Updated: Jun 12
If you're new here, I love old books, particularly on medicine and midwifery, botanicals and raising a family. Witches were the women #healers of generations before. What we understand today as the modern witch, the ugly, big warty nosed grannie, who eats children stewed in her cauldron, is a fabricated story tale. Even when not represented as evil, but rather quite glamorous such as Hollywood's portrayal of Samantha, the magical witch, these no more represent witches throughout history than Carol Brady or Peggy Bundy represents all our mothers. The intent of warping this perception of the witch is deeply ingrained in our history, an effort to oppress women, particularly the healers, the female leaders in the community - those who threatened the #patriarchy.
Midwives, in particular were targeted; those who utilized earth's medicine to heal or even women who had strong will and were a bit more independent and outspoken were often touted as #witches, many, many of them tortured and murdered. Who I am today, a healer, a midwife, a lover of botanical medicine, an advocate, an outspoken woman - would have well earned the common punishment for witches, that of being burned or drown, tortured certainly, if I were to have lived just a few hundred years ago. Today, while I don't fear being murdered, I have absolutely received death threats through the years and the bullying, the hatred, the persecution and dehumanizing behaviors continue; therefore, when I found a little red book in the Lexington Goodwill - A Witch's Diary, by Leek, an autobiography - I was quite giddy.
This little 182-page diary was published in 1968 and the very first line states, "I am a witch." She then discussed the mixed emotions this word brings even into the second half of the sophisticated twentieth century. Some find her evil and some find her legendary. I could not identify more.
The author, Sybil Leek, discusses the Salem Witch Trials immediately into the first chapter, but takes a bit of a different perspective than what I've read more as introduced to me through my training as a midwife and even botanical medicine. Leek presents this more as acquisition of the land owned by these women, which was later carved up either by the church or a local landowner. "Witch hunting was a very profitable business," states Leek (1968, p 2).
She further challenges the historical understanding of the witch, sharing that the confusion between witchcraft and Black Magic is part of the great misconception. Both attract attention, with Black Magic maybe perceived more as the evil, but similar to modern day science, much of it is unknown and unclarified data. Witchcraft, however, as described by Sybil, is more a religion with certain tenets, based on faith and an acceptance of a Supreme Being, a God without a name.
She opposes the portrayal of the witches running around naked, in the dark woods, under the light of the moon singling songs with wolves, maybe even with the Devil in locked arms. Admittedly short of having the Devil as one's companion, I am not opposed whatsoever to this gallant affair, but again, Leek argues this is really more movie material. She then asks questions of those who throw accusations at the witches, who exactly are they mingling with to know the Devil so well? It is so truly narcissistic to accuse others of doing exactly what you are doing behind closed doors.
Witches and Magic
Really this little book is so well-written, such a joy to read. Leek speaks of witches and #magic and being so connected to nature that certainly they are believers in magic, such as the alchemy in love - the mysterious feeling which on one is every quite sure about but which contains all kids of magical ingredients" (1968, p 4). She continues, "there is the magic which drives illness from bodies in pain, there is the magic of a great name, of music, of spring. Magic is a joyous exceptional experience which leads to a sense of well-being, and there is nothing we witches love more" (p 4).
She is speaking to my soul, and likely to yours if you are a reader of my #blog or a client in my practice. We keep close to #nature. We seek harmony in our lives and in ourselves, our environments, and some of us work hard to pass down this magic we know. What I think this author captures that I haven't really heard articulated as well before is that witches invite suspicion, and I'll even add discomfort, because they seek knowledge beyond the range of ordinary perceptions. Witches step outside their own comfort zone in desire to learn more, to better understand, to evolve. We are often loved and hated.
"Science is competing strongly with witches these days, but we do have a few thousand years more experience," (Leek, 1968, p 5). Leek speaks of psychiatrists and psychologists as the witches of her day because they help man better understand himself. It is often empowerment where the mind feels discomfort and in an attempt to protect itself, it rejects new concepts and new ideas, seeking instead authority, obedience, the more familiar, even if not true or honoring.
Leek speaks of religion, Old Religion, religion that predates Christianity. She speaks of witchcraft in America, having been brought here from Africa by way of slaves, although it also lives among the Native Americans. She speaks of the unique way the Christian church grew interest in things beyond the spirit, such as politics and even finance. "The people who could have held back the influence of the newly formed Church were the witches, for they were the confidantes of the rulers, as well as the leading lights in the smaller country communities," (Leek, 1968, p 38). They had annexed land, they prospered through the sale of botanicals, love potions, and counseling advice, and many made fortunes through their gifts of healing. The church recognized it was vital if that power was transferred to themselves, and as we all know, one of the best ways to do that is to ridicule and then persecute your competition. This also allows the sins of the many to be redirected and assumed by the minority, then they can be eliminated, in this case, through drownings and being burned.
Witchcraft moved underground. Their art became secret. And when things are secret, a mystique gets built up and then masses of information and confusion about a simple practice gets circulated. When I was a new midwife, my daughter was working at the local hospital as an emergency medical technician, and one of her colleagues shared there was a local midwife in town who brings in people from outside the country so she could sell their babies. Absurdity.
This rumor certainly initiated because I had a client who lived in Illinois, a state I was not licensed but only an hour from my office, so they chose to rent a hotel for their #homebirth. Management was from overseas and super supportive, super excited to be quite honest, so when this momma hemorrhaged after her birth and she refused medication and then wasn't able to communicate with me well, I made the decision to administer medications against her desire. We transferred not for medical assistance, but so she could have a safe place with a translator. The physician was very supportive of my practice, was super kind, called in the translator and then sent the client home back into my care. However, that ambulance ride apparently left quite an impression on the emergency staff which resulted in a rumor that spread through the community as we continued to hear tails of urban legend through the next few years.
It's easy to twist and magnify that which one is unfamiliar and maybe a little uncomfortable. What was very good care and very respected by those in attendance, became a story of a rogue, reckless, illegal and uneducated midwife. Our profession has long faced these trials. The stories I could share similar to this one are many, but they represent only a small part of the obstacles and personal prejudices we have to surmount when we choose this path. Leer talks in her book about living under fear of potential prosecution, which midwives quite regularly face with every client they assume care even when their care is exemplary. When we are young, we often work with wild enthusiasm that the world will recognize the value of midwifery, of healing medicine, and the injustices of centuries can be wiped away within just a few years. Time though wears on you.
What it Means to be a Witch
In Leer's final chapter, she discusses what she thinks it means to be a witch, more than just unusual powers of good and evil. "A witch must fight to retain her complete identity because the world is determined to fit her to its own idea of a witch," which is so true of the midwife. She speaks of what it takes, what one has to endure, when you are called to such a life. Enlightenment is not easy to live with when the world wants to derail beautiful things. Many witches and midwives, even healers, were ostracized and berated by their family and even authorities for their visions. Sometimes this turns them into ugly people because of the meanness, they themselves, endure - because they lack understanding from others, even love.
Leek speaks to how her calling, and that of others, can be very isolating, that people judge and misunderstand, so she gets ostracized. People are unkind, but she knows well the importance of her role so she endures. Once we claim our place as midwives, healers, or witches, we face trials, misunderstandings, personal abuse, and insults flung at us which is evidence that we have a great inner power to sustain us.