Friday, February 10, 2012

An Offer You Can, But Shouldn't, Refuse

Why don't you and I make a deal.  Your part: you read my blog, which clearly you are already doing, and if you're feeling generous, you also tell your friends to read my blog.  This gives me hits, and getting hits makes me happy.  My part: I share some of my research with you, because I think it's really interesting, and you wouldn't be reading my blog if you weren't interested in at least some of the things I find interesting.  That's the whole deal.  Frankly, I think your part is a lot easier than mine - how much work is it to read a blog post, for God's sake?  Okay.  So here we go.
     About two years ago my family spent a few days in Boston, and we drove to Salem one day and spent some time in the witch museums.  (If you're not from the U.S. and don't know why they have witch museums in Salem, google "Salem witch trials.")  In those museums, I learned that the early American concept of witches and witchcraft derived from the ancient Irish tradition of the "wise woman," who was an herbalist, midwife and healer.  A friend to all.
     This did not entirely make sense to me: how could a tradition involving a purely beneficent construct have somehow turned into the construct of an evil creature who must be burned to death?  Remember the three weird sisters in Macbeth (see my post, "Vive le Roi")?  They were products of an old European tradition, obviously, and you wouldn't want to run into them in a dark alley, would you?
     Here's what I found out recently about the old, pagan, pre-Christian, pre-Saint Patrick Irish legend of the bean feasa - literally, wise woman. The legend has been passed down through countless preliterate generations in the form of folklore, tales told and retold ad infinitum. What distinguishes this woman from her neighbors is that she has a direct connection with the spirit world, and can serve as a liaison between that world and the human one.  Then there is the other, parallel tradition of the cailleach, a word which is sometimes used interchangeably with the term bean feasa.  But here's where it gets interesting.  If you look in an Irish-English dictionary, and I just happen to have one handy (see my post, "Research = Heaven"), there are two definitions for the word cailleach.  One is "wise woman;" the other is "hag."  In fact, one of the books I'm reading refers to her as "the pre-eminent Celtic Hag Goddess."  Wow, right?
     "Hag Goddess."  It's like the old madonna/whore split view of women, but with spiritual overtones.  In some of the tales, the cailleach is a woman much like her neighbors, but possessed of special powers and knowledge, which she uses to help those around her by mediating on their behalf with the spirit world.  Often in these tales, it is the village priest, decrier of paganism, who is taught a lesson about the enduring power of unChristian forces and the need to find a way to appease them.  In the other line of tales, though, the cailleach is every bit as cruel and capricious as Nature itself; the only good cailleach is a dead cailleach.  But because she is as old as the world and has superhuman powers, in order to kill her, the hero (always a man) first has to find a way to trick her.  Fortunately, sometimes with the help of magical animals, he always succeeds.  Shrieking like the Wicked Witch of the West doused with water, another cailleach bites the dust.
     So there you have it.  The Puritans did not completely subvert the traditional European witchcraft legends; they just chose the second strand and rejected the first.  Because they could not tolerate a pagan tradition alongside their rigid form of Christianity, for them, witches could not be goddesses; they could only be dangerous, evil hags.  In fact, if I'm not mistaken, one of the "witches" executed in Salem was the Carribean-born nursemaid of one of the Puritan girls, who had allegedly taught her charge pagan rituals.
     If you've read thus far, you must have found all this interesting, perhaps in a horrifying kind of way.  But it's important to understand these things.  I've discovered that this research has cleared up a lot of mysteries for me. So now I've fulfilled my part of the bargain I made with you.  Your turn!

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