The Rise and Rise of the Modern Witch

As Halloween looms, the witches are rising. These witches carry placards not broomsticks, but they are following in the footsteps of women who have for years thrown off oppressive authorities and struck fear into the hearts of the ruling powers. Women have been associated with a dark magic for thousands of years – in the late nineteenth century, Chinese rebels attributed control of the wind and defensive powers to prepubescent girls called ‘the Red Lanterns’, and menstruating women were hugely powerful weapons in battle.

The patriarchy has oppressed this female power for centuries – within the West, the traditional concept of witchcraft is heavily influenced by the Christian notion of a theosophical battle between good and evil, with witchcraft generally associated with evil. This resulted in years of persecution, but modern day Christian views range from intense belief and opposition, to non-belief, to approval in some churches. Modern witchcraft has become an established branch of modern paganism and the shroud of secrecy around witchcraft is lifting. Beyond the Western world, many cultures continue to have widespread practices and cultural beliefs that in English are loosely grouped together as ‘witchcraft’. Historically, attitudes towards these beliefs wereoften heavily influenced by Western hostility towards witches, and witch hunts still occur today.

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But as modern day witchcraft emerges from the shadows, the movement is stoking the fire of feminism. In the 1960s, several US groups campaigned under the acronym ‘WITCH’, from the Women’s International Terrorism Conspiracy from Hell to Women Incensed at Telephone Company Harassment. More recently, the rise of the#MeToo campaign has been mirrored by a rise in the number of women identifying as witches and several witchcraft traditions are increasingly focussed on sexual assault and right-wing politics – a coven recently met to hex Brett Kavanaugh, and mass hexing followed Trump’s presidential inauguration. Against a US administration quick to brand any criticism as a witch-hunt, the so-called ‘nasty women’ have reclaimed the name and the movement to turned the tables on the president.

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However cynical you might be about the magic or power of witches and their hexes, there is no doubting the community building power of such rituals. The term witch has been used for centuries to signify fear and empowerment, often at the same time. The contradictions that modern witches embody – sexually empowered but psychologically mystical,possessing hidden knowledge but led by instinct, eccentric and haggard but intensely seductive – allow for the intricacies that are innate to all people, but often denied to women by the madonna/whore dichotomy. Modern witches are complex, varied and powerful. They are the nasty women the patriarchy fears and they are rising.

Shake Your Woolly Pom-poms: Winter’s Coming

As Noddy Holder once nearly said, ‘Its WIINNTTEERRR.’ I am, according to one friend, ‘a bit weird about winter.’ But although  I might be in a minority when it comes to the cold, as a nation, we can get quite emotional about the changing seasons. One in fifteen of us are affected by Seasonal Affected Depression, and the excitement that consumes us (and can grind us to a halt) during a surprise heatwave or snowstorm, although often mocked, is genuine nonetheless. We are obsessed with weather and the rituals that comes with the changing of the seasons, such as my family’s refusal to eat porridge before September 1st. My family in particular has quite visceral reactions to the shift in seasons. There are already complaints about the chilly mornings, the early nights and the mounds of leaves along the pavement – I truly believe that my mum in particular is only in England as a result of some terrible mix-up. Somewhere in Southern France, there is a sunburnt woman who dreams of the persistent drizzle of Manchester and a good stew.

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Frosty uni, toasty Lauren

Since the age of four, most of us have had our annual schedule set by school holidays, so it’s not surprising that as summer approaches, many of us are taken over by a child-like joy. We stroll around, happy in the knowledge that there is no maths homework looming, no presentations to prepare for. Instead we can wander aimlessly, spending our pocket money in Claire’s and slurping ice cream. Of course, the reality for anyone who has long since left education behind is that everything is exactly the same as it was two months ago, except that day drinking is now acceptable and it becomes clear that no jacket is the right weight for a British summer. But whilst we greet summer with open arms, winter is regarded with distinct distain. My mum has been campaigning for a christmas in the sun for years, and she’s not the only one who awaits the long nights and frosty mornings with a sense of impending doom.

I think its time, then, that somebody stood up for winter. The accepted rhetoric that November to February is a barren wasteland of drizzle and cynical christmas marketing means that you do have to search a little deeper for the joy of a cold day, but it is there. I find winter simply delicious. To be able to step outside onto a crunchy carpet of frost and see trails of mist rising off a river whilst wrapped up in an oversized jumper, or to cradle a hot cup of coffee and feel the warmth emanate through you; summer might be one long lazy dream, but winter is full of gorgeous snapshots like these. There is no better feeling than entering a warm building when your fingertips and nose are tickled pink by the cold, unless it is being curled up in front of Harry Potter with a toppling pile of lasagne perched on your knee.

