On this Indigenous People's Day I am in the land of my ancestors, the British Isles, finishing this essay about the "Mythical Witch" - of why myth is important, and about what happened to women as knowledge and cultural carriers, and the importance of witch culture as a widespread cultural meme, and practicing a lived mythology. As a descendent of women from the British Isles, I am becoming more familiar with what it means to recognize the history and the meaning of having a matrilineal ancestry rooted here; and the importance of honoring my indigenous roots. I dedicate this essay to the Indigenous Women of Turtle Island in solidarity and strength at nurturing our respective heritages, spirituality, and cultures. May they carry on and on and on.
“Six million women thrown to the flames.
A library burning.
Remember their names.
The first colonization of the human race didn’t happen in America.
It happened in the place of Mamwlad.
The people’s land… the peoples soil.
I hear you calling.
There is an ancient mother land that we have forgotten.
And great-grandmothers burned at the stake for holding the earth in their hands.
Prosecuted as witches, warlocks, and killers. but these were not evil people.
These were Europe’s healers. They were healers. I descend from healers.”
- Lyrics of Lyla June, “Mamwlad”
The Mythical Witch and What Happened to Women.
Growing up, I thought I was a witch. I was for sure descended from them and it was only a matter of time until my mother revealed to me, maybe on my 13th birthday, that I had powers and would begin my training. And I today, at 28 years old, I hold this myth close to my heart as it is a way for me to make sense of what happened to women and my spiritual evolution.
I was 13 when I started my moon, in hindsight, it was my initiation. And I call it ‘my moon’ intentionally, because women’s menstruation cycles are typically 28 days, although vary widely, and correlates with the moon calendar. Having stopped using conventional birth control, my cycle lines up with those of the moon. This is not a ‘purely fictitious narrative’ as myth is defined in the dictionary, but it is “a mark, a measure, a notice” based on archaic understandings of the word, where I am able to observe myself and my potential for creating new life in alignment with natural cycles.
When women start their moon, it historically has been a rite of passage, celebrated with ritual, and ceremony. It is an initiation into the understanding of our capacity for creating new life, of our power, and development. By marking our menstruation with the cycles of the moon, then it affords us the opportunity to connect with a larger system, to see ourselves as being a part of a larger whole, of a universe and provides us with a different and even imaginative thinking about our belonging - an alternative to the mainstream culture of individualism which perpetuates separation.
In the cultural milieu around witches, we think of them as creating potions, casting spells, being in the woods, and close to ghosts and other creatures. And I don’t think this is far from a historical truth and understanding of paganism - of women knowing the plants as medicine, of counseling village members of their love issues, being connected to birth and death, and connection to the care for water. In Irish Mythology, in the prologue to the story of “The Elucidation”, as interpreted by Sharon Blackie, women tended the wells until the inquisition came along and stole them away from their places, and in many cultures around the world, women serve as midwives and death doulas in their communities. In Native American culture, communities still function with women at the center of decision making and lineage is matrilineal. So it is not a fabrication that women had information of plant medicines that heal, share insights and guidance for community cohesion, and guide people and their spirits out of this realm. However, the meme of the “witch” declared that women and the practices and culture they held were evil, brought about by satan - that everything women did that wasn’t known was suspicious, especially if they weren’t wives or mothers. All of this was on purpose and became a wildfire burning the old growth forests of women’s wisdom throughout Europe and the Americas.
In 1487, the book “Hammer of the Witches” called for the murder of all women other than those necessary for reproduction. The campaign spread effectively throughout Europe and the pilgrim communities in North America at the time and women who had this knowledge, information, autonomy, and roles in community were hunted and burned at the stake; their worth only determined by their capacity to reproduce. It is estimated that between 6-9 million women were executed for ‘witchcraft’, or pagan practices and religion. From the early 1400’s through the 1800’s, witch hunts happened in parallel to the “Inclosure Acts” which transitioned the commons (public, non-owned lands used amongst villages/communities) into privatized land as the colonial powers shifted towards a more capitalist economy. This historical arc shows us that at the same time that the campaign to kill all women who weren’t viable to reproduce, land was being claimed, sold, and privatized. The women who still lived were funneled into sexual servitude and the pagan worldview was demonized and went underground - made into a myth, something that wasn’t real.
