That Witch Is…

Sit by and lend me your ear

I’ll tell you the tale of a woman so dear

She danced with fire on a full moon night

She brought with her such a radiant light…” – Heather Hardak

Jan O’Rourke was a prominent and well respected Punta Gorda business woman. She dedicated her life to helping others, serving as both the co-president of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Port Charlotte and the state Democratic committeewoman for Charlotte County. She sat on the board of directors for the Bernice A. Russell Community Development Corporation in Punta Gorda, was a member of Amnesty International and an award winning mentor for Big Brothers Big Sisters. She was a warm, caring, generous soul who was loved by the multitude of persons, who like myself, were privileged to call her friend. All of these things Jan O’Rourke was. She was also a witch.

The word “witch” conjures feelings of dread and repugnance in many people. It is often used as a term of insult, implying ugliness, malice and evil. As Halloween approaches, we see these images all around us: green skinned hags leering over bubbling cauldrons, silhouetted figures straddling brooms across the backdrop of an ominous full moon, wart faced crones with crooked smiles seeking small children to devour. And yet this view has been changing over the years, evolving to include a very different idea of what it means to be a witch. Beginning in the mid-twentieth century, and especially gaining momentum in the 1990s, the word “witch” has been reclaimed and reinterpreted by the feminist and earth centered spirituality movements (Hutton, 369-82). As the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary shows, it has come to denote people who, like my friend Jan, are practitioners of a religion known as Wicca.

Wicca owes its name to the same etymological roots as the word “witch”; both come from the Old English “wicce,” meaning to bend or shape (Adler 11). As a religious movement, Wicca can be traced back to England in the 1930s and has subsequently spread to America and other parts of the world.  It is seen by its adherents as a revival of pre-Christian European nature religions, celebrating the cycles of the seasons and the moon (“Witchcraft”). While there are some Wiccans who choose to practice from a feminist perspective, forming groups whose membership is open exclusively to women and who envision the divine solely in the form of a female deity, the majority of adherents honor both the feminine and the masculine forces of nature, the Goddess and the God. These witches view the world, and all of earth's inhabitants, as sacred.  They believe that nature moves in cycles -- the phases of the moon, the turning of the seasons, the circle of life -- and celebrate these natural rhythms as holy, envisioning them as an endlessly spiraling dance of  birth, death and rebirth (Starhawk 17, 22-25).

Because all of nature is seen as sacred, causing harm to the Earth and its inhabitants is something to be eschewed. These witches adhere to an ethical principle known as the Wiccan rede, which states, “An ye harm known, do as ye will” (Adler 101). Not content to stop there, many witches actively seek to better the world around them, often becoming involved in environmental causes, health and healing professions, or support of social justice issues (Adler 413, 446). My friend Jan was such an individual, and she saw her actions as a natural extension of her spiritual beliefs. Nor is she an isolated case; through my experiences with the Unitarian Universalist denomination, which openly accepts a wide variety of spiritual perspectives, I have come to know many more. I have met several nurses, a doctor, a retired paramedic, a massage therapist, an environmental lawyer, and a Sierra Club volunteer, all of whom have embraced the label “witch.”

Yet discrimination is often faced by those who overtly identify themselves as witches. They are frequently confused with Satanists, although these are two distinctly different groups. Unlike Satanists, the religious view of witches does not derive from Judeo-Christian beliefs. As feminist scholar Barbara Walker states, “The witches appear to be reconstructing an old religion in a new format, gradually working out a theology that owes more to ancient Indo-European models than to the ‘reverse Christianity’ associated with the idea of Satanism” (1090). Due to a wide variety of misperceptions, many witches are closeted about their religion, fearing loss of jobs or ostracism from family and friends (Adler 449-50).

So why would anyone want to wear a label so traditionally reviled? For many, the answer lies in the strength that comes from the word. This is particularly true for women, many of whom have felt marginalized by Judeo-Christian religions and welcome a spiritual expression that celebrates the power of the female (Starhawk 23). National Public Radio reporter, author and long time Wiccan practitioner Margo Adler conducted extensive interviews with those who have taken on the cloak of witch, bringing her to the conclusion that “It is the very things that make the word ‘uncomfortable’ that give the word its importance … A woman wrote, ‘For me, the association with women, tradition, and power are important … To deradicalize the concept of Witch by using a different name would fully be cutting off our roots’” (460-61). For these people the word “witch” embodies the concept of empowerment coupled with ancient, earth-centered wisdom, harkening back to the village wise woman, the healer and sage. It calls out to the very fiber of their being, compelling them to wear it in the face of ridicule, harassment, and even threat to their personal safety.

“Taken so quick that February day

The pain never really goes away…” – Heather Hardak

On February 25, 2005 the Sarasota Herald-Tribune published a story that began as follows: “Jan O'Rourke, a businesswoman, community activist and Democratic Party leader, was stabbed to death Thursday afternoon at her home. Police arrested Christopher J. Utermark, who shared the house at 308 E. Virginia Ave. with O'Rourke” (Manfuso). I took in this story through tear swollen eyes, the previous night’s newscast still echoing through my incredulous brain. The witch renowned throughout the Wiccan community as FyreDancer, my beloved friend and one of the dearest souls that I have ever known, was dead at the hands of her own brother. He pled guilty at his trial, and so a public explanation of his actions has never been forthcoming. Jan had openly expressed concerns regarding his emotional and mental health, but she also shared another more private apprehension with me; he disapproved of her personal life, including her practice of Wicca, and she was becoming anxious for her own safety. Could it be that she was killed in part due to an appalling combination of ignorance and intolerance? The question haunts me still…

I fervently hope that more and more people will come to learn what a modern day witch really is, clearing the path for a climate of tolerance and acceptance. A witch today is not an evil hag casting spells with a baneful eye, nor is it a holdover from medieval superstitious fear; that witch belongs to the collective myths and nightmares of the past. The witch to whom I am referring is a real person, every bit as human as the rest of us. That witch honors nature and attempts to walk in rhythm with its cycles; that witch seeks to heal the Earth and her inhabitants; that witch lives, loves, sings, dances, cries, buys groceries, puts gas in the car, goes to work and pays bills. These are the witches of today, scattered throughout society in all walks of life. Here among us that witch is, and gone before us that witch was… Jan O’Rourke.

“Dance, FyreDancer, Dance

You dance with the Goddess and the God tonight.” – Heather Hardak

Works Cited

Adler, Margot. Drawing Down the Moon. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986.

Hutton, Rondald. The Triumph of the Moon – A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Manfuso, Jamie. “Woman Stabbed to Death - Punta Gorda Businesswoman and Prominent Democrat is Slain at Home”. Sarasota Herald-Tribune. 25 Feb. 2005, sec. A:1. Newsbank. Richard R. Rush Lib., Edison Col. 22 Oct. 2007 <>.

Starhawk. The Spiral Dance – A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess. SanFrancisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1989.

Walker, Barbara. The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets. New York: HarperCollins, 1983.

“Witchcraft.” Funk & Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia. 2002. Funk & Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia. EBSCO. Richard R. Rush Lib., Edison Col. 22 Oct. 2007 <>.