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Is Tumblr witchcraft feminism – or cultural appropriation?

(RNS) — New York-based writer Jaya Saxena isn’t Wiccan. She’s no pagan, either. She grew up with a Hindu grandmother, attended a Quaker high school and has Jewish in-laws, but isn’t at all religious herself.

Jaya Saxena is not a witch.

So how did she end up publishing a guide to modern witchcraft?

“We see ourselves as continuing a long line of unruly women,” Saxena explained.

Quirk Books

Courtesy of Quirk Books

She and her “Basic Witches” co-author, Jess Zimmerman (an atheist who doesn’t believe in the occult or mysticism), aim to arm women – ordinary women who may scoff at spirituality or magic – with the subversive feminist powers of traditional witches.

“We make no claim to the religious practice of Wicca, paganism or any other faith,” Saxena told RNS. “But we see the cultural image of a witch as a separate and valid identity.”

That image is the kind of dark, witchy aesthetic you’ve probably seen while scrolling through Instagram or millennial women’s magazines. It’s the kind of empowered identity promoted in podcasts about toppling the patriarchy and Facebook posts about the radical importance of self-care.

But even as these basic witches become increasingly popular, actual practitioners of magic still exist on the margins of society. And “real” witches, who’ve historically faced persecution and execution, aren’t all happy with the new trends.

Critics say a perfect storm of Instagram-era online branding combined with leftist political posturing has made witchcraft the latest victim of cultural appropriation.

Meet the Tumblr witch

In some ways, 2017’s witch obsession is nothing new.

Those who grew up in the ’90s may remember TV shows like “Charmed” and “Sabrina the Teenage Witch.” There were, of course, the Harry Potter series’ Hermione Granger and Bellatrix Lestrange; and there were also Silver RavenWolf’s guides to “Wicca for a new generation” and “practical witchcraft for the millennium.”

But today’s digital witches are a little different. Many fuel their aesthetic with stylish Instagram accounts and overpriced sage sticks items sold at Urban Outfitters and magick Etsy shops.

Take a minute to scroll through the emoji spells and tarot card selfies on Instagram and Tumblr‘s #witch tags.

Glance at blogs like those of 21-year-old Maddie, a “solitary Christian witch” from Utah, or 26-year-old A.J., who sells handmade tarot deck bags from her home in Boston.

Check out the School of Witchery and other online classes like it. Or look at the many (many, many, many) subscription boxes aimed at witchy millennials.

For many young women, participating in online witchcraft communities – re-blogging spells, recommending essential oils, posting selfies with crystal collections  – is a digital shelter, an alternative identity from the real world. And online witchcraft’s DIY culture paired with its innate sisterhood is compelling to young women.

The numbers are growing offline, too. In her 2015 book, “Witches of America,” Alex Mar estimates there are some 1 million practitioners of witchcraft throughout the country. And a quick search will reveal Meetups, covens and witchy bookstores sprinkled across the country.

Berlin-based writer Mikaella Clements divides witches on the microblogging site Tumblr into three categories:

  1. Witches who are devoted to magic, not religion. They often share spell books, like a love spell, and “kitchen witchery,” like a honey-lemon-ginger tea for sore throats or a magical laundry detergent. Clements points to Tumblr’s base among digital-savvy teens who tend to be disenchanted with religion.
  2. The witches who are religious, and affiliate themselves with Wicca or other neo-pagan spiritual paths. They tend to focus more on the nonpractical uses of magic: “good energy and the natural world, rather than any concrete potions or charms,” Clements said.
  3. The Tumblr witch, who Clements said is “tied up in intersectional feminism, in a desire to reclaim power, and to laugh as she does so.” She posts pentacles for the aesthetic, and exults in hipster consumerism. She is politically aware, as are many on Tumblr’s social justice-friendly platform, and embraces the iconography of the angry satanic witch with irreverent irony.

Do the first and second covens count as cultural appropriation? Is removing the spirituality behind spells and pentacles the same as, say, wearing a Native American headdress to a music festival? Can you compare it to a white person wearing his hair in dreadlocks or an Afro?

Witchcraft as feminist empowerment

There’s a reason the witch’s aesthetic has captured the imaginations of young, digital-minded women.

“Beneath all that glossy packaging hums the same idea that has tantalized girls for millennia,” Anne Theriault writes on The Establishment. “The fact that to be a witch is to be a woman with power in a world where women are often otherwise powerless.”

