The True History of Healers
Thousands of years ago, when the harvest ended and the veil between the living and the dead grew thin, the Celtic pagans would gather for the festival of Samhain (sow-wen). As night fell, spirits both good and evil slipped into our world, and to stay safe, the Celts donned gruesome costumes and danced around bonfires.
No, Samhain is not where the tales of witches were born, it is the origin of Halloween, but there can be no doubt that witches were there. Not lurking in the crowd, but leading the festivities.
On such a mystic night, the people turned to men and women with insight into the universe and powers over life and death. They may not have been called witches, but that is what they were. And they were also, quite likely, among the early practitioners of the healing arts.
The Origin of Witches
Humans are seen as uniquely empathetic creatures, yet as with all things, there is a spectrum to our capacity for care. On the one end are the entirely self-serving, and on the other, the caregivers. In our ancient past, societies were small, and if you were a caregiver, you cared for everyone because you knew everyone. And if you had skill, you found yourself in the honored role of healer. Many, unsurprisingly, were women.
Caring is an open-eyed way of being. You see when others are suffering, you feel their pain as your own, and through this shared experience, you understand that helping others helps you and the community. The great caregivers of the past were also open-eyed about the world, keeping studious notes on cause and effect. What changes occur in the body when a person eats this plant? or adopts that habit? They knew the answers held the key to life.
Their knowledge passed to new generations and amassed over millennia. The healers became powerful. Of course, the curious learned more than how to heal, for there are substances that hurt or kill the body. This knowledge was crucial, and not merely to prevent death. Some people are beyond healing. Some suffer at the cruel hands of another. It was a different moral age, and death was in the healer’s medicine bag.
Is it any wonder that with their powers over life and death these women were seen as magic?
Rise of the Doctor
Humans had a good thing going, so of course someone came along to ruin it. Men invented theories of how the world worked, and diseases, they argued, were caused by imbalances in the body’s humors (or other such drivel and rot). Based on these theories, cures were deduced from thin air, ignoring millennia of healing wisdom.
Back then, doctors believed themselves to be God’s gift to the world, even though bleeding was their cure of choice and chance for assistance. Ego is easily threatened by the real deal, so it’s no surprise that they attacked the true healers to protect their reputation and business. And because so little was understood about how women healed their patients, it was easy to brand them witches with supernatural powers. Burnings and other executions followed, stamping out generations of received wisdom and, it was hoped, scaring other women from pursuing the path of the damned.
Witches in Hiding
But women were irrepressible. Because doctors felt uncomfortable dealing with “feminine issues,” many women clawed out a niche as midwives. Others took refuge in the nunnery and, under the shield of holiness, practiced their healing arts. Yet more became “camp followers,” women who attached themselves to armies and practiced medicine while the men played war.
These women had to be careful not to overstep society’s bounds, or at the least keep their transgressions well hidden. Witches relied on whispers to save lives. As doctors blustered in the sickroom, women conferred in other corners of the home and, in hushed voices, referred the patient’s family to the true healers.
Who can say how many souls these witches saved despite the risk to their lives?
Revenge of the Nurse
After centuries in hiding, Florence Nightingale and Clara Barton sparked a transformation in the medical world, and the women of World War I hammered the final nail in the coffin. The healing powers of women could no longer be denied. Since then, women have fought for and reclaimed their preeminence as healers, and nearly 80% of all healthcare workers now are women.
This Halloween, celebrate the powerful witch inside of you, heir to a beautiful and powerful magic. If you would like to read more about the history of witches, we highly recommend Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers