Season of the Witch

It won’t have escaped most of you that this week, Samhain – or as most people call it, Halloween – is upon us again, and I couldn’t let it pass without writing about the festival and what it involves. And for many people, probably more than at any other time of year, it involves dressing up.

The Magpie lives in the UK, which has tended to resist Halloween as an American festival. And Americans do go for Halloween in a very big way. Round here, where we have three USAFE bases, the night reveals all manner of oddities. Adults dressed as fairies, kids dressed as zombies, dogs dressed as Star Wars characters…all (occasionally) human life is indeed here.

But while trick-or-treating is a term from across the pond, the tradition’s been going on here for centuries. Punkie Night and Souling, to give just two names, are very old and very British. All that’s happened recently is that supermarkets have cottoned on to their ability to sell glittery witch outfits, plastic devil horns and a bizarre variety of sugary treats to the UK public.

I miss the days when you, or your parents, had to construct a costume out of sheets or curtains or anything you could lay hands on. In vintage photos from the early 20th century, homemade Halloween costumes have an eerie, primitive quality given by their very simplicity. The kids in these photos look as if they’re about to conduct arcane rituals under the local gallows, not go round the village dobbing toffees off the neighbours.

This leads to the question: Why do we dress up on Halloween? Given the assumption that some things about human nature don’t change much over time, here’s a possibility.

In the most concrete, obvious way, Halloween is about the beginning of winter, and about entering darkness. Which makes it all about the unknown, more so back in the days when we weren’t so cushioned from the elements. Would the food stores last out, would the livestock survive, would we make it to spring? Because death – when, how, and whether there’s anything afterwards – is the biggest unknown of all. And whether you believe in an afterlife or not, the idea that we’ll one day no longer exist in a physical form is scary.

We have different ways to deal with our fear of death. You can stick your head in the sand and hope it goes away. You can propitiate the powers that be to save you from it. You can get reassurance from people who’ve already made the transition – which is why this is a time to commune with the ancestors. Or… if you can’t beat them, join them. If you dress up as a ghost, or a skeleton, or a vampire or zombie or any of the scary death archetypes, you’re acknowledging the fact that you’ll one day be a ghost. You embody the dark and unknown, and by doing so, defuse the fear of its power over you.

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Costumes these days often focus less on spookiness than on wit and creativity. Sometimes, they poke fun at notable events and people of the past year. (I’m betting this time round, a few Americans will come up with costumes related to the recent Congress debacle.) This is in the best tradition of satire, always an art form that mocked the powerful. It’s the tradition of the court jester, whose job was to let the king know that he was only human after all. In ancient Ireland, a bard could write a satirical poem that would literally bring a stingy chief out in boils (now there’s a handy power to have!).

Some costumes, though, are more problematic. ‘Sexy Indians’ (‘sexy’ anything for women), geishas, fat people or ‘mental patient’ costumes may be funny to some, but people who fall into any of those groups in real life may not see it that way. This is another kind of darkness, to do with fear and mistrust of racial differences, or fat, or mental health issues, or female sexuality; brought out at this time, but not dealt with – unknown because people don’t want to bother knowing – so it comes out in stereotypes. It’s not ‘edgy’, it’s just lazy. What would be edgy would be if people within those groups were to come up with costumes that subverted the stereotypes and forced other people to come face to face with the darkness of their own prejudices.

Perhaps one of the commonest Halloween costumes is a stereotype I haven’t yet mentioned, For some years I identified as Wiccan. You know… a witch. I have no facial warts, my nose is a perfectly normal shape, I don’t own a black cat (although I’m trying to persuade my husband that we should adopt another one) and my usual mode of transport is not a broomstick, but a Renault Clio.

So, the clincher question: do I find the traditional Halloween witch offensive? Personally, no (although some other pagans’ and Wiccans’ mileage may vary on this one, and I can ‘t speak for anyone else.) This is my take on it.

The stereotype comes from the years when ‘witches’ were persecuted, peaking in the 16th to 17th centuries. Professor Ronald Hutton’s excellent books on the history of witchcraft have debunked a lot of the common mythology around witchcraft in this era. But the ‘traditional’ image of a witch has persisted: by day, an ugly old woman, living alone and isolated but for her animal companions; by night, flying off to meet her evil cohorts, dance with the Devil and brew up potions to blight crops and render men impotent.

Wiccans have fought long and hard to get away from this stereotype, and the more recent ones: the baby-killing Satanist (far more insidious, as any pagan who was around in the late 1980s knows), and the glamorous, sexy ‘teen witch’ of The Craft and Sabrina and recently, American Horror Story. But I wonder if – especially in response to the latter image – the old witch doesn’t still provide a necessary archetype.

Consider all the things our culture wants women to be. Young. Sexy. Cute and complying, especially to men. Sociable. And if we have any power, it has to come from our looks and our sexuality – but those powers are granted only to the few who fit the male-defined image. (It’s telling that the word glamour, once the term for a spell of delusion, now means the allure of a particular kind of high-maintenance, female appearance.)

Now look at our traditional Halloween witch again. She’s old. She’s ugly. She doesn’t take kindly to anyone telling her what to do. She lives alone, answering to nobody. And she has a lot of power, to use as she pleases. She’s done a deal with the Devil – traded acceptance by her community and her religion. her traditional role, her femininity, if you like, for the ability to bend reality to her will. But is it possible that she got the better end of the deal?

I leave you to ponder that one, and with a suggestion: Maybe this is a good time to face those sides of yourself that you don’t normally bring out, the things you’re afraid of. Take a look at the emotions and characteristics you try to hide – the messy, angry, hungry, horny, awkward screwed-upness of being human – and ask whether there isn’t some positive power in them, some way they could be transformed by bringing them out into the light.

Then, make something of them. Dress up as your inner witch or demon or other bogey-creature. If there’s anything about you that society already finds scary or threatening – age, sexuality, belief, any kind of failure to fit in or refusal to back down – let ’em have it at full force. As gender outlaw Kate Bornstein says: ‘Become a more frightening monster than the one they think you are.’

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If you haven’t the time, funds, or chutzpah for a full costume, try a mask – mask bases are available from many craft stores, or cut a basic mask shape out of card, and embellish it with paint, yarn, beads, feathers…anything that expresses that hidden side. Even if you don’t actually wear it, it can serve as a reminder that you’re not just the ‘you’ everyone thinks they know. And that the universe itself – at any time, but especially in this season – isn’t always what it appears to be…

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