This witch's brew of a book is back to enchant a new
generation of readers. Best-selling author Erica Jong has
provided a new introduction to her acclaimed exploration
of the world of witchcraft, in which she combines fact
and fantasy in beguiling poetry and prose.
Powerful, haunting paintings by Joseph A. Smith
reinforce Jong's provocative study. She analyzes the
figure of the witch both as historical reality and as
archetype-as evil crone and full-breasted seductress, as
a lingering vestige of a primeval religion and a
remarkable natural healer. Real recipes for love potions
and flying lotions, along with formulas for spells and
incantations, make this book a rich journey of mystery
"It's a steaming cauldron of beautifully
illustrated prose, poetry, love potions and flying
lotions as well as historical facts about witches."
"Nothing less than a complete transformation
of our concept of witches-from loathsome hag to healing
mother-goddess-is what Jong accomplishes with panache in
this sumptuously and provocatively illustrated
book." -Publishers Weekly
I N T R O D U C T I O N
When I was researching Witches fifteen years ago, it was considered
rather kinky to talk about the female aspects of divinity or to attempt to
rehabilitate witches from the libels perpetrated on them by their inquisitors. Witchcraft was a bog of myth, misinformation and Halloween
gear. There were people who called themselves contemporary witches or
Wiccans -- and I met plenty of them -- but they seem as confused about their
origins as anyone else. Some called themselves goddess -- worshippers or
contemporary pagans. Some were feminists rediscovering the female roots of
divinity, and their rituals were as muddled as they were sincere. Nobody
could quite decide whether to be a white witch and do good with herbs or
-- more exciting -- to be a bad witch and go to bed with devils.
The popular image of the witch reflected this confusion. There were both
good and bad witches in picaresque movies like The Wizard of Oz, and
only bad witches in scary movies like Rosemary's Baby. Did witches worship
Satan or did they worship a benevolent mother goddess? Hardly anyone would
have posed the question that way. It fell to this book to put the question
to a popular readership for the first time -- and that has been a large part
of its appeal.
The truth is that the witch is a descendant of ancient goddesses who embodied both birth and death, nurturing and destruction, so it is not
surprising that she has both aspects. But when religions decay and gods are
replaced, there is a consistent dynamic: the gods of the old religion inevitably become the devils of the new. If serpents were once worshipped
as symbols of magic power, they will later be despised as symbols of evil.
If women were once seen as all-powerful, they will become relegated to obedience to men and feeling pain in childbirth. The symbols remain but
their values are reversed. The snake in Genesis is now the devil. The first
female, Eve, has gone from being a life-giver to a death-bringer. Good and
evil are reversed. This is the way the politics of religion work.
The contemporary image of the witch incorporates detritus from many religious sects over many millennia. Like the wall of a Crusader castle in
the Middle East, it rests upon a foundation of remnants from a variety of
periods. Like Hecate and Diana, the witch is associated with the moon and
lunar power. Like Aphrodite and Venus, she can make love potions and fly
through the air. Each attribute of the witch once belonged to a goddess.
All over the ancient world goddesses were worshipped. These goddesses
represented womanhood distilled to its ultimate essence. Ishtar,
Astoreth, Aphrodite (as she was eventually known) held sway over love, procreation,
fecundity -- and most of the gods obeyed her urgings. Many-breasted, in love with flowers, wheat, all blossoming, she echoed
something primal in the human heart. Born of woman ourselves, we find godhead natural in
womanhood. Any faith that renounces the mother is bound to see her creep
back in another form-as Mary perhaps, the mother of the sacrificed god.
Witchcraft in Europe and America is essentially this harkening back to female divinity within a patriarchal culture. If you insist long enough
that God is the father, a nostalgia for the mother-goddess will be born. If
you exclude women from church-rites, they will practice their magic in the
fields, in forests, in their own kitchens. The point is, female power cannot be suppressed; it can only
be driven underground.
Take a little honey in a jar. Write your deepest wish on a bit of brown paper and hide it in the honey. Focus all your energy on your
intention (which must be sweet) and eventually your wish will be granted.
Intention counts for everything. It must be positive. And the more witches
there are sitting in a circle practicing communal intention, the more potency the magic will have.
The desire for magic cannot be eradicated. Even the most supposedly rational people attempt to practice magic in love
and war. We simultaneously possess the most primitive of brainstems and the
most sophisticated of cortexes. The imperatives of each coexist uneasily.
We may even prefer to see the witch as an outsider, a practitioner of the
forbidden arts because that makes her even more powerful. Perhaps we are
slightly ashamed of our wish to control others and would rather pay a maker
of magic than confess to these wishes ourselves. Perhaps we would rather not
be in charge of magic that might backfire.
Since we believe witches can make wishes real, we both need and fear them.
If they have the power to kill our enemies, couldn't they also kill us? If they
have the power to grant love, couldn't they also snatch it away? Witches
remind us of the darkness of human wishes. That is why we periodically find
reasons to burn them.
In The White Goddess, Robert Graves asserts that all real poetry is
an invocation of the triple goddess of antiquity -- she who controls birth,
death, procreation -- and that it is the poet's fealty to her that determines
the authenticity of his work. "The main theme of poetry" Graves says, "is
the relations of man and woman, rather than those of man and man, as the
Apollonian classicists would have it." The male poet woos the goddess with
words in order to partake of her magic. He is at once her supplicant and
her priest. Where does this leave the female poet? She must become an incarnation of the triple goddess herself, incorporating all her aspects,
creative and destructive. This is why it is so dangerous to be a female poet. It is a little
like being a witch.
Adelaide Crapsey's poem "The Witch," evokes this well:
When I was a girl by Nilus stream
I watched the desert stars arise;
My lover, he who dreamed the Sphinx,
learned all his dreaming from my eyes.
