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Why do we shun the witches? - Reply to D2 magazine

Updated: Oct 4, 2020

Upon request, I'm posting this English translation of my reply to D2 magazine.

On September 18th, the Norwegian newspaper D2 magazine published a reportage about the modern witch, where four women – I among them – were portrayed who in one way or another identify as witches. As the focus on me and the other women was narrowed down to some aspects of our lifestyle, and the story chose to portray modern witchcraft as a commercial lifestyle trend, I've felt a need to convey a deeper story about what being a modern witch truly means for me and many other women.

I've called myself a witch for two decades, based on my practice of a nature-based spirituality inspired by European per-Christian traditions. My spiritual practice informs my life choices, gives me strength and clarity, and has to a great extent shaped also my professional life. I work as a women's health educator, with a specific focus on fertility and the menstrual cycle. I also hold ceremonies and workshops where I help people come into deeper touch with their inner and outer nature, their bodies, and their deeper selves.

First, let us have a look at what a "witch" is. Wise women have existed in every indigenous culture. They are the medicine women who work with healing and who are considered able to communicate with ancestors, natural forces, and cosmic forces. They are known by many names. “Heks”, the Norwegian word for witches, is believed to stem from the German word “hagazussa”, meaning something like “she who sits on/by the hedge”. Hedge, in this context, refers to the place where wild nature meets the cultivated landscape. But it could also be interpreted as "the edge between worlds", between the known and the unknown. According to old Norse tradition, the woman with magical abilities was known as "völva". She had a high status as spiritual leader, and in the mythology she is closely connected to the “norns” – the wise women, also known as the Goddesses of Destiny, who sit by the World Tree Yggdrasil’s roots and weave the destiny of humankind. In some sources, the words "völva" and "norn" are used interchangeably. Their "witchcraft" was an essential part of the Norse religion. Even after the conversion to Christianity in the Nordic countries, the völva had a high status. This is shown for example in the saga literature, which was written down in the early middle ages by Christian men, but which still portrays völver with high respect – often pointing out that their magical foretellings were accurate.

We often forget that we Northern Europeans once were an indigenous culture. Just as the Sámi or Native Americans, we too once possessed an ancient wisdom tradition and a deep connection to our native land. And just as with these indigenous cultures, our wisdom tradition was consciously and violently torn apart – in part through the witch burnings that occurred throughout 300 years, from 1450 to 1750. The witches' spiritual approach and knowledge was a part of that wisdom tradition upon which eradication was attempted.

In the reportage in D2, historian Rune Blix Hagen says about the growing interest for witchcraft that "anxiety and uncertainty creates a fertile ground for magical and enchanting stories - it becomes a kind of escape from reality (...)", and psychologist Peder Kjøs says that the ceremonies held by the witches are "mostly harmless - a kind of social game". Let us take a moment here and imagine that those words had been said about Sámi or Native American spiritual traditions – or about a Christian communion, for that matter. That would hardly have been considered acceptable in a politically correct major newspaper, wouldn’t it? When referring to modern religious practices, whether it is Christianity, Islam, or other religious and spiritual directions, it is seldom acceptable to describe these actions and beliefs as an "escape from reality" or "social games". No matter what one's own stance may be on religion, we regard it as good manners to speak respectfully about people who take their religion seriously and who find their deepest spiritual meaning in their faith and practice. So why is it acceptable to say such things about witchcraft, which is also part of our own spiritual heritage and history?

In Sámi artist Mari Boine's beautiful and important storytelling performance “Under nordlige stjerner” ("Under Northern Stars"), which she created together with religious historian Brita Pollan, the two women tell the story of how the Sámi people were brainwashed by missionaries into believing themselves to be the people of the devil, and that they hence began to disdain and even fear their own spiritual tradition. Boine also explains that this programmed self-loathing is something that many still experience today. I think the same is true for other Scandinavian's relationship to our ancient, pagan heritage. I believe the witch burnings and other spiritual persecution of the pre-Christian cultures inflicted wounds on us that we are still in the process of healing – and that our relationship to modern witches is a reflection of that.

