I was recently asked to provide credentials on why I, and other Reclaiming Witches, have the right to call ourselves witches. Specifically, the concerns raised were that we call ourselves witches in the face of many ongoing deaths under the title, and that we are being culturally appropriative when we use the name.
I understand the concern. To be called a witch has been and continues to be serious accusation. Whether the accusation is of casting baneful magic on our human neighbors or of practicing illegitimate spirituality or magic, a witch is in many contexts not to be taken lightly. It stands in contrast to the joyful and sometimes flippant parade of altar pics on social media.
However, I cannot appropriate from my own culture, and the reclamation of the term witch is indeed that: a reclamation. We present day witches recognize that if we lived in a different time and place our actions would very well lead to our arrest and/or murder.
To provide a longer explanation, I want to begin with how we have inheritance of the term. The word witch comes to us through many avenues. The Puritans and other Christian sects who colonized the land very obviously brought the witch hunt with them, as evidenced by the famous Salem Witch Hunt. Many of us still deal with the spiritual repercussions: shame around the body, black and white moral thinking, and family from whom the practice must be kept secret. We also inherit other cultural baggage from those Christians: taboos around dance, drink, music, and just general fun.
Present day Evangelical Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Fundamentalist Christians have a very real belief in witches and will punish children who express interest in those forms of magic or spirituality. In the last 6 months I have seen at least 4 minors asking for help who live in this situation in the US and Brazil. Many of us come from families who hold these beliefs. I have seen my fellows deal with a deep set shame from this upbringing. Some of us, including me, are also immigrants from countries where the word witch, bruja, or bruxa is still used as a serious accusation.
Finally, Reclaiming has amongst its members people who are culturally if not religiously Jewish. Jewish people, heretics, and witches faced much of the same punishment and were often conflated for each other in the European middle ages until the early modern period. One of our most prominent writers and founders, Starhawk, is culturally Jewish. I also know multiple people from Jewish backgrounds who call themselves witches to this day. We can say very firmly in wake of the shootings at synagogues and temples in the last year in the US that violent antisemitism is still alive here.
It is easy to understand why someone might think we are divorced from this inheritance. Whiteness is a powerful cultural force in America, and one of the ways in which it establishes itself is to force us to be cut off from our ancestry in favor of being American. Germans, Jewish people, and even my Latina mother all have made decisions that prioritized their children fitting in over learning their history. Whiteness in this country does not just mean giving up folkways of our ancestors. It means fitting into a middle class, agnostic, Protestant spirituality. Poor Whites and those who do engage in Fundamentalist or Evangelical Christianity are often shamed and labeled “hicks”, “white trash”, and “crazy”.
The effect of this is that America (especially in our television and movies) presents itself as a monolithic culture that does not believe in witches. Even though the word witch means something a little different in the dystopia of this country, we still have a modern context affected by a direct cultural tie to places that did and still do believe in witchcraft. This doesn’t even get into the way the word witch was embroiled in the Satanic Panic of the 90’s.
We can’t appropriate from our own culture.
What does it mean to be a witch? Often, the accusation is false. People can be killed under the accusation of witchcraft to this very day because they hold land or some political power that makes them inconvenient to the plans of the rich and powerful. Silvia Federici has several books on a present day, global notion of what the word witch might mean. Undesirables were also labeled witch because they were easy targets to displace anger onto when the rich and powerful could not prevent famine or disease.
Who were/are the Undesirables? Old widows, herbalists, midwives, queers, those who refuse to follow Christianity, political organizers, people of color who refused to be treated as less than human, women who have had abortions: the list is long but rest assured we are on it. Reclaiming Witches, in particular, do not simply claim the word witch. No, we do our best to organize direct action against those forces which threaten the earth and humanity. We are street medics. We are jail support. We are prison pen pals. We call representatives, go to rallies, vote, continuously, educate ourselves, take part in noise demos, support strikes, and all other manner of political engagement.
We call ourselves witches to remind ourselves that we are lucky to be alive. For me personally, it is similar to why I call myself Queer. People died and are dying for me to have the freedoms I have today. I honor their struggle by wearing the labels as a badge of honor and by challenging myself every day to work hard to make more freedoms available for my descendants.
Finally, to the person who asked for my credentials, I offer this: what can I do as someone who calls themselves a witch living in present day America to stand in solidarity with those being accused as witches across the globe? If you have any ideas, I am open to hearing them.
A Loose List of Sources
Caliban and the Witch, Federici
The Devil and the Jew, Trachtenberg
Ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses and Ex-Fundies I know irl
Truth or Dare, Starhawk