WAKING WILD

Modern Witch Sarah Durham Wilson Explains How Witches Could Save The Planet

Photo: Cynthia Caraz

First published (and full article) on Alternet.org here.
Interview by April M. Short.

Featured image: Cynthia Caraz

April M. Short: The word ‘witch,’ the word ‘goddess’ and the phrase ‘divine feminine’—all these different sorts of spiritual-feminism terms are so hot with women on social media right now. I think it’s important to clarify what they mean, what is their purpose. We’ll start with, why reclaim the word witch? Why reclaim something so demonized rather than just come up with a new term?

Sarah Durham Wilson: Yeah. I remember when I first started using it, people were like, “can’t you use another word?” That continues to give the patriarchy, the people behind the hatred of the witch hunts and this gendercide and misogyny, the sexism—the power. It continues to give them that which they tried to take from us. Starhawk says it best: “The word “Witch” carries so many negative connotations that many people wonder why we use the word at all. Yet to reclaim the word “Witch” is to reclaim our right, as women, to be powerful; as men, to know the feminine within as divine.”

So, witch. To take back that word is to take back our power. Do your own research on the witch hunts. Open one book on the witch hunts, and you’ll be like “What the f–K?” But instead you let history, instead of herstory tell you the story. They can say that, you know, we worked with the devil, we hexed people and cast evil spells. Then you do a little research yourself, you open on goddamn book and you see they were just- women. And then your rage just wakes you up, and you take the word back.

When I took the word back, I wanted to like, stand in grocery store checkout lines and scream out. Coming out of the broom closet is a huge thing. To reclaim your power as a witch is to reclaim your power as a woman. End of story. As a self-healer, as someone with deep intuition, as someone linked to the Earth. It is a beautiful gift, a gift of true femininity, intuition and oneness. A higher Goddess moving you through life, and so many faces of the goddess represent so many faces of woman. We’re not just one thing you can put in a box. We are ugly and terrifying, and beautiful and nurturing, and deathly and life giving. We are all the things nature is. She is unending, and we are that. So take back witch. Take back being a woman.

AMS: What is feminine about the Earth, nature and healing the Earth?

SDW: Women’s bodies are directly linked to the Earth. When I say my body and the Earth are one, it’s like, I have the power to create life the way the Earth has the power to create life, and to wax and wane like the Earth and the moon do through seasons and phases. I have a 28-day cycle, and my body is like the moon. I have the power to create life in my womb, just like the Earth itself. And then, as women, the way the Earth rebirths herself in spring and goes through a full moon in the summer, we’re on fire, and then in the fall we notice our energy starts to wane, and then in winter we die only to be reborn again. What can be more powerful than the power to die (bleed for days in our cycle) or create life itself?

When you really start to link up to the cycles of the Earth, you realise you and the Earth are one and it’s the most natural thing to do is to align with these cycles. In a linear, patriarchal society we’re told to go, go, go everyday, and everyday should be 70 degrees and sunny, right? We should always be fine, always shine like the sun, when really we’re much more like the Earth and moon where we wax and wane and glow and then offer birth, and then kind of die again.

We’re changing constantly. We’re not supposed to be the same forever. We’re supposed to constantly be growing, changing, dying in that life, death, rebirth cycle the Earth itself is in. That is what I attune women to, that more feminine rebirth cycle. The way a snake sheds its skin or the Earth dies in the winter to be reborn again. That cyclical nature of life is the cyclical nature of women, of the feminine.

AMS: I want to talk about the less appealing sides of the feminine that have been repressed, and maybe labeled “witch.”

SDW: Well, a witch in the witch hunts in Salem, or the witch hunts all over Europe, which were massive femicide, was basically just any strong woman. There was one town in Scotland that left one woman standing. Everyone else was burned at the stake or hung or drowned. It was basically just “woman” who they were after.

