Women have been labeled witches for centuries, but the term also carries power. From the 14th century to the present moment, these books explore the nuances of that power.
I don’t want to be a witch
I have a longstanding fear of becoming a witch. The first witch in my life was the director of the all-girls camp where I spent my favorite weeks of summer. Jocelyn. We all called her Joss. She was ferocious, single, and committed to the development of our strength and courage. I feared and admired her, and I never wanted to be like her, because, well, she was single and not classically attractive. The male gaze was important to me, even as I understood that my particular intelligence and outspokenness might be a countervailing force.
Other witches I have known include the leader of a vision quest and my guide on a psychedelic journey (even though she was not single, she lived mostly separately from her husband). All were women I feared and respected simultaneously, without wanting to be like them. I didn’t want to be feared. Not that I’ve been successful in that regard. I recall in law school one of my friends telling me that our constitutional law professor was intimidated by me. What a notion, I thought. And, in hindsight, I suspect she was right. It was his first year teaching and I was an enthusiastic student, eager to dig down into the subject. I have intimidated others over the years, without meaning to.
So, maybe my resistance was futile and I should just welcome the witch parts of me. Lately, those kinds of thoughts have been quite provoked by my reading list.
The unvanquished power of women
A few months ago, a friend gifted me a witch book. The title of the English translation of Mona Chollet’ book is, “In Defense of Witches: The Legacy of The Witch Hunts and Why Women Are Still on Trial.” I don’t know about you, but I’m not rushing to read pages which sound like they’ll be politically nutritious and dense. That this title lands as heavy and didactic, unfortunately feels right for the times. Even as the publisher offers a book on witches (a good thing), the title does nothing to dispel the myth of witches-as-warty-crones-with-few-teeth. I received the book in its original language. The French title is, “Sorciêres: La Puissance Invaincue des Femmes.” A literal translation might be—“Witches: The Unvanquished Power of Women.” Or perhaps the word unconquerable could be used instead of unvanquished. Either way, the title is a lot sexier. I wanted to read about my power.
As Chollet puts it right at the beginning of her book, the witch hunters targeted women who, “talked back to a neighbor, spoke too loudly, had a strong character or expressed their sexuality in too free a manner …” So much has not changed. The title of the first chapter: “A Life of Her Own: The Plague of Women’s Independence.”
One of the features of a witch has often been that she lives alone. Not alone and pining for a better situation, a situation in which she is coupled and takes part in society’s most accepted norm of conjugal safety. Rather, she is alone and has deliberately built her life, her loves, and her friendships outside the traditional coupled structure.
The effect of this choice, as Chollet says, is that “These women see themselves as individuals and not as representatives of some feminine archetype. Far from a miserable isolation, which our society’s preconceptions associate with living alone, the ongoing effort to refine their identity has two effects: it allows them to not only tame, even savor, the solitude that most people, married or not, will face, at least for some period of time, during their life; but it also strengthens the intensity of their relationship bonds, which arise from the heart of their personality and not from the accepted social roles of each person.” I’ve lost count of the number of times a friend with children has said to me, “We’re friends because our children are.”
Chollet concludes this line of reasoning by saying, “to know oneself is no longer ‘egoism’ or navel gazing, instead it is a wide-open road toward others.”
When I first read the book, I highlighted the passage I just quoted, because I resonated with the idea that as we strengthen our connection with ourselves (through self-understanding), we greatly increase our capacity to connect with others at a deeper level. Of course, all too often we fall down the rabbit hole of our own self-reflection and lose track of the larger purpose. No matter. If we can return to our intention, the desire to expand our circle of inclusivity, we are fortified by what we learned on our detour. The idea that this, too, is at the heart of being a witch stimulates my very cells. And it makes sense.
If we think of the witch not only as a woman who has stepped outside society’s norms, but one who has the intention to connect, which is, at its core, to cultivate the practice of knowing one’s own heart and seeing into others’ hearts, then I can sure see how threatening that is. The kind of people who are willing to burn someone alive (or consign them to a shipping warehouse where they must pee in a bottle, because breaks are too short and too few) would be unlikely to want their hearts to be truly known.
The witch is not so much an independent woman, as one who understands our fundamental interdependence. And understanding interdependence threatens any power structure, which relies on the myth of the individual’s independent exceptionality, and therefore right to exercise power over others. Interdependence recognizes that we all have value and one person’s value is not X times a billion and another person’s is X divided by ten; as capitalism would have us believe. That three grown men launched themselves into space to prove their worth over the summer of 2021, wasting zillions of dollars that could have been used to fund education and health care, is but one example of our current ludicrous power structure.
As a contrast, I imagine the witch of yesteryear in her forest cabin, set apart from society, yet operating very much in the togetherness of society, offering herbs and healing to every walk of life. She didn’t have time for rocket play, she was busy tending to people here on earth. Including, in some times and places, the herbs to prevent pregnancy or to unpregnant a woman. Rights that are very much in jeopardy again.
Chollet points out that the German word Hexe (witch) has common roots with the English words hag and hedge. Although hag is a pejorative now, Chollet quotes Starhawk to point out that in its original usage, the word hag just meant the wise woman who stands on the border (here’s where we see the shared root with hedge) between the village and the forest, between the human world and the spiritual world. Makes a woman want to be a hag.
