Erica Jong, Witches (Abrahams, 1981; reprinted Abradale Press, 1999)

 

When you have an elitist or traditional society in which everybody agrees about who gets access to stuff, you don't have calls for censorship. They only occur in a society in which there are many different groups struggling for a place and trying to figure out whose word goes. -- Erica Jong

Noted author Erica Jong, coiner of the phrase 'zipless fuck,' turns her attention to the factual and fantastical world of witches and witchcraft in a book that redefines the being of weird. Not weird in a bad sense, but weird in this ain't me Granny Hortense's witchcraft, but something filtered through the very modern sensibilities of a woman well-known for being unconventional. Publishers Weekly, in its review of the first hardcover edition, said, "Nothing less than a complete transformation of our concept of witches-from loathsome hag to healing mother-goddess-is what Jong accomplishes with panache in this sumptuously and provocatively illustrated book."

On second thought, perhaps me dear Granny would have liked this book as it shows witches in a positive light. A light not always welcome -- just ask Lori Johnson of Bisbee, Arizona, who had her children taken away from her because she owned a copy of this book! (She did get them back later.) As noted in me review of Jane Yolen's Touch Magic, "Christian groups are the groups most often actively involved in censoring children's literature...." and they also tend to dislike anything that smacks of witchcraft. As Erica Jong herself said, "...as a woman who probably would have been burned in the marketplace for witchcraft only about 200 years ago..." And this is a book not for the prudish as it has graphic scenes of sex, or the easily offended as there's plenty to offend their sensitivities herein.

The thesis underlying this work is that as long as we let the moral system divide women into whores and virgins, thus punishing women for their sexuality, and placing the control of their bodies (e.g., the issue of abortion) in the hands of the ruling structures, we shall have the world in which the persecution of witches will be easily possible. Not a bad argument to make, but one that stretches actual history to the breaking point as we are no longer as certain as we once were that the Burning Times that took place were as bad as they have been depicted. ( Mary Daly's Intergalactic Wickedary of the English Language (1987) contains the following entry: "Burning Times, The: a Crone-logical expression that refers not only to the period of the European witchcraze (the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries) but to the perpetual and worldwide witchcraze perpetuated by patriarchy") There's no doubt that religious persecution is a real fear for modern witches, and with good reason, but the claim that the churches of many countries killed hundreds of thousands of people for being involved with witchcraft during the 14th through 17th centuries ("The Burning Times") has little basis in reality.

Be that as it may, Witches has, in the twenty years since it was published, acquired a patina of respectability among those who call themselves witches. And witchcraft itself is more respectable these days -- Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Worst Witch, and Charmed are but three of the current television series which have magic, witchcraft, and sorcery as part of their story -- and these elements are used in a positive manner. And let's not forget the movie version of The Witches of Eastwick in which three sexy witches defeat Old Scratch himself!

OK, so what 'bout Witches, you ask. Is it worth seeking out? Yes, it is. Erica has done a masterful job of explaining modern witchcraft in a way that Buffy the Vampire Slayer would find most useful. In detailing the history of witches and witchcraft, it gives the reader a reasonably accurate idea of where this religion came from. Indeed, I imagine that Willow on Buffy the Vampire Slayer has a copy on her reference shelf! The key to appreciating Witches fully is to understand that the archetype of the witch is what Jong's interested in -- maiden, mother, and crone all play a role in her reclaiming of witch as a positive archetype. Using prose, poetry, and illustrations -- go here for a particularly rude illustration from Witches -- Erica Jong does for witchcraft what she did for sex in Fear of Flying: making sex and the power of harnessing one's sexual drive a creative and fun endeavour!

[Jack B. Merry]