Bewitching Feminism and the Modern Witch

Conjuring spirits to battle our techno-capitalist present

“Witchcraft is an imaginary offense because it is impossible.” —E. E. Evans-Pritchard 

I have never had particularly vivid dreams. Even as a child, my craziest night terror involved driving a Kia Soul against traffic — not quite the makings of the next Disney classic. My own lackluster imagination aside, I did grow up in a magical world, one replete with witches, wiccans, warlocks, and even the odd pre-Christian fertility cult. Witches surround us, even if we have never been cursed in Parseltongue by a screeching bat-creature, spewing acid and satanic imagery as we beg for mercy. 

The Witch of the Waste from Hayao Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle.

In the twenty-first century, witches can be found in most metropolitan cities — your neighbor might host weekly sabbaths, procure potion ingredients at a socially-distanced farmer’s market, sell a whole retinue of convenient spells on Etsy, or host a seminar which will leave you feeling “witchy af.” But, the canonical European witch did not always find herself in such a popular position. I use the term “witch” loosely, since it entails both people who identified as witches and those who were brutally murdered for the heretical crime of witchcraft — often against their own admission.

Pixie, the Salem-based witch, is featured in next week’s episode of Back in America.

Since the beginnings of recorded history, witches and witch hunters have captured the fantasies and nightmares of countless developing societies who either embraced or felt threatened by their indigenous power. The ancient Code of Hammurabi dictates how authorities are to respond to citizens casting malicious and beneficial spells. Until the translation of the King James Bible from the four original manuscripts, witchcraft was seen as an ordinary part of life: witches were often religious healers who used magical spell books known as grimoires to help their communities.

In the popular European imagination of the fifteenth century, witchcraft became synonymous with diabolical witchcraft, intended to destabilize communities, wreak havoc upon customs, and generally disrupt the proper functioning of a society. In the Bible’s own terms: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” (Exodus 22). In our own time, the phrase “witch hunt” has become synonymous with accounts of political scapegoating, while throngs YouTubes have co-opted a Witchcore aesthetic, teaching thousands of fans about how they can become witches. Who are these witches? How did Biblical tales of vivification turn into fodder for modern YouTube channels? And, most importantly, how can I be named Spirit Guides Magazine’s “Best Witch of 2021”?

Traditionally, the witch has always been associated with the Other, the dastardly, and the unknown. Whether caught curing sheep of unknown maladies, using their children’s kitchens, delivering goodies right before someone died, brewing beer, or performing other magical acts, witches are commonly identified as powerful, yet “useless” members of society who exist outside of orthodox moral structures. In writer Barbara Ehrenreich words: “For centuries women were doctors without degrees, barred from books and lectures, learning from each other, and passing on experience from neighbor to neighbor and mother to daughter.”

One vivid and notable case involves a series of men and women known as the benandanti who gathered in the dreamscape once a year to fight imagined demonic witches, armed only with sorghum and wheat stalks. Now thought to be a remnant of a pre-Christian fertility cult, these benandanti saw themselves as warriors fighting the true witches — yet many were still executed for sorcery.

While these women performed a vital role in society, as modern capitalism developed, their positions were taken over by institutions. Deriving their power from natural, ungodly sources, witches stand in anarchist stark opposition to the centralization of the modern nation-state. A woman in control of her destiny who could manipulate the very fabric of reality at will posed a theological, jurisprudential, and local problem for a patriarchal society.

The first documented accounts of witchcraft, including the “sub-alpine storm witch” and the infamous Salem witches, feature women caught in the wrong place at the wrong time who often did not take their accusations seriously. One such witch, known as the Rüschellerin, was often seen running around Lucerne, Switzerland with her skirts hitched up high, taunting men in her town: “My godfather, [surely] you are not afraid of me?” Another woman was suspected to be a witch when a rabbit interrupted her wedding ceremony. Through no fault of their own, these women and their idiosyncratic quirks did not fit into a ready-made view of society, causing others to suspect them of diabolism. As historian Johannes Dillinger has persuasively argued, once someone was accused of being an “evil person,” anything they did became evidence of their guilt. Once accused of witchcraft, it is nearly impossible to prove your own witchy innocence, regardless of the legal evidence which caused local interrogators to use extreme and torturous methods to extract “confessions.”

Often prompted by fear, loathing, and everything in-between, these witch hunts largely died out by the end of the seventeenth century. England is particularly late with its final Witchcraft Act of 1735 which banned the use of the word “witch.” Due to the prevalence of unfounded witchcraft accusations, this odd law made it illegal for anyone to make witchcraft accusations, or write in the public sphere about witches — at least until it was overturned in 1951. In America, recent scholarship has suggested that the Salem witch hunts were actually the result of a mass hallucination event, prompted by the eerily white ergot fungus. 

But, judicial and extrajudicial witch hunts have popped up across the world with dire and severe consequences. As recently as the 1930s, there have been several sporadic cases of extrajudicial killings in America committed by people who claim to believe in diabolic witchcraft.

Perhaps, even more surprisingly, as many people have been executed for suspected witchcraft in the past 60 years as during the three centuries of the early modern witch hunts — the question has been the subject of numerous U.N. research papers. In Papua New Guinea, Kenya, Tanzania, Ghana, and Democratic Republic of the Congo, witch hunts continue largely unchecked at a local level, despite numerous documentaries and other social justice efforts

Despite this ongoing legacy, the stereotypical witch has been recently reclaimed as a nasty feminist icon. Groups such as the Women's International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell, alternatively known as Women Interested in Toppling Consumer Holidays, have sought to recast the grotesque and traumatic history of the witch as a force of empowerment. While historical witches who were executed across the European continent were accused of being ugly, aggressive, self-sufficient, and malicious succubuses, modern witches take great pride in those very same traits.

In their everyday lives, these modern witches act just the same as anyone else. Popularized by writers like Gerald Gardner and podcasters like Pam Grossman, these witches are a non-conformist force to be reckoned with. Opposing the technological supremacy of the twenty-first century, some witches find themselves seeking alternate modes of building communities outside of the traditional workplace.

Using the structure of witchcraft, these women seek to create alternative political communities in a time when “it is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism.” At the same time, the fun-loving witch aesthetic has been embraced and monetized by thousands of practitioners who flock to Midnight Sabbaths on Instagram, regularly attend livestream Tarot readings on YouTube, and buy tie-in cosmetics “inspired by the transformative quality of crystals.”

Grossman, in a recent New York Times interview, identifies this symbolic witch as a feminist icon. “There are a lot of people calling themselves witches in a political way, in a tongue and cheek way. And that is empowering for them, too. They might not actually practice magic,” she said.

Ironically, it is only by returning to earlier traditions that some modern witches have carved out their own way of relating to an over-technologized present. Even in the early modern era, to be a witch meant living as a counterbalance to a dominant theo-patriarchal society; in the words of writer Jude Doyle: “They were killed to cement patriarchal power and create the subjugated, domestic labor class necessary for capitalism.” Rather than submit or assimilate, these nighttime practitioners keep an ancient tradition alive, not by adhering to age-old adages, but by remaking and reforging what it means to be a witch.

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To find out more about modern American witches, listen to the Back in America podcast episode, Witchcraft and Feminism: Three American witches share their experiences

You will hear from Amanda Auchter, an American writer, professor, and editor. Amanda has won several literary awards and is currently working on her third book of poems which focuses on how witchcraft and faith empowered women.

From Cabra Woodwell, a witch “dedicated to changing the narratives of magic to decolonize, decarcerate, and liberate” comes in, and from Pixie who is a witch from Salem, Massachusetts. The interview with Pixie was recorded live and can be watched in full on YouTube