The witch hunt manifesto is called the Malleus Maleficarum [Editor’s note: usually translated as Hammer of Witches] written in 1486. That was how the whole witchcraft-devil thing came about. That lie that women were like the devil. They even, when they wrote the Maleficarum they described the devil as the shape of basically our reproductive system, right, the uterus and the ovaries, that horned head.

If you read some of the transcripts of the judges sentencing witches to the gallows, it was because of the way these women made them feel, you know, like too lustful, or facing parts of themselves they didn’t want to face. A woman could be too beautiful, or too ugly, or too smart or a lesbian or own land that the government wanted or was owed, or if she was, god help her, a midwife or a healer. Midwives “stole” from the doctors of the time, so the men. And of course, now we’re having midwives and doulas come back, but giving birth is still not completely thought of as a woman’s business, although, of course, it is.  And of course women knew more about birth than male doctors, and always have.

Witches were the healers, women who honored the goddess or honored the Earth. And covens were dismembered and became illegal because women coming together with the same intention proved far too powerful. That’s why witches wear black, because they had to move through the night in all black, in cloaks, and try to blend into the night.

I mean, too lovely, too pretty, too smart, too stupid… If a woman sneezed around someone and the next day that person got a cold, she was a witch. If she was a widow, she was a witch. Basically if you were a woman you could die. If you didn’t fit in completely to the standards of the society you could be killed, which, even though we can’t be sent to the gallows now for being different, we can in our own way these days.

Witches were too powerful. Definitely too powerful. It’s a crime in society.

AMS: We should talk about that a little. Modern-day witch hunts.

SDW: Yeah, look what happens to Hillary Clinton, you know? Look what happened to Yoko Ono. Women who are too emotional, or too smart, or too powerful are called crazy. Look at Trump calling Hillary a “nasty woman” because she wasn’t behaving the way he wanted her to behave, which is polite and pleasing, right? And small. How dare a woman beat him, in public.

AMS: Yes, and I love the way women have been reclaiming that, by the way, speaking of reclaiming. The “nasty woman” trending memes and things are hilarious.

SDW: I know! I when I saw him say that I was like, You’re gonna wish you hadn’t said that. I was so happy he did, you know? Because “no one respects women more” than he does. [Laughter]

AMS: I also wanted to ask you about darkness—the darker side of the feminine, and if it fits, how the darkness of femininity and darkness of being human in general, relates to the season, as we have this traditional “death season” upon us, Halloween. And we can also talk about Halloween, and how everything’s become so sensationalized around death and darkness.

SDW: And commercialized.

AMS: Yes, commercialized, that’s maybe even more important.

SDW: Yeah. The wheel is turning dark. It’s Samhain, and it’s a really beautiful time as we’re entering the feminine, we’re entering the underworld. You might have noticed yourself feeling more, as Western medicine would say, depressed, as the wheel turns towards fall. And not to say if you’re depressed to not to go get help, but just not to fear so much the underside of your life, and the underside of your feelings, the down parts and low parts.

Spend some time with those, and really investigate what they’re trying to tell you. It’s the beginning of the death season, so what hasn’t served you in your life? What hasn’t served you this year? What do you need to let go of? What patterns are making you sick or unhealthy or small or tired or weak?

Why I think my voice resonates is that I’m able to talk about the more feminine maladies—addiction, depression, anxiety.

I have been looking at some stuff I’ve done and ways I’ve been that, if I could just keep going like a sunny summer day I might be able to avoid. But fall asks of us to slow down and winter asks of us to stop and die, and if you notice how these leaves are falling, to let go. And how beautiful these trees look letting go, right? They’re at their most beautiful in their surrender.

The season asks us to give up that masculine fight. Summer is full of masculine energy. It’s all masculine energy. It’s go, go, go, do, do, do. All masculine. Then fall is, I surrender, I move down into, I allow the death of my public identity. As the trees are stripped down to nothing, who am I with nothing? Who am I without my identity?” And that’s what winter asks of us.

