Wednesday, August 31, 2016

REVIEW: Max Dashu's Witches and Pagans

Witches and Pagans: Women in European Folk Religion, 700-1100, by Max Dashú (Veleda Press, 2016) trade paperback, 6” x 9” 406 pages. Available now only from the Veleda Press website.

This is the long-anticipated first volume of a 12-book series, Secret History of the Witches, by Max Dashú, who has been working on the project for 40 years under the auspices of the Suppressed Histories Archives, which she founded in 1970. Many of us involved in women’s spirituality consider Dashú the most thorough, reliable, and authoritative contemporary historian of women’s history that includes Goddess history, witches and witchcraft, women in religion worldwide, and related subjects. When the complete series is published, this first volume will volume 7, about in the middle chronologically, with the series beginning centuries earlier with the volume Elder Kindreds & Indo-Europeans,” and ending centuries later with the volume Legacies and Resurgences.

Dashú is also known internationally for her slideshows — which she has presented at universities, conferences, and many grassroots venues. She created the shows from the more than 40,000 images in the Suppressed Histories collection. They bring to light female realities hidden from view from ancient iconography to leaders, medicine women and rebels. Dashú has also produced two videos: WomanShaman: the Ancients (2013) and Women’s Power in Global Perspective (2008), and a series of posters on female iconography. For more information about these see The Suppressed Histories page on Facebook is followed by about 148,000 people, and views of Dashu’s articles consistently rank in the top 1% of views on

In her Preface to Witches and Pagans, Dashú notes that her approach to the material is “ethnohistorical: looking for traces of folk “going through archeology” and also through written material as well as oral traditions. She also writes that “Much of the book
turns on language, the names and meanings that are an important part of the cultural record, but which remain mostly hidden in obscure texts, unknown to all but a narrow slice of specialists.” She uses language — linguistics — to help us learn more about these. Just a few of the themes in Witches and Pagans that she has found emerge from this examination are weaving, fortune and fate, incantation, prophecy and divination, and what was called “weirding.” Her analysis and tracing of words and their cognates, as well as deities, through languages and cultures is not only illuminating but can also become breathtaking. One example is her explanation of how “wyrd” in a variety of European cultures is connected to the Fates and to the word weird, meaning destiny. Commenting on its history, which includes Goddess meaning, Dashú writes that Wyrd spun “names into the web of language. She tucked under their origins and hid their deepest meanings, before herself sinking out of sight. She concealed her signatures even in the language of religion.” The author also shows the evolution of some of the Wyrd derivatives in other languages and how the English words such as worship and worthy are related to Wyrd. She also explains how both the word and the concept of Wyrd as a female divinity continued “long after the pagan religion was officially abolished.” There follows a discussion of the English Three Weird Sisters including the use by Chaucer and later Shakespeare in Macbeth, and in Christianity “as a triad of saints, or as three ladies, three nuns, or three Marys.”

Dashú has also included a large number of black and white illustrations throughout the book, including originals from the volume’s time period, such as the picture of the carved whalebone art, “Three Wyrds” from the Franks Casket, c. 700 CE, from which the book’s cover art is taken. There is also a significant amount of original art by Dashú, including the “Word Tree of Wyrd,” which, on a tree, shows this word in various languages, cultures, and derivations. These are more fully discussed in the text. The discussion in Chapter 1 also includes the words for Earth in various languages, and their Goddess relevance. The book moves on in Chapter 2 to the connection between the Fates, Wyrd, weaving, and the development of witchcraft, the origins of the words witch and wicce — and the persecution of witches.

It became fascinating to me how, in Dashú's explanations, one word or subject or culture leads to another and another and another. Weaving plays a big part in this book in several ways, and it seems that one of those ways is how Dashú weaves words from one language to another and her similar weaving with the subjects and cultures.

In chapter 3, “Names of the Witch,” and throughout the book, Dashú also shows how words that began with positive meanings came to be understood as negative. For example, in a chapter 3 discussion about “healing witches” she shows how the words for “herb-woman” in Frankish, Spanish, and Latin came to mean “poisoner,” with similar occurrences with words for other types of healing by women in Anglo-Saxon, Welsh, Old English, Icelandic, Norwegian, and Germanic languages. One instance is the word, lyb (related through the Icelandic cognate lyf to the English “life”), which originally meant “vitality” and/or “medicinal.” The original Anglo-Saxon word for the women who did this work was lybwyrhtan. Dashú tells how this word disappeared after archbishop Wulfstan of York denounced the healers as the opposite, unlybwyrhtan (“un-life workers”), and goes on to describe a similar word change in German which carried over into the 1400’s to demonize witches. This chapter, which goes into much detail about different types of witches, ends with a 6-page list that includes “Ethnic Names for Witches: Attributes and Powers” of 11 types of witches plus one that cannot be categorized with any of these titled “Various.” The witch names are given (according to my count) in more than 25 languages. A later chapter on Runes and other forms of divination, begins with a full-page graphic of “The Names and Meanings of Runes.”
What I’ve written here gives you just a taste of what’s in the book. And I’ll stop, so that you can fully enjoy your own discovery of this feast. If you want to nibble a bit more, go to for a full list of links to what’s available on line,  just some of which includes:  an annotated table of contents, the Preface, chapter excerpts, and preview of contents in other books in the Secret History series. Backmatter material in the book itself includes about 32 pages of Notes and a bibliography of about 24 pages. The index of the book will be posted online. When it is live, you'll be able to find it from the home page of or (according to the copyright page in the book) here .

I am thrilled with the publication of Witches and Pagans. The Goddess community and others familiar with Dashú’s previous contributions have cause for celebration with the publication of this first book the Secret History of the Witches series. Hopefully still others – including historians, academics, librarians, and students in other fields, related and unrelated – will, through its publication, also become acquainted with her extremely valuable work.

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Judith Laura

More blogs about /goddess/feminist theology/spiritual feminism/pagan/feminist spirituality/.