I bore in Greece a burning name,
And I have been in Italy
Madonna to a painter-lad,
And mistress to a Medici.
And have you heard (and I have heard)
Of puzzled men with decorous mein.
Who judged--the wench knows far too much-
And hanged her on the Salem green.
Adolescence is a time when witchcraft exercises a great fascination. Disempowered by society and overwhelmed with physical changes,
teenage girls fall in love with the idea of forming covens. Whatever bric-a-brac of
magic is around, they will pick up and shape to their own uses.
This book has made me a heroine to my friends' daughters. It has also been
the most banned of all my books -- probably because the idea of female godhood is still anathema to many people. Once, I received a
Polaroid picture of this book showing it burned around the edges. The letter
accompanying it said: "My father burned this book. Could you send me another copy?" So much for the efficacy of censorship.
The more disempowered people are, the more they long for magic, which
explains why magic becomes the province of women in a sexist society. And
what are most spells about? Usually procuring love, with the hexing of enemies running a close second. When men turn to magic, they are more
likely to seek knowledge and power (Dr. Faustus), or immortality (Walt Disney). The men who spend fortunes to assure that their corpses will be
frozen are not likely to be attracted to love spells. Their love is self-love. They
want their own DNA to endure singly, not to commingle with a lover's.
So witchcraft remains a woman's obsession. John Updike captured the nature
of the beast in his novel The Witches of Eastwick. Disempowered women
use their coven to become the secret legislators of their little town. Their
magic cannot be separated from their sexuality. That is, of course, the point.
I would love to be a witch. I would love to learn to control the uncontrollable
by making secret spells. (Who wouldn't?) I believe I was really motivated to
write Witches because I hoped I would learn to master my own fate through
magick. In that I was like Fanny, the heroine of my third novel, who was also
drawn into the study of witchcraft as a means of mastery. In Fanny, being
the True History of Fanny Hackabout Jones, my eighteenth-century heroine is a powerless orphan, raped by her guardian,
who turns to witchcraft in the hopes that it will equalize her power with
men. I imagine a coven of proto-feminist witches who attempt to compensate
for the female's lack of power by making spells and riding through the air. They initiate Fanny and her
newfound power stays with her the rest of her life, though it helps her in
different ways than she first expects. Witchcraft in Fanny proves to be the
magic with which mothers inspire daughters and vice-versa. It proves to be
women's wisdom -- ancient and life-giving.
We have come a long way since the days when it was impossible to imagine a female deity. Now the idea of an inspiring goddess has almost
become commonplace. Yet women are still not equal to men politically or
economically. Will we ever be? Is our power still the power to give life?
And if so, will we never be forgiven for it?
Since the goddess of birth is also the goddess of death, women are accused
of bringing death into the world as well as life. This is why the witch is
depicted both as young, beautiful and bedecked with flowers, and as a frightening crone covered with cobwebs. She represents all the cycles
of life, and if she is terrifying it is because the cycles of life terrify.
They are inexorable. They remind us of mutability and mortality.
In certain periods it seemed less disturbing to worship the beautiful young
male -- Michelangelo's David, the perfect boys of Platonic discourse --
because they could be seen as detached from change and decay. Periodically, our belief systems go through this cataclysm, from the
worship of the female cycles of birth and decline to the isolated perfection of young
maleness. The Socratic notion that true love was only possible between males
represents denial of woman and denial of death. The rejection of females'
bloody cycles, mewling infants, and cthonic vendettas reasserts itself in many
cultures. Woman is made the scapegoat for mortality itself, for nature red in
tooth and claw, for the mutability that is human fate. Then she is punished as if she were responsible for all
nature's capriciousness, as if she were Mother Nature incarnate -- which of
course is partially true.
Since we inherit a worldview that sees man as reason and woman as nature, we are still in the grip of the beliefs that fostered witchburning.
We have to understand the witch to understand misogyny in our culture. We
have to understand the witch to know why women have been denigrated for centuries. The witch is a projection of our worst fears of women. Whether
fattening children for food in "Hansel and Gretel" or disappearing into a
puddle of ooze in The Wizard of Oz, the witch inhabits a dimension where
the primitive fears of children become the wishes of reality.
Love is only a love poppet away. Mountains of gold glimmer beneath the
earth. Enemies disappear with one magic formula while blossoms spring up
with another. The witch can vaporize people at will, keep spring on earth all
year long, make the lion lie down with the lamb. She can fly and enable others
to fly. She can abolish death.
Surely we would like to be like her, and a book can only be a beginning. Like all secret arts, witchcraft is learned by apprenticeship.
Its deepest secrets are printed nowhere. One witch hands down her grimoire
to her successor, who alone can decipher its coded spells and recipes. If a
true witch were to publish her secrets for all to see, she would immediately lose her powers.
"Power shared is power lost", say the witches. Legend has it that true books
on witchcraft have at times been published, but the pages spontaneously combusted before they could be bound. So I have
had to be very careful with Witches. Like the weaver of a great rug who
does not wish to arouse the wrath of Allah, I have had to introduce small
errors. I have had to code certain messages and print my recipes and spells with missing ingredients or
missing steps. Otherwise the book would go up in smoke before it could be
read. But the clever reader, the witch-to-be, the natural adept of magick will read this book holding in her hand a pen dipped in invisible ink. Guided by the unseen force, that hand will supply whatever is missing. With practice, with deep concentration, the hand of the proficient will fill in the missing formulae. Just as the Delphic Oracle uttered words whose import she could not divine, the hand of the true adept will scribble the truth. Watch for those words. They are all the witchcraft you will need to know.
Harry N. Abrams, Inc. (1999)
176 pages; color illustrations
reissued with a new introduction
by Erica Jong
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