Witches have always walked among us, populating societies and storyscapes across the globe for thousands of years. From Circe to Hermione, from Morgan le Fay to Marie Laveau, the witch has long existed in the tales we tell about ladies with strange powers that can harm or heal. And although people of all genders have been considered witches, it is a word that is now usually associated with women.
Throughout most of history, she has been someone to fear, an uncanny Other who threatens our safety or manipulates reality for her own mercurial purposes. She’s a pariah, a persona non grata, a bogeywoman to defeat and discard. Though she has often been deemed a destructive entity, in actuality a witchy woman has historically been far more susceptible to attack than an inflictor of violence herself. As with other “terrifying” outsiders, she occupies a paradoxical role in cultural consciousness as both vicious aggressor and vulnerable prey.
Over the past 150 years or so, however, the witch has done another magic trick, by turning from a fright into a figure of inspiration. She is now as likely to be the heroine of your favorite TV show as she is its villain. She might show up in the form of your Wiccan coworker, or the beloved musician who gives off a sorceress vibe in videos or onstage.
There is also a chance that she is you, and that “witch” is an identity you have taken upon yourself for any number of reasons — heartfelt or flippant, public or private.
Today, more women than ever are choosing the way of the witch, whether literally or symbolically. They’re floating down catwalks and sidewalks in gauzy black clothing and adorning themselves with Pinterest-worthy pentagrams and crystals. They’re filling up movie theaters to watch witchy films, and gathering in back rooms and backyards to do rituals, consult tarot cards and set life-altering intentions. They’re marching in the streets with HEX THE PATRIARCHY placards and casting spells each month to try to constrain the commander-in-chief. Year after year, articles keep proclaiming, “It’s the Season of the Witch!” as journalists try to wrap their heads around the mushrooming witch “trend.”
And all of this begs the question: Why?
Why do witches matter? Why are they seemingly everywhere right now? What, exactly, are they? (And why the hell won’t they go away?)
I get asked such things over and over, and you would think that after a lifetime of studying and writing about witches, as well as hosting a witch-themed podcast and being a practitioner of witchcraft myself, my answers would be succinct.
In fact, I find that the more I work with the witch, the more complex she becomes. Hers is a slippery spirit: try to pin her down, and she’ll only recede further into the deep, dark wood.
I do know this for sure though: show me your witches, and I’ll show you your feelings about women. The fact that the resurgence of feminism and the popularity of the witch are ascending at the same time is no coincidence: the two are reflections of each other.
That said, this current Witch Wave is nothing new. I was a teen in the 1990s, the decade that brought us such pop-occulture as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Charmed and The Craft, not to mention riot grrrls and third-wave feminists who taught me that female power could come in a variety of colors and sexualities. I learned that women could lead a revolution while wearing lipstick and combat boots — and sometimes even a cloak.
But my own witchly awakening came at an even earlier age.
Morganville, New Jersey, where I was raised, was a solidly suburban town, but it retained enough natural land features back then to still feel a little bit scruffy in spots. We had a small patch of woods in our backyard that abutted a horse farm, and the two were separated by a wisp of running water that we could cross via a plank of wood. In one corner of the yard, a giant puddle would form whenever it rained, surrounded by a border of ferns. My older sister, Emily, and I called this spot our Magical Place. That it would vanish and then reappear only added to its mystery. It was a portal to the unknown.
These woods are where I first remember doing magic — entering that state of deep play where imaginative action becomes reality. I would spend hours out there, creating rituals with rocks and sticks, drawing secret symbols in the dirt, losing all track of time. It was a space that felt holy and wild, yet still strangely safe.
As we age, we’re supposed to stop filling our heads with such “nonsense.” Unicorns are to be traded in for Barbie dolls (though both are mythical creatures, to be sure). We lose our tooth fairies, walk away from our wizards. Dragons get slain on the altar of youth.
Most kids grow out of their “magic phase.” I grew further into mine.
My grandma Trudy was a librarian at the West Long Branch Library, which meant I got to spend many an afternoon lurking between the 001.9 and 135 Dewey decimal–sections, reading about Bigfoot and dream interpretation and Nostradamus. I spent countless hours in my room, learning about witches and goddesses, and I loved anything by authors like George MacDonald, Roald Dahl, and Michael Ende — writers fluent in the language of enchantment. Books were my broomstick. They allowed me to fly to other realms where anything was possible.
Though fictional witches were my first guides, I soon discovered that magic was something real people could do. I started frequenting new age shops and experimenting with mass-market paperback spell books from the mall. I was raised Jewish but found myself attracted to belief systems that felt more individualized and mystical and that fully honored the feminine. Eventually I found my way to modern Paganism, a self-directed spiritual path that sustains me to this day. I’m not unique in this trajectory of pivoting away from organized religion and toward something more personal: as of September 2017, more than a quarter of U.S. adults — 27% — now say that they think of themselves as spiritual but not religious, according to Pew Research Center.
