The origins of the modern-day “witch”: Why we should celebrate witches this Halloween

Illustration of a practicing witch standing in front of and picking a visual out from her altar.
Armaan Mumtaz/Staff

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This Halloween weekend, as many children and college students alike don black, pointy hats to celebrate the season — though, this year, by putting on a witch’s hat and sitting down to watch a spooky movie — the image of the witch, an old lady with green skin riding a broomstick, will once again be resurrected for the holiday. Come Nov. 1, she will be stored away for next year, when she will be once again strung up on storefront windows or dangled from a tree in front of a festively decorated home.

However, in recent years, modern-day fascination with witches has transcended beyond Halloween. The number of believers in Wicca, a neo-pagan religion associated with witchcraft, stemming from amateur anthropologist and retired British civil servant Gerald Garner’s writings on Wicca in 1954, is speculated to be at an all-time high. According to a 2014 Pew Research Center report, the U.S. population of Wiccans and pagans has reached 730,000 adults. Compared with a 2008 U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey placing the number of Wiccans at 342,000, the number of adults identifying with Wicca has grown dramatically over a relatively short period of time. A lucrative industry surrounding spirituality associated with witchcraft, mainly catered toward young people, has emerged. Items such as crystals, candles and subscription “witch boxes” containing incense, teas and “altar starter kits” that merge the wellness industry with “essential” items for the modern-day witch are being sold.

In a political climate that is not only unpredictable, but for many, unstable, and periodically challenges women’s autonomy over their bodies, the witch emerges as an empowering figure to be embodied rather than feared. Despite being brought up on stories of mean old women who steal children and cast evil spells, many are turning to witchcraft as a means to assert control over their natural and social surroundings, finding in Wiccanism and paganism a spiritual alternative to other established religions.

Modern-day witchcraft reclaims the witch as a symbol of female empowerment and rebellion, characteristics that have, for centuries, been disassociated with witchcraft and the witch trials. The study of the witch trials by historians was virtually nonexistent before the feminist movement of the 1970s, and the content that remained often depicted victims of the witch trials as unstable or deserving of their fate.

Before the mid-15th century, while witchcraft and magic were criticized by the Roman Catholic Church, witchcraft that didn’t harm other people or things was not criminalized. Witchcraft, magic and superstition were commonplace in the medieval and Renaissance daily life, especially among peasant populations.

However, in 1486, after the publication of the “Hammer of Witches,” a treatise on witchcraft written by Catholic clergyman Heinrich Kramer, witchcraft was officially condemned by the church, and the first witch trials began to take hold over Europe. Silvia Federici, author of the book “Caliban and the Witch,” argues that witchcraft was criminalized as a means to assert control over women who, through their bodies and their social power, posed a threat to an emerging capitalist Europe. Federici writes that these trials were used as a tactic to frighten women into subordination, marriage and reproduction.

Federici’s opinion wasn’t far off from what many thinkers of the time thought of the witch trials during its height in the mid-16th century. Thomas Hobbes, the famed English philosopher, remarked that the witch trials were a necessary form of social control. Women’s bodies served as tools of the state, and once the European peasant population declined due to famine and disease, women who refused to marry or give birth became a threat to the state, which needed a large peasant population to perform unskilled labor.

In the Middle Ages, women often sought out older “wise women” and midwives for contraception and abortion. Women would enter the house of a midwife and leave with a “potion” to terminate an unwanted pregnancy or alter her hormones or period. The witch hunt demonized birth control and nonprocreative sexuality, charging women with sacrificing their children or other women’s children to the devil.

Themes surrounding witchcraft, such as the sacrification of children, the destruction of crops and livestock, harm to the upper classes and the witches’ Sabbath, a meeting between witches at night by the light of a fire to engage in sexual acts and cannibalism, characterized the upper class’s fears of the peasantry during the height of the witch trials. Early on in the witch trials, the witch was often depicted as an elderly widow who would beg for food or money from neighboring households. Early witch trials accused elderly women of cursing those who refused her milk or alms, or killing their children once a baby died from disease or malnourishment.

The witch trials coincided with the peasant wars, in which peasants waged revolts, many of which were led by women, against the aristocracy. The witches’ Sabbath, in which women were characterized as meeting at night by the fire, paralleled the secret meetings of the peasantry to revolt against the aristocracy, and thus was criminalized as “witchcraft.”

Sexual power, the bonds of female friendship and relationships, solidarity amongst women, female-led resistance and resistance to patriarchal roles — characteristics that the Catholic clergymen at the time demonized and criminalized — are characteristics that uniquely demonstrate the power of women. What once was an accepted part of daily life was transformed into something to be feared. The power of the witch, in reality, is the power of women.

Modern reclaiming of witchcraft reclaims the power of women as something that is magical. In a society that still criminalizes women’s autonomy over their own bodies and sexuality as something that is evil, witchcraft is a welcome opportunity to connect to the power of femininity and to “magic,” a spiritual connection to nature and deities that exist outside of social control and are accessible by anyone.

This Halloween, which lands on a full moon, grab your crystals, candles, coven and talismans (if available) and connect to your inner witch. Whether you are a practicing witch or not, modern witchcraft demonstrates something radical and something to be celebrated as the flexing of female power, especially during a year in which a woman’s right to abortion, and perhaps birth control, may very well be stripped away — the spookiest reality of all.