Under the guise of a witch, it seemed to us, laid a world where the occult reigned supreme. This mythical figure was the universal scapegoat and the eternal outcast. For most of our lives, the word ‘witch’ only conjured memories of dressing up as a fantasy character for Halloween, or images of a personality that was historically ridiculed and tortured. Growing up with a stream of films, books, and songs devoted to carefully crafting a handful of particular personas, the practice of witchcraft never seemed like a legitimate practice at all. The big-nosed, black-caped, elderly hag – accompanied by a boiling cauldron – dominated our perception of what a witch looked like, doused with problematic conceptions of female beauty. Our ideas began to change as we got older, particularly after reading feminist analyses of witchcraft, which primarily erupted during second wave feminism, prominent in the mid-to-late 20th century.
Historically, both men and women were accused of being witches, but females were most prominently executed, hunted, burned, and exterminated. Most people were hanged and then burned, without a burial of any kind. The majority of these witches were part of lower socio-economic classes, elderly, and often transgressed societal norms. They were frequently accused of necromancy and property damage. Many sonless women were accused of witchcraft, as their situation implied the possibility of land inheritance. Witches have not only been historically ‘othered,’ but also essentially dehumanized, and often assigned the role of victim.
“To untangle the connection between feminism and witchcraft and to understand what it means to be a contemporary witch, we must look at traditional portrayals of witches.”
The word ‘witch’ has adopted multiple meanings and has been appropriated by a variety of people, most of whom do not identify as witches. In one of their “spellcasts,” Robyn and Selene – owners and operators of the Melange Magique online store and informational website and blog – speak about the disparities between male and female witches. “Guys could do magic without necessarily being evil […] whereas women were automatically witches, and therefore evil. That’s a very interesting difference which only really changed very recently, and by recently I mean in the last century or so.”
After accessing works of modern day witches in the form of blog posts, spellcasts, journals, and comics, we began to draw parallels between the mockery society places on both witchcraft and feminism. Just like ‘witch,’ the word ‘feminism’ has many connotations that are completely antithetical to its actual values. Feminists are often portrayed as emotional, thus inherently irrational and unnecessarily aggressive or even ‘man-hating.’ When pushed to the extreme, the two seem to merge and nearly become one, as the image of the ‘angry feminist’ blends with the depiction of the bitter, evil witch.
To untangle the connection between feminism and witchcraft and to understand what it means to be a contemporary witch, we must look at traditional portrayals of witches. Taking on a wide range of forms, fairy tale witches appear consistently in mainstream cinema and television. As an illusory character that has dominated pop culture and Halloween-based fantasy, the witch is described as a seductive sorcerer and/or domestic virtuoso on one end of the spectrum, or an undesirable, Satan-worshiper on the other.
The domestic protagonist, like Mary Poppins, uses her powers to perform the traditional female role of a caretaker. She can clean, cure illness, and cook under pressure with little time put aside for herself. In this case, witchcraft allows women to perform their designated role without obstacle. In essence, she is the patriarchy’s perfect woman. On the other extreme, witches in children’s Disney films, such as Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty, are portrayed as the epitome of malevolence. Known as the “Mistress of all Evil,” she has horns that resemble Satan’s and is able to cast dangerous spells on people. The evil witch usually lives alone, presumably rejected from society, fulfilling none of patriarchy’s expectations of how a woman should behave. Because of this she is miserable and takes that misery out on others using magic. She is fundamentally a warning to young girls of what not to be. With these incredibly mixed messages and stereotyped portrayals, it is not surprising that the term ‘witch’, as it is commonly used, does little to represent those who actually practice witchcraft.
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It wasn’t until we sat down with Robyn in her home that we got a glimpse into the life of a contemporary witch. “I am very comfortable calling myself a witch. I don’t have any negative connotations to it. But there is a way that the media portrays [witches] on TV and in movies. Don’t get me wrong. I’m watching American Horror Story like everybody else [...] but I spent the last episode laughing my ass off.”
Robyn has been a member of the Montreal witchcraft community for over 20 years, and has spent the majority of that time working with Melange Magique. When the physical shop – which was also the site of the Montreal Pagan Resource Centre – was forced to close its doors in June 2013, the Montreal witchcraft community had to reexamine how to keep its network alive and thriving. “We used to have a lot of public rituals and in-store workshops. We’re [now aiming to have] online workshops about protection magic, how to craft things, some free content as well on [...] stone lore, herb lore and all about the chakras.”
