Upon hearing the word ‘witchcraft,’ most people probably think to the past. Witches have a long history shrouded in mystery and cruelty. In the old testament of the Bible, witches were condemned to death in one neat sentence. In early modern Europe, it was legal to imprison or execute people on the suspicion that they were engaging in sorcery. This practice was carried over to America by the European explorers, and led to perhaps the most famous instance of witch-hunting: the 1692 Salem witch trials in Massachusetts. The hysterical affair ultimately ended with 20 executions, 14 of which were women.
Today, the word ‘witch’ is taking on a different meaning. Witchcraft is on the rise, and this time, in a more positive light. Modern witchcraft can be defined as a kind of spirituality rather than a religion; it is often a highly personal practice, although it can also be performed in covens. Perhaps the most common branch of modern witchcraft is the Wicca – a neo-pagan belief largely founded on ancient Celtic tradition.
There are many modern branches of witchcraft, but most, like Wicca, seem to mingle ideas of self-help, spirituality, nature and philosophy. Nylon Magazine’s resident witch, Gabriela Herstik, runs a segment called ‘Ask a Witch,' in which she instructs aspiring witches to ‘practice yoga, spend time under the moon, and buy some crystals.’ There is no mention of Satan, and contrary to the stereotype of cruelty in witchcraft, most witches would not so much as perform a love potion without their subject’s consent.
Witchcraft is on the up in pop culture as well as in private practice. Urban Outfitters sell a guidebook on modern magick for good witches. Rapper Azalea Banks describes herself as a practiser of brujeria, the Spanish word for witchcraft. Singer Lorde has also stated that she is ‘basically a witch,’ whilst many see her jerky dance style as an attempt to cast a kind of spell on her audience. Earlier this year, Lana Del Rey joined the worldwide witch community to cast a binding spell on Donald Trump, preventing him from causing harm in the world. Later asked about her tweet, Lana admitted to being ‘a mystic at heart,’ and joked that she ‘ does a lot of shit.’
Why, though, are so many modern women choosing to identify with witchcraft, a practice associated with the past?
Constance Grady for Vox argues that the reclaiming of the ancient art acts as a continuation of ‘weaponised femininity.’ This was a brief phenomenon around 2012-14 characterised by women leaning into traditional feminine stereotypes in order to subvert them: take the notorious ‘eyeliner so sharp it could kill a man’ feminist make up tutorial, for example. This narrative was largely criticised for its aggression towards men; Grady argues that witchcraft is a revised continuation of the same sentiment, but with a flexible application that doesn’t depend so heavily on the male gaze. Certainly, modern witchcraft is far less hostile; it makes a point to be highly inclusive of different genders, sexual identities, orientations, races and classes. Anyone and everyone is invited to participate in this modern subversion of witchcraft. It even seems partially symptomatic of social movement and the feminist agenda.
However, whilst this reinvention of the meaning of witchcraft can be an empowering move for some, it is worth remembering that the persecution and murder of accused witches is far from over in many cultures. In Papua New Guinea, witch-hunts are still a common occurrence in the highland regions. As recently as 1971, the local government passed the Sorcery Act, which condemns the use of ‘black magic.’ Despite repealing this law in 2013, the practice of witch-hunting is worryingly spreading to more urban areas of the country. Rooted deeply in ancient tradition, the hunters, often groups of young men, believe they are ridding their villages of evil. Punishment for sorcery includes torture and death, and an estimated 20 victims are killed every month, although statistics are difficult to collect as many instances go unreported.
Perhaps the Western resurgence of witchcraft is conscious of the continued persecution of accused witches elsewhere in the world. Or perhaps, it is simply an aesthetic that lends itself to popular culture in a way that can further the reach of social activism. However, it is important to remember that the cool-girl vibe of the modern witch is not just built on past persecution and suffering by women, but stands parallel to the continuation of traditions we often think are entirely absent from our present world.