Rapper Azealia Banks brought witchcraft back into the mainstream by tweeting ‘I’m really a witch’. But women in the US have been harnessing its power for decades as a ‘spiritual but not religious’ way to express feminist ambitions.
“I’m really a witch,” rapper Azealia Banks quipped last January, shortly before all hell broke loose on her Twitter account.
Banks is known for her online rants. She tends to share fairly dense ideas, spontaneously spun out in punchy lines liberally interspersed with curse words. I don’t know a person on this earth who can agree with every one of them, but her opinions are smarter than she usually gets credit for.
Still, even by Banks’s standards, the witch thing was weird. It came out in the middle of a run about black Americans and their relationship to Christianity:
I wonder if most of the black American Christians in the US know WHY they are Christian. I wonder if they even consider for a SECOND that before their ancestors came to the Americas that they may have believed in something ELSE.
Not uncontroversial, but not wrong. Banks then suddenly took a hard left into what seemed like either a joke, or an unexpected embrace of Harry Potter fan fiction. She went on:
But really, it’s all about magic. The most magical people are the ones who have to deal with oppression, because the non-magical are jealous. That’s why Jews and Blacks have been persecuted over and over again throughout history. because they have the most magic … all I’m trying to say is that black people are naturally born SEERS, DIVINERS, WITCHES AND WIZARDS. we have REAL supernatural powers, and the sooner we ALL learn to cultivate them and access them, the sooner we can REALLY fix shit.
Then she joked that racism might end a lot sooner if black people could make their enemies sicken and die with a thought, and of course the rightwing publications started sounding the klaxons.
It was the strangest thing: simply by calling herself a witch in public, Banks had managed to evoke real fear. Rightwingers treated her as if she were actually planning to blight crops and hex her enemies, all the while claiming that they didn’t believe in witchcraft.
Given the strength of the reaction, you would think that Banks was the first woman to cross over to the dark side. You would be wrong. Witchcraft – and the embrace of “magical” practices, like reading tarot cards – has recently experienced a resurgence of sorts among young, creative, politically engaged women.
This is largely reflected in niche corners of US pop culture: 2013’s American Horror Story: Coven, in which witchcraft stood in for girl power, was the most popular American Horror Story season ever. A popular Tumblr blog, Charmcore, purports to be run by three witch sisters; it gives sarcastic “magical” advice and praise of the female celebrities it deems to be “obvious witches”. On the more serious side, teen sensation Rookie magazine has published tarot tutorials along with more standard-issue feminist and fashion advice, and Autostraddle, a popular left-leaning blog for young queer women, has an in-house tarot columnist. Speaking of which, those tarot cards are available in trendy Brooklyn knickknack shops and Urban Outfitters, as well as new age stores. And these days, no one thinks there’s anything weird about herbal medicine and other potions.
In vogue or not, Banks was continuing a heritage of women’s activism that stretches back decades by expressing her politics and invoking the fearsome power of a “witch”.
“To reclaim the word witch is to reclaim our right, as women, to be powerful,” wrote Starhawk, in her seminal 1979 book The Spiral Dance. “To be a witch is to identify with 9 million victims of bigotry and hatred and to take responsibility for shaping a world in which prejudice claims no more victims.”
Today, The Spiral Dance is in its third edition, and has sold over 300,000 copies. It is many people’s first introduction to Wicca, the earth-based spiritual movement that was created in the 1950s and has come to be a recognized religion around the world. It is also one of the most well known and comprehensive texts from a very particular moment in feminist history which until recently was largely unfashionable: the “women’s spirituality” movement, in which women radically rewrote existing religions, or simply made their own to be in line with the goals of women’s liberation.
“I’ve been involved with this resurgence of interest in spirituality since the 1960s,” Starhawk told me during a phone conversation. “It’s like suddenly the world opened up and people realized there wasn’t just Judaism, Christianity, Islam. There was a whole world of eastern religions and traditions. In the 1970s, with the resurgence of the feminist movement, a lot of us began to investigate a feminist spirituality and the goddess traditions of Europe and the Middle East.”
Wicca, with its focus on a goddess (rather than a male god – though it has those too) and its relatively open approach to creating canon, was a natural fit for many feminist women interested in writing their own spiritual script. But women who weren’t explicitly Wiccan were also drawn to “witchy” ways of processing the world: not only did women make feminist tarot cards in the 1970s, author Alice Walker personally endorsed one set – the Motherpeace deck. Feminist psychologists such as Jean Shinoda Bolen and Clarissa Pinkola Estés wrote books on using goddess imagery and myths as means of understanding female subjectivity.