Sometimes that radical feeling of subverting society’s standards comes from hexes, crystals and herbs. For others, a dark lipstick and long black dress do the trick.

Just as ideas of women’s empowerment and self-care have become marketable consumer trends, so has witchcraft, coinciding with rising interest in yoga, meditation and sex positivity (a movement that embraces safe, consensual sex).

And the markers that caused witches in 1600s Europe to be persecuted – singlehood, financial independence, providing for oneself with a well-stocked herb garden – tend to be things today’s young liberal feminists prize.

Saxena said her book’s view of witchcraft focuses on “the tradition that people who were accused of witchcraft were typically undermining dominant power structures, whether it was because they were performing abortions or refusing to marry or generally not acting ‘ladylike.'”

For her and Zimmerman, her co-author, a general interest in the occult as youths “morphed into something secular but meaningful in our lives.” When they realized many other people out there felt that same pull to witchcraft’s elements of feminism and self-empowerment, they ended up writing “Basic Witches.”

Powerful women always have been feared and silenced as “witches.” Protestant reformer Martin Luther’s wife, a nun named Katharina von Bora, was branded a witch by many a biographer for hundreds of years after her death. Tens of thousands of supposed witches were executed in Europe from the 1300s to the 1600s. In the U.S., the Salem witch trials, at the tail end of that period, ended in the deaths of 20 people, 14 of them women.

Now, women want to reclaim that power.

In a year when some 5 million women exerted their power in the Women’s March on Washington and in cities around the world, that power takes a political angle.

Witches around the world have joined forces to serve justice to convicted rapist Brock Turner, whose light sentence turned the internet’s viral ire on him. In June 2016, witches from around the world organized a mass hexing ceremony to turn Turner impotent and cause him the “constant pain of pine needles in (his) guts.”

Witches also have grabbed headlines with public hexes on President Trump. The loosely organized “resistance witches,” including neo-pagans, activists and a diverse array of magic practitioners, number at least 13,000.

They’re building on the legacy of socialist feminists involved in the 1960s Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell (W.I.T.C.H.), who used their spellbinding powers to take on patriarchy and capitalism.

Two years ago, liberal witchy women across the country launched revivals of W.I.T.C.H., hosting ritual performances to strengthen the rights to housingabortion and education. Along with their counterparts in Portland, Ore., and other U.S. cities, the anonymous group has turned its powers toward “dismantling the white supremacist patriarchy” and fueling the #MagicalResistance against the current White House administration.

But many actual practitioners of witchcraft weren’t thrilled with the headlines. They say they wouldn’t use their power to bring harm to another person — not even Trump.

“There are people who want to bind or hurt or do work to make the injustices stop, and there are others who want to ‘shine the light’ so the person’s acts are exposed,” said Michelle Bowman, a co-organizer of the Women’s Spiritual Leadership Alliance’s monthly forum on witchcraft. A Wiccan since the late ’90s, she also helps organize Earth Temple, an open Wiccan circle in the Denver area. “In Wicca, there’s the idea that actions have reactions. If you cast a binding spell on someone, then you yourself become bound in some way. I’m personally concerned about the cycle of consequences.”

Photos from Instagram users @jadethelibra, @moonphacecollective and @malewitches.

The morality and spirituality of witches aren’t what guides today’s Instagram witches: it’s the visions of resistance, subversion and feminism.

“There’s a long tradition of people who just want to work on magic, harnessing forces of nature or the supernatural, but have no connection to the divine,” Bowman said. “People who’ve been around for a while do believe that popular media and TV have brought this wave of people seeking to the craft. I feel like there’s the possibility that it’s a fad, just young people trying to feel out their identity.”

As long as it’s not malicious or derogatory, she says, she’s not offended.

“There’s a point at which they either become true seekers and go on this spiritual journey,” Bowman says. “Or they realize the magic they see on television doesn’t exist, and they give it up.”

(Emily McFarlan Miller contributed reporting.)

About the author

Aysha Khan

Aysha Khan is the social media manager for RNS. A Denver-based journalist, she reports on American Muslims. She also produces the daily RNS Morning Report newsletter. Her own newsletter, Creeping Sharia, focuses on Muslims in the U.S.

62 Comments

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  • Witchcraft, like faith, is whatever you think it is. You are a witch if you say you are, just like you’re a Christian if you say you are. There is no objective reality to it, except in your own mind, which hardly makes it objective.

    Now, if you want to claim you’re a dachshund in a pink tutu, THAT is something we can measure.

