I’m currently teaching an undergraduate course on witchcraft in the American popular imagination. As someone who has been obsessed with witches since a formative viewing of Disney’s Hocus Pocus at the age of eight (incidentally, that’s also where I discovered that the word “virgin” was not just a descriptor for the Mother of God), teaching this class is essentially my dream job. I may have had to acquiesce to the demands of reality and abandon my childhood fantasy of possessing real, potent magical powers, but having the opportunity to discuss fictional representations of witchcraft with a room full of funny, talented young people might actually be even better.
This isn’t simply a paean to the joys of teaching strange, esoteric subjects. Instead, I find myself impelled to write because of an in-class discussion that has stayed with me over the last few days. In this week’s class, my students and I were debating the ending of Robert Eggers’ 2015 period masterpiece The Witch. We were attempting to unpack the intricate layers of meaning embedded in the film’s closing moments, when the heroine Thomasin (SPOILERS!) signs a demonic pact, sheds her garments and the weight of a repressive patriarchal society, and walks into the freedom and uncertainty of an endless forest. As we chatted, we found ourselves debating the extent to which the “black arts” might be considered a means of empowerment. Can witchcraft really be a subversive act, a rebellion against social norms and patriarchal dominance? Or is such a recourse to magic and mysticism simply a flight from an unbearable reality?
Next weekend, a Brooklyn bookshop called Catland will be holding a “Hex Kavanaugh” event. A pagan bookstore and metphysical boutique, Catland will be the site of a “public hex on Brett Kavanaugh, upon all rapists and the patriarchy at large which emboldens, rewards and protects them”. Although real-life witchcraft, the beliefs and practices of those who identify as Wiccans, Pagans, Witches, etc., are radically different from the spectacular rites and potent spells depicted in fiction, there still seems to be a similar desire bridging both Thomasin’s proud, curious walk into the forest and the actions of contemporary witches who seek to curse the archetypes of patriarchal oppression, rape culture and toxic masculinity whose power remains unequivocal, even in the aftermath of the most horrendous allegations. According to the organisers of the “Hex Kavanuagh” event, the purpose of the public cursing is to give voice to the “the downtrodden and disenfranchised”. For them, the communal act of hexing Kavanaugh is the continuation of a much older tradition, a hidden practice whereby magic rites and furtively whispered spells served as “”often the only weapon, the only means of exacting justice available to those of us who have been wronged by men just like him”.
In many ways, it’s unsurprising that witchcraft has historically served as a means for the marginalised to grasp a small sliver of power, or for the disenfranchised to exert a tiny semblance of control. After all, unlike many other forms of ritual magic, witchcraft has traditionally been associated with women, the poor, and those on the periphery of society. The iconic witch who dances through the nightmares of children and adorns our storefronts every Halloween has her origins in a figure who is seen to take the symbols of female oppression – the cooking pot, the broom – and imbue them with a uniquely transgressive magic. She takes the paraphernalia of the domestic, and she transforms them into objects of manifest power. In this way, the witch subverts social norms, and from her position on the margins of society, she asserts her agency and her defiance. Even more grounded discussions of the witch find power in this figure. In Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English’s study “Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers” witch persecutions are described as arising from the insecurity of patriarchal authorities confronted with the deep knowledge of female anatomy, herbalism, and reproductive science held by early-modern midwives, whom they describe as “doctors without degrees.” While the historicity of Ehrenreich and English’s claims have been disputed, the myth of the witch as healer, the oppressed woman filled with esoteric knowledge of field and forest, baby and birthing, has exerted an indelible influence on popular culture. The image of the witch as a persecuted, misunderstood, yet powerful figure has endured. It is understandable, then, that in the era of #Metoo, when sexual assault allegations still appear to go unheard and perpetrators unpunished, that so many of us would latch onto the secret suppressed power of the witch. As she stands, barefoot on the forest floor, the witch seems at once victim and victor. She endures the cruelest persecution drawn forth from the darkest reaches of the human imagination, but she also possesses a potent connection to nature and to a larger community of persecuted women. She draws on nature and sisterhood to avenge those who have wronged her because, lacking economic and political power, an affinity for the earth and the suppressed rage of abused womanhood are the only resources at her disposal.
At the same time, however, I wonder about these hexes and public cursings; I wonder about this retreat to an early-modern vision of a secretly powerful, eternally suppressed feminine. Is this return to the symbolism of witchcraft simply a retreat into fantasy? Indeed, many of my students read Thomasin’s disappearance into the darkened forest and her delirious laughter as a retreat into insanity. A number of my students argued that with her family dead, Thomasin has simply lost her mind and vanished into an imaginary world of forest-dwelling witches.
I admire the groups of women who, dressed as witches, met to curse Trump in Chicago, and I admire the collection of Wiccans and Pagans who will gather next weekend at Catland. However, I also question how far such symbolic acts really get us. Are they defiant and powerful, the vengeance of the disenfranchised, or are they merely symbolic revolt and comforting fantasy? Obviously, for those who follow the Pagan and Wiccan faiths, these hexes are meaningful religious ceremonies, and it is very important to acknowledge and respect that. But, at the same time, for the secular magazines and websites gleefully extolling these rituals as powerful acts of subversion, it is clear that what they are celebrating is the symbolic potency of the witch, her iconic stature as the apotheosis of female rebellion.
My students were conflicted, and so am I. However, perhaps the best way to look at the resurgence of witchy feminism (both now and back during the second wave of feminist activism in the 1960s and ’70s) is to consider that sometimes fantasy and symbolism can be both powerful and empowering. Think of Artemisia Gentileschi, the seventeenth-century Italian artist who, unable to exact vengeance or even demand justice from her rapist, instead painted brutal images of female revenge against patriarchal tyrants in works such as “Judith Beheading Holofernes”. Maybe sometimes fantasy and symbolism is not acquiescence but simply a means asserting one’s own voice and expressing imaginatively, symbolically or ritually the anger that cannot yet be expressed in reality. Perhaps, when we are at our most furious, most despondent, fantasy can be healing.