The Modern Age of Witchcraft

Anthesteria, Lummi Island, WA. Photo by Scarlett Messenger
Anthesteria, Lummi Island, WA. Photo by Scarlett Messenger

The Modern Age of Witchcraft
Most of what we know as witchcraft today bears only a nodding resemblance to the practices of the past. In the Western world, it is usually conflated with modern Neo-Paganism. Or, conversely, any practice that includes a form of witchcraft tends to be lumped under the umbrella of Neo-Paganism whether or not it actually qualifies. It is important to note that not all Neo-Pagans practice witchcraft, and not all Western practitioners of magick and witchcraft are Neo-Pagans. The popularity of the Neo-Pagan movement’s most visible faction, Wicca, is part of the reason for this combination. Gerald Gardener, the founder of Wicca, had his roots in Western Esotercism and a keen interest in reviving Margaret Murray’s supposed “witch-cult”. He claimed to have based the Wiccan Laws on ancient teachings, however their anachronistic nature and lack of any actual proof of their existence before 1957 are evidence to the contrary. Gardener is a very contentious figure for many modern Neo-Pagans, a hero to some, a blight to others. Some choose to ignore his near-pathological need to fabricate facts and history to suit his needs. He claimed many titles, honors, and degrees that later were discovered to be at best half-truths. Despite Wicca’s image as a feminist belief system, the reality is that Gardner structured much to the religion around his own misogynistic sexual gratification, even going so far as to write into the laws that the High Priest had the right to remove the High Priestess from her position once she reached a certain age so that he could instill a younger, more attractive High Priestess in her place. This would make the sexual ritual he called the “Great Rite” more palatable to the High Priest. I do not mention these things in an attempt to invalidate Wicca and its history. Rather, I think that it is important that its practitioners acknowledge the truth and realities of its history and work to make it live up to the ideals they seek in it, rather than cling to a static past built on misinformation and propaganda.

Modern witchcraft is syncretic and flexible. This creates a wonderful environment for exploration and growth, but it also raises the beastly specter of cultural appropriation. This can be a tricky area for modern practitioners. How do you explore a tradition that has been so divided from its roots except to borrow from the outside cultures that surround you? This leads to confusion about what is an actual cross-cultural trait of magick and what has been adopted and adapted from another tradition. I have seen many American Neo-Pagans who believe that sage “smudging” is part of their historical practice. It isn’t. In fact it is a practice that has been lifted in an erroneous and inappropriate way from Native American cultures. Likewise, concepts like the vision quest, transcendental meditation, and chakras, are often borrowed, discussed, and written about as if they are part of the traditions of Northern Europeans. While there may have been similar beliefs in some cases, generally these are practices from contemporary cultures that give the modern witch a sense of depth and validity to their practice. Practicing magick without guidance can be dangerous, and when your traditions have been orphaned for centuries you seek out someone to foster you. Our culture still has little patience with alternative religions and a belief in the supernatural, and the modern media does not help with its 2-dimensional portrayals of witchcraft either for horror or comedy.
This is where the modern depiction of the witch takes an interesting turn. The popularity of the Harry Potter series has given an entire generation a perspective on the practice of magick, and the subject of witchcraft is discussed in film, books, and on television with a refreshingly broad range of representations. From positive characters like Willow the Wicca on Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Angelina Jolie’s more nuanced portrayal of the complex witch Maleficent, witches are no longer only relegated to the role of malevolent hag. The wide spread acceptance of astrology, tarot, and magickal practices is not something unique to our age, but it has been a long time since these things were as openly embraced as they are now. The flip side of this is that witches are still viewed with fear and mistrust. Time and time again we are treated to images of the power-hungry “warlok”, the witch as villain, seductress, or murderess. A quick YouTube search reveals many videos of supposed witch sightings of a creepy and paranormal nature. Of course, most of these sightings are not only clearly not witches, they most likely are either faked or completely misconstrued phenomenon. But the belief that malevolent forces are still manipulated by men and women with uncanny abilities and nefarious associations persists.

The practice of witchcraft has come a long way in the Western world, but it still has a long way to go before it comes full circle and is reintegrated into our society once again. In other parts of the world, it is still reviled and met with paranoid hostility. In Africa, women, children, and the elderly can still fall prey to violent witch hunts and be executed in the most brutal and inhuman ways. The financial and social instability of such places makes scapegoating as appealing a way of handling the frightening uncertainty of life as it was in post-plague Europe. Even in our own country we have seen the hysterical “Satanic Panic” of the 80s, and our own continent is far from free of prejudice and suspicion against magick and its practitioners. And still, its adherents march on like their predecessors before them. Magick is more than a tradition or a practice, it is a human instinct found in many different cultures and practiced in many different ways. In this ISP, we have seen its persistence in the face of judgment and adversity over the entire course of human history. Throughout centuries of inquisitions, persecutions, and even the dismissal of so-called scientific reason, magick is still in our world view. It is an innate part of our psyche, a gut reaction to the strange and wonderful world we inhabit, and an inseparable part of the human experience.

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