Wednesday, January 12, 2011

All Our Kin

My mom was the youngest of eleven children from the South, which meant that my sisters and I grew up hearing stories about "Family" all our lives. This was Family with a capital "F": Kin were obligated to help one other, provide for one another, look after one another.

But my sisters and I were raised in California, far from our twenty-eight Texan cousins, and a few others scattered here and there. We did just fine, but as a girl I always longed for more. It wasn't until I hit college, and took my first anthropology course, that I realized there was an alternative...and it even had a nifty name: Fictive Kinship.

In many Latino cultures, fictive kinship is formalized through the system of compadrazgo, in which you ask your friends to be your comadres and compadres (literally, “co-parents”). In English we translate this into Godparents, but with comadres the bond between the godmother and mother is often more important than that between the child and the godparent. It is assumed the adults will care for the children, but it is the link between the *adults* that is crucial. In fact, really good friends often refer to each other as compadre and comadre, whether or not there are any children (or any religious ceremonies) involved.

Essentially, this is your family of choice, the folks who might be even closer to you than blood kin.

Historically – and still in many parts of the world – family is a powerful survival mechanism. Darwin would say that we have a special interest in keeping alive those who share our DNA. Religion and society then step in and dictate that we are beholden to our blood kin to help them through the tough times. Tightly bonded families help their members to survive and flourish.

But there’s a dark side to such interdependence. What happens when there is no family, or when a member is forced, or chooses, to step away? At many points in our past, and still now in many parts of the world, women, in particular, without family are left unprotected and unprovided-for.

When I was researching witchcraft for my novels, I found that many of the women who became “witches” – that is to say, “healers”—in European society had no family, or had committed the sin of refusing (or failing) to marry. As outcasts, they had a choice of heading to the urban centers to work as prostitutes…or to become powerful women, healers who inspired respect and fear. In a word: Witches.

And what then did most witches do? They formed covens. They taught each other, helped and supported one another, and socialized. Covens (a word which refers to an “assembly” and is related to convent and covenant) provided these women with a kind of family, through fictive kinship.

(Many people think warlock is the term for a male witch, but it actually means “oathbreaker”, and refers to the men who knew about --and sometimes previously protected-- the coven, but who named names during the witch-hunts, breaking the covenant in order to save themselves. )

Some time ago I was invited to attend a modern coven meeting in Berkeley. Contemporary covens (at least in the Bay Area!) are typically less about survival than they are about socializing and practicing rituals and devotion, but the fictive bonds amongst members are still important, especially for us modern folk without a lot of blood kin around.
At the coven meeting was a woman who was eight months pregnant. She was feeling anxious about the upcoming birth and asked each of us, while we formed the traditional closed circle, to lay our hands upon her belly and to bless her and her child.

In the process of creating a blood family, she was reaching out for fictive kin. Comadres. And in that assembly of like-minded women, she found it.


Rachael Herron said...

Gorgeous. I can just see the women gathered around her... I *love* that we can form our own families.

Sophie Littlefield said...

ditto what rachael says. thank you for showing me a new name for this...i think i am lucky to have a few wonderful comadres :)

Gigi Pandian said...

ditto ditto :)

And fascinating stuff about witches. I knew a little bit of this info, but this pulls it all together.

Adrienne Miller said...

When I was growing up I looked forward to seeing my *aunt* Stephanie and my *uncle* Roy more than any other family. It was years before I realized that we weren't actually related. But thirty-some-odd years later and they are still my Aunt and Uncle.

Mysti said...

Interesting transition that word warlock has made! Fascinating as always, thanks Julie!

L.G.C. Smith said...

My niece has a lot of aunties (and tias!) and uncles who are my sister's dear friends, the people she would trust to raise her daughter if no one in the blood family could. Fictive kinship is a wonderful thing.

Thanks for another great post!