“A Witch By Any Other Name” by Cynthia Jerkins
I am a witch.
That simple declaration calls to mind many feelings in the minds of those who hear or read it. Shock, embarrassment, rage- I’ve been subjected to it all, as has any witch who has “come out of the broom closet.” Next comes the stereotyping: a witch is evil; a witch traffics with devils; a witch uses her magic to harm the community; a witch is either horribly ugly or ethereally beautiful. Or people go to the other extreme, the side made popular in recent times in both adult and young adult fiction: a witch constantly laments the “Burning Times”; a witch is just an herbalist; a witch can twist reality around her; a witch uses her powers for good and light and fluffy love spells. Then, you have my two favorites: a witch is always Wiccan, and a witch is always female.
It is small wonder we have these reactions. In a culture with such a strong Judeo-Christian leaning, Exodus 22:18, “Thou shall not suffer a witch to live” is still an oft-quoted verse. Fiction throughout the ages has portrayed the witch in a negative light, as the stealer of children, poisoner of cattle and wells, disrupter of village and household such as in Appalachian folk tales. Or, she is the Fairy Godmother, the kindly old woman, the Seer who advises (and is often ignored) such as in the Disney-fied telling of classic fairy tales. She is the bold gypsy or the ancient priestess, or nowadays, the private eye or vampire hunter-Butcher’s Harry Dresden and Hamilton’s Anita Blake come easily to mind.
Ah, Glenda and her infamous question to poor, frightened Dorothy Gale. Obviously, anyone who drops a house from the sky in the middle of a storm must be a witch, no matter the how much she might protest. So we must start with the eternal question of good vs. evil. Glenda has to ask, because in Baum’s world or Oz, it’s extremely easy to tell good from bad; Good is lovely and Bad is ugly. Dorothy, however, is so bland and normal as to make classifying her impossible. The Good Witch and the Bad Witch are the classic literary stereotypes, so it’s only natural to try and place the “real” witches into the same pigeonholes, visual cues or no.
Ask most practitioners in a pagan community- whether or not they define themselves as a witch- and they will emphatically declare themselves a Good Witch. No one wants to be the Bad Witch, because being the Bad Witch is to risk bad karma at worst and community censure at best. And yes, bad karma to many magic users is much worse than having people make the sign of the cross when they walk by. Everyone practices clean white magic and no one messes with icky black magic.
The truth is most modern witches aren’t good or bad. We’re shades of gray, like every other human in existence. I can’t name a single person in my community-witch or not- who can stand out as a paragon of pure light or pure shadow . We live our lives just like any other person of any other faith. We worship our chosen deities, if any. We work, we play, and we rest. We have families and pets, a house or apartment, a car payment, and a J-O-B. We laugh, we cry, we argue, we are petty and selfish and spend more than we make. We rail against the rules. We’re just like everyone else. Except we live in two worlds instead of one- or sometimes three or four, depending on the particular practice.
In the novel Good Omens, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman gave us the unlikely team up of an angel and a demon trying very hard to preserve their status quo by thwarting the Apocalypse. A bit far-fetched really; angels tend to be too uppity for demons. It’s like mixing whiskey and wine in the same punch bowl- at the end of the night someone’s going to be face down on the floor in a pool of their own fluids. The idea of such beings acting independently is much more likely than their working at the behest of a witch. And yet, the idea remains that witches regularly converse with such otherworldly beings as a matter of course. To an extent, it is not a falsehood. There is an entire class of magic which centers on summoning; the highly rigid and ceremonial teachings of the Golden Dawn, for example, describe in great detail what is needed to summon such beings, how to converse with them, and how to protect oneself during these types of volatile conversations. As Jim Butcher shows us in The Dresden Files, this is not the type of magic you play around with. As a result, it is a much less practiced form than modern media indicates. Why? Because it’s just too damn much work!
That said, we do run into or work with such creatures from time to time. Sometimes, it’s just a case of bumping into one another in the hallway. Remember how I said witches live in more than one world? What I meant is that we can see or sense the borders between the “real,” i.e. our, world, and the planes which share the same physical space, but operate on a different frequency or plane. So a being from one of those planes might be observing humanity, or be attracted by our magical working, or sitting in the parlor when we’re heading off on a spirit journey.
Sometimes, we might actually send them an invitation to visit. Fairies, angels, demons (and demon does not necessarily mean evil, I must add), and all sorts of other creatures can be called upon by a witch, and their aid requested. Requested, not ordered. That is very important, and the key difference between the fictional representations and the realities of summoning. Yes, it is possible to bind an entity against its will, and force its cooperation. Such a doing violates one of the most basic tenements of modern magical use, however: And it harm none, do what you will. We’re back to the bad karma concern, but we add in one possibly seriously pissed off supernatural entity if we screw up. Sorry, no. Too much work, too much risk, and not a big enough reward, in most cases. Lighting a candle is so much easier.
