Sea­son of the Witch

How women are re­claim­ing a taboo sym­bol.

Fashion (Canada) - - The Market | Moments - By Chloe Berge

There was lit­tle place for the word “witch” in my Ro­man Catholic up­bring­ing. Yet, de­spite nuns pa­trolling the school halls and weekly con­fes­sion at church, I felt a mag­netic pull to­ward all things witchy. I be­came ob­sessed with the film The Craft, begged my par­ents for a Ouija board and even held lunchtime “seances” with my school­mates, one of which I’m still con­vinced cre­ated a tow­er­ing swirl of dust that sent ev­ery­one run­ning for the hills.

My flir­ta­tion with the oc­cult lasted into mid­dle school and was mostly a su­per­fi­cial study in teen angst. I fre­quented Hot Topic at the mall, ex­per­i­mented with gothic garb on the week­ends, sur­rep­ti­tiously got a few un­to­ward pierc­ings and blasted Garbage, Veruca Salt and Hole from my bed­room. As I en­tered my se­nior year, my in­ner an­ar­chist was tamed by my de­sire to suc­ceed aca­dem­i­cally and so­cially. My al­ter­na­tive choices weren’t win­ning me any pop­u­lar­ity con­tests, so I be­friended our high school’s queen bee, started dat­ing a foot­ball player and traded in my stud­ded choker for pink lip­gloss.

It’s not hard to see why I was so quick to aban­don my witchy in­cli­na­tions. Through­out his­tory,

the word “witch” has been de­mo­nized, used to de­scribe ugly old hags lurk­ing in the woods and plot­ting dev­il­ish schemes or con­spir­ing to eat lit­tle chil­dren. In re­al­ity, witch­craft has less to do with the sor­did ri­tu­als de­picted in movies than it does a wo­man’s in­nate con­nec­tion to na­ture, in­ner wis­dom and in­tu­ition, ex­plains writer Lisa Lis­ter in her book Witch: Un­leashed. Un­tamed. Un­apolo­getic. “A witch is a wo­man in her power,” says Lis­ter, whose book of­fers ways women can use magic to self-heal, man­i­fest dreams and cre­ate change. This is a truth the pa­gan com­mu­nity has known since time im­memo­rial, but to­day, el­e­ments of witch­craft, like tarot read­ings, smoke cleans­ing and heal­ing crys­tals, have be­come part of our ver­nac­u­lar. Women to­day are feel­ing the same draw to­ward their own magic that I felt as a child. Yet “witch” has been used as a pe­jo­ra­tive for cen­turies.

Witch­craft, a term used to de­scribe a wide range of prac­tices and pa­gan be­lief sys­tems, has its roots in the God­dess re­li­gions of an­cient Europe and the Mid­dle East. This an­cient earth-based spir­i­tu­al­ity cel­e­brates the divine fem­i­nine and holds a deep rev­er­ence for na­ture, the cy­cles of the sea­sons and fe­male sex­u­al­ity at its core. Slowly, God­dess re­li­gions were su­per­seded by war-based, pa­tri­ar­chal be­lief sys­tems, the most well-known ex­am­ple be­ing Chris­tian­ity. From the 15th to 17th cen­turies, the Church un­leashed the force of the In­qui­si­tion to con­vert non-be­liev­ers and sup­press dis­sent, dur­ing which women were used as scape­goats for po­lit­i­cal and so­cial un­rest. Un­der the guid­ance of the tome Malleus Malefi­carum (“The Ham­mer of the Witches”), mil­lions of women were de­clared heretics and tor­tured, hung or burned alive dur­ing the in­fa­mous witch hunts. This fe­male geno­cide tar­geted any wo­man with prop­erty or power, women who prac­tised her­bal or nat­u­ral forms of heal­ing (mid­wives in par­tic­u­lar) and women who dis­played sex­ual in­de­pen­dence.

“If you read the witch trial ac­counts, it’s all about sex­u­al­ity be­ing this hor­ri­ble, dan­ger­ous force,” says Starhawk, a Witch, ac­tivist and one of the found­ing mothers of neo-God­dess religion. Starhawk says the legacy of this fear mon­ger­ing is still ev­i­dent to­day. “The per­se­cu­tions have left us with fear around stand­ing up, tak­ing our power and speak­ing out,” she ex­plains. “They have left us with a sense that power, es­pe­cially spir­i­tual power, that isn’t af­fected by or ac­cepted by the au­thor­i­ties is some­how dan­ger­ous and sus­pect.”

