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
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
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
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
Adler, Margot. Drawing Down the
Hutton, Rondald. The Triumph of
the Moon – A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft.
Manfuso, Jamie. “Woman Stabbed to Death - Punta
Gorda Businesswoman and Prominent Democrat is Slain at Home”.
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.
Funk & Wagnalls