This is the third installment of The Wiccans and Witches of Wes, a three-part interview series with two students who identify as Wiccans and witches on campus. The last names of the students have been omitted to protect their privacy. Interviews were conducted and edited by Danielle Cohen, who can be reached at email@example.com.
In the wake of #MeToo and the dawn of what’s making out to be a new era of female empowerment, witches have emerged from the woodwork of myth and fantasy as trendy torchbearers representative of a mysteriously all-powerful feminine energy. Celebrations of witches in movies and TV have blossomed, and legions of women have begun evoking the term as a harbinger of female empowerment. In October, the New York Times ran an op-ed entitled “Yes, This Is a Witch Hunt. I’m a Witch and I’m Hunting You,” subverting Woody Allen’s dismissive labeling of the explosion of allegations in Hollywood as a “witch hunt atmosphere.” Leading up to Halloween, Vulture introduced “Witch Week,” a 13-piece series dedicated to witches that opened with a piece called “Why the Witch is the Pop-Culture Heroine We Need Right Now.” The witch has become a glamorous emblem of the empowerment that women are seeking out these days—something spiritual and upliftin, but also threatening, filled with a mystical power that can take down even the mightiest of opponents.
But witchcraft and Wiccanism were around long before the era of explosive feminist resistance in which we find ourselves, and the terms hold a lot more significance than feminine empowerment for the people who practice them. Representations of witches in pop culture, both on screens and in conversation, don’t always cover the racial and gendered implications of the practice and the appropriative risks that casual references to witchcraft can impose. Witchcraft, it turns out, is political.
Last week, we sat down with two witches to find out what the practice is all about. Natasha ’21 and Abby ’21 gave us the lowdown on witchcraft and Wicca and what the craft means to its practitioners. This week, they’re telling us about the cultural implications of Voodooism and Santeria, the de-gendering of witchcraft, and what’s wrong with the way the practice is being discussed today.
Is witchcraft or Wiccanism specific to female-identifying people?
A: No. I think the overall vibe that people get from it is more feminine energies, and there definitely is the history of it to go with that, but it’s not just for female-identifying.
N: There’s actually been a more recent movement to de-gender witchcraft. In the ideals of witchcraft for most people, objects have either feminine or masculine energies. So the moon has a feminine energy, and the trees have a masculine energy. And those energies counterbalance each other, so there’s been this question of things need to be binaried. Because that’s kind of alienating to non-gender-conforming members or practicers. I choose to replace masculine and feminine energy with “fluid” and “fixed,” with masculine energy being the equivalent of fixed, and feminine energy being the equivalent of fluid. And then I just swap it out. And it means the same thing—the same energy is still there. But it pushes that binary out of the practice.
How does race play into both the religion and the practice?
N: Wiccanism is a fairly new religion, so sometimes people will see it as a lesser religion since it’s not ancient. And sometimes people will see it as problematic because a lot of the aspects of Wiccanism have been taken from other religions. So it’s really important when you’re in Wiccanism, no matter what you believe or what kind of witch you are, not to delve into something that doesn’t belong to you, especially as a white person. Like, Voodoo or hoodooism—that doesn’t belong to me. I can’t utilize that practice, because it’s not open to me. And santeria—there’s lots of practices that someone could see as a darker kind of magic, but they just have to appreciate it as a cultural religious aspect of something that they don’t understand. That’s a really important thing for me in Wiccanism: making sure people and myself are not stepping outside of what is culturally appropriate to utilize.
What kind of cultures do Voodooism and Santeria belong to?
N: Santeria is Dominican, and Voodoo is Caribbean. [Note from the author: Voodooism is actually practiced in several forms around the world, including Haiti, Brazil, Cuba, and even Louisiana, and is generally understood as a syncretic religion that draws mainly from traditions of the African diaspora. Santeria is an Afro-Caribbean religion based on the beliefs of the Yoruba people (who are from Nigeria and Benin) and is now practiced most widely in Cuba.]
A: I don’t know the history that well of Voodoo, but I know it stemmed from slaves who were brought to the Caribbean and the West Indies.
N: Voodoo is, like, 90 percent communicating with spirits. It’s a lot of spirit work, and I love spirit work. But specifically, those spells, rituals, and practices that they do—a white person utilizing the energy of someone that my ancestors could have ruined is not appropriate.
How white is witchcraft in your experience? Do you think there’s any privilege involved?
A: The witchcraft that I’ve practiced is a very white space. And I think that might be partly because other forms of witchcraft are historically not white. The circle I run in [within the witchcraft world] is very, very white just by the nature of what you’re doing.
N: And the whole movement of, like, yoga, white feminists, candles, and sage sticks—they don’t consider themselves witches but they still kind of use the practice, so they’re in the space because they see these as indie hipster fun cool things to do. So that definitely adds to the whiteness of the space.
Witchcraft is pretty big in pop culture these days. Why do you think that is, and do you think it’s problematic or appropriative at all?
A: I think it’s problematic. The idea of someone not practicing witchcraft but using it as an aesthetic, I think it’s looked at as this rebellious, dark thing, but to me it kind of aligns with white feminism. It’s really is a self-benefitting kind of thing, where it’s, like, “This is me and I’m liberated and I can do these crazy things. Fuck men!” But that bothers me about it because I think it can be very surface-level.
N: I like the idea of someone using witchcraft as a piggyback to actually get into the community. The idea of empowerment as a starting place is great. But if someone wants to be, like, against the mainstream and aesthetic and dark and crystals, you kinda look dumb and it’s a little bit insulting. It’s a religion, you know? But if someone sees it and feels this is a way to rebel, and then they look into it and do the research and figure out the history and find out, like, “Oh, wow, this actually is a way for me to be something more or feel a different connection,” then I think it’s a great starting place for people.
