Witchcraft in Modern Music

The image of the witch runs deep in feminist and female-centred art. In today’s current climate, a potent and fascinating shift is happening in the use of this witch imagery in pop music. It’s a shift that was typified by Beyoncé’s surprise release of the music video for her song Formation released in February 2016. There are heavy spiritual overtones to several of her personas in the video, becoming less typical of Christianity and instead being interpreted as a conjuring of Black spirituality, Santeria or Houdou. The song’s theme is of reawakening, combining religious, ethnic and cultural practices with spiritual regeneration. In some scenes, Beyoncé appears in a visionary light from beneath the brim of her black hat, similar to the fashionable ‘witch’ aesthetic as seen in modern media: American Horror Story: Coven.

In other shots, she moves with mystical elegance atop a New Orleans police car that’s sitting in the middle of a flooded body of water. On her blog Red Clay Scholar, Dr. Regina Bradley describes these roles as Beyoncé embodying “conjuring women.” She asks whether the scene of Beyoncé on top of the police car could be intending to summon Mami Wata, the water deity who could be either a healer or lure travellers to their watery grave.

Yet the commentary, paired with Beyoncé and the car’s ‘drowning,’ doubly connotes how the modern world fetishizes black death and the feminine power of water and rebirth. “Conjuring blackness is physical, conceptual, and spiritual,” writes Dr. Bradley. “All three are necessary to make protest and resurrection possible.”

The sense of magic isn’t just presented through Beyoncé, but through the entire black southern culture that she so identifies with, the one that is targeted and oppressed so significantly. The dancing boy contains magic so tangible he gets the police officers to put their hands up, reversing the traditional narrative seen in allusions to the murder of Trayvon Martin – who would’ve celebrated his 21st birthday on February 5th –Dr. Nettrice Gaskins offers a reading of the boy as Ghede Nibo, the spirit of a young man violently murdered and in death serves as a leader of the dead.

There’s possibly no more outspoken pop witch than rapper Azealia Banks. On Twitter last year, Banks declared herself a witch, prompting backlash that Sady Doyle summed up in a Guardian article “It was the strangest thing: simply by calling herself a witch in public, Banks had managed to evoke real fear,” writes Doyle. “Rightwingers treated her as if she were actually planning to blight crops and hex her enemies, all the while claiming that they didn’t believe in witchcraft.” Much like Beyoncé, Banks overtly links the role of spirituality with her Black heritage by surrounding herself with owls and occult symbols in between fighting riot police. There’s a connection between protest and mysticism in this video: The witch draws on a power that exists beyond real-world weapons and uniforms. It suggests magic as a potent way of challenging existing power structures.

Magic is thus a form inhabited by the oppressed and the misunderstood, taking the form of racial minorities, children and women, and demonstrating the supernatural beauty and vitality of their culture.

The current with aesthetic has significantly evolved from the introverted, ethereal fashion of artists like Kate Bush and Stevie Nicks from the late 70s. It now resides more as a symbol of protest, particularly occupied by black artists- singers such as Lorde and Florence Welch inhabit the traditional form of mystical ambiguity, perhaps as the symbol of the witch is a privilege to white women and not a protest. Today’s witchy music videos are incandescent with anger—they engage with the world and are recognized as a threat to the status quo.

Part of the power of these pop music witches is to disrupt expectations. The supernatural is unsettling, it upends assumptions of normal behaviour. It alludes to Regan licking her tutor’s ankle in The Exorcist and Gloria from Orange is the New Black taking down a powerful enemy with eggs, spices, and dog hair. That unsettling quality is what British artist FKA twigs’ sexuality-laced music videos are all about. FKA twigs is a master of surreal imagery and shape-shifting. Her 2015 video “Glass & Patron” opens in a forest heavy with a stillness associated with The Blair Witch Project before cutting to a white van parked ominously amid the trees. This narrative feels like it isn’t going to end well—what story of a woman left in the back of a van in the woods does? But Twigs takes command of the narrative with dizzying speed and force. In the video, her long-nailed fingers spider suggestively down her belly. Then suddenly, frighteningly, she pulls a many-colored scarf out of her body, and dancers envelope her through the fabric: dreamy, tender, suspended in space.