The beauty of that is every year— until the life on this beautiful planet might not make it—but every year in spring, life comes back. We come back. But every year the alignment with Earth teaches us slow down, and then in winter die to what you’ve been, so that you can compost the old, let go of what didn’t work, and enrich what has worked in the dreamtime of winter, and then become new again, reborn and new. And that’s the beauty of life cycles, and the beauty of aligning with the feminine.

Samhain is so beautiful because the veils are so thin, and especially around October 31st, the veil is thinnest [between life and death]. We can really feel our ancestors if we bow to them, and we have greater access to spirit.

I love doing retreats and workshops [in this season]. One year at Joshua Tree we did an altar to our ancestors for Samhain and it was so beautiful, moving everyone a circle, drawing pictures of memories, and placing candles. We bowed to our ancestors and asked for their healing and asked for their guidance, and really felt moved by them and protected by them, and loved by them.

The commercialization—especially the parody of witches with their ugly noses, and warted noses, and green skin—that’s all propaganda that was used for years to try to encourage people to fear the witch, because the witch was the powerful woman. And if we feared ourselves, we would never unlock our own power, and therefore always bow to a power external. We stay pretty, small, safe, and contained, if we think the power is outside of us and not inside of us to change our lives and to heal ourselves.

AMS: And now Halloween season is about this commercialization and making light of darkness and death. We throw candy at it and laugh it off as a children’s holiday rather than what you were describing about Samhain, slowing down, embracing the cycle of the year, the reality of death and remembering those who’ve passed, connecting.

SDW: Yeah. It’s a really beautiful time and unfortunately we live in a culture that doesn’t really know how to honor death. What the feminine teaches us is to honor our own death. I think Joseph Campbell says, if you’re blessed you’ll live many lives in one lifetime. But that involves going through many deaths, right? Change is death, of what you know and who you’ve been. And when we learn to honor our own deaths, we really put to rest what hasn’t served—relationships, ways of being, ways of identifying, ways of showing up in the world—and allow that winter space for something new to be born. That’s a really beautiful way to live.

Honoring those who’ve passed is so important, and the slowdown time of Samhain takes time to stop and honor those who’ve come before us. That for me is how the holiday/sabbat should be honored, is by honoring the dead and death itself as something that brings rebirth.

AMS: Earlier you said, ‘This beautiful planet might not make it.’ Could you talk more about climate change, and the state of the planet as it relates to women, witches and the work you’re doing?

SDW: The work that I’m doing now is really focused, completely, on the state of the planet. I think that mass-spirituality has gotten pretty watered down to “love and light” and “lightworkers” and “meditate on it,” and not really focused on the darkness. Which is insane, to try to pretend there isn’t darkness now.

Z. Budapest is a bad-ass, great feminist witch from the ’70s, and really paved the way for a lot of us. She had to have cops escort her and things like that because people were still so terrified of witches as devil worshipers, when she was doing exactly what we’re all doing now, which is honoring the Earth, and coming together with women.

A few years ago she got online and started looking at women who were out, calling themselves witches. She said she was really disappointed in this movement. She said all of you are trying to be so pretty and pleasing. Basically, she was saying we were still conforming to patriarchy and she said, where is the anger? Why aren’t you mad? Look at what has been done to this Earth, and get mad.

I felt like it was a real slap in the face that I definitely needed, because I’m a motherless daughter, which is why I do a lot of self-mothering work. But I can’t eally have that good wakeup call from my mom. So I look to the elders in this movement to remind us that this isn’t a popularity contest. “Witch” has become such a hot word, but witches and priestesses made a sacred vow to protect the Earth, to protect the innocent, to protect creatures. When we make it about our photoshoots and our likes on social media we’re really off course.

So, rage to me equals change—justifiable, healthy rage for what’s been done to the planet. I mean look at how, in these three presidential debates they never talked about climate change, they never talked about the dying planet. How is that possible?

