Magic as Wisdom: a Winter Spell

I am an odd witch. Most would not consider me one at all. This is just fine with me, because most witches in history have not named themselves in that manner either, and not merely because it was rather bad for one’s health to claim the title. Most simply had no use for titles. They were women and practiced women’s wisdom traditions. They didn’t call it magic, definitely not magic-with-a-k. They might have been offended if you called their sciences and rituals the “magic” of “witchcraft” because they would very likely take those words with implied patronizing scare quotes. And if you seemed sincere, they almost certainly would have shown you the door as someone slightly unhinged and possibly dangerous.

Calling their work “magic” first of all associated it with ceremonial magic, which is usually officially sanctioned in some manner, almost always hierarchical, and of course male-dominated. Furthermore, “magic” does and did imply the assistance of superhuman powers — or at least some highly special humans, born that way, not made. It denigrates the collected knowledge, the human-scale skills, and the sheer labor that went into maintaining this wisdom tradition. It is not magic, it’s care work. Which might be magic if we could sheer off all the annoying baggage that has accrued to the word. Much like witch

Most of what witches did and still do has much to do with tending and stewarding, health and hygiene, taking care of the living beings in their neighborhood— especially the abused, the oppressed and the outcasts. Humans were only a small part of their concerns, given all the references to livestock and familiars and gardens and so on. However, most of the spells we have handed down came from the male side of things, that ceremonial magic, and were probably created no earlier than the 17th century. Most of them likely originate in the Romantic Era of the 19th century — if they weren’t fabricated wholesale by the early neopagans of the 20th century who were a pretty creative, if adorably clueless bunch.

The classic “grimoire of spells” does not come from woman magic. Nor, for that matter, does it come from most men, being that most humans prior to the 20th century couldn’t write and couldn’t afford much paper and ink even when they could use those tools. These were the records of ceremonial magicians, wealthy men trying to impose their will over more-than-human Powers (often directed at acquiring more wealth… because enough is never enough…).

The larger body of oral folk magic spells were also not likely to be woman magic. They may have roots in wisdom traditions, but meanings have been confused and garbled. Mainly, folk magic is directed at learning about the future. These were young people trying to quell their nervousness about their fates, over which they had almost no actual control. This is especially true for girls… who were going to be saddled to an older male not of their choosing — for life — and sort of wanted all the surprises to be dealt with before the wedding night…

In any case, I don’t do spells. I will sit and enjoy a spell. I like Sister Karol Jackowski’s definition of spells as prayer, as focused space and time for communion with the more-than-human world. For a spell, we invite our personal idea of the sacred into our thoughts. For a spell, we interact with deity. For a spell, we commune with the divine. For Sister Karol, and for me, spells are prayers to the essential animating spirit that girds all life. Perhaps “prayers with” is a better definition, because it is not one-way. I don’t know how it works and I don’t much care, but inspiration comes from somewhere. Maybe it’s me turtled all the way down, but I don’t normally interact with whatever portion is in charge of ideation. Yet, in prayer spells, we talk, she and I, and things that never before existed in my conscious mind suddenly appear. She has… unusual ideas.

My definition of magic — arrived at after decades of reading and a great deal of eliminating baggage and nonsense — is “a ritual act to bring yourself into balance”, to align yourself with your world, to be in accord with the universe. A more common interpretation of the word (especially “with-a-k”) is to impose your will through ritual acts, to have effects that are more than the sum of the cause and often not in any way related to the cause. I have deep problems with this. First, though I’m not a pure materialist I am a pure scientist, and the only evidence that we have for much of this stuff working is the word of those who did it. Undoubtedly they experienced something wonderful, maybe even magically beneficial, but I’m quite sure there were no effects beyond their own bodies. If you want me to believe that the New Forest witches turned back the Nazis, you’re going to have to present a bit more evidence — great story that it is… 

But my main problem with imposing my will on the world is that I don’t have that right. Nor do I want that responsibility. I don’t have the perfect wisdom to see all the effects of whatever change my will might bring about. I exist within a densely woven web of interdependency. Everything done in that web affects everything else in the universe. I can’t possibly keep track of all that, nor predict what might all happen if I alter a thread against the natural weave. And nobody else can either. So even if it were possible for me to direct the weather, I would not (much as I’d really like to winter to get a move on).

Yes, I can and should change my life to be more in alignment with what is beneficial. I can do things to help others change their lives also. However, I can’t even change them, so why should I believe that I can affect the stars? Moreover, they have their own will. Even when we think that we are in accord, there are probably subtle but crucial differences between what I want and what my friends want. How much more is that true of the world? Best let ecology do its thing and keep us all in balance, while working to understand what that balance is and confining my will to that end. As Danielle Dulsky says in The Holy Wild, “The Witch is no master but an eternal student”. Magic is not effecting human will, it’s limiting human will so that what we want is what is good for us… and thereby good for everything else in the web.

