Hot Witch Autumn?
“Yeah, I did it. Why not? Look, I do a lot of shit,” Lana del Rey admits, confirming that she put a hex on Donald Trump, and encouraged her fans to do the same.
Put on your cloaks, ladies and gents, it’s officially the season of the witch.
Witches have been a quintessential part of Halloween culture in America pretty much since the commercialization of the holiday, but our societal relationship with witches has grown to be so much more. Witchcraft, once limited to a cheap costume with a green hooked nose and pointy hat, has now become a symbolic means of empowerment for young women. But how did we get here?
First let’s take a look at contemporary witchcraft. Contemporary witchcraft has gotten so popular with Gen Z and Millennial women, it would be no stretch of thought to call it a quasi mainstream trend. Contemporary witchcraft is largely characterized by the use of crystals, astrology, manifestation, essential oils, natural remedies, tarot cards, spells, and sometimes meditation. Whether on purpose or not, practitioners of contemporary witchcraft often adhere to a particular aesthetic.
This is actually super interesting because the go to aesthetics of contemporary witches tends to be reminiscent of either victorian, 70s, or 90s aesthetics and overall vibes. A potential reason for this could be that witches gained popularity at these times. First, the victorian period because the establishment of official pagan and wicca covens occurred. Then the 70s, because Stevie Nicks (duh). Then the 90s, as a result of the pervasion of edgy culture in the mainstream through productions such as The Craft, Charmed, and Sabrina the Teenage Witch.
But anyways, contemporary witchcraft can most likely be traced back to the beginning of civilization and society. This is because many so-called ‘witches’ in the olden days were actually early practitioners of medicine, who used plants to create natural remedies, but this didn’t jive so well with people who didn’t understand how it worked, so many of these women faced persecution.
This is where it gets a bit complicated. It is true that many women who were accused of witchcraft were in fact natural healers, and people tend to call what they don’t understand evil. However, there is also a strong religious history that intertwines with witchcraft.
One of the earliest records of witchcraft is in the Bible. In the Bible, witches are characterized as women with supernatural powers, rather than medicinal ones, meaning that witches had powers such as contacting the dead and predicting the future. This is pretty interesting considering that women who made herbal tea for sick people and women who literally (ok not literally but you get the point) raised the dead began to be lumped together under the same category.
This becomes a very important factor going into the 15 century. Masses of women in Europe were harassed, tortured, and executed because they were thought to be witches. At the time, Catholicism dominated Europe, and those who deviated from traditional practice of it were assumed to be pagans and devil worshippers, which is honestly a bit weird because paganism and satanism are totally different things. Anyway, those who deviated from traditional practice of Catholicism were often single women, widowers, and women who chose unorthodox careers, such as natural healing. These women were accused as witches and executed by the masses through the 16th century and a portion of the 17th century under the assumption that they were workers of the devil.
Then, this same hysteria made its way across the Atlantic during the late 1600s. Though there were many instances of witchcraft and persecution for practicing it, the most notable are the Salem Witch Trials. Again, many women who deviated from societal norms were mass executed, jailed, and tortured. Though the persecution of witches subsided, the stigma surrounding them remained even though the official establishment of wicca.
For the most part, society lost their interest in witchcraft until the 1800s, when Charles Godfrey Leland kickstarted the establishment of wicca, though it was officially established in the 1950s. Wicca is officially recognized as a religion, but many casual practitioners of witchcraft borrow from wiccan practices and beliefs, such as celebrating Halloween ( which they call Samhain) and practicing in a coven. Wicca served as a means for clarification of what actually makes a witch, which is in great opposition to previous understandings of witches as they were often largely ambiguous and subjective.
This brings us to the 1980s and 1990s, when movies and shows like The Witches of Eastwick, Practical Magic, The Craft, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and Charmed became extremely popular, particularly amongst female audiences. Each of these productions follows the story of a woman or a couple of women who are at a loss of power in life and find empowerment through practicing magic. This loss of power is typically characterized by being a shy newcomer in school, experiencing a traumatic loss, being a social pariah, or simply just deviating from the status quo. Sound familiar?
Themes of women rejecting societal norms and not fitting with their peers has been prevalent since the existence of witchcraft. In fact, though witchcraft became much more mainstream during the 80s and 90s, it was mostly associated with grunge and alternative culture, which drew in more ‘social outcasts’ than not. Additionally, even though witchcraft has become much more mainstream (they even sell mini spellbooks in Urban Outfitters), it still draws in a very specific demographic of young women.
All in all, it seems like the growing involvement of young women with witchcraft is largely tied to the autonomy associated with practicing witchcraft. Throughout history, a defining characteristic of witches is their divergence from norms and becoming empowered as a result. For the first witches, this meant working as healers despite confusion from those around them. For the witches in the 15th through 17th centuries, this meant being single or being a widow. For the witches that graced television screens in the 80s and 90s, this could mean pursuing a career instead of a family, being ok with being unpopular in highschool, being sexually liberated, and more.
All of these lessons learned from the witches of history have served to communicate that witches can be many things but in the face of adversity they all are one very important thing: strong. Witchcraft, though sinister on its face, actually seems to be a means for people, particularly women, to find empowerment through embracing their identity. And when you look at it like that, it makes total sense why so many young women seem to be practicing some form of witchcraft nowadays.
As for whether today’s witches actually have magical powers, maybe we’ll never know…
P.s. we have a spotify playlist for all you witches out there
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