So, it’s good to get really mad, to speak up for the Earth. And that goes back to Pachamama, goddess Gaia, who, having worked with ayahuasca, she has shown me again and again, she’s on her deathbed. She’s hooked up to life support. There isn’t much time left. That should make us all weep, and then that should make us all fight.

As witches, we’re all women who, when we were children were told, “That’s just a dog, stop treating it like a human, you like animals better than humans.” Or, “Stop talking to that tree.” Or whatever. But it wasn’t that we liked animals better than humans, or that we’re crazy for talking to trees. We knew that animals and the Earth were sacred and to be loved and protected. But we were told on the mass scale to stop talking about it and to stop devoting ourselves to innocent creatures and innocent plants.

But now, as we wake up and reclaim our voices, we were right as innocent children about the Earth and about animals. It’s not silly, and it’s not stupid. .Every single day a new animal goes up on the extinction list or the endangered species list, and every single day we lose more and more of the oceans, and more and more of the forests, more of the Earth itself. This should be the number one topic of politicians and journalists and everyone, everywhere. The Earth should be way bigger—way more popular and focused on—than the Kardashians. The Earth should be front page news. But it’s not, and that’s a huge problem.

AMS: You have tens of thousands of followers on social media; you’ve inspired thousands of women to ‘come out of the broom closet’ and publically reclaim the term ‘witch.’ Do you think the state of the Earth today, the climate crisis and where we are in history has to do with that? Why do you think so many women are responding to your message?

SDW: Actually I’ve really taken a break from social media, one because I’m pregnant and all my energy is going in and not out, but two because I’ve found a real pushback against me trying to talk about the planet. People wanted the safe and happy memes. They wanted safe and easy messages instead of the take-action messages. That was really driving me crazy.

But I know there’s a better way—I’m kind of starting over and changing everything about my brand so that nobody’s confused when they come to my page that I’m there to be spiritually correct or pretty and pleasing and small for them. I started off being a really radical rebel in all of this, and I sort of miss that voice because, you know, you get an audience, and then you get self-conscious. It watered down my message, and I, for my child, I really want to embody Pachamama, which is not a silent bystander in the Earth’s demise.

So, yeah, there is a mass awakening to the Earth, and it is mostly, amongst women. (I keep saying I wish Donald Trump could get pregnant because there’s nothing that brings you more into your body and into this sort of awakening.)

What happened with me in my awakening is I ascended out of my body and out of my pain, and it was a way to sort of abandon my humanness, and now I’m in my body and on the Earth in a way I’ve never been, and it’s such a literally sobering time, to be pregnant, and to look at the state of the Earth right now.

To look at ways that I sort of spiritually glossed over my life, my mistakes, my pain, my regrets. So, when I come back online it’s gonna be far more about the human awakening than the spiritual awakening, and a return to the Earth in a very unapologetic way. About what’s going on with the planet, in a way to hopefully wake women up further to the pain of the planet.

That to me is the work of the priestess. It’s not to over-spiritualize things, because again, that’s a way of waxing everything sort of pretty and light. And I just don’t think that really serves. I think what serves is rooting people into their bodies and back to the Earth. I think that’s the only chance the Earth has, is if we all reconnect to her and back to ourselves, and back to our pain. To really hear her cries, and answer those to the best of our ability.

AMS: It is surprising to me that people have reacted that way to your speaking up more about the planet. I guess it shouldn’t be, because I know that many people do not like to hear about the state of the Earth. In the online news world, the stories about climate change and serious realities about the planet tend to get less attention.

SDW: We’re all guilty. I remember, I used I really look up to Anne Lamott, and I still do, she’s such an amazing writer. But I remember in one of the times I was trying to get sober like five years ago, I was like, Well how does she get her rocks off? You know? It was like, OK, if I’m not gonna drink wine and smoke a joint, what am I gonna do?

