Witches: The New Woke Heroines
It’s not exactly news that witchcraft attracts some feminists who see in it (in part) a spiritual expression of rebellion against patriarchy — including, obviously, Biblical religion. What is interesting, though, is how this particular cultural moment is feeding its growth.
You could laugh at the “self-care” rituals witches aggrieved over Brett Kavanaugh engage in, but I think that would be a mistake. Excerpts from the Vox.com story:
First, take a candle.
Then, pour some salt into your hand.
Then, keeping the grains in your palm, take a pen to write out a thank you to Christine Blasey Ford, the woman whose allegations of sexual assault against Supreme Court nominee — and now justice — Brett Kavanaugh, stunned a nation.
Or, if you prefer, simply say, “I believe you.”
It’s just one of the many quasi-religious rituals circulating the internet — particularly pagan and #resistance circles — in the wake of Kavanaugh’s confirmation. These rituals help self-identified witches process trauma, anger, and grief.
The historical nature of witchcraft has made it a particularly fruitful field for ritual. As the organizers of an upcoming “Hex Kavanaugh” event at Catland, a pagan bookstore and supply shop in Brooklyn, put it on their event page, “We are embracing witchcraft’s true roots as the magik of the poor, the downtrodden and disenfranchised and it’s [sic] history as often the only weapon, the only means of exacting justice available to those of us who have been wronged by men just like him.”
That’s what’s most interesting to me about this: the political weaponization of witchcraft and the spiritualization of the culture war.
Regular readers know that I am a Christian who takes this stuff seriously. I don’t believe it’s a game, or is meaningless, any more than Christian prayer is meaningless. As I see it, the fact that Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed despite spells and hexes does not mean that the gestures had no spiritual meaning. These witches are putting themselves in touch with real spiritual entities and forces — dark ones, I believe, who mean destruction. Of course they believe that people like me are the ones serving spiritual darkness.
Look, I understand that many people believe that all of it is silly, and that religious ritual — Wiccan, Christian, all of it — is nothing more than an expression of an individual’s beliefs. That it’s a form of theatrical performance, nothing more. I think this is quite wrong, but even if you do believe that, you should still take seriously what believers in any particular religion call sacred, and what they intend by their prayers, rituals, and beliefs.
Fifteen years ago, as a journalist in Dallas, I clashed routinely with the then-head of CAIR, who was an Islamist. He was also a well-dressed, polished professional, the manager of a luxury hotel in town. Over lunch one day with me and a couple of senior editors from the newspaper, he admitted that he believed Allah wants the faithful to stone to death homosexuals and women caught in adultery. Now, there was and is very little chance of that Islamist paradise being established in America. I would defend that man’s right to believe what he wants to believe, as long as he doesn’t try to enact it into law, or act on it. Still, even if he never picked up a rock to throw at a woman or a homosexual, it’s meaningful that he and others hold that belief. It’s not only culturally meaningful, I believe that it’s also spiritually meaningful, in a way we cannot fully understand. We cannot be indifferent to that kind of thing, no matter which religious community it comes from.
What I expect to happen now will be an uptick of progressive women looking for a spiritual channel for their anger at the forces of patriarchy (as they define it). Emma Green writes that for younger progressives, political engagement is taking the place of religion as their ultimate concern, the passion that gives their lives meaning. Is it so hard to foresee that more than a few of these young progressives, especially women, might take up witchcraft as a way to spiritualize their political passions?
This is especially true given that popular culture is moving this way. Consider this headline from a recent New York Times story promoting the reboot of the TV witch drama Charmed:
From the story:
Something else that’s notable about Harry: He is often the only white person in the room. Another of-the-moment element of “Charmed” is that its heroines are all Latina, something Madeleine Mantock (“The Tomorrow People”), who plays long-lost sister Macy, said she still can’t quite believe. “I’m used to [auditioning] for things and hearing, in the end, ‘They didn’t want to go diverse,’” Ms. Mantock said. “That happened to me three times in the last year. Now I get to be the hero, and I get to do it with two other women who are sensitive to what’s going on in the world.” She paused. “It’s a blessing and a curse to live a political existence,” she said. “But I can’t imagine being switched off.”
That, for the women behind “Charmed,” is the real connection between them and their characters: an inability to turn away from their power, onscreen and off. “Whatever your opinion of a witch is, we’re broadening it,” Ms. Diaz said. “If somebody calls me a witch, I’m like, ‘thank you.’ Witches change the world.”
