Nouveau Witch: The Controversies & Complications Of Modern Witchcraft

It’s Witch Week at Refinery29 Canada, and we’re exploring the modern world of witchcraft. Each day, we'll examine a different aspect of the culture — as well as the camaraderie, controversy, and accoutrement that come with it.
To begin her daily practice, Liz Worth goes to the gym. Cardio is probably not the kind of ritual you’d associate with magic, but for Worth, it’s about connecting to her physical being and balancing mind and body. “If you spend too much time in those higher realms,” she says, “you can lose touch with your body.” Worth, who is 36 and works as an astrologer and tarot reader, says witchcraft has been part of her spiritual path for most of her life. (She describes herself as “not not a witch.”) When Worth gets back from the gym, she spends a few minutes at her altar, a crate in the corner of her bedroom covered in candles, incense, and a rotating collection of personal sacred objects. The time she devotes there is for setting intentions — sometimes it’s things she wants to accomplish that day, other times it’s making some space for greater goal-setting — and then she moves on with her day.
Worth’s connection to the craft overlaps significantly with modern wellness culture: one part mindfulness, one part personal empowerment, and just a dash of the supernatural. Some people write to-do lists and listen to the Headspace app, Worth lights candles and draws tarot cards. “Maybe there’s something behind that magical process,” she says, “that gives you an extra push.”
Also similar to wellness culture, witchcraft — both in its religious and secular forms — focuses on individualism. It’s a customizable blend of various forms of ancient spirituality, mythology, and folklore, which is why there are so many different types of witches. And also why witchcraft has found such a keen cohort in millennials, a group that appreciates looseness and lack of prescription. Even the Wicca creed — essentially that if you don’t cause harm, you can practice in whatever way your want — smacks of a certain ubiquitous contemporary mantra: You do you. And as the age of connectivity and instant gratification leaves a lot of women yearning for to connect with a deeper meaning — witchcraft has emerged as a popular path to spirituality. Extremely popular.
ICMYI: Witchcraft is in the midst of a major cultural moment, having bubbled up steadily over the last several years and reached its boiling point this fall — perhaps not surprising given that witchcraft has seeped into pop culture throughout history at times of strife. We see it on TV (new Sabrina! new Charmed!), in politics where the #MeToo movement has found a fitting mascot in the original “nasty woman,” in the increasing number of occult boutiques, and in the wide variety of witch swag for sale at mass retailers like H&M and Urban Outfitters, where healing crystals and pentagram dream catchers mingle with flower crowns and ironic eyewear. This month, thousands of Toronto witches participated in the second annual WitchFestNorth, a meld of speaker series and markets, that will close tonight with a Halloween eve Witch Walk. On social media, millions use #WitchesofInstagram, and even Starbucks has hopped on the broomstick, with a Witches Brew frapuccino released last week. Apparently it tastes like crap, but hey, it looks great with the Sierra filter.
A $7 drink that puts style over substance speaks to one of the many issues currently playing out as part of a larger culture war. Because if witchcraft has never been more mainstream, it has also never been more complicated, fractured, and fraught with issues like cultural appropriation, commercialization, racism, and populism. Most witches will agree that the new cultural caché has resulted in an increased level of awareness, which is a good thing, but from there, consensus on what it means to be a witch is hard to come by. I spoke with a number of young women about their personal relationship to witchcraft, an experience that felt less like The Craft and more like an episode of Four Weddings — where one bride will explain how she simply couldn’t fathom getting married without a brass band, and the next will say that brass bands are the height of tacky. On TV, this is a way of drumming up conflict to heighten drama, but in real life the divisiveness doesn’t wrap up neatly in 60 minutes.

“People think, ‘Oh, I like spooky makeup and pointy nails and I wear black,’ so they must be a witch.”