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In the video for her song “Video Girl,” FKA twigs splits into two selves as she watches the execution of a man convicted of racial violence. One of her selves weeps behind the glass, while the other self straddles him, turning into a taunting contortionist as he lies dying. Here, she is both powerful and tearful in the face of the world. This is seen again in Beyoncé’s ‘Formation’; Dr. Kinitra Brooks reads her womanhood in the video as a manifestation of ManMan Brigitte, a vulgar female spirit that loves hot pepper and embodies both sex and death. It’s that raw power combined with nuance of understanding—radically, exultantly individual—that is the hallmark of the modern witch: an indomitable spirituality that defies the violence of the human world.

The appeal of Witchcraft to women

The tradition of witchcraft has a rich history that is consistently and continuously correlated with girlhood. Consider the story of Betty Parris and Abigail Williams, whose accusations of witchcraft sparked the Salem Witch Trials. Ten-year-old Betty and her older cousin Abigail would meet up with other young girls in Salem to practice what they called “little sorceries.” Most of their activities revolved around divining who their future husbands would be, because for a 17th century girl, the greatest indicator of how your life would play out was who you married and what social status you achieved through that marriage. To find this out, the girls used a form of ovomancy, or egg magic, called a “Venus glass,” which worked by dripping the white of an egg into a glass of water. By watching the shape the egg white took, the girls hoped to find clues about their futures.

While fortune-telling might seem to be at odds with the conservative form of Christianity practiced by the Puritans, the truth is that folk magic or, as they called it, “white magic,” was frequently (if secretly) practiced by women in early American Puritan communities. In fact, when Betty and Abigail began to experience strange fits and other signs of bewitchment—signs which appeared, interestingly enough, shortly after they’d been playing at sorcery—one of the first remedies tried was a bit of folk magic called a witch’s cake. This cake—which was suggested by the girls’ neighbour Mary Sibley—was made of rye flour mixed with urine from the afflicted girls. The cake was then fed to a dog with the hope that the dog’s behaviour would somehow reveal the identity of the person bewitching the girls.

Although the intentions behind the witch cake were noble, when Betty’s father, the Reverend Samuel Parris, found out about it, he took to his pulpit to denounce Mary Sibley, calling the witch’s cake “diabolical.” Mary Sibley immediately confessed and repented; had she not, she would likely have been among those convicted and killed for witchcraft. From this story and the story of Betty and Abigail and their friends practicing divination, we can conclude two things: firstly, that charms and spells and other types of folk magic were commonly used even in strict Puritan communities, and secondly, that no matter how “white” the magic was, the women who performed it were always suspected of evil.

In the 300 years that have elapsed since the Salem Witch Trials, our preoccupation with witches hasn’t waned, although thankfully it has grown less deadly. We’re just as fascinated by witches as our ancestors—perhaps even more so. Certainly the past few years have seen a resurgence of witches in pop culture (The Witch, a 2015 film and American Horror Story: Coven a 2013 television show).

The terms ‘witch’ or ‘witchy’ cover a broad spectrum of things—it might mean someone who practices witchcraft (who may or may not align with a particular pagan or neopagan religion), but then again it might not. In some ways, 2016’s version of “witchy” might seem to refer to more of an Instagrammable aesthetic choice than anything else—wearing dark lipstick and crystal pendants, growing cute kitchen herb gardens, and arranging household altars of dried flowers and animal skulls. It’s tempting to write these things off as being merely superficial affectations, but to do so would be a grave underestimation. Beneath all that glossy packaging hums the same idea that has tantalized girls for millennia: the fact that to be a witch is to be a woman with power in a world where women are often otherwise powerless.

On some level, all of the contemporary trappings of witchiness tap into that desire to feel powerful. Black or dark purple lipstick might currently be in vogue, but on some level they subvert traditional feminine beauty standards and the ability to subvert or reject the status quo often confers a sense of power. To grow your own kitchen herbs and have some knowledge of herb lore are powerful in the sense that the ability to provide for yourself—even on a small scale—is a type of power. And, of course, the idea that setting out a particular arrangement of objects in a particular way with the intent of influencing real-life events is a type of power.

