The Witch in All of Us
Words by Vicky Spratt. Photography by Alexandra Von Fuerst. Feature originally appeared in Riposte #9.
This is the age of scientific pragmatism and yet there is an ancient, mystical force arising. Reflecting on the findings of Professor Diane Purkiss, we don’t question whether witchcraft is trending, but why.
“I have an altar in my bedroom and this is where I do most of my ritual work. It is a low bookshelf adorned in a purple cloth that I got from my favourite place, Mexico City,” says Pam, a New-York based witch in her mid- thirties. She works at her altar when “the moon is new or full, during pagan holy days,” or whenever she feels called to ask for guidance, get centred, give gratitude, or manifest some sort of shift in her life. At her altar you will find figures of the deities she has “a deep relation- ship” with, alongside candles, a small incense cauldron, a bowl for offerings, crystals, stones, talismanic jewellery and objects of personal significance—such as a foil heart given to her by her husband when they fell in love.
From Macbeth to The Wizard of Oz, from fairytales to folklore, the history of the Salem witch trials to the modern “witch craze” in Europe, the figure of the witch has always loomed large. Real or imagined, she is at once a subject of fear and fascination, and more recently a reference in fashion and symbol of female empowerment. Today witches such as The Hoodwitch have gained tens of thousands of followers on social media and #witch reveals no less than 3,882,797 results, while #witchcraft logs 1,202,271. We know, anecdotally at least, that young women are identifying as witches through social media. Indeed, we have seen women across the world come together to perform a group hex on Donald Trump, while magazines like Elisabeth Krohn’s Sabat are fusing feminism and witchcraft firmly together. As you would expect, where there are women tapping the power of the witch there are men using the term to denounce powerful women.
In last year’s US presidential campaign Hillary Clinton was denounced as one by Trump supporters who configured her as the Wicked Witch of the Left, creating memes of her green-faced, broomstick in hand. Donald Trump even joked, “I see Burn the Witch is trending. What did Hillary Clinton do now?” Sad! The question is not whether witchcraft is trending, but why? The sexism faced by women everywhere—particularly when they, like Clinton, dare to put themselves forward for positions of power—can help explain its popularity. Pam explains that from the moment she began practising as a witch in her teens it made her feel like she was in touch with something greater than herself, that she wasn’t alone and had some control over her life.
Feminism is central to Pam’s association with the figure of the witch. “She is always marginal, she is always subversive and she always has power. She embraces both dark and light, she is a healer and a nasty woman. She doesn’t take any shit. She will protect herself and the people she loves. She is free and she belongs to herself.” As Pam sees it, we find ourselves in a time when feminism is digitally driven and intersectional, yet, “as female-identifying people, we still find ourselves persecuted and oppressed or fighting against imagery of women and policy that still treats us as lesser.”
Diane Purkiss, an Oxford University professor and the author of The Witch in History, thinks that contemporary witchcraft is a reaction to sexism, stress and, in our increasingly digital lives, a way to connect spiritually with other women and the natural world. There is, she says, “a very big gap between the women who were accused of being witches in the middle ages and the new age techno-pagans of today. Most of the women who would have been accused and found guilty of witchcraft during the witch craze weren’t actually trying to do magic, they may have just annoyed someone who realised this was an easy way to get rid of them.”
Some people in the early modern period saw themselves as practitioners of magic, she says. “However, it was fairly unambitious magic, their clientele mostly consisted of broke villagers. If your cow got sick or your baby got sick or you lost something and couldn’t find it, you could give them tuppence and they would cast a spell to try and sort it out for you.”
At this point in Britain’s history, when the Reformation had caused turmoil around the supernatural and people had very little money because of the enclosure of common lands, the women who were accused of witchcraft were seldom young and often post-menopausal. These women, Purkiss says, were perceived as “an anti-mother, an anti-housewife and anti-woman. They were seen as social waste products, viewed with suspicion.”
For about 200 years in the early modern period, tens of thousands of people in Europe, mostly women, were prosecuted for witchcraft. About 40,000 of those found guilty are thought to have been subjected to capital punishment: burnt at the stake, hanged or beheaded. Others were ostracised by their communities. Today’s witches draw on this history of persecution, but their practice is more closely aligned to the 20th century Wiccan tradition. It is at once about connecting with women’s liberation, feminism, the occult, the meta- physical and the natural world.
The Hearth of Albion, a modern coven, works in woods in the north-west of England, under the cover of darkness because there is less chance of being discovered. “It is the very start of autumn, the nights are drawing in, the trees beginning to change into their autumnal colour,” Suzanne, a coven member, tells me.
“Travelling into the woods in the early evening the harvest moon is risen low and large on the horizon, an orange hue in the darkening sky welcomes us and illuminates the road forwards, ever forwards. Arriving at the woods we disembark, gathering the ritual supplies from the boot and sharing them between us before walking silently into the woods. Once safely inside we don cloaks over robes and ritual wear, clothing that reflects those worn by our ancestors.” From here, the witches will journey to several locations in the darkness (they do not carry torches), setting up altars, candles and fires to heat cauldrons. Sometimes they will invoke deities with words, sometimes in silence with only a traditional hunting horn to break the stillness.