As a young woman in 2018, I see more images and hear more ideas about witches. The meme of the witch is now a reclamation of power and our place in the world, of reconnecting with the sacred. The rise of ‘witch culture’ is the rising of women and is a crucial emergence ending patriarchal dogma, an end to men determining our worth, of how we use our bodies, our reconnection with nature, of how we think and our power to recreate culture.
What is Myth?
“Myth can be regarded as [an important] aspect of religious expression. Its word and story is re-enacted on the human plane by means of ritual (sacred acts). Myth re-activated by human rites also requires a sacred place; whether natural, built, or a combination of the two, and tangible sacred objects. These physical symbols can be discovered in landscape features, and are emphasized by enclosure, temple architecture, and sacred art.” (Mythic Ireland - Michael Dames)
The word myth has been demonized, just as witches have. Current definitions describe it as “a purely fictitious narrative usually involving supernatural persons, actions or events, and embodying some popular idea concerning natural or historical phenomena.” (Oxford Dictionary)
Yet, the “archaic pith” of the word “myth” from its Scottish roots includes “to show, to mark, to notice, to measure’ and ‘the marrow of the bone’”. I can’t help but think of the marrow of my own bones, the very core of my structure, my body… that it stores cells that retain the potentiality of all possibility of becoming any part of me. And to notice, to show - I am reminded of how I perceive and describe my world which can be logical or poetic, I can create a story that makes meaning for me in my relation with what is around me and this is what helps me fall in love with the world and brings me a certain sense of belonging and co-creation with life. Myth is the possibility of getting to know the world in a different way than linear, scientific methodology. To use story, to mark our own lives with the cycles of our surroundings, to write our lives as its unique and universal narrative unfolds is - especially for women - a rebirth of our voice and liberation from the stories that have been written for us and about us.
The word ‘myth’ implies the sacred, that story and narrative were believed to be divine downloads from deities, to be “direct revelation of the truth”. And over time, language is abstracted and manipulated by history and power and the word ‘myth’ was deliberately replaced in language with logos, or ‘word’ as a “vehicle for abstract thought, rational argument, and logical discourse” which then has an effect of making myth irrational, illogical, and unreal. ‘Word’ is not so seductive in opening me to a wondering about the world I inhabit. Myth, however, seduces me into poetic possibilities of perceiving and understanding it.
Reclaiming ‘Myth’: A New Understanding
“The water knows you are watching and the birds and animals, you can sense” - Justine Epstein
What if I told you that you can sense a cooper hawk without hearing or seeing it? What if I told you that animals show themselves when they trust you? That water moves and behaves in a different way when you project love versus anger at it?
At Weaving Earth, an earth-based education center in California, students practice bird language. It is a practice where humans re-sensitize their capacity to perceive not just birds, but the environment they inhabit. When one really knows a place, when we observe animal behavior and patterns over time, and notice changes in the environment and the weather, then of course we can collect information about a place. But bird language is more about knowing. It is about feeling. My friends who have had this practice for a while have been able to develop the capacity to tell when a certain animal is coming, when wind is about to roll in, or when there is a coopers hawk hunting.
When one really develops this capacity, you begin to sense that it isn’t about thinking. That there are natural instincts, which I understand as being our capacity as animals ourselves to pick up on the frequency of other animals, and I dare to say other entities - such as water and spirits. And when we exist in an environment together, humans are impacted by the frequencies of everything else within the fields we inhabit and we are also capable of influencing it with our thoughts, behaviors, and resulting patterns. Humans are part of a larger system that interacts in ways that we don’t recognize unless we fully open ourselves to observation of it and because we have reflexive consciousness, we can understand how we have impact.
The witch burnings were itself a field where certain information was put into the world - “that women who connect to spirits and nature are witches. And if they can’t reproduce then we kill them” (among many other misogynist thought-lines) - that still have an impact today on the subconscious and psyche of humans. In the era of the witch burnings, people who knew the language of their surroundings would be practicing “witchcraft”. And these practices of re-learning how to be in communication with nature is a reclamation and healing - for both men and women. We start to know information on a neurological level, in our senses and pick up information and behave without thinking. “Premonitions”, “telepathy”, “deja vu”, considered mythical occurrences, are our systems receiving information subconsciously and when things come to pass or come into consciousness, there is a feeling of having already known it. When we receive visions of being burned at the stake, or any kind of past or future vision, it is not our imagination but information coming into consciousness.
