Witchcraft and Essentialism
Quick disclaimer: Today, I write about a different religious faith from my own — or spiritual practice, and people identify with it in varied ways — as such, I wish to clarify the following:
I have a positive view of witches and Wiccans. Studying this subject has opened my eyes to a new perspective, and it has enriched the way in which I see the world and my relationship to nature. But even so, I always write critically.
Not because I dislike something, but rather because that’s how I explore and examine things. I test them, and question them, and dissect them. This article may start off a little bit blunt, but if you read it to the end then I assure you that the good very much outweighs the bad.
It is not meant to be disparaging or insulting, but rather the contrary. In my own philosophy, criticism can be a kind of praise. It is an expression of fascination, curiosity and a genuine attempt at examining something.
Moreover I feel it is a debt to be paid. Because as I studied this, I was given a new way to examine things, and I feel all the richer for it. So why would I not to try make some effort to give the same thing in return?
Recently I started studying herbs and herbal medicine, and the organic chemistry of early medicinal compounds and substances.
And as some of you know, this of course is tied to witches and the tradition of wise women. Such traditions vary from place to place, but there is generally a practical theme that all such traditions have in common.
A herbalist must live among herbs. As such, they generally became solitary and isolated people, having to move away from villages and cities in order to access land and nature that was undisturbed by clearances for fields, canals and furrows. Whether it is a Bruxa in Mexico, or a Hedgewitch in England, they were all defined by this need for a suitable environment.
So while I came for the harder scientific study of plants and plant matter, I found myself making numerous detours into naturalistic and pagan spiritualism. Ranging from the faiths of old, to the new age revival of such things.
Pagan is of course a very vague word. There are many different kinds of pagans, because in truth it simply describes any faith outside of the Abrahamic faith.
As such, my views on the matter are mixed. Roman pagans for instance, with their love of war, wealth, hedonism, slavery and child marriage, are a bunch that I am not very sympathetic towards. I do not think Christians persecuted them in any meaningful sense.
Rather, the Roman pagan establishment picked a fight that turned into a protracted centuries long insurrection, and eventually they lost. I would even go so far as to say that the medieval Christians learned their often warlike and hypocritical doctrines from their Roman oppressors.
I would also posit the same for the Norse pagans for the simple fact that they were quite happy to dish it out, so they shouldn’t complain when someone else’s ships suddenly land at their own beaches. I think that if you spend so many centuries making enemies, then you shouldn’t be surprised if you suffer the same conquest you’ve given to others.
And while it is true that the Vikings were also great traders and merchants, fact still remains that they colonised England, Ireland, Russia, France and many other places. Moreover they also traded slaves. I am not very sympathetic to such a social order beyond perhaps a natural sympathy to the innocent and ordinary people who were caught in the middle of conflicts beyond their control.
On the other hand, the English and the Celtic pagans were never as warlike as their Roman or Norse counterparts, and I would say that they suffered great mistreatment at the hands of Christianity. The Roman Empire had to be removed in order to make way for the independent nations and clans that formed Europe, but I do not think the same should be said for the other faiths. I admire the Roman Republic, and I am glad the tradition of republics was not lost to history. But empires are built by war and slaves, this is just as troubling as monarchism.
Then you have neo-Paganism, of which I am familiar with four particular branches. I exclude occult practices such as Thelemites or Luciferians from paganism because they are — as irony would have it — offshoots of Christianity. Because in order to be contrarian to Christianity, they must still base their belief on Christian ideas. Paganism I think is something that existed in parallel to Abrahamic faiths.
First one I know is the Hellenics, who take some of the more positive and perhaps idealistic aspects of classical paganism and turn it into a kind of spiritual practice. As far as I know, it is a mishmash of Roman and Greek religions from antiquity, and often compounds very broad historical and geographic cultural ideas. I don’t think this is a bad thing however, spirituality without creativity is often miserable and world denying. May as well give yourself a colourful palette.
Second one is the Thuleans named after the Thule Society, who follow a perverse kind of Odinism that was popular among the Waffen SS. This faith should be outlawed in my opinion. It is not a real religion so much as it is a state mythology from a dead order of military fanatics. Even the most brutal of Vikings were not half as deranged as the Nazis.
Third one is the druids. As far as I know, they like flowery wreaths, folk music, cotton robes, maypoles and have something to do with the Stonehenge. I distrust them, but not because I am prejudiced towards people of other faiths, but rather because I am prejudiced towards the English.
And fourth one being the wiccans or witches. Self-identification varies, but it is this category that I wish to write about today. Some call themselves wiccans, others call themselves witches, there’s green witches, hedgecrafts, folk deities, secular spirituality, nature worship… I even have an ex who used to practice necromancy. It all varies a great deal. It’s a highly eclectic category. But nevertheless there are some key similarities.
I think the core basis of all these varied practicioners is two things. Namely nature and harmony. It is a very romantic faith in its epistemology, in the sense that it follows more feelings than it does reason, and that is by no means a bad thing.
When I say reason, then in the context of epistemology I am referring to thought and reason. Thinking and reasoning can of course be useful, but it is by no means a superior trait to feelings, and rationalism is by no means a superior epistemological imperative to that of romanticism. In fact, romanticism is the epistemology of what is sensory. As such, romantic epistemology is the basis for empiricism, which is often regarded as superior to rationalism.
