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.
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.
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.