According to Ayşe Tuzlak, who has a PhD in religion and specializes in gender and ritual in the ancient world, it was women’s inability to obtain power through established means and their subsequent attempts to access it through other channels that informed western ideas of what it meant to be a witch:

“European Christian women in late antiquity and the Middle Ages were generally barred access to institutional power, and thus women who expressed their religiosity in unapproved ways, or in ways that were ‘too feminine’ by the standards of the culture, were branded as witches or heretics. The institutions of that time and place had certain assumptions about appropriate behaviour for men and women, and what was considered real Christianity and what was not. Thus the people who had a vested interest in those institutions began to pay neurotically close attention to anything that looked ‘too feminine,’ and expanded the significance of feminine symbols–like the broom, an ordinary domestic tool–to include dangerous associations, for example flying at night to secret meetings. Because if a woman looked like she was seizing spiritual power that wasn’t hers by right, then everything “feminine” about her because suspect and morally charged.”

‘Witch’ is a highly gendered term, and like most such terms, its masculine counterparts—terms like wizard, warlock, sorcerer, or mage—do not quite mean exactly the same thing. This is not to say that witches are never men, or that men have never been killed for practicing witchcraft, but rather that the vast bulk of those accused of being witches have been women.

Tuzlak explains that just as the term slut—a term so gendered that people will often say man-slut if they are using it to refer to a man—says more about how a woman is viewed than it does about her sexual history, so too does the historical use of witch tell us more about how well a woman fit into contemporary gender roles than it does about her actual use of magic:

“I tend to see ‘witch’ as a social category imposed upon a woman who doesn’t fit acceptable religious categories. Which is why I usually put words like ‘witchcraft’ in scare-quotes; for me the word ‘witch’ is kind of like the word ‘slut,’ in that it’s a way to mark a woman as unacceptable and Other, rather than an objective measure of her religion or her sexual behaviour. Just as you can’t tell how much sex a woman actually has by how often she’s called a slut, so also you can’t really tell anything about a woman’s religion based on whether a priest or a neighbour calls her a witch. And some women who have lots of sex or heretical opinions might pass under the radar because they can perform social acceptability in other ways.”

Given all of that, what exactly does witch mean? The term walks that tricky knife’s edge of a slur that has been reclaimed by some of the people it might be used against. How do we figure out how to balance the fact that witch is both an accusation that has been historically deadly to women, and also an identity that many find empowering? For Tuzlak, the answer lies in understanding the place the witch has traditionally occupied in cultural hierarchies:

“I tend to understand things in terms of power structures and insider/outsider status with regard to institutions. So, to use our own culture as an example, if someone offers me drugs in a carpeted office, neatly groomed, wearing a white lab coat, with a name tag that says Dr. Something on it, then I will probably assume that that person has my best interests at heart and that the drugs he or she is giving me are going to help me (even though none of those things are necessarily true). If someone wearing a hoodie offers me drugs in an alleyway out of a baggie, I will likely assume that the drugs are ‘just for fun,’ and that the person is dangerous and not especially committed to my well-being (though none of those things might be true either). There are lots of shades of grey between these two extremes of licit and illicit, too–the friend of a friend who can get you weed, the naturopath who advertises in the back of a new age magazine, your auntie who’s just really good at helping pregnant women with their morning sickness, the not-quite-legal-but-never-really-busted dispensary, the friend who’s not taking Lyrica anymore and gives you the rest of her scrip when you’re hard up.

“Assuming we’re talking about ‘real’ witches here (i.e., not just someone who’s accused of witchcraft by an inquisition, but a local wise woman or healer), I see the witch’s work as falling on a similar spectrum. She is clearly not offering the ‘official’ help that a physician or priest would, which brings with it a lot of risks, but which also allows someone to work outside a system that doesn’t necessarily offer her what she needs. I think the ‘witch’ in this sense is a crucial contribution to the social health of a culture, especially a culture that is under the heel of powerful institutions that do not take women or other marginalized groups seriously.”