In case you missed it, the witch— Wic­can and be­yond—is hav­ing a mo­ment in pop cul­ture. Mil­len­ni­als are turn­ing to tra­di­tional forms of div­ina­tion like tarot, #witch­fash­ion and #mod­ern­witch yield thou­sands of re­sults on In­sta­gram and celebri­ties are pub­licly iden­ti­fy­ing as witches. Post-Trump elec­tion, Lana Del Rey ad­mit­ted to cast­ing a hex on the pres­i­dent as part of a world­wide move­ment to bind Trump through magic rit­ual led by Michael M. Hughes, au­thor of the re­cently re­leased Magic for the Re­sis­tance: Ri­tu­als and Spells for Change. Lorde is quoted as call­ing her group of friends her “coven” and has be­come an icon for gothic fash­ion. Van­ity Fair dubbed her “The Queen of Dark­ness.” In­flu­encers like Bri Luna of The Hood­witch are part of the van­guard that is defin­ing the mod­ern witch, with an In­sta­gram aes­thetic that garners over 300,000 fol­low­ers and touts “ev­ery­day magic for the mod­ern mys­tic.”

The witch aes­thetic is de rigueur. Fash­ion la­bels such as Comme des Garçons, Vivi­enne West­wood and Alexan­der McQueen have all turned to the dark, sub­ver­sive style of the witch in their de­signs. Ex­per­i­men­tal de­sign­ers Ed­ward Mead­ham and Clio Pep­pi­att looked to the witch for in­spi­ra­tion in their Spring 2018 col­lec­tions. Pep­pi­att was in­spired by the 2016 film The Love Witch, a lush tech­ni­colour dream that sat­i­rizes how fe­male sex­u­al­ity is por­trayed in the hor­ror genre. Tarot-card mo­tifs, skele­tons and cos­mic ref­er­ences abound.

In her book Witches, Sluts, Fem­i­nists, mod­ern witch and writer Kris­ten J. Sol­lée notes that dur­ing the witch-hunt­ing era, “glam­our” meant a magic spell of il­lu­sion cast by a witch. “The tra­di­tional witch aes­thetic is about dress­ing for your­self, not for the male gaze,” ex­plains Sol­lée, who teaches a class on the legacy of the witch at New York’s New School. “Black is also stereo­typ­i­cally not con­sid­ered a fem­i­nine colour, so, in a way, there’s a re­jec­tion of tra­di­tional fem­i­nin­ity when you’re dress­ing like the witch,” she adds. The witch was the orig­i­nal Man Re­peller. How­ever, dress­ing in dark, gothic style is by no means a re­quire­ment to prac­tise witch­craft. “You can to­tally be a pink, patent-leather, leop­ard-print witch,” notes Sol­lée.

Mod­ern meta­phys­i­cal shops and tarot bou­tiques are also a far cry from their dark, beaded-cur­tain, in­cense-shrouded pre­de­ces­sors. Passersby could eas­ily mis­take Van­cou­ver’s The Good Spirit for a chic home-decor bou­tique torn from the pages of Dwell Mag­a­zine: White walls and sparse green­ery are the back­drop for bowls of colour­ful crys­tals and art­fully dis­played bun­dles of sage and ju­niper; Scan­di­na­vian-style chairs and ta­bles adorned with white hy­drangeas and can­dles set the stage for tarot read­ings. “I didn’t feel like there was a place that spoke to a new gen­er­a­tion of peo­ple tap­ping into their spir­i­tu­al­ity that would seem re­lat­able,” says owner Sa­van­nah Olsen. “Our aes­thetic means that we get a lot of first-time read­ings.” »

In re­al­ity, witch­craft has less to do with the sor­did ri­tu­als de­picted in movies than it does a wo­man’s in­nate con­nec­tion to na­ture, in­ner wis­dom and in­tu­ition.

