We all know the stories, we’ve all heard the legends. Witches, magical creatures, women and men of the night. Certainly there is no universal consensus (as is almost always the case with legend) as to what exactly a witch is. So before I dig into the meat of my argument, I must first clarify what exactly it is that I mean by “witch.”
There’s probably a specific picture you think of when you hear the word. If you’re looking to find exactly what others think of, you can take a trip over to r/imaginarywitches. The generalized image appears to be of a magical, intelligent, dark and mysterious woman, clearly holding arcane power of some sort. We may accept this image with some caveats, and a bit of backstory.
As recently as several hundred years ago, before the age of enlightenment had thoroughly struck the world with the beauty of scientific thought; you must understand, humans made sense of the world in a way that for most of us would appear entirely foreign. Lacking the ability to trust in academia, or our favorite writers, the state’s wonderous achievements, etc… in the way we may now; the widespread modus operandi was what is known as “magical thinking”.
The mystical mind of yore did not understand the workings of the world as we do now. Even simple things that we take entirely for granted, were hidden from our ancestors. Take, the example of germ theory. To you and I this knowledge is obvious… viruses and bacteria spreading from one person to another, are the causes of most disease. Viruses were not discovered until the 1890s! The vast majority of humans who ever lived have gone without this simple knowledge we hold as evident.
During the Middle Ages, if you practiced medicine, you practiced “magic”. Monks, physicians, priests, and more, all were considered to be practitioners of magic.
So when a lowly woman from a small village took to using herbs and spicy foods to attempt to treat the common cold; she may be considered to be a practitioner of magic in the eyes of the church. Worse still, if she was learned enough that she began to become effective at taking care of her neighbors…
The church held a virtual monopoly on knowledge in its time. And so, if through practice and effort, someone outside of the jurisdiction thereof gained the knowledge necessary to treat sickness, or perform other such “powerful” acts… the church in many circumstances, would believe that such knowledge could have only been gifted to a lowly peasant by the devil himself.
And you almost certainly know the way that story often ends…
“Witchcraft is a practical art”
What is important to point out here, is that witchcraft as it has come to be known in the 21st century, a religious practice steeped in tradition and lore… is not necessarily what we should think of when we think of a “witch.”
There is little evidence to support the claim that there was some grand witch religion throughout Europe. Certainly even if such pagan religions did exist, they were not responsible for the vast majority of witch hunts, or the acts that preceded them. Pagan religions are religions. Witchcraft is a practical art.
Which leads us to the topic of discussion. Unequivocally, modern witchcraft is alive and well. We are inundated with powerful, mystical, creative, self-taught, unique women and men. In a world that no longer believes smells and demons cause disease… but instead understands the way that viruses work… we no longer treat “witches” as unstoppable agents of some ultimate and incomprehensible evil.
But all the facts are there to cleanly tie the modern hacker to the principles from which the legends of witches arose. You can start with the affinity for the dark and night, or the use of hoods (a la the stereotypical “hooded hacker”). But these superficial associations are largely inconsequential (caveat: they do hint at a shared neurotype -> ASD has high associations with hacker culture, and sensory sensitivities are a cornerstone of such a diagnosis).
The Witch is Self Taught
The hacker, as the witch, does not take their knowledge from the libraries of the halls of power. They are instead auto-didactic. Seeking out knowledge, from an innate drive to learn. They are ever curious. And though their curiosity may get them into trouble; it can also give them to tools necessary to perform great modern “miracles.”
The Witch is Powerful
There are few classes/types of people on the planet more uniquely powerful than hackers. Our entire world runs on “systems” electronic or otherwise. To understand, and manipulate these powerful entities is to control any aspect of human civilization. On a small scale, hackers may steal confidential information. On a grand scale, they may cause blackouts, turn the tide of battles, and manipulate government decision making cycles.
The Witch is Hidden
As is almost always the case in many stories of witches. The witches are hidden, and operate with impunity from the shadows. This is also often true with hackers. Certainly a very many people are known publicly to dabble in the “hidden arts” as they may work day jobs which require such skills. But should they ever decide to turn evil; even moderately talented hackers can hide their tracks with ease.
The Witch’s Craft is Arcane
The work that is performed by hackers, belongs to a realm that most people have very little knowledge of. It is so unique and different from our every day lives. The elite math of cryptography, analysis of protocols, the obfuscation of malware. These things are not even remotely related to everyday subjects. To be a truly talented hacker, you must go from the natural state tabula rasa, to knowledge of computers, to IT/sysadmin level proficiency, to computer scientist, and beyond.
The Witch is Unique
The very unique and demanding work performed by hackers on the daily requires men and women with equally unique minds, skillsets, and backgrounds to perform. In relation to the auto-didactic nature of the discipline; (that there are few institutional avenues to learn the skills necessary to be an effective hacker) only the unique and curious souls who struck out on the path alone, have arrived.
The Witch is Hunted
For being unique, for being powerful, for being misunderstood; the witch is often hunted out of fear. Should the witch use their powers to harm those around them, you really can’t blame anyone for fighting back. But there are certainly quite literal witch hunts that target hackers and their skillsets. (Think: “port scanning is punishable by law”, or Aaron Swartz.)
I could honestly just keep going with the comparisons. (Code, is powerful language, it’s literally spells. Power is projected at a distance, through a realm of “spirit”, etc.) However, I imagine that you quite get it already. Modern day hackers absolutely are the successors to witches…
Didn’t the hoods make it obvious?