And even modern day law agrees with this conclusion. Crimes committed with malice and forethought are generally considered more immoral than crimes of passion. To act on one’s thoughts and deliberate upon an act of selfishness and cruelty is generally considered worse than to simply let one’s emotions get the better of you. Moreover, emotions are fleeting things, you can always move away from them. Deliberations on the other hand are quite murky waters.
As such, we often have an unfair stigma towards romanticism. Revenge for instance is often very mild with emotions. You get angry, you feel wronged, you go to sleep, and you feel better in the morning. You realise you overreacted, and you let go of revenge. But revenge produced by reason is where we find Machiavellian philosophy. This kind of revenge is often quite dangerous and not to mention unhealthy.
As such, I would say it is far better to live in the world than it is to live in one’s own head, and one thing that delights me about wiccans and witches is how they have embraced this mode of exploring the world. It is one of the few New Age ideas that I enjoy because it is in fact surprisingly scientifically minded.
Witches and wiccans don’t shy away from examination, investigation, experimentation and recordkeeping. In fact, exploring and learning about nature and the properties of nature is central to their belief. I was both surprised and impressed by their devotion to such things.
I like how it is a worldview that encourages people to find answers, and to look for an explaination of the world around them. Other new age beliefs differ greatly from this in one key distinction, and that is the use of the word energy.
Hippies love to use energy as a kind of philosophical duct tape to cover all the empty gaps of their knowledge, a sort of catch-all to justify their whims and impulses and make themselves feel profound or special for doing normal things that normal people do. I always found it irksome and narcissistic, and not to mention a very pretentious way of twisting their own ignorance into something supposedly cosmic and sublime.
Witches do things differently, and I think what they refer to as energy is what a classical thinker would refer to as essence. It is in many ways the opposite of what hippies see energy as. Hippies see energy as something external, that, with some sort of magical tendrils, guides their agency through a greater power.
But witches see it the other way around. Energy is a more two-sided idea. It is something you put into the world through the use of rituals, ceremonies and exploration. Unlike hippies, witches manipulate these energies. Hippies just soak them in and use it as yet another addition to their list of excuses for being workshy derelicts. A witch on the other hand is productive, kind, generous and take a more industrious approach to harmony.
They provide counsel, wisdom, education and both medical and spiritual healing. Witches strive to be helpful and useful additions to their community, and in many opinion maintain a lot of the virtues I would like to see in a model citizen.
And that’s why essentialism comes to mind. Plato saw essence as the defining traits of things. A kind of idealistic framing of worldly objects, as to be aware of their unique and defining properties. He was famously mocked for this by Diogenes, but in retrospect I think he was on to something.
And it is not surprising that witchcraft has such a sense of essences, because it is in many ways the entire point of organic medicine. You examine plants, herbs, roots, barks and all manner of things, and you find ways to distill, grind, process and extract the vital and necessary things that you need from them. Witches, in their thousands year long history, have shaped their worldview by the perspective given to them by their work.
And it is a perspective that I believe is quite necessary for humanity. Because in many ways it is a fuller perspective. There is something very humbling about the idea that plants sustain us. Plants are often passive, fragile, gentle and innocent. They do not prey upon things, or fight things, in fact their greatest defense is to simply be really, really good and useful to the world around them, to the point of where destroying plants is to destroy ourselves.
Plants are the only organic life that can effectively kill people with kindness. Their chemicals, their nutrients, their biocycles, all of it is vital for our survival. So why should they not fascinate us? Why should they not invite us into their world? These ancient and silent things that have nourished us throughout our evolution. That we owe our existence to. The first life to ever exist, and too often we take it for granted.
Too often to we have an instrumental understanding of trees, and roots and plants. We do not see them as living things, but rather as objects and items and possessions. But the reality is that they nurture us, and that they are in many ways our elders and our progenitors. They were the inventors of food, and cells, and air and life.
It is only recently that scientists have learned that plants can communicate and speak, and do so in a language not too dissimilar from that of our own cells. Just like how cells communicate using protein coded enzymes, so do plants communicate by releasing chemicals.
Moreover, science have shown us that exposure to nature. Trees, plants, greenry and what have you, not only improves our mental health, but also our physical health. These chemicals that trees release into the air are highly beneficial to us. Scientists don’t know how, but plenty of data shows that exposure to trees increase life expectancy, quite dramatically in fact.
We’ve lived among them for hundreds of thousands of years, they are a part of us just as much as we are a part of them. We cannot exist without them.
I think witches will be the scientists of tomorrow. Their approach to life and biology and organic chemistry is far more sensible than what they academics are doing. Because somewhere along the line we forgot what science is. We forgot how science is about observation. Somewhere along the line people began to define science by hard data alone. But data exists in an arbitrary world, and it has given us an arbitrary view of the world. This view of the world is currently killing us.
Until we reimagine the depths by which we are connected to the world around us, we will be blind to our own undoing and our own destruction.
My great aunt was a witch. And in recent days I begin to see why. It is a wonderful tradition, and the terrible destruction that it met at the hands of fanatics and monarchists has been an irreparable crime. I hope it will not always be such a thing, and that one day we may rebuild what’s been lost to history.
I think every hospital, every clinic, every centre of medical study and every institution of education should have a witch in its employment. A person who examines the vital things about life that we so often forget to pay attention to. This is a perfectly good discipline of science, an admirable pursuit of knowledge, and a valuable addition to philosophy.
God save the witches, and may he forgive us Christians for our misguided and terrible prejudices and crimes committed against them.