  • It’s a very interesting article but the headline seems a bit misleading when they only focused like one sentence on cultural appropriation and then seemed to just forget about it.

  • Okay, it’s almost Halloween. Perfect time for an RNS article about digital witchery. “Bewitched” meets “Instagram”, yes? Just the right gig for today’s Millenial readers.

    But let’s ask a quick question. What does the Bible say about witchcraft?

    https://www.gotquestions.org/Bible-witchcraft.html

    And let’s ask one more question (for Christians). Suppose a couple witches visit your Church services this weekend. You know, just for laughs. What should you do?

    http://www.bpnews.net/14518/witchs-conversion-evidences-the-power-of-christian-witness

  • Deuteronomy 18:9-14 ESV

    “When you come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not learn to follow the abominable practices of those nations. There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord. And because of these abominations the Lord your God is driving them out before you. You shall be blameless before the Lord your God, …

  • Idk,not “offended”,at all. Imo,it has become a fad,as a practitioner myself. Not all witches are female,granted more females,than males were murdered back in the day,during the Witch hunts,so I understand feminist’s relating. Charmed wasn’t real,sick of hearing about it from some,like it was law.,just like selling trinkets,& bragging about hexing people,on the net,has nothing to do with witchcraft.

  • Sound and fury signifying nothing. Witchcraft is ridiculous but appropriating its symbols to smash the patriarchy is great theatre. The fact it upsets right wing paranoid schizophrenics is just the icing on the cake.

  • You are confusing gender and sex – it actually isn’t difficult to understand but you need to think outside the constraint of irrational fear.

  • Your god believes in divination, fortune telling, omen interpretation, sorcerers, charmers and mediums etc – and you believe in that god – says it all really doesn’t it!

  • “What has God designed for a woman? Verse 4, “To love their husbands, to love their children, to be sensible, pure, workers at home, kind, being subject to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be dishonored.” ”
    A totally unrealistic authoritarian and patriarchal demand when the economy of the 70s presented males with the fact that another source of adult level income was required to house, feed, and clothe an ever expanding brood owing to very limited access to family planning services.
    Then again, there was always the practice of the wealthy elite during the Victorian era. Once the wealthy white male made sure his spouse produced the highly desired male heir and a spare, he was no longer obligated to occupy her bed. He could become a regular at the knocking houses and never be held accountable for all the bastards he produced. Churches turned a blind eye to parenthood when a surrendered infant was accompanied with a check.
    I grew up with many children from large Catholic families during the glorious rise of feminism and the males were some of the most licentious egotists I’d ever met. They would tap anything that wasn’t a Catholic female and get a clean slate inside the confessional. It was easier for them to deny fathering from the wrong side of the blanket too. They suffered no loss of respect or position and were not forced into penury. Those were the sentences reserved for women. Feminism changed that for the betterment of mothers and children.
    Never, ever forget the horrors of homes for unwed mothers, orphanages, and work houses on this soil and in other countries.

  • FALSE. One in 2500 born are intersex. Male doctors in the US have been mutilating the genitalia of these infants for decades. These poor kids are devastated when puberty starts wreaking crueler than normal havoc on their bodies. And an ignorant society bullies them and expects them to live in a box based on archaic beliefs.

  • Scholarship alert for this document/sermon: Both Carol Christ (correct spelling of her name) and the RC Church would, I believe, be surprised to see her characterized as a “Roman Catholic theologian.” Also, she would reject credit for “I found God in myself and loved her loved her fiercely” and give it Ntozake Shange, who actually wrote the line for her “for colored girls…” play. These were only the things I noted off the top of my head, did not check any other “facts” included…

  • This God, for whom there is neither valid evidence nor rationale, did not create just male or female.

    I simplify

    All humans start as either/or.

    Human zygotes all start to develop as female, around 50% get blasted by hormones at a critical stage in their development and become physically male – a few are hermaphroditic. That does not follow through in to sexual orientation which is determined by other factors, including environmental ones. Some mothers carry genetic variations which enhance the fecundity of their recipient daughters – their recipient sons are likely to become homosexual; it doesn’t matter evolutionarily as the limitation on species reproduction is the ability of women to carry young to term rather than the rate of impregnation.

    If your God existed he would know this; either he doesn’t exist, he doesn’t know this (therefore did not create us), he is forgetful/senile or he is a liar.

  • So? Genetics. There is nothing wrong with the children that an un-abusive parent wouldn’t rectify.