And she was like, “Honestly, I read  tabloids and pile all the dogs onto my bed at once.” And I was like “Anne Lamott reads tabloids?” Something about that Anne Lamott, a heroine of mine, gave me permission.

The first trimester can be really tough, and you go through what’s called prenatal depression: Who am I to raise this child? Some days I don’t do so well taking care of myself, and I have made some really shitty decisions.You have to go through a huge death before a birth, to become a mother. Sometimes I literally can’t take the pain of the Earth and I find myself on like crappy sites like the Daily Mailand things like that. We all do it, we all want to distract ourselves, because it is so sad, and it is so scary. The real work is turning and facing not just our pain but the Earth’s pain, which is all one.

AMS: It’s interesting that people resonated with you coming out and being this strong woman reclaiming witch as that feminist/feminine connection to self and the Earth, but when you took that a step further and connected it with the reality of things, they turned away. Why do you think women who resonate with the message of “witch as healer” and “women are close with the Earth” aren’t ready to connect to the hard truth?

SDW: Because it’s Debbie Downer.

To get people acting, that’s the healthy balance of the masculine and the feminine. The feminine side of us dreams, and the masculine side of us does. And if we put that action into our dreams, that’s how we become whole and make a change in our lives and the world. We can’t just talk and dream about changing the world. We really have to take action.

When I saw that actress Shailene Woodley get arrested at Standing Rock, and the way other people are taking action with protests and things like that, I was lying in my bed sick from the baby in my belly, and I had this, really—we need a better word for it, but it’s like this good jealousy of “you go, girl, and I wish I was doing that.” It’s not jealousy and it’s not envy, but it’s healthy visceral inspiration, I guess.

Now it’s about figuring out a way to take action. I’m one of those people who shares a million petitions on Facebook and gets like two likes, you know? I still don’t know a way to make activism sexy, and until I do I’m not really gonna put myself out there, because while my voice has been a pretty cool agent for change, for me it’s not doing enough anymore.

It’s tough to make the state of the planet sexy. Having been a journalist I know everything needs a hook, it needs to be sexy. It frustrates me when I see people with big platforms using it to hawk makeup or something, which is going to the landfills, instead of using it to hawk change.

That’s why I love people like Leonardo DeCaprio (even though he’s a total horndog). At least he’s using his platform for the ecological crisis. It’s hard to stick your neck out that way, possibly alienating some audience, but I really admire people who do that.

AMS: Yeah. I love to see people using their voices that way.

SDW: There’s nothing hotter than activism.

AMS: And I do see how it’s hard to do that.

SDW: Yeah, but it gets to the point where you think about all of the innocence that could be saved, or helped, or spotlighted by you using your voice for activism.

You gotta stick your neck out there, you gotta stir the pot. How are you going to make a change if not? Pretty and pleasing won’t save the world.

What will save the world is people standing up and using their voice, and when you do that, you’re gonna get stuff thrown at you.

My problem was, and I do use a lot of goddess images, so I was standing on this throne and people were throwing tomatoes at me, and when I was really in my maiden stage I would pick up the tomato, throw it back, and cry. Now, as the queen, you just sit in the throne. You’re not gonna get down and get yourself dirty and get into the fight. The negative people want negative attention. Ignoring the tomato throwers takes being so rooted. And again, that’s Pachamama, and root chakra, and Mother Earth. You have to be so rooted in yourself and on your throne and know who you are to use your voice. You can’t just speak the speak, you have to really be sure that you’re being ignited and inspired by soul, and not ego. Then, when they throw tomatoes, it won’t hurt as bad. You’re speaking for a cause greater than you. It’s not about you.

If you say something you’re not quite sure of, when they throw tomatoes you’ll rock a bit, maybe fall off your throne, be tempted to throw tomatoes back.

That’s why, speaking for the Earth, you can’t lose.

