The witches, heretics, and warrior women of the past have a lot to teach us about our modern Witchcraft practices. When we need a little spiritual inspiration, when we need help getting through a tough time, or when we simply need a reminder that women have been kicking ass since the dawn of time, there are plenty of badass women from the past who can show us the way.
The following three women inspire my own practice of Witchcraft. Although it's unlikely that any of these women would have called themselves Witches—I would go as far to say they would be rather shocked by being referred to by that word—if we look at the power they wielded during their time, it very much looks like what we modern Witches would call the Craft. And although their faiths may vary, they each can show us how to incorporate a bit of their heretical nature into our modern practices.
Circle, Mary Magdalene, and Harriet Tubman. Three names you've probably never seen written about in the same sentence. But these three women from myth and history are powerful inspirations for modern Witchcraft. Individually, they each have plenty to teach us about magick, power, and how we relate to the greater world.
In junior high we read the trial of Odysseus in English class. It is the story of a warrior who after fighting in a faraway war, attempts to get back home to his wife and son. On the way home, his ship and his men are really put through their paces. It is not an easy journey. They had to fight cyclops, witches, sirens, and all sorts of monsters. His ship was flung from one island to the next and on each island, he faced another set of battles and challenges. One of those islands was Iaeaea, the home of Circe.
Reading this story in school, Circe was painted as a villainess. She was a scary sorceress who tricked the intrepid hero into staying on her island and duped him into forgetting his quest. I however, was fascinated with her. Odysseus's men acted rudely towards her and so she turned them into pigs. She would sing at her loom and the space around her would shimmer and glow. She had a magick wand and knew how to craft potions. I mean, this was my kind of lady!
By our modern standards, Circe was a Witch, who knew the magick of plants. She knew the magick of the loom and what spells could be woven into textiles. She knew how to make potions, wield the power of the wand, and sing the right enchantments to turn men into beasts—literally.
Odysseus spent over a year on her island: resting, making love, and enjoying all of the things that Circe provided to him. When he is finally rested and strong enough, he asked her how he might return home and it is only with her skill and knowledge of traversing the Underworld that Odysseus was able to make that return.
,p> What she can teach us: Sovereignty comes from within. Circe held power because she had a strong and solid relationship with the land she lived on and the truth of who she was. She wasn't afraid of the people she culturally should have been afraid of. She turned expectation on its head. She had a deep relationship with the plants, animals, and powers of her island. We can all be in our power by understanding ourselves and connecting with the land around us.
I didn't know anything about Mary Magdalene until the movie The Da Vinci Code came out. To be clear, the movie didn't really teach me anything historically accurate, but it did bring an oft-diminished biblical character into my awareness. The truth is that we don't know the facts about any biblical characters. Their stories have been trimmed, chopped, and curated to provide a very specific message from a powerful force, known as the Catholic Church. Who Mary Magdalene was, and what her relationship to Jesus might have been, we will never know. But there are enough tiny kernels of information about her to spark our imaginations and show us the beautiful possibilities.
Mary Magdalene wasn't a Witch. Although there are lots of people who believe she was a Priestess of a Goddess (maybe Isis, maybe Asherah, maybe someone else), we can't know that for sure. Truth be told, it's rather unlikely. Some believe she was the wife of Jesus; some believe she was a sex worker who changed her ways because of Jesus. If either of these are true, we don't know, but we do know that she gave up the life she was living to become one of Jesus's disciples and preach the word of love and reform.
For her time, in her time, no matter who she really was or what her background truly was, she would have been considered a heretic.
You might be wondering why a Witch would be writing about a biblical character. This is a valid question. Mary Magdalene is an important figure for us modern Witches because she lived outside of the cultural norms of her time. She fought, along with the other disciples, against the status quo and powers of oppression. She spoke truth to power and lived a life outside the over-culture.
She was a young woman, traveling with a group of young men through the desert. They would stop and preach to small villages, offering hands-on healings, and sharing the messages of Jesus. She didn't fit into the mold of a "proper woman" of her time. In fact, she basically gave a big middle finger to the life of a woman of her time and followed her heart and the messages from her spirit.
What she can teach us: Be true to you. Mary Magdalene wasn't afraid of the judgments being passed on her from the culture she came from. She wasn't afraid of living a life that wasn't considered proper. She knew in her heart and soul that real change needed to happen. She gave of her whole self to the cause of change. And she lived her life in the integrity of that awareness. We can all be in our power by listening to our personal truths.
Hands down, Harriet Tubman is one of the most fascinating women in all of recorded history. In American schools we learn a smidgen of the story of this amazing person. But the depth and magick in her story is much more profound, to say the least. A legitimate warrior in her own right, Harriet Tubman not only helped dozens of enslaved people escape their bonds, but she went on to be an important figure in the Civil War and beyond.
The beginnings of Harriet Tubman's life are known and documented. Born into enslavement, she was injured at a young age and never received proper medical treatment. She was married to a free black man, which made her life a lot more complicated. Even though she was married, at any time she could be sold away and any children the couple had would be enslaved.
When rumors started up that she was going to be sold, taken from her family and husband, she found an inner resolve and determination within her. She made a world-changing decision: Harriet Tubman decided to run. And run she did, all the way to safety, but she didn't stop there. Over the next many years, she returned to her home town over and over again to rescue her family, and many others, from the horrors of enslavement.
Harriet Tubman was a devout Christian, but she knew folk magick and had been taught about African spiritual traditions from her mother and grandmother. She used charms, little bags filled with herbs, as well as spoken incantations; she would track the stars, and she spoke to the spirits. She seemed to have a sixth sense about where to go and who to talk to. She was able to keep out of the way of trouble and the law, which was changing throughout her rescues, making the line of safety further and further away.
After helping so many people, she joined the war effort and was one of the best strategists and fighters for the North during the Civil War. Due to her efforts, even more people were saved from enslavement. She was a true warrior.
What she can teach us: The power is within you. Harriet Tubman didn't wait for someone else to come along and save her. She wasn't praying for prince charming or some higher power to improve her conditions. She saw the truth of her life and knew that something better was possible. She not only saved herself, through harrowing and life-threatening conditions, but she came back and saved hundreds of other souls, too. We are the heroes of our own stories. We possess the power to create change. Be the Witch you are.
There are more women from history and myth that can inspire our modern Witchcraft practices. Their stories are powerful reminders that women have often been pushed into the shadows and often we have to take on titles like Witch or heretic or warrior in order to be seen and heard. What is remembered, lives.