By Kjersti McDonald
You’ve seen it, I’m sure. The rise of the witch! Witches are having a “moment” right now, especially in younger, progressive circles, and I’ve got to announce myself as guilty of jumping on that bandwagon.
As for why witchcraft is having a moment, I can’t really definitively say, but I’ve got some guesses. Obviously, there’s the aesthetic aspect, which has taken hold all over Instagram and Pinterest and everywhere else. Dark clothing, black lipstick, long nails, crystals, sage, bundled herbs, photoshoots in foggy woods – it’s all very beautiful and quite bewitching.
Besides that, I think witches have always been a symbol of autonomy and an affront to the patriarchy, which explains why its been attached to modern-day feminism. The fact that witches have traditionally been female (at least as they’re seen in the mainstream) is an obvious factor. They’ve stereotypically embraced their sexuality, and obviously ignored the conservative traditionalism of Christianity.
But more than that, witchcraft in its various forms has embraced the practice of tapping into mystery to find power and insight. What those mysteries are is different from practice to practice and witch to witch, but as I’ve explored this witchy realm over the past couple of years, I’ve come to realize that this power and insight is derived from within – and I think that’s what is so threatening about it.
I’ve been making my way through a wonderful book given to me by a friend (thanks Travis!) called “Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America” by Margot Adler. It’s a very long anthology on various forms of witchcraft and nature worship in America. Adler cites and summarizes dozens (maybe hundreds?) of authors, historians and researchers who have attempted to uncover the mysteries of witchcraft and why it had such a resurgence in America in the last third of the 20th century. I’ve barely made a dent in this book, but have already learned so much. What has resonated with me the most is that witchcraft and paganism are about what resonates with you, the practitioner.
I think there’s a misconception that’s certainly been perpetuated in pop culture that witchcraft includes the strict following of blood ceremonies, rituals, worship of either the devil or other deities. I was especially disappointed to see that the reincarnation of one of my favorite childhood shows, “The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” on Netflix, fed into these stereotypes of witches giving their souls to the devil – a character who is portrayed on the show as controlling, misogynistic, jealous and, unsurprisingly, evil. Most depictions in mainstream media can’t help but paint witches as people who meddle incessantly to get their way, torture and control their enemies and nameless other evil acts. Love potions, death potions, curses, sacrifices, necromancy.
The thing is, all of my research and experiences with “real-life” witches is that they are neither evil nor beholden to a strict and restrictive dogma. I’ve listened to podcasts, read books, explored message boards, and follow an excessive amount of witchy accounts on social media, and the permeating theme is: freedom. Freedom to make your practice fit you and your life, your beliefs, your power. Sure, there are hoards of suggestions on spells, rituals, which crystals and herbs do what, and so forth. But at the end of the day, there is no entity out there that is holding each and every solitary witch or coven up to a standard for what their practice should look like. The most common moral creed is “do no harm.” Which is, like, just basic human decency.
I cannot, as a relatively ill-informed practitioner with fledgling practices and the most minimal of research under my belt, speak to the movement at large. I can, however, share my journey and the benefits I’ve been able to reap thus far.
My experience started through conversations with my closest girlfriends – about crystals, plants, morality, mindfulness, healing, therapy, and everything else under the sun. I invested in a published spell book with 1001 spells, which I read through more out of curiosity than an intention to use it as a reference in any casting. I designated a journal as a grimoire (typically, a personal book of spells and rituals) where I’ve written poems, spells or mantras fueled with intention. And I have a very small alter, dressed with animal bones, crystals, stones and candles. It’s a beautiful space that I enjoy cultivating and approaching with mindfulness.
Are you noticing a common theme, yet? Intention, mindfulness… these words sum up what being a witch has brought me. If there’s anything I’ve learned from my studies and practices, it’s that mindfulness is at the root of everything. It’s something I started to lose my grasp on as I became an adult and swept up the in the busyness of working, paying bills, maintaining some semblance of a social life, caring for my house and animals. My practice, more than anything, is about sitting down with my thoughts and forcing myself to flesh them out – sometimes in a journal entry, or in writing a poem or spell, or attempting a Tarot card reading. All of it, without exception, depends on my own ability to slow down for a second and derive meaning from within. My decisions and fate aren’t dictated by the stars or a Tarot card or the moon’s phase or whether or not Mercury is in retrograde. They are in fact a direct product of the meaning I am able to find in all of the things that happen around me, and those practices and studies give me a chance to slow down and suss out that meaning.
Maybe this is why witchcraft is often seen as intimidating or evil. If practitioners are actively searching themselves for meaning and answers, they are less dependent on the systems around us that try to tell us how we should be feeling, acting, buying, working.
This is not to say that everything about this movement is innocent. No, I don’t mean there are really witches out there sacrificing babies or animals. There’s actually very little proof that stuff like that has actually happened, and anyone who has done that shit is just a terrible, evil, misguided person who would’ve likely been searching for reasons to do harm, with or without witchcraft.
However, like anything under capitalism, there are obviously those who will take advantage of the growing interest and use it to sell bullshit that we don’t need, or even worse, to appropriate and capitalize on the tools, symbols and practices of indigenous communities who have been practicing some form of paganism for centuries. Something I’ve been increasingly more mindful about is where I resource my tools and practices, and doing the research necessary to stop myself from perpetuating colonizing practices that further displace indigenous people and people of color.
All in all, and at the end of the day, witchcraft is something that intrigues and excites me. Using it as a channel for my activism, my creativity, my self-work and therapy, has given me something to look forward to, to want to study and want to cultivate. It has brought me and my closest friends closer together, and it has been a bridge to new friendship and relationships. And after leaving religion years ago, it fills this part of me that craves mystery without the dogma, guilt, shame, and harm that comes with institutionalized religion. The best part is that it’s a practice I can mold to be my own, and that alone helps me to embrace my power.
I’m not typically super public about my practices or even my witchiness, but one benefit of the witch’s newfound moment is that I and many others are starting to feel comfortable enough to talk about it in the public sphere. This will only serve to destigmatize the practice and help educate people on what witches are and aren’t. That’s why I, for one, think that from the Instagram witches to the long-practicing solitary witches, we should stan this moment of the witch and embrace it with open arms.
Want to learn more about witchcraft? I like Pam Grossman’s podcast “The Witch Wave”, but honestly, the best place to start is just research whatever interests you – there are tons of other podcasts, books, blogs, articles, and social media pages out there. Just grab your broom and nosedive in, witch!