5 - hierophant
knowledge, teaching, learning, constraints, conventionality
take a deep breath
In a Western context, the witch is purveyor of forbidden knowledges: midwifery and abortion, home remedies, superstitions, gossip and old wives’ tales that are passed down through whispers rather than books. Once upon a time, these knowledges were commonplace, even revered. As Silvia Federici argues in Caliban and the Witch and Witches, Witch-Hunting, and Women, the skills and traits that would come to be associated with demon-worshiping casters were, in precapitalist Europe, perfectly normal. European society shifted from communal property relations to ownership of land enclosures. With agrarian capitalism, however, came labor production; with labor production came gendered productivities and reproductivities, as well as religion and patriarchal governmental structures designed to arbitrate such labor divisions. Boundaries were necessary, not only between land, but also between class and gender.
Witch hunts were the enforcers of these new boundaries. Those accused were, sometimes, witches in the sense of concocting herbal remedies and muttering incantations. In these cases, ages-old traditions went up in smoke along with their practitioners. Also marched to the pyres and gallows, however, were women on the margins: widows and elders, the poor, the mean-spirited, those deemed sexually promiscuous. In this new regime of labor production, unproductive women of all sorts needed to be publicly disappeared. Demons and devils were to blame, because “only through their demonization could forms of behavior that in the past had been tolerated or viewed as normal be rendered odious and frightening” (20). For knowledges that could not literally be wiped away, then, they were warped the point of hideous unrecognizability.
Federici traces, for instance, gossip, “a term commonly indicating a close female friend turned into one signifying idle, backbiting talk, that is, talk potentially sowing discord, the opposite of the solidarity that female friendship implies and generates” (35). Where once there was the keeper of community-knowledge, there became, and continues to be, the Mean Girl. And we can laugh at the teen rom coms all we want, but still, under so much of our enjoyment is demonic accusation. We don’t need fire and pitchforks anymore, because there is nothing about hating women that we need to prove: we have centuries of nagging wife jokes to back up that truth. For a person and knowledge system to be demonized, it is also rendered nonhuman. Misogyny was (is) no mistake. Think of all the women who would have avoided a date with that One Guy – if not for a bit of gossip. Killing knowledge systems literally kills.
take a deep breath
Incalculable knowledges disappeared under the regimes of colonialism and patriarchy. Over centuries and continents, bibles and scientific journals took the protected, inherited place of oral histories and storytelling. Incantations, medicines, and goddesses were decimated along forests, cultures, and entire peoples across the globe. They’re the knowledges that sent me reeling into spirituality so desperately a few years ago (and so many now-witches since 2016). These are knowledges that we need now, so desperately, for the earth’s very survival.
It was a world that we now call superstitious but that at the same time alerts us to the existence of other possibilities in our relationship to the world. in this sense, we have to think of the enclosures as a broader phenomenon than simply the fencing off of land. We must think of an enclosure of knowledge, of our bodies, and of our relationship to other people and nature. (21)
I bring up the European witch because she is the figure that many 21st-century Western witches are reclaiming today, but she is not alone. Many witches today are looking backwards to the cultural knowledges that should have been their birthrights, literally resurrecting practices from colonialism’s graveyard. But so many magicks remain missing, especially those belonging to indigenous peoples; also especially those belonging to trans, nonbinary, and two-spirit people. Coven witch Tory Vazquez practices ancestral magicks (see lovers card). It hurts sometimes. But it's important, they say, to “honor the grief felt in lost knowledge.” The genealogical chain will always be at least a little bit broken. What does it mean to reach backwards for unreachable stars that are dead upon arrival?
a silent spell for grievable knowledges
thank you for engaging this thesis. please pause from reading to honor what we cannot recover. turn off your screens for at least a full minute. let your silence stand in for the unknowable rifts between you and ancestral wisdom.