And yet it’s hard not to notice that as much as the idea of the witch subverts traditional gender roles, it also, in some ways, upholds them. This is especially apparent in our modern take on the witch, especially when it comes to the Neopagan movement, a set of modern pagan religions of which Wicca is the most well-known. Many practices and beliefs in various sects of Neopaganism can be very rigid and cis-normative in their treatment of gender, and this, of course, has the unfortunate consequence of perpetuating gender stereotypes. As Tuzlak puts it:

“The image of the ‘witch’ can be both liberating and oppressive to women, very often at the same time. The history of modern witchcraft makes gendered language very hard to escape. Keep in mind that most of the primary branches of Neopagan practice were shaped by men, which means that Gardnerian/Alexandrian/Crowleyan constructions of masculinity and femininity arise out of very conservative views on gender, in line with the assumptions of 19th-century English esotericists and the medieval/early modern texts they were working with. As a result, a lot of introductory magic textbooks talk in a very uncritical way about the ‘masculine’ sun and the ‘feminine’ moon, ‘masculine’ fire and ‘feminine’ water, and so on. That said, Gardnerian and Alexandrian branches aren’t all there is, and there were smart, badass, complicated women like Helena Blavatsky, Dion Fortune, and Doreen Valiente involved even in the earliest stages of modern witchcraft, and in the past few decades there has been a move to make Neopaganism more intersectional and queer.”

It’s not hard to understand why witches and witchcraft continue to hold sway over women—especially young women on the cusp of adulthood who are faced with a world that refuses to take them seriously except as sexual objects. Not only has witchcraft historically offered women power that they might not otherwise be able to access, but witches offer girls and women an alternative role model to the ubiquitous young, beautiful Disney princess. A witch can be any age; a witch does not need to be conventionally attractive; a witch does not wait for a prince charming, nor does she rely on anyone but herself. Given that, the witch’s appeal is easy to appreciate. Tuzlak theorizes that young women’s attraction to witchcraft goes beyond even that and taps into our deep-seated need for ritual:

“Both boys and girls can be badly wounded by traditional Christian or Anglo-American gender roles, especially if they’re queer or trans or otherwise ill-fitting to those roles, and girls are going to suffer more acutely if the family is more reactionary in its politics. Magic is an unofficial shortcut to a feeling of spiritual power and belonging when legitimate methods have been closed off to you, and that happens to girls more often and more traumatically than boys in our culture. But I think that magic appeals to a lot of people who feel like they’re out of place in their local religious or social landscape. I don’t think Christian rituals (at least in many white/mainline/evangelical/Protestant churches–Christianity is very diverse and I do not like generalizing) serve young people very well, and I don’t think they serve young girls well in particular, which is another reason why young people find ways to fulfil their ritual needs elsewhere. There are so few formal, public rituals that recognize and affirm girls.”

It’s impossible to say where witchcraft will go from here or what “witchy” will look like a century or two from now. What seems certain is that as long as our society remains invested in hierarchical power structures that function by excluding certain groups of people, then those outsiders will continue to look for other things that fulfil their needs. And so long as the tradition of the witch exists, those who struggle to find legitimacy in traditional power structures will almost certainly be drawn to witchcraft—whatever that word or practice might mean to them. Because as much as we might try to define what a witch is or what she does, the truth is that the term is much broader than any one definition can contain. Or perhaps it is easier to simply say that a witch is someone who, when faced with a brick wall, learns to dig a tunnel.

A witch is a survivor and witchcraft is a means of survival in a world that does not always value your life.

 

Folklore, Magic and Mysteries: Modern Witchcraft and Folk Culture in Britain

During the October half term, I visited Preston Manor in Brighton in order to see the temporary exhibition on Doreen Valiente, an English Witch who was responsible for writing much of the early religious liturgy within the tradition of Gardnerian Wicca. The exhibition showed a unique display of artifacts, manuscripts and documents from the Doreen Valiente Foundation, after the woman made posthumous history by being the first witch to be awarded a blue plaque on her home in Brighton in 2013 to commemorate her life and honour her achievements.

The exhibition featured possessions of Valiente and Gerald Gardner, another famous figure in Wicca, such as Books of Shadows, wands and other belongings that have been used and developed throughout the 20th century.

The Book of Shadows was especially interesting to see, as it was Valiente and Gardner who created a system for the practice of witchcraft by wring down their rites, rituals and teachings in a way that is still practiced today. This differed from the traditional Pagan teaching that traditions pass on their knowledge orally, but Gardner wrote many versions of the witchcraft rituals and maintained that these were not scripture, dogma or doctrine but were meant to be adapted and built upon by initiates of the mysteries who understood the meaning behind them. Modern practitioners often keep a ‘Book of Shadows’ which contains their written lore, very often adapted from the originals of Gardner and Valiente seen below:

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One of the main themes emphasised at the exhibition was the traditional and natural elements that are present in the world. A connection is shown between nature and humanity, and the religion looks back to the past to deem what is truly important: there are no deities as such, more archetypes and concepts of our world that are embodied for human understanding.

