"I'd never thought about witchcraft like that: A FLEXIBLE, CATCH-ALL REPOSITORY FOR ANYTHING THAT UPSETS AUTHORITY AND STRUCTURE. Even in the Bible a witch is defined as someone who does something "that we do not do."
Witchcraft is very much about power, and we continue to be interested in it because of that! Of course, what is threatening to an early modern religious system is not threatening in the same way today. We have different sources of authority. Back then, there was no difference between government and church and science; today, we've split those loci, but that question of power is still one of the reasons we find witches so intoxicating and enticing. What they represent is incredibly exciting: the idea that you have a set of secret powers that no one can perceive.
Yeah, and yet even that idea can get twisted back around to serve the place of power where government/church/science is still connected. I'm thinking of Todd Akin saying women's bodies have the ability to shut down a rape. If that were true, we'd be witches. And almost, what a cool fantasy that we could do that, and how terrible that even that fantasy doesn't get to serve us at all."
"So, I have a question for you that I'm not even sure how to formulate. I am curious about: where do witches start? What's the oldest mention of a witch? You talk about Exodus, "thou shalt not suffer a witch to live." I think I've always assumed that the idea of a witch is basically as old as women and fear. But I don't know!
That's a good question and I don't know if I can answer it. For one, there are so many different dimensions of witchcraft. Today, there are still examples all over the world where people (oftentimes children) are accused of being witches and scapegoated, just as in a witch trial. There are whole populations of children in Central Africa who have been isolated because their families or villages cast them out for witchcraft. So, it's hard to say: witchcraft is hard to trace back to a single idea, and each case arises out of specific factors. The word is translated differently in different places, too. Even in the Bible it's hard to understand the difference between witch, sorcerer, wizard, necromancer.
But essentially there are two pieces to the witch idea: scapegoating, and power. It's safe to say that in any culture, at any time, we might have looked for ways to scapegoat people who are on the outs.
Or people who have power that we don't want them to have.
And there are always ways to punish people who have gained that kind of power. But I can't identify a real starting point for witches: I'm a little uncomfortable drawing any broad trans-cultural conclusion about witchcraft.
It is interesting, though, that the idea is almost inherently syncretic. It flips from folk to religion and back, it seems easily transmissible.
Yeah. I will mention that there's a certain idea about witchcraft and colonialism-the idea that witchcraft is imported into places through colonization, and intense and imported religious activity might bring about this Western idea of a witch.
Where does the like, Walgreens witch come from? The super-simplified pop culture symbol of the witch?
There are definitely very old woodcuts of witches that are very Hollywood-esque. I don't know exactly how to answer that question, but I can tell you where the major symbols come from.
So the broom comes from early modern descriptions of what witches do. It shows up in early modern and some medieval woodcuts, and one big feminist interpretation is to see the broom as a phallic symbol, of course. One thing that's different between the Hollywood version and these old woodcuts is that the early modern witches were supposed to carry the broom with the straw facing forward, and they'd melt a candle into the straw to light their way.
That is really beautiful, actually.
Yeah, and there was this sense that witches could send their souls out of their bodies to fly around at night, and the broom is part of that."
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