Saturday, October 11, 2008

Witchcraft and the erotic

Greer reviews a book on witchcraft and witch hunts. She finds it shallow, and touches on the question of witchcraft and witch hunting having it's roots in misogyny. If so, why are we so willing to use it in application to other things that are not related to gender. I don't disagree that witch hunts are targeted at pounding down women more than men, though there are ample cases of accusations of supernatural evil doing against groups of men. But the practice of creating more ordinary black magic adheres, both in myth and in the pseudo-judiciary of other ages, to women.

These two parts, the relationship of the root to women, and the broader application to a genderless body of "them" struck me on reading a novel "Let Me In." It has been made into a film, and its focal point is a child-vampire and the boy who falls in love with her, and the complex fall out of the results of their entanglement. Blood death is feminine, and the fear the women of blood, and hence the dark side of fertility, is very deep.

This depth of fear, of the dark side of blood, is connected with not only our role as life givers, but our role as survivors. Disease generally spares more of us, than men. This and other factors related to the nature of biology of women, are linked with the social factors, of power, dominance, and the need to control bloodlines. Generally analysis tries to make this flow one way. But that's wrong. Human beings have been gathered in groups, stalked by disease, seeking power and reproductive advantage, since, well, before we were human.

This means that the biology and the societal aspects that make the suspicion of the older or outcast woman as what feminist theory calls "the other," grew up together. The bands of primates, their struggles for advantage, position, survival, lead to violent acts. Gorilla males kill infants from before their rise to power. Is it so strange then that we, primates, kill out of primal drives which find expression and excuse, even if those expressions are irrational? The patina of rationality, or at least narrative coherence, on the madness of blood lust, is a better theory than trying to have some sort of generative etiology of the witch hunt.

May be I should back up there. Often what primates do out of deep evolutionary drives doesn't make "sense" in that it has no reasonable chain. It works, on average, and that is why it evolved. That doesn't mean that every specific thing works, or confers an advantage, only that it is part of a complex of behaviors that on average, does. So, for example, bouts of homocidal rage may seem inexplicable, but they may well just be the down side of a kind of immune response which does.

Let me take an example. On average, women have much better immune systems than me. Diseases, other than those associated with reproduction and child birth, kill men more than they do women. However, that doesn't mean that the women who survive aren't infected, but merely that they have fought off the onslaught of the illness. Now think about the woman without children, especially older. She is, on average, likely to be the source of infection. A trop towards expelling such women who do not conform to the social group could well, on average, work as a survival trait. Even if it is irrational and wrong on specific cases, and irrational and wrong in our more symbolic society. A million years of being walking apes, will not be erased by our much shorter history of society.

So that's what struck me about the book, and I think it makes me want to see the film: the interwoven nature of human beings, where the negative traits and the positive ones are intertwined by biology, personal need, and society. All of which are locked in a deathly and ghostly embrace.

But let me finish the thought finally. The same things that make the outsider woman a danger, make her a prize. She possesses genetics or knowledge or both that, if woven into the fabric of the community, are valuable. This is why so many legends focus on bringing in the faerie to the community, and the role of the fertility goddess even in a nominally patriarchal monotheism.

This makes the witch not only an object of fear and loathing, but one of both power and desire, a priestess as much as a demoness. And more alluring for both. Men don't just burn witches, they burn for them.


  1. Fascinating thoughts on witchcraft and the erotic... and frightening. Your analysis of persecution of older women in evolutionary terms was interesting but I feel some reservations about it. As you admit you're talking about statistical truth and not absolute truth so you can only draw conclusions "on average" at best from such theorizing.

    I liked your link to the sidhe and legends of animal wives: selkies, fox spirits, Melusine and such stories. There's a definite folkloric tradition of men going out into the wilderness to claim an alien bride with supernatural nature and powers - and the inevitable disastrous results of trying to bring her back into his community.

    Whether your evolutionary arguments are compelling or not you're definitely tapping into a deep vein of folkloric and shamanistic tradition here - which implies there might be some hidden knowledge at the root of all this, whether that knowledge be evolutionary, psychological, or mystical in nature.

  2. /me drops his jaw in awe...

    I read this just before going to bed. Now I'm going to be up half the night digesting your thoughts, and I'll have to return to reread in the light to day.

  3. I think that the folklore and the evolution are joined. Folklore, religion, craft, are all ways that communities express ecological, social, and biological, reality in terms which can be applied.

    Sometimes this knowledge is very positive, and sometimes it leads to results that are highly negative.

    Biology and ecology are forces that shape and act on us, and our response in culture is how we shape ourselves in response. It might be evolutionary wisdom for, on net, societies without medical technology to cast out people who might be a danger, based on overt traits and heuristics.

    It's also not something we should be running our politics by today.

    As for folklore of bringing back alien brides, the results are rather mixed. Many legends underline that if a bride of "the folk" or the fey is brought back and she is integrated, her people will help the community. There are folk tales from China, India, Ireland and other places which go through how this union should work. I think a good argument could be made the relationship of village to faerie is the social view of how there should be a relationship between the mysterious tides of fertility and nature.