Just as other indigenous cultures that have had their traditions extinguished, practitioners of old pre-Christian European spiritual traditions go through a sort of spiritual archeology as we labor towards retrieving our roots. We collect fragments of our own cultural and spiritual heritage – seeking among the shards of what has remained preserved of that wisdom tradition. What we find is limited, so in addition we listen to the nature around us, to each other, to teachers from closely related spiritual traditions that generously share from their knowledge, and to our own inner feeling of connection to something vastly bigger than ourselves. In this way we recreate a spirituality where we stand deeply rooted in our own heritage and in nature. From the outside, it may look less authentic than what we see in the practices of contemporary indigenous people, because we have lost so much and have so few original traditions left – but it holds no less value, meaning or depth for us who practice it.

Additionally, women held a high position in old Norse culture and in pre-Christian European cultures, both spiritually and materially. This is reflected for example in the fact that völvene often were buried together with great riches and with signs honoring their spiritual status. Mythology and saga literature also tells us about the importance of völvene as spiritual leaders in the Norse society. Silvia Frederici tells us in her book “Caliban and the Witch” about how the witch burnings were a conscious tool to undermine women’s role in medieval society. She says that the motivation for this was partly due to the fact that women played an important role in the peasant uprisings that were common in the middle ages. These uprisings were often a reaction to the land grabbing which was continuously occurring, where previously common land was taken over by nobility, the Church and the state. Just as indigenous peoples have been robbed (and are still robbed) of their land Sápmi, America, or Africa.

In place of a nature-based religion where women’s leadership had played an important role, came a medieval Christian faith where the role of women was close to non-existent, or in best case second class. Women were excluded as leaders, and in many cases their access to sacred spaces were restricted. This was to a big extent due to the fact that women were seen as unclean because of their menstruation, a view of the female body that was established both by Aristoteles and the Old Testament – as told about in for example Janice Delaney's book “The Curse: a Cultural History of Menstruation”. This can be put in contrast to a pre-Christian spirituality where women’s bodies, fertility and role in society was honored as something important and sacred – as explained for example in cultural historian Riane Eisler’s classical work “The Chalice and the Blade”.

Even if the church today cannot be compared to the church of the middle ages, and even if a majority of contemporary priests have beautiful values of equality and love between all people – is it so strange that some women do not feel at home in a religious institution with a history of misogyny and persecution of women, and hence seek for spiritual roots where there has existed space for all aspects inherent in being a woman? Modern witches can therefore also be seen as a feminist movement – something that the reportage in D2 points out. Here I want point again to the fact that two male “experts” were brought in to analyze the motivation of three female spiritual practitioners – and then being quoted on their statements about “escape from reality” and "a mostly harmless social game". For in what other context in 2020 would that have been seen as a journalistically correct way to investigate a women's movement?

D2 writes that psychologist Peder Kjøs “believes that it is our individualistic society that is the cause for the witch's comeback, - It is a kind of individual-oriented system, in contrast to, for example, organized religion. One turns inward, looks at oneself, rather than looking at God ”. In my view, this reflects a great ignorance of what a nature-based belief system is. When we speak to people with preserved indigenous wisdom traditions, we recurrently hear that in the core of their spiritual beliefs is the motivation to create and sustain relationships between all life forms. This is the leading principle in all nature-based spirituality – including witchcraft and other European pre-Christian traditions. To understand our role in the greater ecosystem – both in nature, in the cosmos, and in that which lies beyond what our eyes can see or understand. That, I suggest, is the opposite of individualism. Witchcraft and other nature-based spiritual traditions are built on the wish to sustain balance between humans and all other life. So, perhaps, this “escape from reality” and "a mostly harmless social game", is what our society is in most dire need of.

Siri Kalla - witch, depth ecologist and women’s health educator

With input from Maria Kvilhaug - author and religious historian with expertise on old Norse culture

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