Do you personally feel like witchcraft is closely linked to female empowerment?
A: I definitely thought that more when I started out because that’s how it’s culturally and widely known, as a pro-feminine thing. Now I think my understanding has shifted into energy work, and energy work is available to any and all genders. There definitely still is some residual things of, like—the moon I still think of as a feminine energy, and there’s still some power involved in that, but I try not to get too hopped up on this being a personal female empowerment thing.
What about the LGBTQ community? A lot of recent coverage of witches has noted the fact that there’s a parallel between people who identify as queer and those who identify as witches. Do you feel this is true, and why do you think that might be?
N: Seeking alternative communities. I haven’t met loads of witches, but I definitely know many cis witches and also many trans and queer witches, and there’s definitely a large overlap between LGBTQ people and witchcraft. I think that can really just be attributed to alternative spaces that are not just cis-headed spaces.
Do you have a favorite representation of witches in movies or TV shows?
N: “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” of course. Willow and Tara in that show. Except for the second half when everyone goes evil, that’s definitely the truest to Wiccanism I’ve seen. In that show it’s emphasized as a nature worship religion and a practice that involves manipulation of energy. In most movies and TV I’ve seen, there are elements—like in “The Craft” when they call upon the nature goddess and have the circle and all join hands. But it’s very, very rare to see a non-evil portrayal of a witch or even hear the word “Wiccan.” They say “Pagan” or “witch.”
A: I think in movies witches are used to invoke fear and darkness, and that’s something because we’re tied to Paganism. Because it’s [seen as] this dark, primal thing, which it’s not. I love Sabrina. But I loved the “Vampire Diaries!” Bonnie is so great. I love Bonnie.
What do you think is missing from the narrative when witches are represented in movies and TV?
A: I think what’s missing from the narrative is just, like, truth. And a connectedness to nature. I feel like witches are just there to kill or fuck up someone’s day. I wish there as a bit more reverence for the earth.
N: And also because it’s so engraved in people’s minds to associate witchcraft, even if you don’t see it as evil, with something mystical, magical, and not real in the human world that we live in. There’s no one out there currently in the media who’s explaining it on a truthful level.
A: When I told certain friends and stuff about being a witch, I had to explain what magic actually is. Because I was, like, “It’s not making things fly. It’s just energy work.” So maybe something about witches not set in a fantasy real would be nice.
N: But that wouldn’t be as interesting to people.
A: I think people also get surprised by how much they participate in magic. Like, making a wish and blowing out your birthday candles is a form of a spell. And we just don’t think of it that way.
N: Every single holiday practice in America is kind of a Pagan practice…. Samhain is on October 31 and is practiced as Halloween, but it has origins in Paganism. It’s interesting if you look at the overlap of what people practice and don’t realize is part of witchcraft practice.
Does that come from spell books or is it something that modern witches have thought of?
N: I thought it was from more old English type spelling of “magic,” but I could be wrong. There are some practices that we just don’t know the origins of. Like, casting a circle before a spell, everyone does it, but who do you attribute it to? You don’t know.
Is there any really inaccurate depiction of witches in pop culture?
N: The one thing that does bother me is I’m Jewish culturally, and the idea of a witch in the media with, like, the big warty noise and the hunched over…was originated as anti-Semitic propaganda. So when people use that, I guess if they really have no idea, what are you gonna do? You dress little kids up like that for Halloween. But thinking back to that being the origin I wish it was more widespread that that was the origin—in that, not only is it insulting to witches, but it was actually anti-Semitic, and you just kinda look a little bit dumb. But I guess you don’t get bothered by it when it’s so under-represented. It would just be a waste of energy to be, like, “No, you guys are wrong, everyone listen up, here’s the truth about us witches.”
What’s the biggest misconception people ask you about?
A: Dark magic in general. People think that witches exclusively do dark magic. I went to a Catholic high school—
So you were practicing witchcraft while at a Catholic high school!
A: Yeah! And I used to always wear this guy around [points to her necklace]. I got stopped by teachers being, like, “You cannot wear a symbol of the devil!” And I was, like, “What are you talking about? This is air, water, fire, earth, and spirit.” But it was a huge misconception that we had sacrificed ourselves to the devil.
N: Yeah. Sacrifice, animal harm, human harm, using human body parts and blood and stuff—some witches do that, and some practices outside of witchcraft like Voodooism do that, but in most everyday practices that’s not something very common at all.
In a lot of movies, girls discover they’re witches around the time they’re maturing. Does that resonate for you at all in terms of where you were growth-wise when you started practicing?
N: It was definitely a transition. It felt like an awakening, kind of, or a step towards learning and doing something that I didn’t know about—just something that was a big change.
A: I started practicing witchcraft a lot later than Natasha, so for me it wasn’t a coming of age maturity thing, but it still was a transition of how I looked at and thought about things.
Does it affect how you dress at all?
A: Not really. [Laughs.] I was super into the emo scene as a kid, so I was in full black anyway.
N: I’m a Goodwill bitch. Whatever I find there is whatever style I’m in that way.
There’s definitely a witchy look.
A: I sometimes fall into that, but I think that’s just a personal style thing because that’s kind of how I was dressing before. I don’t know people who consciously changed their vibe or their look once they decided they were a witch.
N: I feel like anyone who says “I have a witchy aesthetic” probably doesn’t practice witchcraft.
Danielle Cohen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.