The idea of the witch is a ongoing thread weaving it’s way through in our modern world, one that has continued to haunt children’s fairy tales and is prominent not just at Halloween but also in political bickering on one hand, and then people self-identifying as a witch on the other hand. (1) Witch modern witches are not just limited to outdated fashion sense, just check out hashtag #witch with over 8 million tags for some stunning examples of the modern day witch.
Isn’t it amazing how the witch has become an icon that women around the world are relating to! OK, so I might not be an expert about this incredible movement of people who are reclaiming a word that once hurled as insult is now a name of power. What I am is a woman who has come out of the broom cupboard, claimed her place at the cauldron and is so totally inspired by other people who are doing the same.
Last week I went along to a conference called: Certine Wytches, fear, myth & magic, for some inspiration and storytelling. It was held here in my hometown of Exeter in Devon, which has a rich history of connection with witches.
In Rougemont gardens there hangs a plaque for the last people to be tried (right there on that spot) and hanged (from the gallows in Heavitree – heavy tree) for witchcraft in England.
The inscription reads:
The Devon Witches. In memory of Temperance Lloyd, Susannah Edwards, Mary Trembles, of Bideford, died 1682. Alice Molland, died 1685. The last people in England to be executed for witchcraft, tried here & hanged at Heavitree. In the hope of an end to persecution and intolerance.
The conference keynote speaker was Anne Jackson talking about her knotted tapestry art exhibition that centred around those Devon witches who lost their lives, all those years ago. Her artwork was stunning, and these pictures do little justice to the size and hours of works that went into each piece. What touched me was the depth of research that went into her art, telling the story behind these names and exploring the idea of witch in our society.
Historically, a witch was said to be able to do three things, and these were common beliefs about witches all over Europe. They were:
- Practice magic
I feel like I’m shape-shifting all the time, through the different stages of my menstrual cycle for one – from extrovert to enjoying solitude; through the different roles in my life – from mother, to co-worker to lover. The imagination gives us all wings, whether we use those consciously through astral travel or unconsciously in our dreams each night. and magic, but what is that? My favourite question! I love to hear what people think magic is, in some ways it’s so individual. I feel like magic is the conscious use of will to change reality.
One other thing I loved about Anne’s work was how she drew parallels between medieval alchemy symbols and modern day biotechnology symbols. As if genetic engineering is akin to witchcraft. The magical symbols or then & now!
The first parliament act against witchcraft was made in 1542 (2). And remember that this was during the time of a civil war over who had the right to rule this country with massive propaganda drives. The fight for people’s souls became a manic obsession. Or was it about the economic move from feudalism to capitalism and a shift of power from women to men? (3) Although the death penalty was repealed in 1736 – after approximately one thousand women had lost their lives in the UK (mostly the poor and elderly) it wasn’t until 1951 that the act was fully repealed!
I’m interested in how these dis-empowered, economically impoverished, scapegoated women from hundreds of years ago have risen from the ashes of their sad fate to provide inspiration to a movement about empowerment, sisterhood and connection to nature. It feels to me like the tide is turning and power is returning to our own two hands. Our hands can hold and heal, they have the power to create and shape the world around us. They are our magical tools.
**edited to add: Since writing this blog I realised that I missed out the actual feeling that encouraged me to write it in the first place, so here goes. The feeling happened in a moment, as quick as flicking on a light switch, when I was walking the Exeter Riverside Valley park. It was just before sunset, and the light was incredible. You know how it can be when the final rays are warm and everything glows, illuminated with golden light. I’d been walking and processing this conference and looking up I could see the city of Exeter rising up from the river and it struck me how deep a connection I’ve grown with this place, not only over the last 5 years of living here, and through my teenage years of coming here to college, but more so since the conference. I feel connected to history, to the lives of women who walked here long before me in a different way. Those souls who lived and died next to this river I’m walking with right now. Whether my idea of witch is similar or different to theirs; the solidarity, and the remembering is alive in me now.
(1)Trump: Russia inquiry ‘witch hunt’ https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/world-us-canada-39969871/trump-russia-inquiry-witch-hunt
(2) UK parliament history
(3) Caliban and the witch by Silvia Federici