Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Witches and Wizards: Sorcery in Mythology

We got this question in the box recently: There are so many goddesses of witchcraft and mysticism, but not a lot of gods. Could we hear about some of the men of magic? It made me do a double-take, and then kind of squint at its wording in case I wasn't understanding it, and then finally realize that I totally had to write a blog post about it. To whichever lovely anonymous writer sent it in, please know I'm not picking on you - I just got very excited about the subject!

The main reason this question was so odd to me was that it sets up an idea that there are tons of female goddesses of magic, but not very many male ones... and as a general rule, that's actually not true at all! While there are definitely some very memorable and awesome ladies of magic out there, the most powerful gods of sorcery are overwhelmingly male. Masculine sorcerers are a staple of world mythology, and enormously important across various mythologies; they are in no way underrepresented or less powerful than their female counterparts, and in many ancient cultures overshadow them completely.

Divine dudes with wizardly skills are literally everywhere in world mythology. You have Odin, who knows the secrets of the universe and practices secret arts of sorcery, and whose imagery contributed to the archetypal image of the male magician in countless later works of fiction in the Western world. You have Tezcatlipoca, the preeminent sorcerer of Mexica mythology, who slings curses and warps destiny constantly, repeatedly balancing and unbalancing the universe. You have Manannan mac Lir, the Irish god of illusions, charms, spells and magical weapons who acts as the mystic mentor to all the other gods of his pantheon. You have Hermes, Greek god of shenanigans who is so famous for his ridiculous magical exploits that he later lent his name to various branches of modern magicianry thousands of years later. You have Brahma, ineffable creator of the universe and bestower of blessings and curses that can lay even gods low in the blink of an eye. Dionysus, Eshu, the Hero Twins, Loki, Marduk, Orunmila, Ptah, Veles, Viracocha - the divine landscape is completely lousy with male gods of wizardry. They're all over the freaking place.

Comparatively, major goddesses of magic and sorcery are actually rarer. They certainly exist - figures like Isis, Freya, Hekate or the Morrigan are out there and they are awesome - but there are plenty of pantheons that don't number goddesses associated with witchcraft or destiny among their major deities. Female deities are more often cast in elemental roles as archetypal earth mothers or harvest figures, goddesses in charge of childbirth and family or sometimes other natural forces such as celestial bodies; conversely, powers associated with cosmic authority are far more often ascribed to male deities, who dominate both political power as gods of kingship and law and universal power as gods of sorcery and fate.

But I don't think it's an uncommon perception to feel that there are a lot of witch-goddesses out there, stirring up the pots of fate. So if male gods performing that role are actually more common, why is it that it seems like it should be the other way around?

Buckle in, because there are a lot of reasons that might be contributing to the idea of women as overwhelmingly magical while men are overwhelmingly not (and this applies to mythological heroes who are not gods themselves, too). The first is simply because, in the vast majority of mythologies, there are more male deities and heroes than female ones; this means that there are already a lot more dudes running around in any given myth, which in turn means they're more likely to display a wide range of skills from fighting prowess to wizardly spell-casting to creative projects and so on. There's a much smaller pool of female gods and heroes, though, so when some of them are magicians, there's a larger overall percentage of the women in a given mythos being sorceresses. That means that it seems like most of the women in some mythologies are witchy, but that only a handful of the dudes are thanks to the disparity in how many characters of those genders are present in the first place.

Past boring math, we get into all the cultural and sociological reasons that women are more commonly seen as witches while men are less often treated that way. One of the most basic reasons, especially in European mythology, is that women were considered in many ancient cultures to be less capable of direct action (most often meaning violence or athletics competitions), and therefore had to find power in subtler ways. Magic, along with the arts of seduction and manipulation, became associated with female heroes in cultures that considered these more "realistic" or "appropriate" arenas in which a woman could be powerful. In turn, sometimes this close association between women and magic caused the idea of magic to be considered inherently feminine or at least less than masculine, and male practicioners of it could be stigmatized as a result - if they're using magic, the train of thought goes, they must not be man enough to use traditionally male forms of power such as leadership or physical brawn, and therefore they can be subjected to ridicule. This is definitely the case in Norse mythology, which is a perfect example; because of the heavy emphasis on courage and prowess in battle being the ideal qualities in a male hero, and the corresponding presentation of powerful female gods and heroes as using magic to accomplish their goals because they lack combat skills, gods who practice magic are directly mocked for it, including both Loki and Odin, who make fun of each other for their respective magical shenanigans even though both of them are using similar kinds of "forbidden" arts.

