“We are the granddaughters of the witches you weren’t able to burn.” Author Tish Thawer wrote the phrase in her 2015 novel The Witches of BlackBrook; since then, it has been plastered on t-shirts, scrawled on feminist gadgets and pinterest art, found its way into spoken word, and used on signs during political protests.
The cult of the witch has inundated American culture yet again. Witch-themed movies and series, from Sabrina and the Craft, to Suspiria and the upcoming sequel to Hocus Pocus, have everybody spellbound. Universities across the nation, including those in the Ivy league, offer courses on the history and symbolism of witches. Pop stars such as Azealia Banks, Bjork, Lorde, and Lana Del Rey are evoking witches, either by explicitly casting spells or by simply embracing the witchy aesthetic. Witch-themed self-help books and spell books are flooding bookstores.
The symbol of the witch has endured over centuries as a representation of female empowerment. As the outsider with uncanny power, the witch represents a challenge to patriarchal narratives. The witch’s omnipresence in literature, cinema, and pop culture reflects the depth of Western society’s obsession. Today, the symbol is taking on new resonance, both spiritually (paganism has risen dramatically in the US in recent years) and symbolically, as activists fighting for their gender, politics, sexuality, or environmental health invoke the witch as a statement of strength and empowerment.
The making of the witch
Scholars believe that the concept of the witch dates back to thousands of years ago, as long as humans have worshipped deities, and arose independently in several cultures across centuries. In Greek mythology, the first witch was Hecate, the Goddess of magic and astrology; in Yoruba tradition, the witch was a wise woman invested with the power of the trickster. And while some of these women were in fact practicing spiritual rituals, most of them were simply healers or wise elders.
In the 1400s, however, society no longer viewed these women as healers bringing about good. The rise of male-centric Christianity in Europe in the middle ages, along with the growth of early capitalism, meant that powerful women became demonized, witch historian and socialist Silvia Federici writes in her 2004 book Caliban and the Witch. The word “witch” officially became a pejorative term around 1468 when German churchman Heinrich Kramer published Malleus Maleficarum (“The Hammer for Witches”), a medieval treatise on how to hunt “witches”—women who he deemed to be morally corrupt. The publication of this book, which coincided with a general sentiment of fear, spurred the heyday of the witch hunt: In Europe, between 1500 and 1660, local governments murdered up to 80,000 women thought to be witches.
Whether or not they did so consciously, the people driving the witch hunt preserved the burgeoning patriarchy. They perpetuated myths of women being associated with the devil or doing black magic. They were intimidated by women with power (magic or socioeconomic); their fear turned to mania, which made them push women to the lower rungs of society, limiting women’s economic opportunities and contributions to civic discourse. Women were single, widowed, old, or not often in church; if they owned too much land, or were healers or midwives; if they were spending too much time socializing with one another could give men in power cause to accuse them of being witches.
Underlying much of this suspicion was a fear of sexuality—these unattached women could lure in men with their power. “When a woman thinks alone she thinks evil,” reads the Malleus Maleficarum. The consequences for being dubbed a witch were dire—you could be adjudicated in a sham trial, then put to death via burning, stoning, or hanging.
Colonizers brought this European-born fear to Africa and the Americas in the 1600s and 1700s. “The charge of devil-worshipping played a key function also in the colonization of the American aboriginal population,” writes Federici. Colonizers used that same charge of devil-worshipping, Federici continues, to enforce strict gender norms on Peruvian natives, which allowed colonizers to humiliate and oppress them. That fear of non-conforming women is more or less the same sentiment that fed the Salem witch trials of the 1690s, which are still the most infamous in the US.
Fast forward to the 20th century. As they founded feminist movements and fought for their right to vote, women in Western societies began to see witches as a symbol of cunning power and endurance through thick and thin.
For example, in her 1893 feminist manifesto Women, Church and State, American suffragist Matilda Joslyn Gate argues that witchcraft was one of the ways the church and state oppressed powerful women. Suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton echoed her rhetoric in her 1899 book The Woman’s Bible (Great Minds), explaining that the witch hunts targeted the most brilliant in society.
Since the 1950s, interest in witches as a symbol of power has waxed and waned in 20-year cycles, Elisabeth Krohn, editor of witchcraft magazine Sabat, tells Quartz. Surges, she adds, line up with periods in which women feel politically disenfranchised. That’s likely why we’re seeing a surge right now.
Embodying the archetype
It makes sense that contemporary society appreciates the symbol of the witch, says Deborah Hyde, cultural anthropologist and editor of The Skeptic Magazine, because there’s flexibility and empowerment in what the witch represents.
