Sarah Miller guest blogs on the theme of Witches for Stirred, and here she is performing her amazing sestina on childhood witch Ginny Green-Teeth. Here are a few of her words behind the inspiration for the poem:
‘It’s called ‘The Billings’ which is the name of the place. They’re old disused iron ore shafts that have become full of muddy water. The earth and the water is red there because of the iron in the soil and I used to sleep out there when I was about 9 or 10. Parents used to tell stories of ginny green teeth living up there to deter kids from going near the water…they’re pretty much bottomless as the shafts were deep.’
Many of my closest friends are witches. Some you would probably recognise instantly from the jangle of their goddess and pentacle jewellery and the swirl of their opulent velvet skirts as they pass. Others you might not spot so easily as they go about their lives as nurses, accountants, teaching assistants, electricians and lawyers…one may have served you your meal in a restaurant today or may be your regular hairdresser. Some witches are also men. Actually, there’s quite a lot of men who identify as ‘witches’ and, historically, rather a large percentage of those persecuted for witchcraft and heresy during the Inquisitions of the Middle Ages were male.
It’s difficult to know how many there are practicing the ‘old religion’ and ‘the craft’ around the UK (or indeed the world) today as people are still worried about mockery or discrimination at work or fear the intolerance and unwelcome intervention of mainstream institutions like social services or mental health workers, family and friends.
The word itself conjures up a cauldron load of associations and imagery from the meddling crones of Macbeth and the child eating hags of traditional fairy tales to the nose wiggling domesticity of Samantha, cult cool of Buffy’s (powerful yet geeky) sidekick Willow, the teen goth chic of The Craft coven or fashion focused Sabrina the Teenage Witch and the Charmed sisters.
Witches are a lot of things in the public imagination, as anyone who has taken their freshly made besom home on the train and the tram whilst wearing their usual ensemble of black clothing could tell you. In forty five minutes of journeying from Reddish to Salford via Manchester city centre I had heard everything from bad jokes about my broomstick breaking down to the famous Monty Python sketch and all the curious, witty and offensive comments in between. One Christian lady also said she’d pray for me (which I didn’t think was really necessary unless she was going to be praying that the tram wasn’t going to get stuck at Cornbrook because the points weren’t working again or something equally useful). She also kept mentioning the Devil who witches don’t actually believe in, by the way, as he’s a Christian related deity.
I’m sure she meant well, and somewhere (possibly in Exodus 22:18 in the King James bible) she had read “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live..” and felt it was her duty to help me. But that superstitious zealous imagining magnified is at the core of the terrible atrocities still happening in the world today.
When you hear of Kepari Leniata, a 20 year old mother, being burned alive by a mob for “sorcery” in Papua New Guinea or elderly women being lynched by mobs in Mozambique, suspected of cursing people, animals or crops with spells or of Amina bint Abdulhalim Nassar being beheaded in Saudi Arabia for practicing witchcraft you realise how embedded that fear of witches and their perceived power is, even in the 21st century.
Witches to me are healers, herbalists, wise women (and cunning men) who are in tune with, and revere nature and look to herbs, potions, charms, divination and magic for help and answers. They are believers in the importance of intent and the power of words.
As a writer, I believe strongly in the power of words. I’ve seen how they can influence and affect people….I’m not suggesting that the turning people into frogs or disappearing in a puff of smoke is possible (or likely) but I have been in a circle and have been overwhelmed by the feeling of energy that words and joint intent has produced. And if, being sceptical, that feeling is purely self-derived, cathartic and benign then the worst it does is make a group of people feel connected and part of a community and leaves them somehow spiritually fulfilled and happy without the use of other stimulants or drugs. So where’s the harm in that?
As Halloween comes around, the pointed hat, cloak and broomstick stereotype manifests itself in the guise of costumes and the silhouette of the large chinned, hooked nosed, warty hag flies across everything from lanterns to paper table napkins. A local newspaper will goad some gullible clergyman into saying how dangerous it is to be meddling in “the occult” and they’ll wheel out some fundamentalist who will decree the Harry Potter books as a gateway drug to eating babies whilst dancing and fornicating naked. They will then try and dig out some pagans to be offended and mis-interpreted and poorly represented. It’s somewhat of a Halloween tradition now along with Americanised trick or treating and the replacement of carved out swede lanterns with big orange pumpkins.
For many Pagans and witches, October 31st is Samhain, a sabbat marked by the moon’s phases, that is part of the turning of the wheel or changing of the seasons and the move into the “darker half” of the year. It is also celebrated as the Celtic New Year and is a time to remember and respect the ancestors, feast and feel close to the dead.
Long before I discovered that witches were living, breathing ‘real people’ that I would call friends, I was fascinated by a romantic image of them gleaned from stories, mythology, poetry and art. I often related to them much more than the princesses and heroines I was supposed to be identifying with.
The first poem (after the Arthurian mythology poetry that introduced me to Morgan Le Fey) that I can actually remember learning by heart was Witch-Wife by Edna St. Vincent Millay. I think it appealed to the pre-teen feminist in me. I loved that she had power and freedom and couldn’t be owned by any man. She would never relinquish part of herself. That seemed much more appealing than those women who submitted everything to love only to be disappointed, commanded, mis-treated and disillusioned…no these witches were ‘other’, outsiders, free-spirits that had their own rules and the 11 year old me really bought into that.
She is neither pink nor pale,
And she never will be all mine;
She learned her hands in a fairy-tale,
And her mouth on a valentine.
She has more hair than she needs;
In the sun ’tis a woe to me!
And her voice is a string of colored beads,
Or steps leading into the sea.
She loves me all that she can,
And her ways to my ways resign;
But she was not made for any man,
And she never will be all mine.
Edna St. Vincent Millay
That romanticism was further fuelled by my discovery of the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites. Here were beautiful, strong women with fascinating stories. They were witches as goddesses and sirens who knew their own power and I suppose that’s what I secretly still think of, once I’ve moved the pile of Halloween tat, injustice and bigotry, when somebody says “witch”.