(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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 housing, abortion 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."
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.)