The Original Anticlerical Feminist Revolutionary: The Witch

This Sunday, my band Azar Swan will be playing Slutist’s Legacy of the Witch festival. Various logistics have made it impossible for me to join the live lineup, but I’m excited the band is participating, and I wanted to say a few things about the witches’ legacy since I can’t attend.

By now it’s old news to mention that “witch” was merely a name given to females who didn’t properly assimilate into the social order that religious authorities had mapped out for women. But there are three quick main points to make about this.

First, witch not only was the name given to these women, it still is the name given to them. It’s a mistake to imagine that this period in history has ended simply because its more overt and brutal manifestations have been tamed in the Christianized West. Witchcraft is still a capital offense in seven countries worldwide. But you don’t need to go to Saudi Arabia or Uganda to witness the manner in which the dominant religious society still foists its own notions of nefariousness onto the power of women. It’s a laugh to see a meme about Beyonce’s Satanic allegiances, but it can be too easy living in urban, cosmopolitan spaces to forget how many people really believe these things when you venture out into middle America. It’s now a meme instead of a death sentence, but it’s the same gesture. I’ve lived in Louisiana now for a year and I promise you that some Christians believe in witches in a way only slightly removed from the days of the Salem trials.

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Which leads me to my second point: the witch has always, and will always be counterposed to religious authority. Unfortunately for a variety of reasons that are too numerous (and frustrating) to elaborate, it has become unfashionable to link feminism with anticlericalism and atheism. I hope this changes soon. Emma Goldman, the great suffragette and anarchist referred to theism as “pernicious” and lamented its absolutism and “paralyzing effect on thought and action.” Zora Neale Hurston remarked that “Gods always behave like the people who created them.” And the people who created them were men. To exalt the witch and her place in history is to exalt some of the most meaningful bursts of rebellion against paternalist religious authority that ever was. The witch is one of the great perennial enemies of God.

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Which leads me to my last point: when we talk about male Christian privilege, what we speak about are the subtle mechanisms whereby resistances and reclamations are automatically, subconsciously denigrated and spun. Rote habits, platitudes, received uncritical ways of thinking all merge to create an atmosphere hostile to previously oppressed groups regaining their dignity. Such is the case with witches. While I myself am not a believer in or a fan of the pseudoscientific and supernaturalist aspects of pagan practice and ritual, I am a fan of symbolism, and of history and storytelling, especially if those stories speak to a current political reality. The knee-jerk manner in which patriarchal Christian privileged society sometimes responds to recuperations of the witch as some sort of dorky teenage preoccupation is nothing if not a perfect example of how privilege functions. And one doesn’t have to be male or Christian to participate. The rolling of the eyes, the automatic association with adolescence, this is how bro dudes and bullies act.

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The celebration of the witch in the way Slutist has framed it is smart and mature. It’s historically and politically astute. Take it from someone who lives down the street from one of the most contentious and protested Planned Parenthood health centers in the country. The women whose bodies are disregarded by the state today share plenty in common with the burned and drowned female bodies of a couple generations ago. Think outside the little enclaves of counterculture and the comfort of the big cities that can hold big ideas. Not every place is like that. The witch is still a meaningful anticlerical feminist revolutionary, and her legacy is a great one.