In a recent experience, I participated in a vision time where a group of 60 people went out on land with their intentions and questions for themselves, for their path, for the planet. We had a whole team holding prayer and sacred fires in various places near where we spread out, and this is what unfolded during my time:
I am in the stone circle in Tamera, Portugal. It is 2016 on the last day I am here before I head back to the United States. I feel myself rooted into the ground and I feel myself connected to the universe. All of a sudden I feel all of my ancestors behind me and all the women who surround me and those that will come after me forming a circle. I feel blessed to be here and they tell me this is a place to heal.
I am in my lover’s caravan on my birthday and I pull “If Women Rose Rooted” by Sharon Blackie off of her bookshelf. I read a few pages… and a month later, she brings it to me after I tell her of my vision time, and says I need to read it.
Fast forward, to the morning of our first day of the vision time and I awake from a dream where I approach the place I will camp and the circle that I created for myself is burned. There is a silver cross that has replaced my grandmothers sash and I feel fear.
After we share our dreams with the group, I go outside. I am standing at the lake and I hear a voice that says “Go to Ireland” and then I see a heron fly over me which, I discover later, in Celtic mythology, represents the crone that appears to remind the women of what happened to them.
I approach my camp site later that day and I feel safe. I know it is a place that I won’t be interfered with, a place I won’t be persecuted for being in ceremony.
It is the first day, and of course I am busy with all of my negative self talk and all of my mess.
And so I start to pray. I feel myself grounding in and reaching above and I feel the circle of my women around me again but this time it includes all the women around me on the land in that moment. I feel our spirits rising above the land of Tamera and I sing: “Sisters, Sisters - Rise Above. Sisters, Sisters - Come”. And I repeat and I sing aloud and I feel us breathing in the despair and the hurt and the heartache of the world and breathing out altogether love. And in and out and in and out. Then it fades.
The next morning, I’m busy again with my mind and I think of a teacher in our course, so I pray for her. I try to take a nap and the vision comes: I am watching my mother being burned at the stake. I am being held by men, I can’t move. I am in shock. I see this little girl walking through life wanting to reach the women around her but watching them burn. She goes through, indoctrinated into the church, not knowing the ways of the women. She doesn’t lose her resiliency for life and never questions her right to be there but the information is lost. A few days later, she shares her insights of her vision time and that she remembers being burned at the stake - watching her daughter watch her burn.
After I awake from this vision I am called to walk the land near me and when I arrive to the border of a newly constructed area, I hear a prayer drum three times. I bend my knees to touch the ground and pray. And I ask the land: “Am I supposed to be here next year? What do you need from me?” So I walk out on the land and I follow the swales to the well. After I read the book my lover gave to me, I discover days later that in Celtic mythology, women are caretakers of the well and I remember the heron. I see myself tending this well and I hear that it is a piece for me to stay with the healing of water, as my political place, my professional place. And with my weaving of Tamera, that this is a place for me to reclaim my heritage to find my voice, to hear my ancestors, and to learn how to speak in a way that I don’t ever have to fear persecution for it. There were many signs of yes during this walk… and so I trust this and I will go to Ireland immediately and see myself coming back to Tamera next year.
Making Sense of Mythic Information
As humans, we store information in our DNA and, under certain conditions, this information is activated. We all of a sudden have certain skills we didn’t learn, shifts in our behaviors, and even memories of our ancestors. It isn’t that these experiences aren’t real but we have been existing in a scientific worldview that claims they don’t exist. When there is a collective “understanding”, or frequency of disbelief, this keeps us from accessing a different way of perceiving the world, of activating information within humans - so we have both the information of connecting at a deep level with our environment, creatures, and plants and the information that if we do, then we are in danger because we will be called crazy, unwell, irrational, or rather “burned at the stake”. This was the “success” of the witch burnings and patriarchy. And as women create new spaces of trust, love, and solidarity, then we can feel safe to remember and practice our rites, rituals, and ceremonies. In turn, we are answering our ancestors prayers, we are proof of the resiliency of information, connection with the planet and the universe. The healing possibility of humanity and between the sexes - if we dare to step out of the ‘normality’ of current mainstream culture of individualism, consumption, patriarchy, and capitalism - is a mythical and very real emergence.
So I offer a reframed definition of myth: it is the way we mark, observe, understand, and articulate experiences of connection to the divine.