When asked about her own personal Wiccan practice, Robyn stressed the importance of keeping the sacred relatively secret: “Part of the reason behind [keeping it secret] is that [...] the idea of witches has become so skewed and ridiculous that when you put something so sacred out there people will happily take that and change it into something else. However, that being said, [as for] my personal practices, I don’t eat children, I don’t burn babies (I have a baby, thank you) [and] I don’t fly on a broom, but that would be cool.” Witchcraft traditions have also been misunderstood since many texts were burned and destroyed, and this is partly the reason why many modern day witches feel protective over their practices and tools.
As we spent more time with Robyn, we began to ask questions about spells and rituals. “A spell is just a fancy word for a prayer. Sometimes you’ll do something more elaborate and that’s a ritual. What’s the difference between a ritual done by a witch and one done in a church? It’s toward specific [different] ends perhaps, or to celebrate a specific holiday. But it’s still a religious practice.”
In an effort to fully illustrate what she means by spells and rituals, Robyn used a practical example that we could easily digest (no pun intended). “[Take] chicken soup, the most commonly made thing. Well you know why chicken soup works, [it’s] because [a loved one] makes it for you with love and she wants you to get better. To me, that’s a spell. Cooking for someone with the intention of making them feel better. Medically, there is no reason why that should work, but it does.”
In contrast to these benevolent uses, darker practices, associated with black magic, are by no means fantastical. Melange Magique has discontinued selling anything associated with the practice: “You’ll notice that we’ve actually removed all black magic from the site. There is no more commanding on the site, no more compelling on the site, no more binding on the site, no more cursing on the site. I would neither sell you a gun. I’m just not comfortable in selling people things to hurt other people and to ultimately hurt yourself as well.” Robyn does include love spells in this category, but exclusively love spells that are directed at a certain individual. Love spells to find romance and compassion in general are quite different, as the intention is not rooted towards manipulating another person’s feelings, thoughts, and emotions against their free will. Like many other stereotyped aspects of witchcraft, manipulation of others, Robyn says, is far easier to accomplish without magic. From our conversation with her, it becomes clear that to most witches, magic is not a tool to control one’s surroundings, but rather a means to personal fulfillment.
“The fact that there are no rules to witchcraft, and perhaps more importantly, no one to enforce rules, means that individuals can decide how they choose to worship.”
Robyn illustrated the fluid and personalized nature of practicing witchcraft, and emphasized that people interpret and observe witchcraft in a large variety of ways. “Witchcraft covers a lot of things. Paganism covers an even broader amount of things. But most people think all Pagans are witches and that’s also not true. There is no governing body within Montreal. There is no Wiccan pope. There isn’t a governing body behind this,” Robyn said. The fact that there are no rules to witchcraft, and perhaps more importantly, no one to enforce rules, means that individuals can decide how they choose to worship. This strengthens the idea of individual autonomy and the personal essence of the practice. This is clear in the theological characterization of witchcraft, which Robyn describes as “a henotheistic faith, which means that, I acknowledge there are other gods, but I’m worshiping these ones.” There are no singular or correct deities, but rather a wide range to choose from. Robyn makes clear that a crucial component of witchcraft is choice, whether one wants to practice individually, as she does currently, or in a coven, as she has done in the past. One’s witchcraft can change and evolve as one does the same.
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Essential to our interest in this topic is the culture of inclusivity of some witchcraft groups. Montreal Reclaiming, a community branched from the San Francisco-based group Reclaiming Witchcraft, reflects values that are difficult to find in other organizations. They self-describe as “welcom[ing] all genders, sexual orientations, ethnicities, languages, ages, and differences in ability.” This may seem like an unexceptional statement, but to many who experience oppression, this is crucial. For a group to take such an inclusive stance and to include these words in a short paragraph illustrates the importance of anti-oppression within the community.
To understand why some people identify with these communities and choose to practice witchcraft, we ought to look at the aspects that render some witch groups so welcoming. When we think about spaces that embody such anti-oppressive attitudes, make the effort to explicitly state their inclusivity, and do not take for granted the necessity of these values, we come up pretty short. In the article “A Brief History of Reclaiming,” Vibra Willow writes that, “Fundamental value is placed on reverence for the Earth, the natural cycles of life and death, individual autonomy, non-violence, feminism, and responsible activism.”