  • No, my God believes there are people who believe in divination, fortune telling… and tells us not to appropriate those customs.

  • Luckins – you really need a long hot sweaty cheap-gin besotted weekend in Vegas with a Dollar Store hunk sporting tons of tats & a Mohawk….
    It’ll do you a world of good….

  • And perhaps I am – but until you explain why you think I’m wrong I’ll stick with those who understand the field of human reproduction and the inevitable, rational conclusions that flow unbidden from their knowledge.

    My guess is that you think illiterate bronze age storytellers knew better than modern, educated, scientific method following, logic practising specialists – I could be wrong.

  • then your god is not Sandi’s god – and not the god that the biblical extract she quoted refers to.

    Read it carefully – it doesn’t say what you want it to say does it? It says they tell fortunes, practise divination etc. not that they falsely claim to do so. Why – because the writer of that scripture believed in such practices and assumed that a god would do so as well.

    The bible doesn’t tell you not to run faster than 100 mph nor prohibit drinking unicorn milk – why would it? It only seeks to regulate possible distractions from the writer’s control system for the masses.

    What, no doubt unconsciously, you have done is what all Christians have to do. You have decided that you know what the Bible ought to say – that you (or those you trust) can correct the irrationalities, the errors and the contradictions that slipped through your god’s editing and arrive at the “real” bible.

    One of the tragedies of humanity is that every Christian (and every Muslim/Hindu/Sikh/Jew etc.) arrives at a different understanding of their corrected scripture – generally one which validates their character and their pre-existing preferences, biases and wishful-thinking.

  • One supernatural, superstitious group condemning the practices of another supernatural, superstitious group.

  • Sandi – that, if read by an affected person, is an incredibly unempathetic, hurtful and just plain wrong assertion.

    Please don’t comment on things about which you clearly have little understanding. Being able to quote a biblical verse is not a substitute for education.

  • What? Telling someone they have a genetic abnormality is something they don’t know already?
    Christ word surpasses “education” Give.

  • “There is nothing wrong with the children that an un-abusive parent wouldn’t rectify.”

    Gene therapy is not yet, and may never be, able to fix each and every consequence of an abnormality. Suggesting that a parent is abusive if they can’t rectify a genetic error is repugnant.

  • well anyone, who declares truth as being wrong is not telling the truth. i question your credibility, when you reject anyone else’s understanding just because it is not your fictional witchcraft accounting.

    the original definition of witchcraft, is rebellion against ELOHEEM. which classifies you, as either a sorcerer or a witch. so you, are proof that the antiG-D demons do exist. a demon is nothing more, than a person involved in witchcraft for so long it has become idolatry.

    ELOHEEM, did not specifically condemn witchcraft. but indicated that continued rebellion against THEM, results in demonic idolatry. and because i am THEIR Male Child, you cannot prove to me THEY don’t exist. in case you, do not know this exact same story we are all physically here in again. and Scripture even tells you, THEY do come to visit with me.

    and just because you, have never seen ELOHEEM does not mean i have not seen THE BOTH OF THE HE/SHE ONE OF THEM.

  • no amount of gene therapy, can fix stupid, being ignorant, and/or lying. you can;t fix lying with more lying.

  • witch hunts, are the results of witches hunting other witches. according to scripture, witchcraft itself is not a crime unless becomes idolatry. even then, ELOHEEM, did reluctantly approve of the copperhead idolatry. the copperhead, same as the smaller version medical symbol that doctors and nurses wear.

  • yes most guys, are idiots because that is the way the women want them. as long as women, let them get away with it why would they change? if you feed their perversions, they become perverts.

  • So it doesn’t imply the black-and-white dichotomy you’re suggesting. In fact it implies the opposite as the midrash recognized.

  • Then you have placed yourself at odds with the Bible. And the existence of intersex individuals proves you wrong, whether you wish to wave it to the cornfield as a “genetic defect” or not. How do you think people become male or female in the first place? It’s all genetics at some level.

  • there are genetic problems. That does not take away that Christ still makes us male, or female, not and/or

  • I can appreciate seasonal articles, but I find the subject of witchcraft to be tragicomic, the reasons for which I will not detail here other than to let that pregnant term speak for itself.

  • I’m a Druid, who started on this path through Wicca, back in the days Before Personal Computers, much less the Internet. I have always felt that you are a Witch if you say you are three times…and then think about what that means. All the bling is just props to help you get into a mindspace. Magic happened in your heart, mind and soul.

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