Witchcraft, like many pagan traditions, is called a ‘mystery religion.’ Unlike ‘revealed religions’, where the knowledge is made available to all and then interpreted by priests and leaders, mystery traditions initiate their followers individually into the secrets so that they experience a direct and personal spiritual journey and contact with the deities. Doreen Valiente was a pioneer of how witchcraft practices, beliefs and the symbology of the ‘working tools’ could be described to a wider public without breaking the oaths of secrecy that bind initiates of the Craft.

Many modern pagans celebrate significant points in the natural solar year- equinoxes and solstices and special days in between like May Day and Halloween. Witches also follow a lunar cycle holding rituals coinciding with the phases of the moon. Witchcraft rituals are held in a circle, a specially consecrated sacred space and an altar is used, much like the practices of other religions.

Salt, water, incense and candles represent the four elements of the ancient world: earth, water, air and fire. The five pointed star inside a circle (pentacle) can also represent these elements together with a fifth element (spirit). The ritual blade (called an ‘athame’) is a tool for directing and using energy as is the wand and the scourge. The other blade traditionally has white on the handle and has a more practical use, that of making the tools and equipment for rituals.

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These items held immense similarities with the tools and art of people from past civilizations. Early ancestors drew the natural world around them in art. They tried to symbolise the indivisible world of spirits, often showing the divine as a female, a great mother goddess. Her exaggerated hips and breaths emphasised her femininity and fertility:

Later they recognised the male role in natural fertility and began to show a male god as her companion with masculine features such as horns and a tail. Early cave art shows drawings of the animals that were hunted for food. Historians think this art was created in rituals, perhaps to connect with the animal spirits to make the men better hunters or to simply pay respect for the animal’s sacrifice.

Britain’s invaders and conquerors tried to impose their own beliefs, religion and culture on the population. The Romans called the people they conquered ‘pagans’, possibly from a Latin word meaning ‘country people’ and they renamed local Gods and Goddesses after their own deities. Britain became a rich mixture of different cultures and religions.

Early Christianity took its place in the mix for several hundred years before the Norman conquerors forced their own culture, including their religion, upon Britain often building churches on ancient sacred sites. As powerful leaders across Europe started wars and crusades ancient beliefs were suppressed and eventually outlawed, demonised and persecuted. For centuries people lived in fear and many were tortured and killed often on the mere suspicion of occult beliefs or practices.

But the ancient beliefs of our ancestors did not just die out under such oppression. Instead they went into hiding, becoming a living part of myth and legend, from the strange appearance of the ‘Green Man’ phenomenon in many Norman churches to the folklore and numerous customs surrounding the annual season celebrations like the coming of spring, the autumn harvest and the midwinter festivities. Many of our apparently strange customs have their roots in the simple concepts of ancient fertility religions and beliefs- examples include maypoles, wedding rings, birthday cakes and even our calendars.

Magic and witchcraft were not considered crimes in England until the first Witchcraft Act of 1542. By 1563 murder by witchcraft was punishable by execution. Growing social unease through plague, poverty and religious change along with over-zealous judges contributed to a rise in the number of witch trials. However, witchcraft and the number of witch-trails in England never reached the hysterical levels of the rest of Europe.

Later claims of millions being put to death across Europe were much confused and misunderstood, especially as they sometimes came respected historians of the day. Many (including Gerald Gardner) had no reason not to believe these numbers. Another common misconception is that witches were burned at the stake which, while true in Europe and even in Scotland, is incorrect in England where witches were most commonly hanged.

Under King James 1 and Elizabeth 1 new laws took witchcraft from the jurisdiction of the church to the courts. By the late 1600’s witch trials began to decline with increasing skepticism among both judges and clergy. The 1563 Witchcraft Act was finally repealed in 1735 when a new Act made it a crime to claim to have supernatural powers but with much reduced penalties. This act itself was not finally repealed until 1951 when it was replaced with the Fraudulent Mediums Act finally making supernatural powers only illegal if used for fraudulent means.

