Monday, 27 October 2014

Halloween, Samhain and Being a Modern Witch

I remember the first time I realised that the word 'witch' never really had a positive connotation until, like, recently. True story! 'Witch' was always a derogatory word thrown at people who appeared to be in league with Satan in one way or another. We have reclaimed it, much the same way other marginalised groups in society have reclaimed a whole bunch of words originally designed to belittle, intimidate or dehumanise them. 'Witch' was never a glowing positive word used to describe healers, herbalists and fortune tellers. But it's a word which is increasingly coming to embody those people in the present.

I'm on board with this reclamation of the 'W' word, although I admit to having my issues with it on and off through the years. In fact, the issues I've experienced are shared by a great many people who have also chosen to own the word. This is largely due to the fact that 'witch' is synonymous with 'evil', 'bad', 'underhanded' and even 'ugly' to those who didn't get the memo and are not aware of what's been going on over here in the land of alternative spirituality since the 1950s. We need to expect some level of discomfort during a linguistic reclamation. But toughing it out is my decision. 'Witch' just feels right. It always did. I recently read this great article which includes lots of wisdom from the wondrous Selena Fox on this very topic. It's well worth a read.

So, I was wandering around the shops the other day gazing gleefully at Halloween stuff. A business in my town has purchased a shop for the season. They've filled it with skulls and skeletons, undead pirate costumes, ghouls, ghosts and gothic black roses. There's a life-sized witch in the window with glowing red eyes and a cackling sound effect. I absolutely radiate pure joy at this time of year. It's everything I love and more. Halloween is just as important to me as Samhain in many ways, primarily because I choose to symbolise the Samhain energy using Halloween imagery. I'm much more likely to have plastic skeletons and glowing red lights on my altar than dried leaves and conkers. For me, the playful but dark themes which dominate Halloween are in keeping with my emotional response to Samhain.

This year, for perhaps the very first time in my life, I've found myself wondering how I feel about the traditional image of a warty-nosed evil witch. I've been watching little girls run around the shops in their pointy hats and capes, threatening to put deadly spells on each other. They're just having fun. But when they get older, are they going to be able to tell the difference between the evil, unsightly stereotype and, well, me? Should this even bother me?

In the article linked above, an important point is made.. Many modern day witches adopt the pointy hat, cloak and warty nose for Samhain celebrations as a kind of self-referential 'in joke', and it can feel super empowering to do so. I certainly enjoy the traditional silhouette and relish the chance to purchase one or two things with 'witchy prints' on them. However I am also keen to see the day when the key principles of Paganism and witchcraft are taught in schools alongside those of the Abrahamic triad, not least because I can't stand the thought of harmful misinformation being rife in yet another generation. Is Halloween unhelpful? I guess that's what I've been thinking about. Could anything which brings people so much innocent and unabashed joy really be so counterproductive?

It's weird to think that I'm a witch and yet countless people are also going to dress up as witches this weekend and go to parties. It's weird to live in a time when 'witch' occupies two distinct spaces in the psyche for a lot of people and even weirder to live in a time when 'witch' only occupies one place in the psyche for some who are not aware of how the word is now being used. (That's not even getting in to the fact that 'witch' is still an incredibly dangerous label to have on your head in certain parts of the world.)

Another great point was raised in the article - the presence of witches in the fabric of 'Halloween consciousness' promotes discussion. It's an opportunity to educate and guide people. It's a chance to start talking about who we are and what we do. It's our time to come out from the shadows and live our spirituality in full view. In my friendship group, pretty much everyone is clued up about Samhain and the links it has with Halloween. Their understanding of the significance of this time has deepened as a result of my presence in their lives, and this is happening in friendship groups and family circles all over the world wherever a witch is present. That's cool. That makes me smile. So it's positive. And besides, witches don't own the concept of Halloween, but it helps that so many of us dig it. For one thing, it shows that we have fun with our beliefs and revel in the joy and amusement of the festival rather than throwing sour grapes at it.

I once read an article written by someone who implied that people wearing witch costumes on Halloween was no better than people wearing Native American Indian costumes in terms of misappropriation and disrespect. This would be true if 'witch' had always meant what it means now. But the truth is, it hasn't always meant what it means now. We 'share' the word with a big chunk of history - history which doesn't favour our mindset or confirm our perspective. Somewhere along the line, that's got to be ok.

It's another joyous Halloween and another sacred Samhain for me!

I hope the same is true for all of you.