Some of this perception of women as magic-users while men are various other things comes from the fact that the greater number of male heroes and gods means that they often end up with a wider skillset and more myths depicting them doing different things. Male heroes are often more well-rounded - because they can do "male" things that female heroes are often barred from, like fighting or leading armies, but they also can do the same things female heroes can do, they might perform magic in addition to doing a whole bunch of other stuff. It's therefore a lot easier to look at the female heroes who only perform magic as being witch figures, but the male figures as more general mythic figures, since they get to do a much larger range of things and don't come off as being stuck in the magic-user niche.

This goes hand in hand with the same idea of magic as a "woman's tool" - if women can only or primarily get their power through sorcery rather than doing things considered innate in male heroes, then magic is of course the vast majority of what they do. Figures like Medea or the Voelva would have very little power to affect their stories if they lost their witchcraft since they don't have traditionally "masculine" skills to fall back on; compare that to male heroes in the same myths, such as Jason or Beowulf, who are perfectly capable of going on constant adventures without ever using a shred of magic and therefore, even if they did bust off a spell once in a while, wouldn't be seen as warlocks as much as they would just be seen as general heroes.

Female deities and heroes are also often seen as wielders of magic by default, simply thanks to the fact that even things that in a game context would be considered "other" powers can often appear to fall under the general umbrella of sorcery when compared to similar male deities and heroes who don't do those things. For example, if a male hero can roll out with sword raised and beat the enemy to a pulp, but his female counterpart is considered less physically powerful and therefore has to use fireballs or lightning bolts to blow up her enemies, she is obviously using magic whereas he's not, and even if she never touches the more mystical arts associated with destiny, foresight, curses or other kinds of magic, she can easily be labeled a witch just by virtue of using anything that isn't natural strength of arm or wits to succeed. In the modern day, when the popular conception of what a wizard is comes not only from ancient myth and legend but also from pop culture sources like roleplaying games and movies that explicitly define a witch or wizard as using any kind of non-mundane forces, it's even easier to see a goddess doing any kind of supernatural action and label her as a goddess of magic. This problem affects male deities, too, although thanks to their more commonly having more different skills and stories, they sometimes escape that labeling by being too diverse for it, or are given more qualified labels like "wizard-king" or "battle-mage".

Incidentally, because so much of this labeling is a consequence of European notions of what a god of magic looks like versus a god of other stuff, it's also much more common for deities from cultures outside of Europe, especially in the Americas and Africa, to be labeled as "gods of sorcery" regardless of what they actually represent within their home cultures. European invasion and later scholarship has dominated the available information about those religions for a few centuries now, not to mention the heavy influence of European Christianity on many of the writers that later mythologists base their works on, and because this weird stew of European mores tends to interpret everything as if it were European even when it's clearly coming from a totally different cultural standpoint, it just gives up and says, "Eh, Huitzilopochtli is a devil sorcerer," fairly frequently rather than examining the different treatments of divine powers in different mythologies around the world.

Speaking of modern and Western perceptions coloring interpretation of myths, modern religious movements also contribute to the view of various gods as "witches" or "wizards" regardless of their original intent. In particular, Wicca, which became popular in Europe and North America in the past several decades, has become prominent enough in our cultural conscious that the fact that practitioners are often referred to as witches has also colored our idea of what that means, and the religion's tendency toward omnitheism (combining various different deities from very different cultures to be worshiped together, or viewing all deities as being different cultural faces of the same essential god or goddess) can result in a treatment of those gods that applies European ideals of magic to deities (especially female ones, in the case of Wicca) who might not have been viewed that way previously. Of course, not every branch of Wicca does this, nor is it the only religion with reductionist tendencies; several different modern schools of thought lean toward the "all goddesses are the same goddess" idea, and of course under that lens they're all associated with sorcery automatically, whereas again male deities are more likely to be associated with virility, physical power or kingship when combined into a single oversimplified figure.

