Problematizing The Word Witch
With the ubiquity of the term witch, I increasingly find myself considering the degree to which the general public - in particular the emergent, millennial class of spiritual practitioners with a fondness for all things spooky and mystical, are truly aware of the history and meaning of the term. This post is not meant to be an exhaustive historiographical survey, but rather a primer that can assist in the demystification of the term, but also problematize and critically assess the word's widespread usage, historical and contemporary, particularly where African and African-rooted spiritual traditions are concerned.
Defining the word witch
A truly precise definition of the term still seems elusive; however, apparently, we all know it when we see it: be it a person in a Halloween costume in the stereotypical hat, wart on nose, and broom stick; or, for the so-called believers in all things spooky, attributing a difficult season in their lives to witchcraft. For the purpose of this conversation, I will depart from the following definition: a person who believes in or practices magic, that may or may not be connected to institutionalized religion, but includes practices known in contemporary times as healing, shamanism, divination, energy work, etc. While witches weren't always considered negative, within the European cultural contexts of the Middle Ages through the beginning of the industrial period, they were always perceived as individuals who lived on the fringe of accepted society and it's mores and values. This fact, I believe, made it easier, in the already restrictive Christian atmosphere of that time to justify their marginalization, and ultimately their abuse.
Who were the individuals Europeans called witches?
The powerful men, and particularly women, of these non-European societies were known to members of the society with whom they lived. While there was certainly a mystique, and even a healthy fear, these individuals were integral to the generative functioning of these societies. Their powers were known through displays of skill that included the oral histories of these civilizations and was then passed down throughout the generations. The sacred knowledge of these Bandoki, Awon Iyami, Tlamacazqui, iSangoma, the women of Sar, Pujari, and many others with names known publicly and clandestinely represent centuries and millennia old, unbroken lineages of spiritual practices performed by initiated and trained individuals responsible not only for their personal welfare, but for that of their families, communities, and the civilization as a whole.
The problem of language
Non-European spiritual traditions, which are comprised of individuals, male and female, who work in the domain of healing, sorcery, and related spiritual endeavors all have their own words for the work they do, and none of them equate with witch. The anglophone word witch, and it's francophone (sorcière), lusophone (bruxa), and hispanophone (bruja) equivalents, is a term, which arrived with European Christian colonizers, and was employed as a subjugation tool to destroy civilizations, and eventually steal the land and natural resources belonging to the indigenous people of the regions we now know as Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and the Americas.
Even amongst European cultures, the word witch was most often used against women as a weapon to destroy and usurp their power. Every documented witch trial and witch hunt, describes the ways in which women were hunted down, publicly humiliated, raped, tortured, and killed for allegedly being a witch. Thus, when using the word witch as a descriptor you are referring to generations of women who have been abused and killed in large part by men because of a perception of evil and nefarity, and by extension the threat it caused to the status quo that promoted and enforced ideals steeped in male interpretations of Abrahamic religious texts.
With the rise of the transatlantic slave trade and the enslavement of Africans in the Americas, individuals who were healers and shamans in their home territories were forced to practice in secret for fear of reprisal or death. Being known as a witch, was the equivalent of a death sentence. In some places in the world, even in the 21st century, that is still a reality.
Where are we today?
Many individuals are, understandably, seeking a spiritual connection and they're using internet, particularly social media, to do so. In this period of peak capitalism, commercialized spirituality is as ubiquitous as ever, and in an effort to "out spook" their competition, we are witnessing the emergence of spiritual entrepreneurs who refer to themselves as witch, or it's ever popular Spanish variant, bruja. Many of these individuals are millennials. Some of the most popular social media personalities are millennial women of color who appear to be practitioners of African rooted traditions that have their own vocabulary and ideology to describe their most revered and powerful priesthoods and fraternal orders, particularly those priesthoods and secret societies that were women only. That vocabulary did not include the term witch until contact with Europeans and Christianity.
Because language and history matter, from my vantage point the persistent use of the word may stem from a lack of information, a refusal to review the historical record, and/or a lack of a knowledgeable elder who can assist in discerning truth from farce. Moreover, it appears that in the desire to appeal to a broad base of followers and potential clients, using this term so freely provides a reliable mystique that serves a commercial purpose, rather than a spiritual one. While witches and witchcraft are actual phenomena, where most non-European traditions are concerned, individuals, specifically women, with supernatural powers had very precise names for themselves and the work they did. Where African-rooted traditions are concerned, the adoption of European language was by force, and a cover for the real spiritual work these individuals did and do.
Let me be clear:
Neither Oshun, nor her omo, nor any of the other Orisha are witches. Some might call certain omo orisa Awon Iyami, but that is not up for public debate. Centella is ndoki that can move some fierce wanga, but it's not witchcraft. The womb is the loci of all creation and manifestation, and it does not require activation via twerk. And lastly, if any of this is foreign to you, find an elder, knowledgeable priestess and ask her. Humble yourself, and accept the lessons.