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The Last Time We Mixed Politics and Religion, People Got Burned at the Stake
by Pat Carbonell
Okay, so last time out I let it slip that I'm a pagan. Here's my core religious philosophy: all the names and faces of the All are equally valid and true; all paths to the Light are valid, just different. When you start from that point, then what name(s) of Deity you use to interact with The All is up to you.
Me, I was raised in the Roman Catholic Church. I stopped going after I was confirmed (that was the deal with our folks - we had to go every week to get indoctrinated, then after we were confirmed, we could stop if we wanted to. Let's see, get up for church or sleep in. Hmmmm. Tough choice - NOT!). Several years later I had settled on my core philosophy, already knew that the Yaweh dude from the Old Testament was NOT who I wanted to chat with about sex, drugs and rock'n'roll, and so I went looking for a god-person I was comfortable with. Being of Celtic ancestry (no, I'm not Irish - there were a lot of Celts who never made it to the British Isles - my ancestors stayed in northern Iberia), I naturally checked out the deities of my ancestors. Being likewise drawn to the philosophy behind the yin-yang symbol (male/female, light/dark, good/evil in balance), I settled in with the Great Goddess/Earth Mother and her equal partner and counterpart the Horned God/Lord of the Hunt. They have, literally, a shitload of names, and each carries a slightly different flavor/personality/attributes... but basically they come down to the female nurturer and the male protector. Sometimes she's a warrior, and kicks ass, and sometimes he's a lover and dances in the deep woods. So I became a practicing pagan oh, thirty years ago or so.
So, here I am, a pagan in America. No problem, right? Separation of church and state, right? Yeah, right! Do you folks know that we the people paid over $5000 in tax money to have the statue of Justice in the lobby of the Justice Dept. building draped with blue velvet because John Ashcroft was embarassed to do his news conferences in front of a statue with a naked tit?! What is wrong with naked tits, I ask you? They serve a wonderful biological purpose in feeding our babies, and I'm told that mine are a great, comfy place to sleep - an opinion shared by my cats, my kids and my lover! Yeesh, shades of the Victorian era, when all those anal-retentive idiots plastered (literally, it's plaster!) fig leaves over every naked marble penis they could...
So, folks, it is now time for a short history lesson: The Burning Times. The last time we mixed politics and religion (not really, but right now we're looking at history through a pagan lens). That's what witches, Wiccans and pagans call that wonderul period of time between the Dark Ages and the late Rennaissance, when it was against both church and secular law to be a witch, and one could be tortured, hung, drowned or burned if found to be one. This was all based on a single sentance in the Book of Leviticus in the Old Testament: "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live."
Funny thing about that. That wasn't what the original Aramaic text said. The original law was "Thou shalt not suffer a poisoner to live." Unfortunately for generations of innocent midwives and hedge witches, when it was translated into Greek, the term used was "potion-maker". When the Greek was translated into Latin, "potion-maker" had two equivalents: poisoner or herbalist/witch. The translators went with the second. When it was then translated into English, German, etc. it was translated "witch". So the religious excuse for the Burning Times was bogus.
The actual historical forces behind the witch hunts had a lot less to do with religious fervor and a lot more to do with power and politics. In Spain, the Inquisition had this cute little racket going: they got to seize the property and wealth of anyone convicted of being a heretic. They went after the rich Jews first - financed their little crusade and broke the back of the one non-Catholic political power bloc in the country. The king didn't have to pay back all the money he'd borrowed from the Jewish bankers after they were convicted and burned or ran for the borders.
In England, villages used to be semi-autonomous, with land held in common for the use of the villagers that the landowning barons couldn't touch. One of the things that held these villages together were their healers/wisewomen/midwives. They were generally better educated than most of their neighbors, knew the villagers' rights, and were held in deep respect by their village. After all, you tend to listen to the woman who smacked your ass when you were born, set your broken leg, delivered your children and your calves, and helped you through the grief when your wife died. The witch hunts destroyed that by convincing the common folk that these women were evil, handmaidens of the devil. In England they were hung... and the barons eventually won the right to tear down the villages, turn out the farmers and use the land as they saw fit.
Another faction that supported the witch hunts was the infant medical profession. With the exception of midwives (after all, what doctor wanted to deal with women's problems?), the village witches were competition.
Across Europe, the witch hunts finally served to break down the independant rights of women. In pre-Christian Ireland, a woman had full rights to her dower property, could inherit, could divorce her husband if she so chose, didn't have to have a man at all if she didn't want to, could practise a profession or farm for herself, and could refuse an arranged marriage. Under ancient Brehon Law, there were over a dozen different degrees of marriage, everything from a one-night stand if it resulted in a child (the man was liable for child support) to a marriage of propertied equals of the same class. Across Europe, wherever the local culture had been shaped and influenced by the ancient Celts, women had rights under the law. Then Christianity arrived, with its institutionalized misogynism courtesy of St. Paul.
If a woman tried to stand up for her rights (when they still had them), she could and often was accused of being an unnatural woman and a witch. Here in the colonies, most often the issue was land and inheritance. In Salem, after those wonderful little girls got done accusing the old beggar women they loved to torment, the folks they accused were "enemies" of their families, and the issue there was land.
And Joan of Arc, after brilliant victories for the French, was captured by the British and burned as a witch. She wasn't treated as any other French officer would have been treated (returned for ransom) - no, she was a threat to the power of men everywhere, and so she burned... along with tens of thousands of her sisters.
All right, so this wasn't a "short" history lesson... Believe me, the last few years here in America have been downright scary. A couple of years ago a young lad of eleven or so asked me why I called myself a witch when it's a name that can get me in trouble with people. This past summer a woman asked me why I call myself a witch instead of a Wiccan, when "witch" is such a shocking term.
I call myself a witch because that is what I am. I've accepted the risk involved in going public and shocking or offending people. I've seen potential sales walk away after they read my sign; seen the frowns and the pursed lips, the curious children pushed along.
But I deeply, truly believe that if we go back into hiding, we will lose. We will lose ourselves, we will lose the learning that we have so painfully regained over the past century, we will lose each other. And if we are lost, our Earth loses.
In answer to the many times I was asked, I printed this on the backs of my business cards:
"What is a Witch?
First, being a witch is something you are, not something you believe. A witch Sees with her eyes, her skin, her mind and her heart. She watches and guards the boundaries, between light & dark, night & day, life & death, right & wrong. She is rooted in the earth, its bones are her bones, and it sings in her blood. She is insatiably curious, and never stops learning what the world is teaching. She does no harm. She serves kith & kin & stranger because she is called to, by Love."
I stand up in the light of day and declare myself a witch, because until people can see that we do no harm, that we help where we can, they will continue to be afraid... and humans are very, very good at destroying what they fear.
Next Installment: So Who Gets to Decide What's "Moral"?
Pat does no harm and is only here to help.