Fear and the Living

Wicked naming conventions.

Flourishing life tends always to be irregular and unruly, thwarting efforts to tame its abundance in the name of the gods of progress and reform. Contrast the fecund jungle with the neat lawn. One of these thrives.

They called our disorder ungodly, our love a danger. We called it nothing. It was more action than word. Show me a fish with a word for water.

We were often depicted in the company of cats, those mysterious shapeshifters, notoriously hard to catch and easy to love (for the loving), famously resistant to authority.

It was an art, how we lived, but the enforcers of absolute power renamed it. Not art, but craft. Not sister, but witch. To rhyme with a popular slur. 

One way to remake what you fear is to recast it in caricature. So, they made us: black, dark, weird, dangerous. Sure, love and life were all of these and more, but they would have none of it. The dangerous alchemy of a tiny morsel of knowledge in a boundless pool of self-righteous confidence.

We loved and protected. They guarded, refused. We grew; they took. We watched, waited, listened, shared. They announced, stockpiled, amassed.

Our most transgressive act, as some saw it, was the giving of a familiar spirit to the daughter or granddaughter, along with strategies for survival.

And, that we lived. In loving community. In later caricatures, one of us will be pictured as ancient, outcast, poor, and alone. She was our great-grandmother. She raised and taught us. When they burned our village, she was in the field. She survived.

Our detractors persist. Always in the name of progress, reform, order. We know them by their obsessions with mechanized gadgets and purity; acquisition and the order of lawns. And we know them by their mistrust of music, dance, the wild and untamed arts––and cats. And by the names they call those who challenge their systems of order, and their fear of women (and numerous others) who speak against authority.


This morning, while looking into the work of the American scholar and artist Deborah Willis, I came across an article by another scholar of the same name who seemed (to me) to be exploring parallel lines of interest to the Willis I was looking for, albeit in different focus areas. The article is “The Witch-Family in Elizabethan and Jacobean Print Culture” (Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, Winter 2013). As (the other) Willis explains, the idea of the solitary witch was preceded by a longstanding suspicion of witch families. Matriarchal and poor families were especially prone to suspicion, and mother-daughter bonds created “a special locus of anxiety.” Pamphlets warning of witchcraft tended to correspond with a growth of Protestant handbooks on the godly household, as part of a (patriarchal, colonial) effort to make “family central to a vision of absolutist rule.” I found the discovery timely on many levels.