J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter describes its magic in great detail, complete with spells, potions, and curses. In her wondrous world, all a child needs is a talent, a wand, and the right training and he or she might aspire to greatness and fame- or infamy as the case may be. There is no limit to what can be accomplished with magic except the limitations of mind and wizarding law, and more importantly, no outward consequences to its use except those imposed by the community. One can defy physics, ignore time, or cheat death without worrying about a hangover in the morning. Splinters are a concern, maybe, but only if you don’t know the proper way to handle your wand.
Magic users are often attributed “phenomenal cosmic powers” (and often have “itty bitty living space!”). Alas, no, we witches can’t magic food out of the air with the clap of our hands, or summon a house elf to change the cat box when we’re out of litter, (as much as we might wish otherwise!). But if we are hungry and broke and have exhausted the mundane ways of fixing the problem, we might do a spell to encourage the universe to help us out a bit. We don’t say “I’m hungry. Feed me.” Or “It’s worse than the Bog of Eternal Stench! Litter Box, be banished!” Instead, we might ask that we find a means to feed ourselves or freshen up the litter until payday. Lo and behold, we get an invitation to eat dinner at a friend’s house for the next three nights, or someone lists a bag of our kitty’s preferred litter on Freecycle. I can clearly remember being down to only saltines and butter once when I was in college, and I was literally at wits end. Shortly after making an impassioned -and hungry-plea to the universe, I got the random urge to organize my closet, and found a twenty stuffed in the pocket of my winter coat.
“But that’s not magic!” the peanut gallery screams. Oh, yes it is! Ask the average witch to define magic and you are likely to get several variations on the same theme: magic is the manipulation of energy through will to create an outcome. To break that down further, it means that we decide upon a goal or outcome, make use of ritual, word, or tool (or all of the above) to aid in the further focus of our energies and will, and then send those focused energies out into the world knowing we will accomplish our goals. We do this with an eye toward what our actions may cause not just for ourselves but for others. There are always consequences. Let me repeat. In the real world of magic, there are always consequences! It is a commonly held belief among practitioners of pagan religions that the energy we put out into the universe will come back to us threefold. It’s why the idea of karma plays such a big part in the modern witch’s thinking. We don’t want our petty wish for our boss to have a flat tire to also leave us stranded on the side of the road six months later with a blown head gasket. This is why, while we might be theoretically capable of stirring up enough energy to transmogrify a toad into a cat, we wouldn’t. That energy has to come from somewhere and pulling that much is bound to muck about with things in ways we can’t even begin to fathom.
A witch isn’t anyone special. We’re just like everyone else. What you see when you look into our eyes is the same thing we see when we look in the mirror: man or woman, teacher or artist, mother, father, or child. We’re born, we live a little while, and we die, traveling the circle of life along with every other being in the universe. We are members of every religion. We don’t sport some mark, mole or symbol that declares, “I am a witch.”
We use magic. But even that doesn’t make us different. Magic is the manipulation of energy through will to create an outcome. The simplest magic in the world is creating a change though directed will, and that is something every person has done at some point in their life. A whispered prayer, an inspirational mantra, a drawing of desired perfection, a candle burned for the soul of the departed- these are all examples of creating change through will. Does this make the average person a witch? No. The title “witch” has to be chosen knowingly and with intent. What it does show is that the differences between the witch and the non-witch are in truth so miniscule as to be non-existent.
The literary witch appeals because he or she has what we want most as humans: power and control in some manner over our reality. In this uncertain world, being able to do so much as ward our homes against invasion is a massive step toward peace of mind and soul. Yet, the modern witch is nowhere near as fantastical a creature as literature indicates. Today, more is known about the truth of witchcraft and its practitioners than ever. The bookstores are crammed with popular novels for all ages which center around the supernatural, and the witch continues to fall into that category. The focus has shifted, yes. More and more magic users are the “good guys” fighting to keep the populace safe from all manner of supernatural or mundane, instead of the “bad guys” responsible for all manner of transgressions against humanity. It is definite progress, and I’m all for the positive press. We just need to be careful not to confuse fact and fiction.
I am a witch, and I carry that title with pride. I don’t have phenomenal cosmic powers, but I do have peace in my soul and friends to love. I don’t have a genie in a bottle, or a house elf hiding behind the couch, but I do have strength of will and body. I don’t battle evil with staff and sword, but I do make my way through life as a warrior. Taken in this light, perhaps I am a bit fantastical at that.
About the Author
Cynthia Jerkins has been a witch for fifteen years. Her core philosophy in regards to life, the universe, and everything can be summed up in five words: “We create our own reality.” Yes, she has flying monkeys. No, you may not pet them.
She can be reached at email@example.com.