For those for whom witch­craft has been a deep, life­long spir­i­tual prac­tice, this shift of witch­craft and its ac­cou­trements from the fringes to the main­stream is both gal­va­niz­ing and prob­lem­atic. As when any marginal­ized move­ment be­comes pop­u­lar, there is the fear that its mass con­sump­tion will cheapen or wa­ter down its ethos, or that its sym­bols will be ap­pro­pri­ated by those who lack the es­o­teric knowl­edge that grants a deeper un­der­stand­ing. As Sol­lée out­lines in the chap­ter “Hex Sells: Fem­i­nism, Cap­i­tal­ism, and the Witch,” the ma­jor is­sue with the com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion of witch­craft is that in some cases it feeds into a mind­less con­sumer cul­ture. When you pick up a smudg­ing stick or tarot deck from a big chain like Ur­ban Out­fit­ters, you may be un­know­ingly sup­port­ing over­seas sweat­shops that pol­lute the en­vi­ron­ment or ex­ploit women, ex­plains Sol­lée. The up­side is that the ex­plo­ration of some of witch­craft’s more su­per­fi­cial as­pects can act as a gate­way to mean­ing­ful be­lief and prac­tice. “I think it’s great,” says Starhawk. “Out of that ini­tial in­ter­est peo­ple may say ‘I’m go­ing to do more than just dress the part; I’m go­ing to study, read and find some groups I can learn from.’”

One arena in which the main­stream co-opt­ing of witch­craft seems to have gone deeper than sur­face level is the po­lit­i­cal sphere. In our Trump-era po­lit­i­cal land­scape, when women’s sex­ual and re­pro­duc­tive rights are un­der siege, it seems ap­pro­pri­ate that women are turn­ing to the sym­bol of the witch for em­pow­er­ment. “His­tor­i­cally, the word ‘witch’ has been used to pun­ish women and po­lice fe­male sex­u­al­ity,” says Sol­lée. “The word ‘slut’ is the same in that both have been used to os­tra­cize women and mark them as less than.” Al­though the fem­i­nist re­claim­ing of the word “witch” can be traced back to the suf­frag­ists, and later the W.I.T.C.H. move­ment of the ’60s, its re­cent thrust into the spot­light can be partly at­trib­uted to the 2016 elec­tion.

The word was weaponized against Hil­lary Clin­ton dur­ing the pres­i­den­tial cam­paign. In ad­di­tion to Trump’s in­fa­mous “nasty wo­man” re­mark, Hil­lary was called “the wicked witch of the left” and “the devil,” and ra­dio host Rush Lim­baugh de­clared her a “witch with a cap­i­tal B.” In re­ac­tion, Hil­lary sup­port­ers sub­verted this rhetoric, declar­ing them­selves “witches for Hil­lary.” “Women flipped the script and the nar­ra­tive,” says Sol­lée. “If ev­ery­one’s go­ing to call Hil­lary a witch, well, yeah, witches are fuck­ing cool. Witches are em­pow­ered women.”

The wide­spread ap­peal of the witch circa 2018 goes be­yond fem­i­nism. Witch­craft’s rev­er­ence for na­ture and its nega­tion of so many cor­ner­stones of cap­i­tal­ist cul­ture strike at the core of some of the great­est is­sues of our time. With heart­break­ing re­minders of the planet’s dec­i­ma­tion spread­ing like wild­fire (quite lit­er­ally), turn­ing to an­cient prac­tices that ex­alt na­ture and, in many cases, work to­ward con­ser­va­tion res­onates with peo­ple. Much of the rit­ual work Starhawk leads is fo­cused on en­vi­ron­men­tal restora­tion. “The core of God­dess religion is the work of re­gen­er­a­tion,

In our Trump-era po­lit­i­cal land­scape, when women’s sex­ual and re­pro­duc­tive rights are un­der siege, it seems ap­pro­pri­ate that women are turn­ing to the sym­bol of the witch for em­pow­er­ment.

and to me that’s very sa­cred work,” she says. At a time in his­tory when our lives are pre­dom­i­nantly dig­i­tal, voice-ac­ti­vated and au­to­matic, the tac­tile, earthy qual­i­ties of witch­craft, such as smoke cleans­ing, tarot card read­ings and other rit­ual work, may also touch on a long­ing in all of us for some­thing real that we can con­nect with.

While I can thank my child­hood years in the con­fes­sional for jump­start­ing my ca­reer as a writer and sto­ry­teller, be­ing in touch with my own power, in­tel­lect and sex­u­al­ity is some­thing I no longer feel the need to atone for. I may not join a coven, but if we’re speak­ing of em pow­ered, creative, po­lit­i­cally con­scious women ,“witch” is a word I’m happy to de­fine my­self with. At a time when the rights of marginal­ized peo­ple are un­der fire and the planet is suf­fer­ing, iden­ti­fy­ing with the witch, a sym­bol of sol­i­dar­ity and lib­er­a­tion, is a rad­i­cal act of re­bel­lion. It’s the witch­ing hour.


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