The exhibition didn’t just show relevance to the past, but also a relation with the physical world in the past, present and future. Magic in various forms is one of human beings’ oldest practices, from the cave painting of our ancestors through the conjuring of spirits in the middle ages to modern day spells and divination. On display at the museum, there were a few examples of what Valiente used to act out her religion. Methods include ‘scrying’ using a mirror, and Tarot cards are a popular modern tool as is the casting of stones and the use of Runes.

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A useful part of the exhibition was undoubtedly the visitors’ book, which demonstrated the length people go to to visit such attractions: people had come from Australia, Turkey and various states in the USA such as Texas, Louisiana and Arizona.

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Doreen Valiente was invited into the Craft in 1953 by Gardner, and re-wrote many of the rituals, rearranging his work more logically and setting it in context. She added her own knowledge and creativity to produce a system that made the Craft more accessible, more widely understood and allowed it to grow and spread, meaning that her ideas are still used and evolving in 21st century society.

I also manged to buy a few books that will serve as further reading into this topic.

 

20th Century Witchcraft: The religion of Wicca

When looking into the contemporary effects of the representations of witchcraft, it’s important to take into account the cultural and religious implications. Wicca, a neo-pagan religion, was debatably established in the 1940s, a surprisingly current development. Despite this, as an officially recognised religion in the UK, its got an interesting and complex history.

Margaret Murray’s 1921 landmark text, The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921), was largely and immediately disproved, but remains a cultural pillar for those interested in witchcraft. The book explained Murray’s hypothesis that until the 17th century there was a religion, much older than Christianity, which all over Western Europe had supporters both among ordinary people and the ruling classes. Central to the worship of this religion stood a horned god with two faces, known to the Romans as Janus or Dianus. The idea of a witch cult that until early modern times managed to survive, is now largely obsolete. Most but not all modern scholars of witchcraft generally dismiss it, agreeing that it is very unlikely that such a witch-cult really existed, or that this cult or religion came to an end because the Christian church wanted to eradicate the followers of a pagan tradition. However, it is a text which inspired a great amount of questioning in the information that had been provided about witches through history and across literature. It inspired a greater interest in the religion, which really took foundation in the 1940s, and the influence of her witch-cult theory in both religion and literature has resulted in her title of the “Grandmother of Wicca”.

The 1940s saw the foundation of Wicca by a man named Gerald Gardner. Shortly before the outbreak of war, he became acquainted with a group claiming to be witches and was initiated into the New Forest Coven at nearby Mill House. It proved to be a turning point for Gardner who, from that time, devoted himself to promoting his new-found religion. Biographer and Wiccan initiate Philip Heselton said: “He wasn’t a religious pioneer. What he did was to publicise it and write about it and he gradually became known through that and people made contact. He initiated quite a lot of people into the Wiccan culture. He felt it was important that it survived.” After the war Gardner returned with his wife to London where he wrote a number of books, the best known being Witchcraft Today. Published in 1954, it offered readers an insight into the history and practices of the witch-cult and offered the press a feeding frenzy. Heselton added: “There were headlines about lurid rites and evil black magic but, in actual fact, quite a lot of people saw through it. He got lots of letters as a result of that, which helped him enormously.”
Gardner’s theories were drawn from numerous sources, including Freemasonry, magical orders such as the Golden Dawn and fellow occultists, including Aleister Crowley.
He also formulated the Wicca calendar of eight festivals, bringing together existing festivals from different traditions. By the time of his death in 1964, Gardnerian Wicca, as it became known, had spread to the United States and beyond.

Doreen Valiente was one of the most respected English witches to have influenced the modern day Pagan movement. In her book, Where Witchcraft Lives (1962), she examines Witchcraft in Sussex, laying the foundations of the modern day Witchcraft movement. As Gerald Gardner is now commonly thought of as the ‘Father’ of contemporary Witchcraft, so Doreen is known affectionately as the ‘Mother of Modern Witchcraft’. As well as Gardnerian Wicca, the 1960s also saw the establishment of Alexandrian Wicca, the religion growing and evolving with varying denominations and covens.