Now, let’s dispense with wand-waving Hollywood magic. Nobody really believes in that stuff, but it does seem to perpetuate itself… and to be firmly attached to witches… even before Hollywood. But no witch ever claimed to fly. That was put on them by the men who were trying to burn them. These were men who really liked to impose their own will and were thoroughly convinced that that was the only point of magic (or of living…). They were men who were mainly looking for ways to make these women into demons, or at least the minions of demons. A woman who flies around the countryside half naked and hanging off a broomstick simply had to be consorting with demonic powers — because the other supernatural entity that could bring such miracles off would certainly not condone them. Or that was the story employed anyway… It is significant that the principle notion of a being in opposition to the Christian god in the northern Europe of the witch hunters came from the various soul shepherd myths of Midwinter tales, many of which carried broom-like bundles of birch and flew about with the winter storms gathering up the newly dead. By the 16th century, most people had forgotten that these their native deities were largely female and were busily blending all the old tales to create a patchwork supreme devil to be The Enemy of All Good — and of course this being of power had to be male, but a male that inherited a good number of assigned female traits.

Witches don’t want to fly. In folklore it’s apparent that they don’t really like going places at all. Nor, for that matter, are they all that social, even with each other. It is hard to be social when you are thought to be criminally uncanny.

But flying wasn’t the main charge put on these women who did not name themselves witches. When you look at the accusations of the witch hunters, in the midst of all the nonsense, the pure greed, and the absolute shock that these were women who were not under male control, what shows up again and again is that these women were health workers. They were midwives. They made medicines for calming and for healing. They used many psychological tricks to get to the heart of emotional problems and root them out. They were ministers who cared for the body as well as the soul. They were women, doing women’s work — to the financial profit of nobody… which was the primal source of rage among the powerful founders of the modern age.

Now it must be said that humans can fly. We can do a great number of things that seem to defy physics, but that might be more because we don’t really understand physics. There is quite a lot about the material world that is not as solid and law-abiding as we might wish and quite a lot that we think we understand but really don’t. (What is flame? Why is water so weird? And as Graeber and Wengrow ask, why do people dance?) Who knows what is ultimately possible? Maybe we can move through time and space in ways that aren’t obvious to us now. And maybe it was obvious in former times — because they did it.

But that’s not the concern of witches. They really didn’t care that much about things outside their usually self-limited purview. Sir Terry Pratchett fairly accurately describes their mentality — likely because he did the same homework that scholars like Silvia Federici have done. 

Witches knew a good many things that were not common knowledge simply because nobody else took the time to notice and study things like these women did. In our modern culture, paying close attention to the world is always — for reasons I do not understand but suspect might be related to our obsession with transcendence — deemed uncanny. Building up a body of science to deal with the body is likewise always deemed unnatural, or at least deeply unpleasant, especially for female bodies, and even more especially if women are the knowledge keepers.

Nevertheless, the work of women is to take care of the body, and we’ve been hoarding tips for doing just that since before we were humans. And for most of our existence, this was deemed an honorable (in addition to “necessary”) occupation. So women were free to experiment and share their knowledge. Witches preserved the last fragments of that body of knowledge and added to it as they were able. Because their way of working was to look at a whole thing and find connections, it may be that they figured out emergence and systems long before the rest of us. (Real connections, not the “correspondences” of ceremonial magic, which are largely made-up fancies.) They seem to have realized that washing hands before eating (or performing surgery) and bathing generally will promote good health and prohibit the spread of disease. There is much evidence showing that a common practice of witchcraft was working to restore emotional health after trauma in order to fix psychosomatic but nevertheless physical problems. It was not unusual for the only medical care — up to and including brain surgery — to be in the hands of village wise women.

There are also echoes in folklore showing us that women were avid nature watchers. Their methodology was to look for patterns in all kinds of natural phenomena. Over time this patterned view of the world enabled them to predict what would flow from a given set of circumstances. They could foretell the future… because they paid attention to the present… and learned from the past… imagine that…

They may have employed a good deal of theatre to realize their goals. Therapists and physicians and meteorologists still do. But I’m not sure they were working spells. They were just working. And really, deity had very little to do with the work they did.

Was it magic? No more so than modern medicine and agriculture and science. And quite a bit less than the sprouting of seeds in spring.

Did they have gods? Well, considering that most humans do believe in some form of spirit, I’d say yes. But that wasn’t the point. And it still isn’t. 

Witchcraft, as practiced by women throughout millennia, is centered on caring for this Earth and all its ordinarily splendid living beings… in which there is more deity than in all the cathedrals and temples and altars ever built.

And that’s why I have renamed it — EarthCraft.

©Elizabeth Anker 2022