By Alex Miller
It’s no secret that Americans are fascinated by witches. The amount of witch-related popular culture that we as a country produce is so great it could easily be its own genre. Chances are that at some point in their lives, most of the readers of this post will have had at least one witchy guilty pleasure, and in my experience that is particularly the case for women and queer men. Why, you ask, are we so in love with witches? Maybe up until this point you’ve been unsure or never considered the query. Well buckle up kiddos, because I, Alex J. Miller, self-proclaimed witch expert (and possible witch myself), am about to take you on a rollercoaster ride of witchcraft in American popular culture, at the end of which you’ll be able to proudly proclaim, “Yes, I did watch Witches of East End for nine hours straight last Saturday, and I loved every minute of it!”
Some of the first permanent European settlers arrived on our Atlantic shores in the early 17th century, and with them they brought all their hopes, dreams, smallpox, complete disregard for indigenous cultures, shoe buckles, and ideas about witches. The contemporary depiction of witches were ripped straight out of the pages of fairy tales like “Hansel and Gretel”: terrible, hideous, old hags who sequestered themselves away from society out in the woods, selling their souls to Satan and casting hexes on innocent Christians. They told good, decent folk to beware of a woman who kept to themselves or who lived independently. She might be a witch! This translated into a demonization of elderly women and women with no family ties or reproductive abilities, as these were the women most likely to be economically and socially autonomous. Because many of those early settlers were the religious radicals, like the Puritans, with their strict moral codes and literal biblical interpretations, images such as these thrived in America even as witch hunts were a quickly dying tradition in Europe. Thus, the witch entered American culture as a tool used by a bunch of old white guys to maintain existing patriarchal power structures and keep women under their rule, or else face serious consequences (like hanging, for instance).
Strangely, the post-Enlightenment revival of interest in the occult that occurred in the 19th century was almost entirely devoid of witches. Although many people studied mysticism and magic systems throughout the occult revival, the real rebirth of American fascination with witches didn’t occur until the early 20th century. Thankfully by this time the state of American womanhood had come a long way—women were beginning to receive higher education, enter some professions, and the suffrage movement was well under way. Essentially, the first wave of the feminist movement was comin’ in hot, and those ladies weren’t holding any punches.
All this resulted in something very beautiful that forever changed the way we as a culture would think about witches: the good witch. The idea of folk healers and magic practitioners who used their powers for good were not new (i.e. Merlin), but, for the first time really, they were women and we were calling them witches. Suddenly characters like Glinda (or, as I like to call her, the O.G.W.—Original Good Witch) became possible—women with real power whom we celebrated and admired. A Pandora’s box was opened in which the possibilities for witches extended beyond previous stereotypical tropes, and as much of a victory as these characters were, over the next century artists enthusiastically dove even deeper into those possibilities. By the way, in Baum’s books, Glinda is not only a powerful sorceress, but also a badass queen with an army made up entirely of women. Hell yeah.
The juxtaposition of Glinda and the Wicked Witch of the West was in some ways still a denial of the potential complexities of female psychology. Over the next century, writers began to create more and more emotionally and morally intricate characters. We have seen since then an explosion of witch characters of all varieties, in all combinations—good, bad, ugly, beautiful, gay, straight, black, white, tall, fat, and even mentally-handicapped. They love, hate, kill, save, cry, laugh, fight, drink, have sex, make mistakes, and display the entire gambit of human emotion. Some are lovable children’s characters. Some really, REALLY aren’t. Some are completely batshit, and some are even allowed to be boring. You name it, someone’s dreamed it up in witchy form. Witches have become, ironically and completely contrarily to their original intent, a vessel for the humanization of women. Today, witches comprise some of the most well-developed female characters in popular culture, and witch-themed shows and movies present opportunities for actresses to shine in female-lead casts.
Yes, the patriarchy still gets a hit in every once and awhile (I’m looking at you, John Updike), but by-and-large witches today represent female solidarity and empowerment.
As a society, America has reclaimed the witch, which is true proof that, in the end, most of us love to watch some ladies kick ass. I have always loved witches for this reason, and for the rest of the month I plan to celebrate my favorite women in full force. Here are a few ways you too can get witchy this Halloween season:
Enjoy the bounties of the earth this season. Both witches and feminists love nature, and for good reason! If you’re in the mood for some not-so-light reading, I recommend Starhawk’s The Spiral Dance and Shiva’s and Mies’s Ecofeminism.
2. Have a witch-themed party with your coven.
3. Practice a Samhain ritual.
Samhain (on October 31st also) is the Wiccan new year. On this day, remember all your loved ones who have passed, but don’t get too gloomy! There’s feasting, wine, and/or mead involved too!
4. Find your Wicca chic.
Witches often have a very eclectic fashion sense, but they always rock it because they wear whatever the hell they what they want to wear. So, this month, wear whatever you have always wanted to wear but never had the guts to wear before. Maybe it won’t stick, but if it does, screw the haters. You look flawless.
5. Adopt a familiar.
Many great witches have an animal counterpart, and you can give a home to an animal that needs it. Remember, witches always go for the outcasts (like black cats and toads) that no one else will take. Power never came from following the status quo.
7. “Harm none, do what ye will.”
Try following this basic Wiccan principle in your day-to-day life. It’s not as simple as it sounds. It means you have to really consider ALL the consequences of ALL of your actions, but it is an excellent moral code.
9. And for that matter, recognize your own greatness.
Witches are definitely not above a little self-love. You’re not being narcissistic, you’re being confident. It’s okay to be proud of yourself and your accomplishments.
Do this one a lot. No matter if they’re good, bad, or somewhere gloriously in between, all witches have a common opponent in the patriarchy, and that’s a cause we can all get behind.
So there you have it, folks. I hope you all have a wonderful Halloween season and remember…
Editor’s note: As a mother of two adorable black cats, I have to say I particularly relate to #5, Adopt a Familiar.
Let’s pay some homage to another famous black cat, Salem Saberhagen.
Happy Halloween, witches.