Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Why I Reclaimed "Warlock"

Note: Years later I realize this essay has more to do with why people's reasons not to use the word "Warlock" are historically inaccurate and not why I personally reclaim it.  I have elaborated in the essay "Why I (Still) Reclaim Warlock."

I identify as a Warlock.  And as a Pagan.  These--as well as the word "Witch"--are historically negative terms, but in the Pagan community none of them generate as much controversy as "Warlock."  Call yourself that term and people are likely to say things like:
  • "That's a slur! You shouldn't use that!"
  • "That means somebody who was banished from a coven!"
  • "Warlock means oathbreaker/liar!"
  • "Warlock means you're a Satanist!"
  •  "Anybody who uses that word can't possibly know what they're talking about."
And so on, and so forth.  But I reclaim it anyway.  Why would I do that?  Well, I'll tell you, because reclaiming a controversial word also gives me the responsibility to justify that use.

Warlock is a slur because Pagans fabricated it as such.

Keep in mind, first off, that both "Witch" and "Pagan" are reclaimed words.  Both of these have a long history of referring to people explicitly to describe them as evil, hellbound, godless people.  In fact, that's still how both of those terms are often used by practitioners of Abrahamic faiths.  I once had my truck defaced by a Christian, referring to me as a "pagan" as if that were self-evidently horrible.  Christians insult each other by referring to their actions as "paganism" or "witchcraft," especially in the case of Catholicism due to its liberal use of candles and charms.  Both "pagan" and "witch" are slurs.

"Warlock" is also a slur, used similar to "witch" during the Witch Hunts to describe male witches.  But both because the Witch Hunts so often targeted women and because men could also be called "witches," it didn't get as much play.  Were "warlock" actually used as a slur by non-Pagans, it would only be as a hinge on "witch" and "pagan," not as a uniquely offensive term.  But you know what?  I've never, ever heard it used that way.  In fact, the only people I ever see using "warlock" as a uniquely negative term are other Witches.

Over the years I've kind of developed the opinion that the reason we think of "Warlock" as a slur is because we are just that intent on having something we can call a "slur."  We've reclaimed "Heathen," and "Witch," and "Pagan," and there isn't much left for us to feel righteous anger about, so we get angry when people refer to Pagan men as "Warlocks" instead.  This has led to a culture where people don't ask you to justify why you call yourself a "Witch" or a "Pagan" very often, but use "Warlock" and suddenly you're a newb at best.

Now, it's fine to correct somebody to explain that male Witches are usually just called Witches.  For most male Witches, that's the case.  But correcting them by indignantly calling it a slur is a bizarre double-standard.  Why complain that Warlock is a slur and not Witch or Pagan?

Warlock didn't mean somebody banished from a coven until modern Pagans decided it was a slur. Before then it generally just meant "male witch."

There's a myth that the word "Warlock" comes from the word used by covens to describe somebody who betrayed that coven during the "Burning Times."  This is rooted in a pervasive cultural myth that is spread in the Pagan community:  That we somehow are connected in spiritual heritage to a network of covens and Witches who were widely persecuted during the European Witch Trials, which we refer to as "The Burning Times."

The European Witch Trials, though, were mostly based on charges of heresy--Christians against other Christians.  The idea that there was an underground network of systematically persecuted covens is historically inaccurate.  So the idea that accusers were using the word because covens were using that to refer to betrayers is also incredibly suspect because the covens themselves are suspect.

This is a warp of the idea that Warlock means "oathbreaker."  Some Warlocks favor the idea that the word actually comes from a Norse word referring to a shaman or a singer of magical songs (Vardlokkur), but I don't necessarily buy that.  I'm comfortable with "Warlock" meaning "oathbreaker" because we need to consider exactly what oaths were being referred to.

Remember that this was in all likelihood a word used by Christians to refer to who they viewed as heretics... not by covens to exiled members.  So the oaths being broken were likely Christian oaths.  And as somebody who was baptized Catholic, I certainly qualify as a breaker of Christian oaths.  And you know what?  That's fine.

It should also be mentioned that although Gerald Gardner did not use the word "Warlock" to describe himself, he also did not use the word to refer to ex-coveners... instead, the Gardnerians use it to refer to a way of tying knots (such as tying a person up, which they are known to do).  I have yet to find any source that is not a very modern Pagan writing in which "Warlock" designates a coven traitor... it seems to be a modern idea being represented as a piece of ancient lore.  It's not.

"Warlock" is often used in left-hand paths, but that doesn't make it a bad thing.

I don't understand why this is even an argument.  It both assumes that left-hand paths are evil and ignores that left-hand path practitioners may also use "Witch" and "Pagan."

Satanists who practice Witchcraft usually refer to themselves as "Warlocks" if male and "Witches" if female.  And most Warlocks I meet self-identify as left-hand path (Chaotes, Feri practitioners, etc.).  But why does this damn "Warlock" and not "Witch?"

And furthermore, why is their association a bad thing to begin with?  Pagan culture has this bizarre fear of Satanism as if not being an asshole to Satanists or people who we perceive to be Satanist-like is going to further make the public believe we are Satanists.  The public conflates us with Satanism because we have chosen a label--Witch--that has already been associated with Satanism, not because left-hand path practitioners use some of the same labels we do.  Also, Satanists fight a lot of battles that directly benefit us, fighting against things like legislative prayer and shitty Christian monuments, so maybe lay off of them?

So why do I, personally, reclaim Warlock?

Note:  This section is currently out of date, better information is in my follow-up essay from a few years later.

Not all Pagan men--or other men who practice Witchcraft--reclaim Warlock.  I in no way am promoting the use of the term to refer to men who prefer to be called "Witches."  In my own case, though, I reclaim "Warlock" and tend to dislike being called "Witch" because of their connotations and individual vibrations.  "Warlock" feels more "right" because it generates a more masculine power, something that appeals to me because my personal practice is so rooted in the sacred masculine.

At the same time, "Witch" generates an image of feminine power, an image that I simply don't feel suits me very well.  There is somewhat a sense of dysphoria that comes with that connotation... I have love and respect for feminine power, but I don't identify with it on a personal level.

What I need people to recognize:

I do not necessarily care if people reject the word "Warlock," for whatever reason they feel is necessary.  If you don't use it because you don't want to have to justify it to other Pagans, because you for some reason do believe the Burning Times myth that surrounds it, or because you just don't like it, those are perfectly acceptable reasons to ditch the term in favor of "Witch," "Magician," "Pagan," or something else entirely.

But people need to recognize that saying things about people who do identify with the word, like statements proclaiming we're all "newbies" or people who don't know what we're talking about--or, even worse, we're inherently abusers--are insulting and patently false.  And people need to be aware that the idea that Warlock is offensive is not a universal Pagan belief... just an unfairly common one.