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Winter bonus

Winter smells of gingerbread, pine trees and a the embers of a dying pub fire. Any and all clothing is allowed to be glittery, fluffy and knitted. The build up to Christmas is truly joyous – I dare anyone not to delight in a town sparkling with lights or the sincerity with which Father Christmas letters are written. And it’s not just the festive cheer that I adore. Winter brings people together. They check on their elderly neighbours, bake for the halloween/bonfire/christmas themed cake sale, meet up with far-flung family and friends. Like penguins in the Arctic, winter makes us huddle, sharing our warmth and protecting the vulnerable. Summer is fun, but winter is glorious, and it’s about time we donned a woolly jumper, grabbed a hot chocolate and embraced our inner penguin.

Puppy lovin’

I recently carried out a very brief experiment to see how many times in a day I could give my money or time a cause. On my walk to university, I passed four charity shops, all of which permanently need money and volunteers; I received an average of two emails a day asking me to donate or sign a petition; Facebook and Twitter were full of individuals doing incredible fundraising events with links to a JustGiving page. I have been one of those trying desperately to find the happy medium of raising as much money as possible while not annoying those around me – it is an infuriating and rewarding process that was almost as tricky as the marathon itself (#humblebrag).

With so many opportunities to give to good causes, it is easy to feel overwhelmed. As a nation, we are pretty good at giving money to charity, but less generous with our time. According to the Charities Aid Foundation (CAF), the amount of money donated in 2017 increased, but the number of people giving has fallen, and generally less than 20% of us have volunteered at some point in the last 12 months. In our online world, it is easy to donate online or sign a quick petition. This online activism, or clicktivism, is often scoffed at but it is a crucial part of modern activism – Gina Martin’s upskirting campaign is a brilliant demonstration of how effective it can be. But there is still a need for good, old-fashioned volunteering. A donation cannot lobby MPs. A petition cannot run a shop. A hashtag cannot train as a coastguard.

Apart from a brief stint at the National Trust to get my Bronze DofE – which I am still yet to complete – I am as idle as the next woman when it comes to volunteering. But five months ago, a tiny bundle arrived in my life which convinced me that I can no longer get away with signing the occasional petition. After a bout of Multiple Sclerosis that led to substantial sight loss, my mum has always been interested in training guide dogs. This April that abstract interest materialised into a very real black and gold ball of fluff called Zoe, who collects dirty socks, can never refuse a puddle and patiently waits at the top of stairs. She bops smaller dogs on the nose, inhales her food and is learning to guide someone along a street. My mum walks her every day in her very important blue coat and we all take great delight in explaining that she is a guide dog puppy, and can therefore go wherever she damn well pleases.

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Zoe at eight weeks

For a whole year, the Woodhead world will be controlled by the demands of a creature who barks at her own reflection, before she hopefully goes to continue her training at Guide Dog school. Of course we will miss her more than I ever thought possible. Of course there is a chance that she won’t make it – guide dogs fail for all sorts of reasons. The hours of work that my mum has spent teaching her, worrying about her and loving her may result instead in a gorgeous therapy dog or even just an adoring addition to another family. But a couple of months ago, a partially sighted little boy and his mum stopped us in the street to enquire about the process and say hello to Zoe. Tiny hands followed the curve of her spine, prodded her oversized paws and brushed her mad-professor eyebrows, building a picture of Zoe through touch instead of sight. As they left, his mum explained to him that one day, he would get a dog like that. A dog who could lead him through life, explore countless opportunities with him and anchor him in a world that is constantly unfamiliar and hostile to those without sight.

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Zoe’s ‘Guide Dog Puppy in Training’ coat

It is encounters like this that have convinced me that by helping to train Zoe, my mum is contributing something immeasurable to society. Volunteering takes time, it can be boring and unrewarding. It is easy to feel that a day spent behind the counter of a charity shop, a weekend spent sweeping leaves, or a year spent walking a dog is only a drop in an enormous pond. We are constantly asking ourselves ‘what about x cause, what about y cause’ and it can stop us from committing to anything. But by committing to Zoe we have made a definitive impact. We are all able to make a difference, and Zoe has shown me that however small the drop is, you are still a part of that pond.

You can help support Guide Dogs UK here or search for other volunteering opportunities near you on the Do-it Database