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Bi-weekly witch #2: up in smoke

Feb. 21, 2018
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“We are the granddaughters of all the witches you were never able to burn.”

Welcome to my second installment of the Bi-Weekly Witch! This week, we’re going to skim the history of witchcraft.

The history of witchcraft is the history of folk healers. Every community worldwide has a version of this who serves their community in important ways: these are herbalists, midwives, and spiritual healers. People go to them for their knowledge of all things herbal/biological and spiritual. Folk healers function as therapists, as doctors, and as a bridge to the spiritual world. 

Many cultures continue the tradition of folk healing. Traditional Chinese medicine is an excellent example of this thriving practice. In the Western world, things like the witch craze of the 16th and 17th centuries (which killed off something like 100,000 people, 85% of them women) and the rise of the medical field (which standardized medicine and healthcare) effectively pushed folk healing underground. In fact, in England, it was illegal to perform witchcraft until 1951.

European colonization also had its hand in undermining folk healing. Colonizers devalued and criminalized established cultural mores and systems. Missionary work is a well-meaning example of this: Christians went to colonized countries with the intention of converting the “heathen” population. On the other extreme is slavery, in which Europeans terrorized stolen African people out of their cultures of origin, which included spiritual traditions. 

Thankfully, these things survive through African diasporic traditions. Most Americans are familiar with the stereotyped pop culture representations of these: Vodou (an umbrella term for several sects), Santería, and the practice of Hoodoo (secular folk magic). These are often used interchangeably, and they are largely misrepresented. These practices merge religions from West Africa with French Catholicism. Though they are fascinating to research, it is important to note that the practice of many of these traditions is closed to outsiders, and to practice them without getting initiated is cultural appropriation.

The mainstream (read: white, middle-class) reemergence of magical practices in Europe and America started with the rise of new technology and developments in science. These allowed the general public to embrace alternate views of the universe and the afterlife. Figures like prolific occultist Aleister Crowley, religions like Spiritualism, and occult themes in art entered the public sphere. In the 1970s, Gardnerian Wicca exploded in popularity. This practice was created by Gerald Gardner and was based off of his experiences with a coven in Britain and his studies of magic. Wicca became synonymous with the witch through the 1990s and early 2000s. If you were curious about witchcraft during these decades, Wicca was the only game in town. This meant forsaking any religion you were raised in to dedicate yourself to the Wiccan Goddess and God. 

But the popular culture image of the witch as white, granola, and Wiccan is only one tiny sliver of who the witch represents. Wicca is not the only path, and the recent rise of Brujeria via outlets like The Hoodwitch shows a nascent broadening of what the witch looks like. 

Tune in two weeks from now to check out the next installment on witch politics!