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The feminist roots of modern witchcraft [excerpt]

Throughout modern history, witchcraft has been predominately practiced by women. Historically, women were considered more likely than men to partake in magic due to their “inherent moral weakness and uncontrolled sexual nature.” Unsurprisingly, as witchcraft spread throughout the United States in the 1960s and 1970s, it captured the interest of the growing feminist movement. In the following excerpt from The Oxford Illustrated History of Witchcraft and Magic, Owen Davies discusses the feminist roots of modern witchcraft in America.

Through the 1960s and 1970s the pagan witch religion, in its various forms, spread overseas in a very modest way.

It was in America that the witchcraft religion became a significant aspect of the counter-culture phenomenon, expressed most cogently in the feminist movement. After all, the majority of executed witches during the witch trials were women. With grossly misleading execution figures circulating widely in popular culture, the idea that the historic witch persecutions resulted in the deaths of millions of women understandably led to such provocative descriptions as ‘gynocide’. Couple this with the Gardnerian notion that the Church had sought to exterminate a liberated witch fertility religion that expressed its sexuality, and the feminist interest in witchcraft was obvious. They rightly saw social parallels between the past and present in terms of patriarchy and misogyny. In 1968 one radical feminist movement, which was not Wiccan in inspiration, called themselves ‘WITCH’, the Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell. Members of WITCH organized public protests and street theatre events to highlight the dominance of patriarchal capitalism.

A selection of jars containing herbs and other ingrediants used by cunning folk (professional practitioners of magic) in Britain on display at the Museum of Witchcraft. Image credit: “Herb collection” by Midnightblueowl. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Various feminist voices soon appeared in the pagan witch community, rejecting the patriarchy expressed in the leadership of early Wiccan groups and some of the gender biases in their rituals. In 1971 the Hungarian-American pagan Zsuzsanna Budapest produced a pamphlet manual of Gardnerian rituals solely for women called the Feminist Book of Lights and Shadows. The most influential feminist Wiccan text of the 1970s, however, was The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess. Its author Miriam Simos, better known as Starhawk, took Wicca in a new direction with a strong emphasis on ecological concerns, feminist spirituality, and shamanism. She co-founded the activist witch movement ‘Reclaim’ to further press for the social, political, and environmental concerns that resonated with her conception of a goddess nature religion. By the year 2000, Spiral Dance had sold more than 300,000 copies, influencing many feminists within and beyond the Wiccan community, and it was one of the first significant American influences on British Wiccans. One downside of its popularity was that Starhawk repeated the old falsehood that nine million people were executed as witches during the European witch-hunts.

Modern American witchcraft also had its gay activists, who were motivated both by the global campaign for homosexual rights, and also prejudice within modern witchcraft. Despite being a religion inspired by the paganism of the ancient world and its diverse sexual expressions, in the early decades of Wicca the emphasis had been on the importance of the ‘natural’, fertile relationship between male and female. The gay New York witch Leo Martello, who founded the Witches’ Liberation Movement and the Witches Anti-Defamation League, stirred up the debate during the early 1970s.

The likes of Spiral Dance had a substantial influence on a growing trend towards solitary practice in pagan witchcraft and other expressions of modern magic. From the Golden Dawn through to Gardnerian Wicca, modern magic had been imagined as a community with hierarchies, collective forms of worship, and initiations and rituals that involved at least two people. But as Wicca matured so the idea of the solitary practitioner grew. From being Gardner’s High Priestess in the early days of Wicca, Doreen Valiente came to prefer solitary magical working. In 1978 she wrote Witchcraft for Tomorrow as a guide on how to initiate oneself into the witches’ craft without needing to join a coven. ‘Many people, I know, will question the idea of selfinitiation, as given in this book,’ she wrote. ‘To them I will address one simple question: who initiated the first witch?’ Once the desire for modern magicians to form fraternities, orders, and covens based on notions of ancient secret societies ebbed, the impulse to diversify and innovate spread. One did not need to religiously follow some imposed set text or a set of rituals defined by someone else. The phrase ‘believing without belonging’, which sociologists of religion coined to describe the decline of Christian church attendance, also applied to the growth of modern paganism in the same era. Regional and local expressions of pagan witchcraft proliferated, drawing upon folk magic practices, for example.

These days there are those who call themselves witches but who do not consider themselves pagan, but are inspired by the spells, charms, and remedies of the cunning-folk of the recent past. Away from pagan witchcraft, an array of solitary magicians have forged their own tailor-made rituals and practices.

Featured image credit: “tarot-cards-magic-fortune-telling” by MiraDeShazer. CC0 via Pixabay.

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