Children are not women’s only meaning
Chollet’s second chapter gets to the question of children. Even as our species careens toward its own extinction, there is still a current of unease with women who make the choice not to partake in that particular pursuit. Actress Tracee Ellis Ross, for example, is constantly asked to account for her status as ever-single and living alone in her mid-forties. I’ve also written about being childfree elsewhere.
With a little magical thinking, having children can even seem like insurance against extinction, plus, double bonus, they solve the meaning of life question. Having children offers a golden opportunity to transfer the question of life’s meaning forward to the next generation. Each new generation is the meaning for the previous generation.
The witch must find her meaning elsewhere. Inside herself. Also, outside herself. Chollet references Rebecca Solnit’s 2015 essay in Harper’s, “The mother of all questions,” noting that a woman without children must find all the other things there are to love, other than her descendants; all the things that need our love and all the work of love that needs to be accomplished in the world. Better not to burn the witches, there’s work to be done by these independent women. Or rather, interdependent.
Because the independent woman is no such thing—she is the interdependent woman. We is much more powerful than I. Society’s historical fear of women’s in- and interdependence (aka their power), was the subject of three more books I read in quick succession after Chollet’s.
The common tropes of witchcraft
I started with Aline Kiner’s book, “La Nuits des Béguines”* (mentioned by Chollet), set in 14th century France, and centered around the royal béguinage, funded by the kind, a lay version of a convent for single women (whether never married, widowed, or otherwise cut loose from their bond with a man).
A béguinage offered women a cloistered, communal living environment. Each with her own room, or, if she was a woman of means, possibly even a separate dwelling. The community was a walled, safe haven to return to, even as the women were allowed to go out into the world—to the extent women could do so in that era. A place of freedom and interdependence. Kiner’s story captured my imagination.
One of the shadow characters (we never actually meet her, but her presence is felt throughout) is a béguine from a different community who is accused of heresy. Marguerite Porete has dared to think her own thoughts about the role of ecstasy in religion. She is a real historical figure and was the first woman to be burned alive for heresy in Paris. Unfortunately for the church, she had recorded her thoughts in a book, which it is, of course, heretical to possess. So, when one of the women in the royal béguinage undertakes to translate the text, which has been secretly transmitted to her, at that point in the story it seemed unlikely that things would end well. And, indeed, the story is set in the waning days of the béguinage. The monarchy soon defunded the idea. Communities of women that were not formally subjugated to men or to religion (which amounts to the same thing) were too dangerous.
As I was finishing Kiner’s book, a friend of mine recommended Lauren Groff’s excellent book, “Matrix.” This time the story is set in a convent and, again, the women’s cloistered liberty threatens the powers that be. Then, not long after I read Groff’s book, another friend recommended Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt’s, “La Femme au Miroir”**, not knowing that I was already marinating in a certain kind of book.
In Schmitt’s three parallel stories, set in different time periods, one of the characters is a young woman who refuses to marry and seems destined for a béguinage (a word that now has meaning for me), until she expresses her own ecstatic connection to God’s pure love. Anne refuses to become a nun, finding religion all too punitive and too restrictive, more about control than love.
We know how this will end. No need for a spoiler alert, except perhaps for this one unexpected twist (stop reading here, if you prefer not to know)—her mother offers to pay the executioner who will tie Anne to the pyre by her neck, if he will strangle her daughter secretly as he attaches her. Apparently, this was a side hustle for executioners in the time of burnings. As he puts the rope around her neck, knowing her mother, Anne asks the man not to end her life prematurely. The fleeting moment of the executioner’s disappointment about not getting his payout is dark.
With these three novels and Kiner’s book on witches, these last months, I have steeped myself in stories of outsider women, heretical women, women who dared to be fully themselves.
Chollet ends her book with a resounding call to action. Taking up Carolyn Merchant’s diagnosis in “The Death of Nature.” Chollete writes: “The world must once again be turned upside down …” [t]urning the world upside down is no small undertaking. But there can be great joy—the joy of audacity, of insolence, of a vital affirmation, of defying faceless authority—in allowing our ideas and imaginations to follow the paths down which these witches’ whisperings entice us.”
Instead of offering my own translation (as I have elsewhere), I asked a friend who owns the book in English to send me a photo of the page I just quoted. I was interested to see that where the translator used joy, in French the word was la volupté (voluptuousness). I like the carnal nature of that word, especially when coupled with the witches’ enticement to be audacious when we imagine how the world might be.
Merchant’s words echo, too, the chorus in Euripides’ play, “Medea”: “[t]he sacred river-water flows uphill. The laws of nature, and of humans, all reversed. Now we see men dissemble, twist their words and break their holy vows, so it must follow soon, that women will have rights, that women—not men—are the ones we hold in high repute. No more gossip and rumor to keep us in check; the natural order has turned around.”
The need is evident and urgent. The witching hour is here. I wonder: do I have the voluptuous audacity to embrace my inner witch? Now is high time.
*Sadly, there is no English translation of Kiner’s book
**The English translation is Three Women in a Mirror.