The image of the old timey “mild maid” costume may also come to mind. The costume we associate with “witches” was actually the traditional trade uniform of the Alewife.
Traditionally, brewing beer was a female profession because it involved the use of yeast. So this was seen as an extension of baking bread and doing other kitchen work. Since, they would be brewing large batches to sell, they would have absolutely used a cauldron. Women in this trade would have also used a large wooden spoon for mixing the beer. Yeast from the last batch would have colonized the wood of the special spoon. Spoons would have been ornately carved, giving crevices for more yeast to live in. When the spoon was dipped into the warm brew, the yeast would become activated and bubbles would have quickly formed!
Think of the three witches in Macbeth. They were brewing beer! Alewives had their own secret recipes. Many included specific herbs in order to give their beer medicinal qualities. These women would have also kept cats as a way to protect their beer grain from mice. This was good business and women were able to make enough money to support themselves independently.
There is unfortunately a long history of traditional women’s professions being taken over by men once they become too profitable (i.e. healthcare, computer programming, film, fashion, etc.). By the 1600s the church saw an opportunity to have the beer industry shifted to monasteries and put under their profit and control. And thus we see a surge in witch trials. Many historians believe that seizing the beer industry was the primary motivation for the witch trials, although it was certainly also an opportunity to seize lands away from widows and other women that were living independently.
Although by the 1600s witches became synonymous with alewives, that was not always the case. There are a few possible origins for the word witch. The old Germanic title Wikker meant someone who was a soothsayer. Although it originally had positive connotations, the word wicked does derive from it as well. It is also possible the term witch comes from the Middle English Wys, meaning wise one. The word wizard also is said to derive from wys.
Going back to the three Wyrd Sisters in Macbeath, wyrd simply meant a person capable of seeing the future. As you might have guessed, our word weird comes from this. So if you think it’s weird someone would call themselves a witch, you’re not entirely incorrect.
So traditionally the word Witch referred to a person that most-likely acted as a type of counselor for her village. She had knowledge of the seasons and could predict a hard or easy winter. She knew the best time to sow seeds. She had knowledge of herbs and healing remedies. She aided in childbirth as well as provided hospice services for the dying and comforted their families. She also had certain abilities to foretell the future. Spiritually, she was very connected to the Earth and it’s natural cycles.
The term Witch refers more to ones practice or vocation than to ones religious affiliation. There were pagan witches, but also Jewish and Christian witches. This was a necessary role and villagers would provide for the witch via gifts of food, services, or even money.
Although witches lived peacefully alongside Christianity for centuries, as the Church became more powerful, they resented having to share any amount of spiritual authority. In the year 815 AD, the Bishop of Lyon wrote a piece complaining about how people would gladly pay tithes to the village witch but would grouse at having to pay money to the Church. You can start to see the real source of tension here.
As witches received more and more negativity, they saw the value in laying low. They moved their households to the outskirts of town or even out into the woods. This is where the image of the “hedge witch” or the witches cabin in the woods originated. There was a deliberate campaign to both demonize these women and to eradicate them completely.
Some years ago I wrote a blog post pointing out that counselors; a profession that requires a Masters degree, the successful passing of State Boards, plus two years of supervised training, pays a salary less than a public school teacher. I didn’t mention it in the original post, but counseling is a predominantly female profession (roughly 70%). That blog post, that I honestly did not think was going to be controversial, generated a shocking amount of hate personally directed towards me. I remember in particular there were comments calling me a witch as well as jokes about the broom I flew in on, etc. Interestingly enough, I wasn’t writing about spiritual topics in those days, so the commenters had no idea about my nature-based beliefs. The comments were purely intended as a gendered insult towards me.
Personally, I think it’s time to reclaim some of these labels. The term witch in particular, is not only an appropriate word to use, but was once a term bestowing honor. Although I’m sure there’s a lot of people that are going to disagree with me, I feel comfortable using that word to describe myself. It’s simply the best word that fits what I do and I don’t want to contribute to the unfair stigmatization of the word by excluding it.