“The lack of light focusses our attention and the sweet blanket of night that wraps us in its embrace,” Suzanne says. “When we are working a rite we will prepare beforehand, discussing the nature of what we want to achieve so we are aligned. Sometimes we fast before; it’s a way of focusing the mind. We then walk into the woods in silence and once within them announce who we are and why we are there to the guardians and land spirits of the place.”
Suzanne became a witch after rejecting Christianity in her teens. “For many years I did my own thing, finding peace in nature and understanding that there was more to life than the mundane world, although I did not have the language or understanding to give it a name.” She had looked into many religions and practised yoga and meditation, but nothing spoke to her in the same way. And so, while she has identified as Pagan and Wiccan, today she describes herself a “traditional crafter.” “We realise that our craft transcends any one religion, it is of all religions, and more,” she says. For members of the Hearth of Albion their practice is “a way of being and of acting, seeking to live in balance, with honour, upholding truth, love and beauty.”
Unlike Pam, Suzanne doesn’t explicitly link her practice of witchcraft to feminism. “[It is] more of a response to the soulless society that we now inhabit,” she says. “Money and fame rule and people are measured by what car they drive or how many likes their selfies get.” Going out into nature to do witchcraft is a way of “creating a place where people matter, where the beauty of the world around us is understood and where people can get back in touch with what matters.”
Purkiss says this was a recurring theme in her research. “I spoke to a lot of witches who worked in IT-based jobs. Witchcraft offered them a relief, a link to a past before the digital age and a link to the natural world,” she says. Witchcraft as contemporary witches conceive of it is about getting back in touch with the human body as well as getting down and dirty in nature. Of a post-industrial world where we are increasingly shut off from nature, sitting down indoors all day, Purkiss adds, “People are using the mental energy they have to burn to create other worlds and ways of being. I do think that it’s totally made up, but I also want to stress this: I think it’s great.”
I’m no witch, but I’ve sought the advice of spiritual healers on multiple occasions. I have my astrological charts done regularly and I’ve been known to burn sage on more than one occasion. Far from being taboo, when I tell others about this I am met with tales that start, “Me too!” We’re consulting the supernatural, the occult, the metaphysical and the spiritual on a wide range of issues from trying to break our patterns of obsessing over prospective but totally unavailable partners, infertility, menstruation, broken hearts and anxiety. I once visited a woman who is perhaps best described as a healer in a three-bedroom semi- detached suburban house in Bromley, south-east London. As I laid on her couch, surrounded by crystals and tried to suspend my scepticism while she channeled the energy of various deities and spirit guides, I did feel something. It was uncomfortable, hot then cold. Suddenly I had more clarity than when I’d arrived and taken my shoes off to climb the stairs of her pristinely beige-carpeted home.
Regardless of what sort of witchcraft they practice, Pam, Suzanne and the healer I spent three hours with are creating space in a crowded and often hostile world. Purkiss points out that feminist witches are trying to carve out female spaces that are different from the domestic space that was contested during the witch trials. Today it is about reclaiming power. “Witchcraft offers an escape from the day-to-day torment of sexism in public spaces and workplaces and offers a narrative that can help to explain and manage the feelings that being in a disempowered position provokes,” she says.
It’s 2017 and women are still belittled, censored and subjugated. “We still see prejudice against women’s bodies everywhere,” Purkiss says. “I mean, for god’s sake, they’ve only just started to advertise sanitary products on TV with red as opposed to blue fluid! We’re still in a bitter row with the government about VAT on those products and I think, in that context, where women feel they’re being forcibly dissociated from their own bodies, it’s a way of taking them back.”
Today, although the figure of the witch has taken on new meanings, she represents what she always has. On the one hand, “witch” is a diatribe, levelled at a post-menopausal, powerful woman like Hillary Clinton, who is perceived as a threat by those unable to articulate why they hate her so much. The witch is, as Purkiss puts it: “The idea of the person who just doesn’t do what you want her to do.” Practising witchcraft is also about creating a code of ethics and morality at a time when studies show people overwhelmingly describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”
“Our Hearth is a very open group, all are equal within,” says Suzanne. “There are both men and women within, we welcome anyone who comes forth and proves their intent as an equal, regardless of sex, sexuality, gender identity or race.”
Witchcraft is also about asserting your identity and place in the world. Witchcraft affords Pam and Suzanne self-sovereignty and empowerment as well as intellectual and physical freedom. Declaring your- self a witch, feminist or otherwise, is a way of affiliating yourself with others and creating a place where you are powerful. It is irrelevant whether this power is real or not.
In all areas of our lives, women are calling on the mystical and the inchoate, whether that’s done at altars or with late-night outdoor spells, crystals, acai powder or full-moon rituals. Is it any wonder when pervasive sexism still limits women in all aspects of public life? For as long as women are denied power while simultaneously dismissed for having it, the figure of the witch will exist, persist and resist.