Witches are the new woke heroines. The meaning of this is something that Christian churches are going to have to confront in real life now and in the years to come. If you don’t believe this is anything more than performance, you might find it interesting, but only that. But if you believe that witches really are in touch with spiritual forces and realities, you had better take a different view. Whatever the truth, this is a culturally significant phenomenon.
UPDATE: Here’s a fascinating bit from Archdruid John Michael Greer explaining why all the anti-Kavanaugh, anti-GOP “binding” spells haven’t worked. Yeah, yeah, you can say “because magic doesn’t work.” Fine. It’s interesting to read how this is explained within the world of those who believe in magic.
UPDATE.2: Great comment from reader Annie:
Adamant is right, but Rod is more right, if you’re willing to hear the experience of a convert once again.
As I’ve recounted previously, my mother was/is Wiccan, my father a hodge-podge of pagan/Buddhist beliefs, and I was raised among the Unitarians. I was extremely lucky to have my parents share a strong reverence for a Creator and respect for the strangeness of the world with me; and extremely lucky to also get out of it in one piece (mostly).
Everyday I am grateful I wasn’t raised in a lukewarm religious household. The curiosity they gifted me resulted in many years of seeking (and also being willing to find, something not so much encouraged by the “endless buffet” of contemporary spiritual-but-not-religious mindset in liquid modernity). My peers and relatives in nominal Protestant, Muslim, or Catholic households all ended up spiritual-but-not-religious or atheist, many later inquiring to me about what it was like to be raised by a Wiccan. As an outsider it became apparent to me that they were shedding something at least as precious as oxygen, secular capitalism being less of an ethos than nihilism.
The worst part of this is watching the process unfold for so many people I have known and loved; they have been denied so much that is hard to name, but the loss is vivid to anyone who can perceive it. Heck, they’ll acknowledge their pain and trauma publicly and swiftly, but they recoil from the idea that it has anything to do with the worldview, that they’re lost in the forest. That engagement with the strange, that reverence for Creation pressed into me was a thin thread but a real one, and I am thankful for all the storms it brought me through.
It has never failed to escape me that I was gifted with that curiosity which made me seek out answers to religious questions. It helped having a relative who was devout in their Catholic faith (the one religion I was not supposed to touch). He and the Inklings may be the reason I was open to being brought across the gap.
But those raised with me by Wiccans and Unitarians in one of the richest, most comfortable places in the world? Mental and emotional illness, every single one of them. Not one of them has children. More than one that I know of has had abortions. Many of them are activists, living in a series of basements. All of them grew up at least middle-class, most of them upper-middle class. Fine educations, books galore as children and teenagers. Yet here we are: Alcoholism. Drug addictions. Depression. Borderlines. Not one person. All of them. It is a constant grief to my heart, to think of so many bright and happy children I know passing on into lives of such misery and rage. What went wrong? It was a tremendous battle within myself, passing from one worldview to another. The joy and peace and ability to be still are all real and nearly indescribable; the sorrow is somehow all the greater as well. I could say more, but in such short form it would necessarily be confused and misleading.
My belief now is it takes a truly ethical pagan, someone highly engaged with the implications of their worldview, to maintain the top soil that nourishes their health and stability. However capitalist mass media will not nourish that top soil, it will exploit the most dangerous aspects of paganism (and paganism in a post-Christian world is a very different beast than paganism in a pre-Christian world), and yes, a broken understanding of cause and effect will emerge.
To those who think Rod has “jumped the shark” by posting on this, I think he’s doing the uncomfortable work of noticing the trends that don’t make it into statistical data. He’s having to rely on intuition, but they say that’s more important than we realize and we discount it to our peril. The commenters on Rod’s page are an unusually literate crew. Try to imagine what this Charmed reboot will mean to young people who have been uprooted from any sense of stability. There are many people today living in a way never known before in human history: with so much power at their fingertips, so unable to navigate it, so miserable, so illiterate, amnesiacs drugged and entertained to the hilt and careening about in a stupor. Charmed isn’t going to offer them the wisdom of Franklin Evans’s beliefs; it is going to gobble them up and regurgitate them as another spiritual sedative to keep them from asking real questions, albeit this time prodding them into playing with fire, seeing themselves as powerful beings able to summon and dismiss as they see fit.
