I dive into the world of witches and witchcraft, which has seen a resurgence in the last decade. What does it mean to be a witch? What does practicing witchcraft look like? Is it harmful?
What is Witchcraft
One definition from Reddit:
Witchcraft is an amalgamation of all practices, performed in the preferred method of the individual practitioner.
That’s pretty generic so I went to Wikipedia, which also says that’s vague and means different things to different cultures. Generally, it’s the practice of magical skills, spells, and abilities.
There are some anthropological disagreements about what makes witches witches. Some say Witches are different than sorcerers because, traditionally, witches don’t use tools, they have an intangible inner quality. This definition conflicts with European and Western definitions that we know of today with herbs, potions, and the famous eye of newt.
Historically, it has a negative connotation in that the magic is used to cause harm to others, and that connotation hasn’t gone away in the majority of the world. In cultures, where they’re not seen negatively, they’re usually called “shaman”.
Witchcraft has existed basically throughout our entire history with its importance going through ups and downs and remain important in some cultures today.
In the West, the idea of witchcraft actually came from the Old Testament laws against witchcraft, where it was associated with the Devil and Devil worship. And we know what happens when the Church thinks a population is explicitly evil.
Witchcraft in the modern world can actually be dangerous but not because of magic and sorcery. Like I talked about in the episode on Conspiracy Theories, distrust of authorities leads to trust in witches, which leads to non-medical treatments to serious diseases like Ebola and HIV in parts of the world.
Types of Witchcraft
This is the most common characteristic of witchcraft, being the means of performing magic. A spell can be a phrase, a ritual, or combination. Spells can use objects like sigils, some sort of object that represents a person, like a puppet, using potions, mirrors, or swords.
Summoning the dead or spirits to get answers or learn something to inform the future, like a future. Spirts are a pretty important part of witchcraft.
This is probably the part of witchcraft that lead most to witch-hunts – witches had the power to possess people using demons. The fear of possession across Christianity and Islam lead to hundreds of years of serious persecution and torture of suspected witches.
This is a good witch associated with folk magic for benevolent purposes. They were mostly seen as healers
Wiccans are probably the most modern form of witches or witchcraft since it grew out of early 20th century English culture. They really appeared in the 50s and 60s and is now officially known as a secretive religion with mostly positive ethical principles.
There is also a large population who have adopted principles and teaching with no formal association with Wicca. This coincides with the feminism and female empowerment as women are the primary protagonists with “positive witchcraft”. In pop-culture, this can be seen in “Charmed”, “Buffy”, and “Harry Potter”.
Harry Potter and Modern Witchcraft
When I was researching this episode, it was at this point that it clicked – witchcraft has had a resurgence because of Harry Potter!
I remember seeing protests basically from every religion, including Christianity and Islam, because of it’s supposed satanic subtext.
Funny enough, witchcraft is a protected religion in the States and anti-Potter protestors tried to enforce separation of church and state to get Harry Potter out of schools.
Even Wiccans took issue with Harry Potter not wanting to be lumped into all sorts of magic by arguing that Wiccans have Devine powers and the magic of Harry Potter is purely mechanical without any Devine help.
“communing with the dead and spirit world, sorcery, curses, occult symbology, black magic [and] demon possession”—all cited by the book as evidence of Harry Potter promoting Wicca—are not part of Wiccan belief.
The impacts of Harry Potter on the growth of Wiccan beliefs and practice and witchcraft cannot be overstates – from 2008 to 2018, the number of people who identified as witches doubled from 700k to 1.5m, mostly millennials.
Combine Potter with the rise of New Age cultural trends and influencers and we have the perfect environment for modern witchcraft. There’s even a hashtag for: it #witchesofinstagram.
Witches today share horoscope, read taro cards, share spells, and are activists. That last part is important because
Interest in spirituality tends to increase in periods of upheaval
It’s no surprise then that millennial women are increasingly calling themselves witches:
Witches have long been linked to women’s issues, which are front and center in the present political moment
What does Witchcraft looks like in 2020
I took to Reddit, where I knew I’d find guides and examples of what typical witchcraftery looks like.
Before I looked at the guide, I wanted to see real witchcraft so I looked at a few of the top posts:
- A cross-stitch that said “Samhain” with a pentagram, candle, and pumpkins. Samhain, which I had to Google, is a paegan festival that begins on October 31 through November 1 marking the end of harvest and beginning of the dark months.
- A rustic protection wreath made of sticks, pine cones, and leaves. One commenter asked the question I had when I saw it: what makes it a protection wreath? Is there a spell cast on it?
- Shrunken heads made from Apples. This is the first thing I’ve seen that I want to try. I know my kids would love it. You peel an apple, rub it with salt and lemon juice to prevent bruising, carve the face, and let it dry. It could up to 2 weeks to shrink if you leave it out or you can bake it at the lowest temp your oven will go for a few hours.
- A fairy house. I didn’t know what it was at first, it looked like a bird feeder, but after reading the comments I put together that it’s for those mischievous fairies. They don’t follow the same social rules as us so if you want to get along, here are some tips:
- Never tell them your real name
- Never say “thank you”. This will make it appear as you’re in debt with them.
- And be careful making deal with them
- Pictures of alters asking for feedback. As someone who posts on and looks at the battlestations subreddit daily looking at people’s office set-ups, I could identify with this one. Some alters had the stereotypical candles, feathers, and salt lamps. Others had books and even the famous skull with vodka in it.
- There was a “what do you think of my first wand” from a “baby witch” that looked like it could be from Harry Potter. One commenter asked “wait, are wands still a thing?”
- There were motivational posts telling the gods and goddesses that they were perfect as they were and to keep going.
- And finally relationship advice and reflections on how couples practices witchcraft differently.
Going through these posts confirmed some stereotypes, saw things that were trendy and would fit in with general interior design Pinterest boards, and things where I couldn’t tell if the people were serious.
Some posts talked about summoning owls by focusing and practicing, and other talking about healing their pets.
This was a good time to check the guides to figure out how serious this subreddit was.
Well, the first rule is “All posts must contribute to progression of witchcraft” and that’s a clue. Rule 5 is “Nothing that will physically harm another person.” The last thing that subreddit needs is bad publicity unless it’s for “self-defence or getting even”. Rule 6 brought me back to earth: only light ailments can be asked about. They concede that you should see a proper doctor or therapist if you need physical or mental help, and that there is no COVID-19 protection, cure, or treatment from witchcraft.
I after reading those rules and seeing those top posts, I’m “ok” with witchcraft. I kind of get it but can’t compare it to something that I understand fully. It’s part fantasy, I think, part craft, I think, and part escape, I think.
I know that my wife loves anything witches. She’s seen the show Charmed dozens of times and would list the movie Practical Magic in her top 10 list. I asked her if she’d ever tried witchcraft and she had to think about – “if I did, it was so uneventful I forgot about I”.
Maybe it’s like hypnosis in a way – it doesn’t work on everyone and either you get it or you don’t. I’m in the “I don’t get it camp” but maybe it’s because I’ve never crossed a witch and been cursed.
It’s obviously clearly a form of spirituality for women, mostly young women, reclaiming the word and what it means to be a witch – a counter-cultural representation of women that’s actually mainstream.
As a hobby, I don’t get it. I’m not especially spiritual and, as you can see from the October episodes, don’t believe in the occult. But I do get the empowerment aspect of it. It reminds me of the punk and grunge movements.
And sticking it to the man, I can get behind.