Now, as I've mentioned before, I have long and storied history with witches. A childhood obsession with a certain mortar-flying Russian hag, and having played the part in most every grade school play, was not the end, but only the beginning of it.
Throughout my teenage yaers I kept reading both fiction and non-fiction about witches. Anything from Dianne Wynne Jones, to Susan Cooper, to Lloyd Alexander, to the Golden Bough, and my favorite of many moons; The Changeover by Margaret Mahy. (Over the years I have discovered that there is a great sisterhood among girls who were lucky enough to get to read this book in early adolescence.)
Through my haphazard research (these were the dark days before the cornucopia of online information) I came across some literature about Neo-Pagan practices, most importantly Drawing Down The Moon by Margot Adler. I was immediately drawn to this religion born out of the tumultuous 60s, who's goal was to, in Adler's words, "to re-animate the world of nature; or, perhaps more accurately, to reenter the primeval world view, to participate in nature in a way that is not possible for most Westeners after childhood."
It wasn't until a few years later, that I experienced such beliefs in action, when I first came to this here Island. The beliefs behind many of the traditions and annual celebrations our community has, are not so much Wiccan, as just all out pagan in the simplest sense of the word: non-christian, as in not stemming from the Judeo-Christian monotheism that dominates our mainstream culture. Not that there is any exclusion. It is a mix of older Europian tradition that feels oddly, atavistically satisfying (such as the maypole, or the Winter Solstice Fire), Native American and Eastern influences and just plain ol' joy and gratitude. For years, since my first encounter with it, I searched for something else as spiritually satisfying.
It was during this quest that, while living in London, I went to a Wiccan Circle most every Sunday for two and a half years. This was not quite as witchy as it may sound, or as I though it would be. Mostly it was like any other setting in which women meet: we talked and drank tea. The topics ranged from herbal remedies, to menstruation and other meditations on the moon, poetry, our relationships with nature, our bodies, our boyfriends and husbands and girlfriends.
Sure, we did witchy things, little rituals and prayers, circles and tarot readings. We also talked of The Three-Fold Goddess and her many manifestations, but often our discussions on magic were more in the ilk of layman anthropologists, sociologists or folklorists, than those of practicing witches.
Even back then, I never identified myself as a neo-pagan, in spite the Sunday meetings, the Stonehenge Solstices and the Woodhenge field trips. Standing in the bright Mayday sun on an English field, which looked much like a neatly organized clear cut, I felt a little out of place and even a little embarrassed. A man raised a staff decorated with ribbons and then lowered it for a young couple to skip over, before pronouncing them a man and wife. He wore a white robe and lots of silver jewellery. I rubbed at the small waxing moon painted on my cheek and glanced longingly around for a place to sneak a cigarette. Don't get me wrong. I wasn't embarrassed for them, I was embarrassed for me.
I've always tried to be honest in my intentions, yet here I was, feeling more than a little hokey.
Shortly thereafter I moved somewhere that conveniently had no Wiccan women's group. There was a co-ed group, but I felt oddly antagonistic towards the idea of mingling with men, in spite the fact that the coven our group had been part of, was both sexes.
By then I had realized, was that I was not as much drawn to the ritual magic of Wiccan beliefs, as the protective circle of women the group had provided me with.
More than anything else, my interest in witchcraft, in both its ancient and modern incarnations, stems from how it manifests feminine power. Much of my formative years were a period of latency between the second -and third-wave feminism, and thus void of much female influence, or empowerment (Riot Grrrl never truly landed to the cold shores I lived on). This made the female-centric Neo-Pagan world-view very attractive to me.
A better understanding of womanhood was definitely something I took away from my Wiccan experience, and that I am forever grateful for. Or, as the grandmother in The Changeover puts it: "All women are witches." We are tied to the moon, we create life, we change form from Maiden, to Mother, to Crone, and we are, in my humble opinion, infinitely powerful.
And, in spite of my discomfort with many of the ceremonial aspects of Neo-Paganism it wasn't as though I didn't believe in magic, I did and do and will. I believe in the magic of plants that heal us, the magic of the land that we live on, the magic of science that daily proves yet another impossible thing true, the magic of human interaction in which our intentions are manifested trough non-verbal, as well as verbal communication (or as the hippies like to say: vibes). Most of all I believe in magic of language, like only an acolyte of Robert Graves can.
The meditation on one's relationship with nature that is at the core of Wiccan beliefs, too came to me more naturally outside the artificial seeming rituals. In the end, I discovered that I did not in fact, need to re-animate the world of nature for myself, because it was already alive with spirits and primordial beauty in my mind; and that I would rather believe in the molecular and astronomical magic of science, the invisible mycelium of cause and effect, and that of my own emotions and hopes manifest.
While I have moved on from my early attempts at ritual magic, I definitely still identify with the image of the witch in all her guises. In a culture where female archetypes (especially good or powerful ones) are often scarce, she is one easily identified and identified with. Like all female archetypes, witches too have gone trough the cycle from acceptance, to being reviled, to being re-appropriated by a new generation of women.
I certainly like to dress the part, and look forward to being a wise old crone some day.
And sometimes I even draw that waxing moon onto my cheek.
Edit: This post is in no way written in condemnation of Christian tradition, or any other religious tradition for that matter and I hope no one reads it in such a way.
(All the uncredited images are from an unfortunate inspiration-folder on my machine, that sadly lack sources. In spite my efforts I was unable to identify them. All apologies. I do know for sure that the last one is from one amazing tumbl-blogger and an all-time favorite Cosmic Dust who now also has a blog called Earth-Age. I bet some of the others are theirs as well. And some are probably Violet Folklore's)