And for those who think it is just a blip, you are not paying attention. “The good witch” is everywhere. As I maintain my study of herbs and plants, I encounter it constantly and it is absolutely a trend. It may appear soft and harmless, however it never fails to parallel a growing fury and sense of entitlement. Personal responsibility is exercised not in terms of spiritual reflection, but as using your “power” to influence events. Introspection is entirely lacking except to stroke the ego. I see this arising in places where its appearance particularly troubles me. However, being vulnerable to this kind of spiritual attack is just one more result from our absolute denigration of God’s creation and the surrendering of stewardship to the materialist capitalists.
We are using up the topsoil stewarded for us by many generations; we are not the ones who began overdrawing from it, but we and our children are the ones beginning to hit rock. Of course my anecdotes are not data. However, all the data in the world hasn’t been making people more peaceful. We’re reading the wrong things in the wrong ways. You don’t come out of one of the most privileged places in the world, with the fruit of certain worldviews in fullest ripeness, intensely pay attention to what you’re seeing around you, and then, perhaps as reluctantly as C.S. Lewis knelt that first afternoon, fail to draw certain conclusions.
UPDATE.2: Franklin Evans (who, as you know, is a pagan) comments:
Annie’s post in the update is by far the most balanced view of this topic any fellow reader can see, in this or most other forums. She makes important, nay critical points about which Rod and I have had some private conversation. Indeed, it is for those conversations above all else that I offer Rod my full trust.
The term “witch” is also an excellent example of lexicon shift and political correctness. There is, as Annie states and implies, a basic ignorance among most people about both the origin of the word, its usage over the centuries, and the distinctly Abrahamic monotheisms’ appropriation of the word as an epithet and curse.
Readers of Rod’s blog are well above the mainstream as a group. Y’all are very well read, consumers of entertainment media in thoughtful ways. I suggest to you that somewhere in your experience is a book you’ve read which was adapted to a movie. I offer this as a comparison point, not so much as an analogy but as a possible insight.
Books, especially novels, wear their intentions on their sleeves (yeah, just had to fit a pun in there). Entire genres are widely understood to be written for their own sakes, to sell to as wide a readership as possible. It’s not really about serving readers’ interests. It’s about profiting from them.
The “witch” phenomenon begs the same comparison. Every witch of my acquaintance is a woman of engagement in her world. She identifies as a witch because the label efficiently describes a plethora of attributes. Not all of them apply to every witch. There is a ubiquitous subset, to be sure.
When you view a TV show like “Charmed”, or a movie like “Practical Magic” or even “Hocus Pocus” (widely denigrated among Pagans), you are not viewing characters who are witches. You are seeing characters drawn to exercise your suspension of disbelief. The best writing will stretch that just far enough by mixing in believability. “Practical Magic”, while being nearly a total failure in accurately depicting modern witches, is very well written from the human experience. Take away their supernatural powers, and you have women for whom we can have deep sympathy. The difference with “Charmed” (its original run) is that it’s really stories about superheroes. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” is exactly that, if more overtly than “Charmed”.
Annie mentioned me personally in her post. I am grateful for her acknowledgement. I offer the following from those beliefs for which I have complete confidence that they are widely (if not ubiquitously) shared by my siblings and cousins in faith.
Magic is not a tool to change “the world”. It is a practice or description for enlightenment, for personal validation, for a way to just talk about our connection to and experience of the immanent divine. A core ethic in Pagan beliefs is that offering magical (spiritual) energy to others, particularly with the intention of healing, is just not done absent the request by or consent of the intended recipient. This simple statement of ethical commitment is, in our community, powerful and profoundly informative of our beliefs. In our diversity, this one belief is our mutual strength.
The logically unavoidable consequence of that belief is magic used with the intention to harm is without exception antithetical to the ethic of consent. Wiccans specify this with one of their core beliefs, that all that they do returns to them three-fold. My beliefs center on the concept of balance being a process, a dynamically changing reality, not a state of being or a destination (and certainly not a haven). There are many variations between.
We do have a form of prayer. We (and the exceptions are there) do not denigrate or disrespect the belief in prayer, or the practice of it being offered and just assumed to be accepted. We limit our prayers with the conscious intention expressed thus: may there be the best possible outcome. It skirts the consent ethic, some would say. It is a generic offering.