Now, I identify both as a witch and with the archetype of the witch overall, and I use the term fluidly. At any given time, I might use the word witch to signify my spiritual beliefs, my supernatural interests or my role as an unapologetically complex, dynamic female in a world that prefers its women to be smiling and still. I use it with equal parts sincerity and salt: with a bow to a rich and often painful history of worldwide witchcraft, and a wink to other members of our not-so-secret society of people who fight from the fringes for the liberty to be our weirdest and most wondrous selves. Magic is made in the margins.
To be clear: you don’t have to practice witchcraft or any other alternative form of spirituality to awaken your own inner witch. You may feel attracted to her symbolism, her style or her stories but are not about to rush out to buy a cauldron or go sing songs to the sky. Maybe you’re more of a nasty woman than a devotee of the Goddess. That’s perfectly fine: the witch belongs to you too.
I remain more convinced than ever that the concept of the witch endures because she transcends literalism and because she has so many dark and sparkling things to teach us. Many people get fixated on the “truth” of the witch, and numerous fine history books attempt to tackle the topic from the angle of so-called factuality. Did people actually believe in magic? They most certainly did and still do. Were the thousands of victims who were killed in the 16th- and 17th-century witch hunts actually witches themselves? Most likely not. Are witches real? Why, yes, you’re reading the words of one. All of these things are true.
But whether or not there were actually women and men who practiced witchcraft in Rome or Lancashire or Salem, say, is less interesting to me than the fact that the idea of witches has remained so evocative and influential and so, well, bewitching in the first place.
In other words, the fact and the fiction of the witch are inextricably linked. Each informs the other and always has. I’m fascinated by how one archetype can encompass so many different facets. The witch is a notorious shape-shifter, and she comes in many guises:
A hag in a pointy hat, cackling madly as she boils a pot of bones.
A scarlet-lipped seductress slipping a potion into the drink of her unsuspecting paramour.
A cross-dressing French revolutionary who hears the voices of angels and saints.
A perfectly coifed suburban housewife, twitching her nose to change her circumstances at will, despite her husband’s protests.
A woman dancing in New York City’s Central Park with her coven to mark the change of the seasons or a new lunar phase.
The witch has a green face and a fleet of flying monkeys. She wears scarves and leather and lace.
She lives in Africa; on the island of Aeaea; in a tower; in a chicken-leg hut; in Peoria, Illinois.
She lurks in the forests of fairy tales, in the gilded frames of paintings, in the plotlines of sitcoms and YA novels, and between the bars of ghostly blues songs.
She is solitary.
She comes in threes.
She’s a member of a coven.
Sometimes she’s a he.
She is stunning, she is hideous, she is insidious, she is ubiquitous.
She is our downfall. She is our deliverance.
Our witches say as much about us as they do about anything else — for better and for worse.
More than anything, though, the witch is a shining and shadowy symbol of female power and a force for subverting the status quo. No matter what form she takes, she remains an electric source of magical agitation that we can all plug into whenever we need a high-voltage charge.
She is also a vessel that contains our conflicting feelings about female power: our fear of it, our desire for it and our hope that it can — and will — grow stronger, despite the flames that are thrown at it.
Whether the witch is depicted as villainous or valorous, she is always a figure of freedom — both its loss and its gain. She is perhaps the only female archetype who is an independent operator. Virgins, whores, daughters, mothers, wives — each of these is defined by whom she is sleeping with or not, the care that she is giving or that is given to her, or some sort of symbiotic debt that she must eventually pay.
The witch owes nothing. That is what makes her dangerous. And that is what makes her divine.
Witches have power on their own terms. They have agency. They create. They praise. They commune with the spiritual realm, freely and free of any mediator.
They metamorphose, and they make things happen. They are change agents whose primary purpose is to transform the world as it is into the world they would like it to be.
This is also why being called a witch and calling oneself a witch are usually two vastly different experiences. In the first case, it’s often an act of degradation, an attack against a perceived threat.
The second is an act of reclamation, an expression of autonomy and pride. Both of these aspects of the archetype are important to keep in mind. They may seem like contradictions, but there is much to glean from their interplay.
The witch is the ultimate feminist icon because she is a fully rounded symbol of female oppression and liberation. She shows us how to tap into our own might and magic, despite the many who try to strip us of our power.
We need her now more than ever.
Copyright © 2019 by Pam Grossman. From the forthcoming book Waking the Witch: Reflections on Women, Magic, and Power by Pam Grossman to be published by Gallery Books, an Imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed by permission.