Specific groups like Reclaiming bring more to the practice than just tangible witchcraft. Rather, they strive to provide a safer space for spiritual exploration. While Reclaiming is notably explicit in their political commitment to inclusivity, Robyn too expressed ways in which witchcraft fulfills many of these needs, without necessarily attempting to incorporate the same ideals. “It’s a very open religion because we are so used to […] having been persecuted. We don’t judge. So you’ll find that a lot of people do identify with paganism, with Wicca, because it welcomes them. You can love and be however you want within that. A very beautiful part of the Montreal Pagan community is how comforting it is and how welcoming and empowering to a lot of people,” Robyn said. It is no wonder, then, that some people find solace in witchcraft and Wiccan-based communities. Within witchcraft, people have the opportunity to engage with spirituality without having to negotiate the problematic ways in which many established religious texts depict women and homosexuality.
A significant issue in many groups that claim to be inclusive and anti-oppressive is their hesitation to engage in self-reflection. It is far easier to see oppression in the world at large than to see it in one’s own community. Reclaiming, however, seems aware of these issues and has taken steps in the past to create an open dialogue. A special gender-focused issue of their publication, Reclaiming Quarterly, featured an article that examined “gender dynamics in Reclaiming and other progressive communities,” recognizing the way in which these power relations can affect all spaces. In the piece, “Undoing Sexism,” Lynx Adamah, a self described “co-counselling crusader for women’s liberation” and Reclaiming Quarterly contributor based in California, acknowledges the ways in which societal prejudices influence all people’s interactions with one another, writing, “It would be nearly impossible for us as individuals raised in this very oppressive and dehumanizing culture to not have recorded at least some of these messages, somewhere within us.”
While this is an important aspect of Reclaiming’s practices, this type of internal critique is not necessarily present in all Wiccan communities. All groups and covens are quite different, Robyn explained to us, and certain covens have different requirements that members are expected to abide by. Robyn told us about a Montreal group based in the West Island in the 1990s that partook in sex slavery. She stressed the importance of asking questions and making sure you are comfortable with the morals and values that each group represents.
Wicca is not free from sexist and heterosexist folklore and rituals. Jonathan Furst, who also writes in Reclaiming Quarterly, touched upon his experience with rituals that perpetuate certain stereotypes: “[…] when the men drum and the women dance. Or when it’s assumed we’ll call in the God and the Goddess. Are we redefining male and female divinity or institutionalizing gender roles? What about queer ones [...]?” Much of what is understood as feminist witchcraft emerged as a recognition of second wave feminism and is highly concerned with elevating the role of women. Robyn explains the focus on women and the goddess as a function of the fact that, “we’re still kind of recovering from the 1980s in that sense. Because Starhawk [a prominent theorist of Pagan feminism] was a very powerful figure and she really launched something that spoke to a lot of people who were so used to being under the thumb of very chauvinist religion for a long time.”
While this perspective is entirely logical, it can easily fall into the traps left by second wave feminism – embracing a divisive and exclusive gender binary. The goddess-god dichotomy leaves room for much critique, ignoring those who do not identify fully with either masculinity or femininity. It is one thing to be inclusive in practice, but another to be so in ideology. Robyn depicts a more spectrum-based, fluid sense of gender in the way she sees the god and goddesses that witches worship. “The focus of real Wicca, Wicca at its core, is that there is a balance between masculine and feminine. Feminist Wicca says no, it’s about the Goddess. Personally, I believe very strongly that it’s a healthier thing to have a balance between the masculine and feminine,” Robyn said. In this way, what is understood as feminist Wicca is perhaps less feminist than more traditional forms.
Witchcraft, we discovered, is most notable in its fluidity. The individualized nature of the practice, that allows for anyone to shape it to be whatever they want it to be, combined with the inclusive nature of Wiccan communities, allows witchcraft to avoid the pitfalls of many institutionalized forms of worship. Like any religion, Wicca provides a pathway to personal growth and internal actualization, but also requires substantial faith in the intangible. Witchcraft, moreover, can be incredibly anti-oppressive, but in ways different than the ones we imagined. Whether you are enticed by the idea of witchcraft or not, what is important is to critically think about how we see stigmatized practices and lifestyles, and perhaps work toward transcending the notion of normativity.