The 1960s also coincided with the era of second wave feminism: Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell, shortened W.I.T.C.H., wasn’t associated with the witchcraft religion, but instead a political movement. It was the name of several related but independent feminist groups active in the United States as part of the women’s liberation movement during the late 1960s. The name W.I.T.C.H. was also sometimes expanded as “Women Inspired to Tell their Collective History,” “Women Interested in Toppling Consumer Holidays,” and many other variations to do with gender and social reform. Its members opposed the idea advocated by radical feminists that feminist women should campaign against patriarchy alone. Instead, W.I.T.C.H argued that feminists should ally with a range of left-wing causes to bring about wider social change in the United States. Various scholars have suggested that in embracing the iconography of the witch, W.I.T.C.H represented forerunners of various forms of feminist-oriented modern Paganism such as Dianic Wicca.

The 1970s also linked with second wave feminism, the denomination of Dianic Wicca becoming popular among women especially. The movement started with Zsuzsuanna Budapest in Los Angeles, witchcraft becoming popular in countries outside Great Britain. Dianic Wicca is a combination of witchcraft and feminism, Budapest considering witchcraft as every woman’s birth right. The movement took its name from Diana, the Roman goddess of the moon, the hunt and nature, and was also known to be the virgin goddess of childbirth and women. ‘Susan B Anthony Coven #1’ was the first feminist and women only Wiccan coven, linking to historical correlations between witchcraft and the independence of women through the association of a prominent social reformer and women’s suffrage movement.

This brand of Wicca attracted Starhawk, a famous Pagan writer. She took Dianic Wicca and mixed it with other elements to create the tradition of Reclaiming. It was still female centred, but included different elements i.e. Norse/ new age/ fairy tradition. Still empowering women without leaving out everyone else. Reclaiming is an organization of feminist modern witchcraft, aiming to combine the Goddess movement with political activism (in the peace and anti-nuclear movements). Reclaiming was founded in 1979, in the context of the Reclaiming Collective (1978–1997), by two Neopagan women of Jewish descent, Starhawk and Diane Baker, in order to explore and develop feminist Neopagan emancipatory rituals.

The 1970s saw the expansion of the religion and coinciding with other net-pagan beliefs: Raymond Buckland introduced Norse tradition into Wicca, bringing in Gods such as Odin and Freya into the prayer rituals. He later formed his own tradition dubbed Seax-Wica which focuses on the symbolism of Anglo-Saxon paganism.

The 1980s saw progression in the recognition of Wicca as a certified religion, 1985 being the foundation of the Lady Liberty League. This movement saw pagans working to protect the rights of witches and pagans over the US. Similarly, 1986 was the year that Wicca became an officially recognised religion in the United States, due to a practicing pagan prisoner protecting religious freedom.

The 1990s saw the impact of popular culture on the perspective of witches. Such films and television series were released as Practical Magic (1998), Charmed (1998), Sabrina the Teenage Witch (1996), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997) and The Craft (1996). These films had huge cult followings, and they often featured the ‘girl power’ vibe of the third wave feminist movement, demonstrating the correlation between uprisings in female power and witchcraft. More on these topics will be explored in another blog post, focused on contemporary representations of witchcraft.

The 1990s also saw many technological advancements, such as the rise of the internet, where Wiccans could join online covens and social networking sites such as ‘Witchbox’. 1995 saw the first American Wiccan wedding, whilst the first wedding in the UK occurred in 2004.

In the United States, the American Religious Identification Survey has shown significant increases in the number of self-identified Wiccans, from 8,000 in 1990, to 134,000 in 2001, and 342,000 in 2008. Wiccans have also made up significant proportions of various groups within that country; for instance, Wicca is the largest non-Christian faith practised in the United States Air Force, with 1,434 airmen identifying themselves as such. However, Wiccans have encountered opposition from some politicians and Christian organisations including former president of the United States George W. Bush, who stated that he did not believe Wicca to be a religion.

The concept of witchcraft and the belief in its existence have existed throughout recorded history. They have been present or central at various times, and in many diverse forms, among cultures and religions worldwide, including both “primitive” and “highly advanced” cultures, and continue to have an important role in many cultures today. Whilst I, personally, am not a member of such a religion, it’s interesting to look at the recognition of witchcraft as a certified religion today; whilst some have distanced themselves from the idea of demonic and satanic correlations, others (both men and women) have found the idea of witches appealing, tens of thousands of people identifying as a witch in the UK alone.