Witches have always walked among us, populating societies and storyscapes across the globe for thousands of years. From Circe to Hermione, from Morgan le Fay to Marie Laveau, the witch has long existed in the tales we tell about ladies with strange powers that can harm or heal. And although people of all genders have been considered witches, it is a word that is now usually associated with women.
Throughout most of history, she has been someone to fear, an uncanny Other who threatens our safety or manipulates reality for her own mercurial purposes. She’s a pariah, a persona non grata, a bogeywoman to defeat and discard. Though she has often been deemed a destructive entity, in actuality a witchy woman has historically been far more susceptible to attack than an inflictor of violence herself. As with other “terrifying” outsiders, she occupies a paradoxical role in cultural consciousness as both vicious aggressor and vulnerable prey.
Over the past 150 years or so, however, the witch has done another magic trick, by turning from a fright into a figure of inspiration. She is now as likely to be the heroine of your favorite TV show as she is its villain. She might show up in the form of your Wiccan coworker, or the beloved musician who gives off a sorceress vibe in videos or onstage.
There is also a chance that she is you, and that “witch” is an identity you have taken upon yourself for any number of reasons — heartfelt or flippant, public or private.
Today, more women than ever are choosing the way of the witch, whether literally or symbolically. They’re floating down catwalks and sidewalks in gauzy black clothing and adorning themselves with Pinterest-worthy pentagrams and crystals. They’re filling up movie theaters to watch witchy films, and gathering in back rooms and backyards to do rituals, consult tarot cards and set life-altering intentions. They’re marching in the streets with HEX THE PATRIARCHY placards and casting spells each month to try to constrain the commander-in-chief. Year after year, articles keep proclaiming, “It’s the Season of the Witch!” as journalists try to wrap their heads around the mushrooming witch “trend.”
And all of this begs the question: Why?
Why do witches matter? Why are they seemingly everywhere right now? What, exactly, are they? (And why the hell won’t they go away?)
I get asked such things over and over, and you would think that after a lifetime of studying and writing about witches, as well as hosting a witch-themed podcast and being a practitioner of witchcraft myself, my answers would be succinct.
In fact, I find that the more I work with the witch, the more complex she becomes. Hers is a slippery spirit: try to pin her down, and she’ll only recede further into the deep, dark wood.
I do know this for sure though: show me your witches, and I’ll show you your feelings about women. The fact that the resurgence of feminism and the popularity of the witch are ascending at the same time is no coincidence: the two are reflections of each other.
That said, this current Witch Wave is nothing new. I was a teen in the 1990s, the decade that brought us such pop-occulture as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Charmed and The Craft, not to mention riot grrrls and third-wave feminists who taught me that female power could come in a variety of colors and sexualities. I learned that women could lead a revolution while wearing lipstick and combat boots — and sometimes even a cloak.
But my own witchly awakening came at an even earlier age.
Morganville, New Jersey, where I was raised, was a solidly suburban town, but it retained enough natural land features back then to still feel a little bit scruffy in spots. We had a small patch of woods in our backyard that abutted a horse farm, and the two were separated by a wisp of running water that we could cross via a plank of wood. In one corner of the yard, a giant puddle would form whenever it rained, surrounded by a border of ferns. My older sister, Emily, and I called this spot our Magical Place. That it would vanish and then reappear only added to its mystery. It was a portal to the unknown.
These woods are where I first remember doing magic — entering that state of deep play where imaginative action becomes reality. I would spend hours out there, creating rituals with rocks and sticks, drawing secret symbols in the dirt, losing all track of time. It was a space that felt holy and wild, yet still strangely safe.
As we age, we’re supposed to stop filling our heads with such “nonsense.” Unicorns are to be traded in for Barbie dolls (though both are mythical creatures, to be sure). We lose our tooth fairies, walk away from our wizards. Dragons get slain on the altar of youth.
Most kids grow out of their “magic phase.” I grew further into mine.
My grandma Trudy was a librarian at the West Long Branch Library, which meant I got to spend many an afternoon lurking between the 001.9 and 135 Dewey decimal–sections, reading about Bigfoot and dream interpretation and Nostradamus. I spent countless hours in my room, learning about witches and goddesses, and I loved anything by authors like George MacDonald, Roald Dahl, and Michael Ende — writers fluent in the language of enchantment. Books were my broomstick. They allowed me to fly to other realms where anything was possible.
Though fictional witches were my first guides, I soon discovered that magic was something real people could do. I started frequenting new age shops and experimenting with mass-market paperback spell books from the mall. I was raised Jewish but found myself attracted to belief systems that felt more individualized and mystical and that fully honored the feminine. Eventually I found my way to modern Paganism, a self-directed spiritual path that sustains me to this day. I’m not unique in this trajectory of pivoting away from organized religion and toward something more personal: as of September 2017, more than a quarter of U.S. adults — 27% — now say that they think of themselves as spiritual but not religious, according to Pew Research Center.