It’s tempting to write all this off as fluffy woo-woo stuff (a trivialization of which Starhawk is well aware: “We’re no more nutty than most religions,” she says, “and probably a lot less nutty than some”). But the politics are there, and they hold up; mixed in with the spells and rituals of The Spiral Dance, you will find meditations on sexual violence, ecology and anarchist group building, and thoughts on how men can overcome patriarchal conditioning in order to participate effectively in leftwing activism.
What’s more, in the moment that Starhawk and others like her were practicing witchcraft as a religion, non-religious women were also claiming the witch as a symbol of their feminist ambitions. The 1970s socialist-feminist collective Witch – the letters stood for anything the leaders felt like from moment to moment, but Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell was a popular choice – held theatrical protests, starting by “hexing” the New York stock exchange and going on to attend a “bridal fair” where they unleashed white mice into the crowd.
Their protest chants were particularly catchy: “Double, bubble, war and rubble/ When you mess with women, you’ll be in trouble”.
It was a gimmick, but it resonated: “Because Witch actions could be done with a small group and were both fun and political, they quickly spread around the country,” writes Jo Freeman. “Boston women hexed bars. DC women hexed the presidential inauguration. Chicago women zapped everything.”
I asked Starhawk why she thought the iconography of the witch had such persistence in activist circles. After all, feminists could be going around calling themselves harpies, or sirens. Of all the mythological images we could pick, why does this one stick?
“I think that part of the power of the word is that it refers to a kind of power that is not legitimized by the authorities,” Starhawk says. “Even though not all witches are women, and a lot of men are witches, it seems to connote women’s power in particular. And that’s very scary in a patriarchal world – the kind of power that’s not just coming from the hierarchical structure, but some kind of inner power. And to use it to serve the ends that women have always stood for, like nurturing and caring for the next generation – that, I think, is a wonderfully dangerous prospect.”
“In each wave of feminism there’s this renewed respect for the women that came before us,” says Beth Maiden, Autostraddle’s tarot columnist who also runs the website littleredtarot.com. “I think we like to identify with the stories of women who were persecuted in the past – wise women, witches, women who practiced that kind of ‘kitchen table’ healing that wasn’t part of the patriarchal progression of medicine.”
This means identifying, as women of the 1960s and 1970s did, with ancient myths and iconography of goddesses, or with the mythological figure of the witch. But it may also mean a renewed respect for those women: the legacy of their spirituality movement seems to have been quietly re-incorporated back into the mainstream of feminism.
This is part of a larger phenomenon – the tendency for Gen X-ers and those who came after them to be “spiritual but not religious”. Rather than converting to one set mythology, younger people tend to pull spiritual ideas and practices from any source that works.
There’s something deeply appealing in the notion of being put in touch with an inner source of power that can’t be taken away. Not that this power needs to be something nebulous and mystical: as Suzy X, one of Rookie’s tarot teachers and frontwoman of “witchcore” punk band Shady Hawkins, says, it can be pretty damn pragmatic.
“I think one of the biggest conspiracies of a male-dominated society is the suppression of feminine intuition, in that women have been conditioned to second-guess our own hunches, or second-guess our own abilities, all the time,” she told me. “You know when you can just tell someone is creepy, right off the bat? That’s your intuition speaking.”
Embracing the witchiness – deciding you can know something about your life by looking at tarot cards and listening to your hunches, or trying to affect a situation by focusing your will on it – might be just a process by which women can come to trust themselves.
There’s also the pull of the taboo, of being a woman who does what she’s not supposed to: “It feels incredible to use all the aspects of being a woman which the dominant culture considers to be signs of weakness, like emotional sensitivity or a menstrual cycle, as tools when you are giving a reading or doing a spell,” says Marty Windahl, proprietor of Tarotscopes. “This is really the heart of being a witch for me, turning everything on its head. That, and making treasure of trash.”
Since she got in trouble for it the first time, Banks has doubled down on the witch thing, tweeting about full moon parties, card readings and her herbal cabinet.
Tell the white media that you’re a voodoo king and you like to drink rooster blood and chew glass. Stop trying to get them to relate. LOL.
She may be joking, but her objectives – to identify with persecuted ancestors, to reclaim lost ways of seeing the world, to claim the ability to be powerful and scary – are part of a long tradition. Images of witchcraft call to so many women – straight and not, white and of color, religious and devoutly atheist – because the task of reclaiming the witch is a fundamentally poetic one.
The witch, that strange woman at the edge of town – crazy, scary, ugly, disliked, but maybe, just maybe, smarter than anyone else in town – well, that’s all of us.