Liz Hew explores the relationship between millennial witchcraft and modern feminism, and how the rise of witchiness among young women shows a rise in empowerment and confidence.
The word has been used over the years to conjure up images of occultism, people working in tandem with the ‘Devil’, to denote the practice of dark magic and most significantly, strike fear into the public realm. And sadly, it comes to no surprise that across centuries, self-professed ‘witches’ were constantly persecuted for their beliefs as they were investigated with the utmost scrutiny. Mostly shunned from their society, they were forced underground to practice in secrecy, forming their own covens. However, in today’s day and age, with the rise of social awareness and social media, witchcraft has come to symbolise so much more than its perceived stereotypes. Recent critical theory (such as Silvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch) and more widespread publications have come to tackle the stigma and old wives tales surrounding witchcraft and dispel any false connotations of witches and their practices.
“pride in female empowerment; the way it encourages people to mingle with angels, animal and plant spirits, and the benevolent powers of the universe; and, most especially, the manner in which witchcraft encourages human efforts to harmonize with the elements, the sun, the tides, Mother Earth, and especially the moon; to find our own unique place and power within the cosmos.”
Asides from pagan (aka. Wicca) rituals and practices that instill a sense of harmony with nature, an essential part of witchcraft that is especially relevant today is its constant support of female empowerment. At its heart, witchcraft was an early form of feminism, with women taking charge of their own voices, bodies and agencies. It’s no secret that their defiance of the societal norms as set out by the patriarchy was what led them to be prosecuted in the first place. A recent talk on witchcraft hosted by The Wing (a women-based working space in New York) outlined the criteria shared by victims that are systemically oppressed under the patriarchy, essentially figures that resonate with us today. So whom does the patriarchy fear? They include:
- Women who don’t accept servitude/second class citizenship
- Sexually liberated women
- Intellectually liberated women
- Women trying to expert power outside of the domestic sphere/any form of self-directed feminine power
- Women who talk!
Historically, if you were to identify with any of these traits, you would have been in danger of being branded a witch for failing to conform to patriarchal standards of female servitude, obedience and subservience. Even having a questioning opinion or independent voice would have been enough to challenge the patriarchy, to be branded a social pariah and a heretic. Today, while not all women in the world are fortunate enough to live in an existence where they can openly oppose these extremely patriarchal standards, there remain enough opportunities for those women who can and do have a voice to speak out and raise awareness on these issues.
So how do these feminist issues relate to modern-day practices of witchcraft, you may ask? Much of our cultural knowledge of witches and witchcraft today arises from the golden age of the depiction of witches in film and TV across the 90’s. From popular TV shows for teens such as Sabrina the Teenage Witch, to rom-coms such as Practical Magic, to Halloween classics such as Hocus Pocus, the kitschy fascination with witches corresponded with the post-feminist wave that sought to create independent, strong and defiant leading female characters as role models. Consider how cult movie The Craft helped inspired a generation’s gothic fashion sense (chokers, mini-skirts, leather jackets etc.) and it becomes clear just how influential and ubiquitous the strong female lead was.
This hasn’t faded away; there is a newfound awareness of the message of feminism, feminist role models in media, politics, sciences and sports. Celebrity figures such as Lana Del Rey, Björk and Katy Perry have declared themselves as witches, whether in the active Wicca practice or metaphorical feminist sense. More people are turning to holistic, new age and spiritual practices to get in touch with their inner selves, embracing activities such as yoga, meditation and pilates. Retailers such as Urban Outfitters are now stocking tarot cards and astrology books, and books aiming at the younger female demographic, such as Basic Witches and The Good Witch’s Guide, are on the rise in all of your local trendy bookstores. On Instagram, witchcraft and pagan practices of crystal healing and astrology charting are also increasing in popularity, with accounts like The Hood Witch™, The School of Witchery, Bruja Book Shop, Wake the Witches and Cunning Crow Apothecary racking up tens of thousands of followers. The increasingly widespread presence of witchcraft in popular culture also extends to print publication, with witch magazines Sabat, Spirit Guides and The Basic Witch Zine gaining flourishing readership despite being less than five years old. In fact, BBC Radio 1 produced a documentary focusing on ‘Britain’s Young Witches’ and their lifestyles last month to coincide with Halloween. We are currently witnessing this renaissance period for witchcraft unfold before our very eyes, but what does that really mean?
The real beauty of it is that it can mean anything you want it to. Embracing feminism and advocating for women’s rights is not necessarily exclusive to the practice of self-care, introspective reflection and meditation, and being in tune with one’s own body. It’s actually quite similar. Just as being intellectually and/or sexually liberated goes hand-in-hand with female empowerment, practicing your own version of ‘witchcraft’ or ‘witchiness’ lends you the same level of agency and autonomy as a witch would have done all those centuries ago. Except now, more and more women are granted the space to come out of the ‘broom closet’ so to speak. And if this includes you, don’t be afraid to challenge patriarchy, defy societal norms and call yourself a ‘witch’.
Illustration: Lily McMahon
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