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Tuesday December 12th 2017

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Book review: “As the witches teach”… Max Dashu traces suppressed histories

By Susan Jordan

Witches and Pagans: Women in European Folk Religions, 700-1100 by Max Dashu. Veleda Press, 2016. 388 pp. paper.

Max Dashu of the Suppressed Histories Archives is internationally known for her visual presentations, dvds and webcasts on the topic of women’s suppressed histories, and the erasure of pre-Christian religions by patriarchal censors over the past 1,500 years.

What little we know of pre-Christian European/North African/Central Asian societies and spirituality indicates that for all of human history until the Iron Age, women were seen as central and powerful. Perhaps the most ancient diety known to humans was the Triple Goddess, or Three Sisters – the Birth Virgin of spring, the Amazon of midsummer and the Winter Hag or Crone. The new male-centered religion needed to dehumanize and objectify women as property and demonize pre-Christian dieties. Their erasure of her-story means that few documents exist, save those which define women as inferior, weak and evil, and all non-Christian beliefs as devil worship.

Dashu writes, “So a translator editorialized on an old Frankish condemnation of ‘people who bring offerings to earth-fast stone and also to trees and to wellsprings’ by adding the old English phrase ‘as the witches teach’. His comment on a Latin penitential directly contradicts the idea that witches were seen as evildoers. Instead, it intimately associates them with animist ceremonies, earth-based spiritual customs….

“At a certain point in time it was meaningful to say of a popular Germanic folk goddess, ‘A third part of the world is given over to her.’ But that meant something different to the clergy than for the people whose beliefs they were describing, especially when it came to who ‘she’ was…

“In spite of everything we’ve been taught about the profoundly secondary status of the female, what women did in the spiritual realm mattered.”

Dashu provides fascinating information about ancient veneration of springs and forests, and about the benevolent weavers/spinsters, healers and midwives who would ultimately be burned to death by the misogynistic, power-seeking male clergy. The Three Sisters or Fates (Latin fata or fate becomes “fae” and then “faery”) spun human lives and destinies and were revered all over Europe, from the northern forests to ancient Greece, indicating an extremely ancient origin.

Dashu writes, “…(T)he spinning Fates seem to predate the long-ago Indo European migrations… The theme extends deep into Eurasia, where it crosses language families.”

This book, with its meticulously documented research, is essential for those who would understand how language, spirituality and culture influence our lives today. Patriarchal scholars dismiss feminist commentary on folklore and religion as wishful thinking and fantasy. Yet they never consider the utterly subjective male-supremacist lens through which they themselves are looking. Objectification of women and Nature has led to destruction of the environment, endless wars and oppression of women – from the healers burned as witches in the 14th century to women and young girls dehumanized by patriarchy today.

Dashu concludes, “The bottom line is that people who aren’t academic specialists have a right to know about this past.”