Since the early 14th century, witches have been woven into European history and folklore, depicted as powerful women and a warning against evil. Up until the late ’90s or early 2000s, witch ideology was watered down to the image of a malevolent man-hating woman who would seek revenge on those who offended them. However, in the last 20 years, this stereotype has faded.
Don’t get me wrong – much of media and folklore still promotes the idea of evil witches (like Sleeping Beauty’s Maleficent), but portrayals of good witches now exist as well. From movies like Practical Magic and books like Harry Potter to more recent takes like Netflix’s remake of Sabrina, mainstream media is offering an alternative to this tired out stereotype – a strong independent woman looking to rebel against patriarchal control and reclaim her power.
Most of our previous knowledge of the history of witches focuses on those within European culture, most notably witch hunts which took place in areas like Salem, Massachusetts. However, witchcraft has long existed in other cultures. The practice of “witchcraft” has always been part of indigenous African spirituality and is used even today in relation with other religions. Hoodoo, another type of witchcraft, was brought over to the Americas by African slaves on ships and provided a means of protection against harm. A big part of Hoodoo culture revolves around one’s ancestors, and many people of color have been upset by the appropriation of their traditions by white pagans and general magic practitioners.
In recent years, witches have become more tied to feminist culture and mysticism. Today, you can find witches in all corners of the internet practicing the art of self-healing, casting hexes on Brett Kavanaugh, or even drawing sigils to protect the Black Lives Matter movement.
In many ways, witchlore has become appropriated without any knowledge or understanding of where the traditions come from. This often manifests in the form of the liberal “Tumblr witch” featuring trendy Instagram accounts and overpriced sage sticks from Urban Outfitters. Many of these witches find themselves swept up in the idea of a feminist who wields power, which is all fine except that it could be cherrypicking the traditions without respect for the spirituality of it all.
Several members of The Tempest team identify as pagans, witches or have grown up around that culture. One of my co-editorial fellows, Meg Leach grew up with a stepmom who identified as a Wiccan witch. The first rule of Wicca is harm none and Meg remembers their stepmom being an extremely kind person who filled their home with rescued animals, like their ferrets Salem and Tarot. Though Meg’s step-mother never tried to force Wiccan ideals on them, she often had many spiritual books available throughout the house and told them she believed in “spirits” but didn’t really want it to impact them too much.
On the podcast, The Fat Feminist Witch, the host Paige discusses this new type of aesthetic witch whose art is from an ancient system of magic long forgotten, who shares their items on Instagram with their coven of “followers”. Some elder practitioners say practicing traditions and simply selling witchy items don’t automatically make you a witch.
For Paige, she finds that even if this imagery is being shared by nonwitches, it’s ok because it speaks to her views of magic. Many of these social media influencers may not even be “spiritual at all, but have found strength in the archetype of the witch and use her energy and imagery in their fights for feminism and other social justice causes.”
Naomi Westwater Weekes is a modern witch who is happy to see this new wave of witches emerging. She recalls a decade ago, many witches were closeted about their identity. She herself kept it private and was very selective about who she told. In her opinion, “the word ‘witch’ was a little forbidden.” Today, she feels that she can be more open because people are more receptive to witch culture. For those interested, she views it as a practice you can make your own. It’s also fine to take certain aspects and not consider yourself a witch. For her, being is a witch is much more of a spiritual practice than a religion.
Whether you choose to simply embody the spirituality of witches or have chosen to dive headfirst into practicing as a full-time witch, make sure you do your research. As with any religion or culture, understanding where it has come from and where it’s going is the best way to respectfully honor and celebrate the community that upholds the traditions.