Sabrina Scott has been a practicing witch for 20 years, since she was 8. (Yes, that is her real name. No, she doesn't have any interest in the new Netflix reboot.) And while she’s not opposed to idea that witches practice in a way that works for them, she worries that if everyone is a witch these days (the yoga witch, the fashion witch, the political witch), then nobody is. “I know this is going to sound like a real old person ‘get off my lawn’ type of territorialism,” she says, “but words have meaning.” She pulls out her phone and shows me a meme that perfectly encapsulates her feelings on the status of modern witchery. It says: Some of y’all not even witches, just hurt bitches burning candles.
“People think, ‘Oh, I like spooky makeup and pointy nails and I wear black,’ so they must be a witch,” says Scott. The trendiness wouldn’t bother her so much, it’s just that the new “cutesy” version of witchcraft makes the whole thing feel toothless. Witchcraft, says Scott, is supposed to be a little scary. It’s about harnessing power. Women who want to engage in “me time” may be better off with salt baths or adult colouring books. “This idea of wellness and focusing inward — that’s actually a very neoliberal thing to do. Capitalism creates all of this stress and the solution is self-care, but then we put that burden onto ourselves rather than putting our attention on dismantling the system.” For Scott, dismantling the system is what witchcraft is all about. Which explains why contemporary feminism has forged a connection with the dark arts (see recent hexes against Donald Trump and Brett Kavanaugh).Witches have always embodied the perceived threat of female power; still Scott feels like there is a certain amount of co-opting going on when feminists employ witches as a shorthand for female rage.
Cultural appropriation was at the root of last month’s Sephora “Witch Kit” scandal, which eventually lead the makeup giant to pull the product from their shelves. The lunchbox-sized case containing tarot cards, sage, a crystal, and nine new scents was a marketing hook for a new perfume line by the perfume company Pinrose — and arguably a pretty clever one. Since the fashion pendulum swung from the normcore to mysticore, attaching a witchy vibe to a product has been good for business. Still, for many witches, seeing their craft pimped out by a massive retailer with no acknowledgement of the sacred culture that underlies the aesthetic felt wrong.
Katie Karpetz responded to the controversy by releasing an “ethically sourced witch kit” on her website, one of the country’s most popular online occult dispensaries. Karpetz, who has been a witch since she was a teenager (she would not disclose her current age), makes most of the products sold on her site. In her kit, the white sage came from a First Nations reserve, near her home in Edmonton, where she says the sellers knew what she was using it for and were paid fairly. She knows that some people will say she shouldn’t be selling white sage at all — the smudging ritual popular in witchcraft is derived from indigenous tradition.
Overall, Kapetz has mixed feelings about the Sephora kit since, sure, cultural appropriation is a factor. On the other hand, she imagines a little girl who doesn’t have access to witch culture, but can maybe ask for a Sephora gift card for her birthday. Liz Worth has similar feelings. She remembers being a kid in the suburbs who had trouble finding access to her budding interest. Even when it comes to H&M witch T-shirts, she is able to see the cauldron as half full, a sign that women feel safe to publicly celebrate their witch identities: “There was a time we could have burned for wearing those shirts.”
Cassandra Thompson appreciates the way in which the mainstream embracing of witchcraft has made many modern witches feel loud and proud, but says that not all members of the community are experiencing this same liberation. Thompson is 25 years old, black, and queer. When she was first getting into witchcraft, there were people in her community who wouldn’t shake her hand. “They thought I was working with the devil,” she says. Thompson is a witch, but prefers the title conjurer because it recognizes witchcraft’s Afro-Diasporic roots. It’s a connection that she says has been largely left out of the fashionable witch craze, particularly on social media where the white-washed witchy aesthetic often recalls a spooky American Eagle ad.
Her discomfort with branded witchcraft doesn’t end there. A couple of years ago, Thompson says she was becoming “a semi-popular witch on the Internet,” but decided to take a step back. The public-facing aspect lead to a competitiveness, that she says felt at odds with witchcraft’s anti-capitalistic ethos. “Everyone wants to be the most powerful, the most popular.” In other words, it’s a battle for followers and likes, which sounds less like a condition of modern witches than of women in general.
The witch meme that strikes me most is one that says: “Am I a good witch or bad witch? Depends on how much coffee there is.” Because what better way to encapsulate the extent to which witchcraft has fallen prey to the Instagram-friendly version of womanhood (pretty, non-threatening, competitive within our own ranks, lest we turn our attention outward)? It reminded me of something Sabrina Scott had said about how old stereotypes (the nasty wicked witch) have just been replaced with new, more palatable ones. “If I had to choose,” she said. “I’d rather be the scary old hag covered in warts.”

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