‘Witch’. The word probably conjures up images of an old warty woman cackling over a cauldron, or flying off on her broom sporting a hat and cloak. But while the concept of the witch might be bundled in together with the other paranormal beings we dress up as for Halloween- like vampires and werewolves- witches and witchcraft have long been a part of our own reality. However, the difference here is that the fear we have been taught to hold in regards to witches comes less from their apparent supernatural powers, and more from their very real powers of femininity. Although there are males who identify with the term ‘witch’, the image of a witch is first and foremost that of a woman, meaning that the persecution of witches is a direct attack on women too. While the Western world hasn’t seen the persecution of witches since the 18th Century, when 200,000 were tortured, burnt or hanged over a 300-year period, the attack on women has yet to end. Nevertheless, the symbol of the witch has prevailed, constantly subverting the norm and challenging the patriarchy that has sought to destroy it- a true feminist icon!
While the modern witch may be a far cry from what we have come to associate with witchcraft; with the influx of Tumblr and Instagram ‘witches’, who prioritise the aesthetic over the practice with their black lipstick and pentagram pendants, the feminist connection still continues. And although this look may seem to reinforce the stereotypical notions of witchcraft sitting on the side of evil, each aspect is in line with the Wiccan beliefs; the colour black symbolises protection, and the five points of the pentagram represent each of the five elements. In fact, nature and the elements is perhaps the key focus point for most involved in the craft, as it is seen as sacred. The themes of nature and nurturing that are central to most practicing witches further reinforces this link to femininity, as the connection between women and nature has always been apparent.
But why turn to witchcraft for your sense of empowerment, when we have feminist icons in popular culture already, you may ask!? Cristina Pandolfo, aka ‘Dianara’, an initiated Witch and Priestess ordained in the Dianic Tradition, which is a female focussed spiritual path, incorporating Goddess worship, states that women have a “fundamental role” within witchcraft, and that it “helps women to re-discover the female power which has been suppressed by millennia of patriarchy”. Women are increasingly turning to witchcraft due to this option of worshipping female Goddesses and deities, and themselves becoming Priestesses, which they would perhaps not have the opportunity for when following other more traditional forms of Western religion. This also extends to people who identify as LGBTQ+, who may feel unwelcome in certain religious communities, as many queer individuals have also now embraced the empowering nature of Neopaganism and witchcraft, which allows you to seek the Gods or Goddesses with whom you personally feel the deepest connection. Cristina’s idea of the patriarchy being the cause of women seeking empowerment through witchcraft is echoed amongst self-identifying witches far and wide. Most notably is that of Starhawk, author of ‘The Spiral Dance’, a best-selling book on Neopagan beliefs, in which she writes “to be a witch is to identify with nine million victims of bigotry and hatred, and to take responsibility for shaping a world in which prejudice claims no more victims”. Similarly, Tarotscopes creator Marty Windahl suggests that witchcraft allows for women to partake in all the things a woman is told she should not by the dominant culture, by utilising what women are told are signs of weakness, such as “emotional sensitivity, or a menstrual cycle”, and using them as “tools” to aid spells and readings. As an Esoteric Herbalist, or ‘Green Witch’, Cristina argues that a deep connection with the earth through witchcraft can “help to heal the ancestral wounds inflicted upon women (and men) by the overpowering and cruel male-rule”.
The 20th Century saw Witchcraft transcend from a religious practice to a far more politically motivated movement, driven by this innate sense of female empowerment. The women’s liberation movement in America during the 1960s, for example, saw the rise of the Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell, or W.I.T.C.H. Although the groups were primarily socialist feminists, the witchy connection is obvious, and many of the leading members followed the feminist-oriented forms of modern Paganism, such as the Dianic Wicca that Cristina practices. Witchcraft is certainly not exclusive to women though, in fact around half are men, but it is perhaps this gender equality that draws women to witchiness. And despite the fairly equal gender divide, most ‘covens’ are female-only communities that solely worship female deities, reflective of those we have come to know from media depictions of witchcraft, such as ‘The Craft’ and ‘American Horror Story: Coven’. Cristina states that the media depictions of witchcraft are “unrealistic” due to their focus on the supernatural, and negative “religious superstitions”.
Although many modern witches are involved in tarot readings and herbalism, she states that witchcraft is primarily about self-improvement, as it “puts you in charge of your own life, challenges your boundaries and beliefs, making you face fears and the consequences of your actions, and leads you to wisdom and awareness”. Ultimately, she argues, it is about “self-love and self-acceptance, and the belief that the divine is within, rather than outside, yourself”.