Going back to Europe again - Europe is alllll over this post today - the idea of witchcraft itself as a fundamentally female power is pretty well entrenched in medieval lore, helped along by the Catholic Church's twin goals through much of its history of demonizing any form of magical power that did not come from a Christian divine source, and excoriating women for being inherently dangerous and sinful in a way that men weren't (which is a whole barrel of icky stuff, from Original Sin to the idea of women as demonic forces of temptation that constantly plague innocent men with their having body parts and stuff). Medieval Europe was very Church-controlled and extremely paranoid about anything that might be termed witchcraft, and it's not a coincidence that women were considered by far the most likely offenders when it came to unauthorized magical behavior. Some of that was a continuation of the earlier folkloric notions of sorcery as a woman's tool, and contributed to suspicions that women who were too prosperous without male help or who happened to be too near where someone else was having mysterious problems must be using witchcraft; some of it was because women were the primary practitioners of herblore, midwifery and other medical disciplines, which were often interpreted as use of magic because they were poorly understood (and in some cases the Church wanted to actively discourage them in favor of encouraging people to trust in God's will to save them); and some of it was simply that men were more likely to be taken seriously when trying to prove their innocence or devoutness, so more women were convicted and demonized as witches than men because the deck was stacked against them. Those medieval images of the witch as a woman who uses evil powers to lay curses, make bargains with spirits or create potions and charms that affect the world around her have stayed strongly with us into the modern day, and again make us more inclined to point to a magic-using goddess as a "goddess of witchcraft", while a magic-using god is more likely to just be thought of as a god doing his god thing.

And again, that is just super Western European thought process there - if you happened to compare that view of what witchcraft is to, say, witchcraft as viewed in traditional West African religions, you might be surprised to find that there most practitioners of dangerous witchcraft were (and still are in some areas) generally assumed to be men, who were considered the more likely gender to have control of destiny and the power to cast curses. Yoruba and Fon religions caused no end of difficulty for early European mythologists who were trying to understand them, because there was such a heavy emphasis on the dangers of witchcraft and how to combat it, but they were missing crucial understanding of what witchcraft itself implied in that culture and ended up constantly confused. (Unfortunately, many of them solved that problem by just sort of editing African beliefs to fit their European models, which just gives later anthropologists and mythologists headaches when they try to figure out what is and is not actually legitimate information.)

The final major contributor to this idea (in our humble opinion, but hey, jump in on the forums if you've got more!) is the idea of the Triad of the Fates, which is the concept in several European mythologies of a trio of female deities or powers who control destiny itself directly, and who essentially function as a "higher power" that can overcome even the other gods. The archetypal triad is repeated across several different European cultures - as the Moirai in Greece and related Parcae in Italy, the Norns in the Germanic lands, the Matrones among the Celts and the Sudice among the Slavs, to name a few - and are represented as female largely because of that European idea that magic is and always has been a woman's domain. In some cases, the act of affecting fate is represented as a quintessentially feminine activity, which is the case for the Moirai, who are shown using spinning wheel, thread and shears, referring to the usually woman-only activity of making or mending clothing in ancient Greece; in others, they are represented as controlling a fundamental wellspring of that power, which is the case for the Norns, who are the joint mistresses of the Urdabrunnr from which all their knowledge of past, present and future come. The Triad of Fates is a huge force in European mythologies; the Norns' proclamations control even the gods of the Norse pantheon, who are helpless to escape their prophecies, while the Sudice function as enforcers of divine law who lay punishments on criminals who can never thereafter escape them and the Moirai are considered universally fearsome for their ability to choose the moment that a life ends forever. And because of their prominence and appearance as female figures, it's no wonder that they contribute to the overall image of mystic power as belonging to women. They, too, echo on through European folklore, and are often repeated in folkloric stories as a generic trio of witches, which is also reused in various works of literature (King Lear's three witches, for example) and then as a part of later religions in which they emerge in a new form (Wicca again, which owes the Triad of Fates recognition as the basis of their Maiden/Mother/Crone archetype).

And what's all that up there? That's right, pure European mythology again. The Triad of Fates breaks down quickly as a supposed universal mythological idea once you leave Europe; it doesn't appear as a major idea in most other cultures' mythologies, and even in cases where scholars have been able to make a compelling argument for including a non-European culture's myths in that pattern - for example, the idea that the Tridevi of Hindu mythology could be considered a repetition of this idea - it's pretty clear that such triads of female powers fill different roles and perform different functions from the very specific and strict images that define the European Triad.

I'm actually not trying to suggest that female deities and heroes don't belong in discussions of sorcery and witchcraft or that they are somehow less important there than are male deities - far from it! Goddesses of magic exist all over the place and are incredibly important and potent, and their badassness should never be forgotten or glossed over. But I do think it's worthwhile to remember that sometimes our default perceptions of what mythology is like and what patterns it has can be heavily skewed by the cultures we've grown up in and the worldwide influence of European colonialism, and that sometimes we use labels that are as much invented by scholars as they are expressions of a culture's mythological beliefs and spiritualism.

To the original question-asker, I have completely and totally not actually talked about any male wizard-gods in-depth in this post, and for that I apologize. If you've got a specific one you'd like to hear about, or other questions about dudes wielding ultimate universal power, send them on in and we'll tackle them another day!