I’m not making my life about me anymore. I’m now the mother. And if you think about the word “mother” it holds this sacred word “other.” And the beauty of becoming the mother to yourself and the world is in caring for the other and giving to the other, you receive. The maiden is trapped in this cage of herself, and it’s a very lonely, isolating place. But the mother is the giver and the nurturer, and the mother has a cause, which is the other. The child, the planet.

Which is why you see all those beautiful images on Pinterest of a woman holding her womb, but it’s the Earth. Really, to hold the Earth as child, to calm its cries, to rise.

Really, if you look at the world, everyone, everywhere is crying out for mothe. The compassion, the oneness, the feminine and the healing of the wounds is missing on the planet. That’s what we rise into, and then we care for the Earth like the sacred other, and then we receive from that work.

AMS: When you were talking about the tomatoes it really flashed for me that that’s where the spirituality side of things, the self-work can come in. And this is kind of what past activists and leaders have said, too: When you find that strength in yourself, that light and that deep goodness, you use that to root yourself down and then no one can shake you when you do the real work.  

SDW: Yeah. That’s what I’m talking about in creating the fear around the witch—it creates the fear around yourself. The witch as a woman who might not be so pretty and pleasing and fit the norm. If you’re so scared not to be pretty and pleasing and fit the norm, you never enter these darker chambers of yourself and start to really discover yourself. That treasure is always buried. If you never enter the buried parts of yourself, you never find the treasure within you.

And then, you never unlock your power. That was the whole point of patriarchal propaganda, was to fear the witch. We fear these wild, unknown places in us, so we stay away from them, but that’s where our power lies. In our dreams and our fears and the idea that we might not be our true selves yet. There might be so much more to us, and that could scare us too, because then what would happen to our life as we knew it? It would probably dissolve, and fall apart.

Finding ourselves, once we leave normal society—which, you have to sort of break up with that to really go on these heroine quests—then we find the power to stay rooted in ourselves to do this work and to go public with this work. You need a lot of inner grace, a lot of inner power to put yourself out there.

AMS: So what can men do? What’s the role of men in all of this as you see it?

AMS: My dad’s a really great example, Bernie’s a really great example of the sacred masculine. You know, the men that are awakened to the feminine. Deep compassion for the Earth and animals, and innocence itself, that’s a feminine side that all men have, but many men have a fear that it makes them weak to feel emotion or care too much. Because  patriarchy has made them think they have to be so tough, and abandon their feminine side, which would save their lives: self-love and self-compassion and intuition and oneness with all. Men can wake their feminine. Men can start to open books and explore what the feminine means in themselves.

There are men’s groups. You can go into men’s circles where men are safe to cry together. That’s step number one: Feel your feelings. And know that that is safe. Know that your anger is probably masking your pain, and look at your pain. The “heal yourself to heal the world” message almost more applies to men. If men like Trump could look at his anger and realize it was all his pain and fear of not being loved, he wouldn’t be on this intense, destructive warpath. He would sob on his knees and ask for love instead of power.

Men feeling their feelings and feeling safe to do that, and connecting back to the Earth—and Andrew Harvey’s great about talking about this: Everybody, men included, ask themselves once they’ve gone into their pain, “What breaks your heart the most on this planet?” And the cool thing about human individuals is everyone is programmed, or geared to have a special cause. For me, everything breaks my heart, but right now it’s immigrant children, animal cruelty and  the pipeline situation. Whatever it is that you can’t even look at online, make that your cause. Andrew Harvey says, “Find what breaks your heart the most and move towards that.”

So, figure out what specific thing that’s killing the planet is killing you, and move towards that. Or, you know, if it’s alcoholism or homelessness or not just something environmental. Get involved in a cause that connects you to others and makes you of service. Men getting involved in volunteering service, activism services and connecting in and becoming the sacred masculine that serves to protect the feminine and protect the Earth and innocents. That’s a really good way for men to get involved. Stand up as our warriors and our heroes, not as our villains or our bystanders.

For more self-study, The Urban Howl recommends Women Who Run with the Wolves.

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