From Paganism to Activism

Answering the question: “What is witchcraft?”

Witchcraft is a very broad term and is defined by different folks in different ways. Magic, spell casting, and spirit work are universal practices and have origins in many different cultures. In Early Modern Europe, witchcraft was viewed as an anti-Christian, dark practice involving demons, harmful intentions, and curses. It was widely misunderstood, and many witches were actually “natural healers” or “wise women”. The infamous witch-hunts swept Europe from the 15th to 17th centuries. In America, The Salem Witch Trials lasted from 1692-1693, over which 14 women and 5 men were executed (Berkeley Law).

The witch trials are a historic example of the patriarchy (the church and state) being so unwilling to understand and accept difference, that they spin their incapability into fear and prejudice. We now know that the witch trials weren’t really an attack on witches, they were an attack on the idea that women have agency.

When you hear the word “witchcraft” today, the first thing that comes to mind might not be the witches of history. You might instead think of movies and T.V. shows like The Craft, Practical Magic, Sabrina, or Double, Double, Toil and Trouble (the 1993 cinematic masterpiece starring the Olsen twins). These Halloween movie staples help make up the pop culture witch: the magic-wielding, quirky, empowered-woman type of witch. These witches get stuff done. They could stomp any toxic masculinity into the ground.

Sandra Bullock playing Sally Owens in Practical Magic

Real modern witches can’t fly on brooms, levitate things, or pop themselves in and out of rooms like the movie and T.V. witches can. But the real modern witch definitely has the same gusto these fictional witches have.

From BBC News

On Halloween 2020, witches from across the U.S. banded together to take a stand against the king of the patriarchy himself, Trump. In a news article the University of Calgary published about this witchy internet phenomenon (which used the hashtag #WitchTheVote), UCalgary News also dove into what it means to be a witch.

“The archetype of the witch has a historical relationship with feminist activism. As an unruly figure and threat to the patriarchy, the witch is resistant and has been used in feminist protest since the 1960s” (UCalgary News).

Going back to the witch trials, we can see just how much the concept of the witch threatened the patriarchy and resisted social normativity.

An American journalist named Bianca Bosker wrote an article for The Atlantic called, “Why Witchcraft is on the Rise”. It’s a great piece looking at why there has been an upsurge of witches in recent years. My favourite quote from the entire piece somehow put words to the main reason I felt so drawn to witchcraft in the first place. I had never been able to articulate it in the right way. Here’s what Bosker writes:

“The latest witch renaissance coincides with a growing fascination with astrology, crystals, and tarot, which, like magic, practitioners consider ways to tap into unseen, unconventional sources of power—and which can be especially appealing for people who feel disenfranchised or who have grown weary of trying to enact change by working within the system. (Modern witchcraft has drawn more women than men, as well as many people of color and queer or transgender individuals; a “witch” can be any gender)”.

As someone who has always felt “out of place” in society (which might come from my queerness, mental health struggle, Lutheran upbringing, or all of the above). I’ve never felt connected with the power to change my environment or situation. I’ve often felt an overwhelming lack of control in my life. Witchcraft is a source of power for the underdogs—the folks who’ve had their voices squashed, or ideas ridiculed.

 Another great quote from Bosker’s article: “‘Witchcraft is feminism, it’s inherently political,’ Gabriela Herstik, a witch and an author, told Sabat magazine. ‘It’s always been about the outsider, about the woman who doesn’t do what the church or patriarchy wants’”.

Bosker also highlights that witchcraft appeals to so many different people because it is “flexible enough to incorporate varied cultural traditions”. For me, witchcraft is like a transcendence of religion—it’s a personalized spirituality that I contour to fit my own values and beliefs. That’s why there is really no one answer to “what is witchcraft?”

Witchcraft is anti-patriarchal, feminist, and self-determined.

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