This, according to Hyde, is the same reason several people across the world are turning to paganism and Wicca, the religion of modern day witchcraft founded in the 1940s by the Englishman Gerald Gardner. But women who identify as witches today practice many faiths, and for some embodying the archetype is more of a lifestyle than a religion.
Some disenfranchised and oppressed women in the US are invoking the witch to find their power in a patriarchal society; this is true for millennial women seeking liberation, but also for older women seeking a spiritual connection to the practice and history of witchcraft. To them, the witch is powerful because she doesn’t get power from other people (the queen by virtue of being the king’s wife, for example) and instead taps into her own power, author and podcast host Pam Grossman tells the New York Times. It’s resonant for women in the #MeToo era as they have seized their own power, and for other marginalized groups like LGBT communities, who have found their rights eroded by the Trump administration. The witch pushes back against heteronormative, family-oriented societal norms such as marriage and child bearing, instead reinforcing a bond between women that can range from friendship atod sexual love.
“I came to [find] witchcraft as a young single mom and new feminist. I was struggling financially, marginalized politically, and had no time for self-care,” says Ariel Gore, author of Hexing the Patriarchy: 26 Potions, Spells, and Magical Elixirs to Embolden the Resistance.“[President Bush’s 1992] ‘Family Values’ campaign was underway, demonizing poor women, and the campaign to prevent teen pregnancy had everyone from my neighbor to my grandmother convinced that I ought to be shamed.” For Gore, understanding the symbol of the witch meant “looking to powerful women of the past and really vanquishing all the shaming that was coming my way.” More recently, others have found their way to witchcraft via social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok.
As feminism becomes the realm of the corporate-speak, many of those in search of outside power are arriving at witches and witchery. “Now that privileged white men use ‘feminism’ as a branding strategy, being a witch is being a feminist with a touch of extra empowerment,” says Krohn.
For some women of indigenous descent, the witch takes on a different resonance. During the Spanish colonization of Latin America in the 1500s, women gathered in public spaces to perform rituals of community and spirituality as a form of resistance. For some Latinx women today, brujeria is a holy way to be in touch with their ancestors and build strength against institutionalized racism. Some even embody witches in their skate-crews, like the feminist skaters Brujas in the Bronx.
US-based activists are also invoking the witch as a symbol of political resistance. For example, interest in witches has soared since the 2016 presidential elections, says Krohn. After the election, the “resistance witches,” a group of 13,000 neo-pagans, began to unite every month to cast a spell to limit Trump’s power. Groups have also gotten together for ritualized hexings against other men they believe are perpetuating the patriarchy, such as Brett Kavanaugh and Brock Turner.
It’s not the first time dissidents have embraced the witch. On Halloween 1968, a group of female protesters in black cloaks and pointy hats from a group called WITCH (Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell) took over Wall Street to protest capitalism.
While witchery is gaining traction as a tool for women’s empowerment, the president ironically uses the phrase “witch hunt” when he’s feeling particularly powerless against his political rivals. Some conservative advocacy groups and internet trolls accuse liberal female politicians like Hillary Clinton and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of being witches in an attempt to marginalize and shun them.
Environmental activists, too, are looking to witches to represent their longing to go back to natural and environmentally-conscious ways of life, one of increasing resonance to a planet in the midst of a climate crisis. Because a witch can be a woman who worships Mother Earth and the moon and who looks to botany for healing, invoking witches reminds us that humans are at one with the Earth and must work with it to survive in the long term.
“The system that sees the Earth as our mother is under siege,” says Gore, author of Hexing the Patriarchy. “Having an Earth-based spirituality makes sense right now.”
Women today aren’t just accepting the symbol of the witch—they’re building on it to create a figure that is more inclusive and intersectional.
Feminist activists and progressive social media influencers are also actively working to dispel the dichotomy between the good witch and the bad witch, which is often reflected by different beauty standards, in which ugly equals evil (think Wizard of Oz). Powerful women are all colors, shapes, and sizes—but never monstrously green. The same goes for the false binary between black magic and white magic, which is “fundamentally racist,” says Gore.
Now, by creating a more complex picture of the witch, women are adding dimensions to what it means to be a woman. Gore gives the example of Marie Leveau, a healing practitioner, midwife, and herbalist active in the mid-1800s and New Orleans’ foremost Voodoo witch.
“I would consider her the grandmother of American magic,” says Gore, “And, like most witchy women, she was both a healer and a hexer.”