Do Witches Exist? A (Very) Brief Treatise On The Existence Of Witches

Witches have been getting a lot of press recently. Mostly, this comes in the form of the petulant cries of “Witch hunt!” from right-wing pundits (and the presidential Twitter) regarding the Mueller investigation. You may have also read a story last month about the Christian group that prayed to protect Trump from witches, which many rational people called “batshit.” Today, the witch has resurfaced, thanks to the stupid man’s smart man, Jordan Peterson.

Peterson is getting flack on Twitter today for suggesting that witches exist. All the “actual smart people” are up in arms (this particular tweet was even shared by one of my favorite skeptics, Seth Andrews of The Thinking Atheist, which made me sad):

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m down to laugh at this faux-philosopher any day of the week. But in a world full of laughable Peterson quotes, why focus on this one? Or rather, why mock him for talking about the existence of witches when you could critique him on, say, the (arguably racist) stereotype of them being swamp-dwellers or the (historically harmful) stereotype of them being lumped into the same category as “the category predator and the category dragon”?

Because — and I can’t believe I have to say this in the age of the internet— but witches actually do exist. I know this, because I am one. And, as a scholar of historical witchcraft, I can attest to the fact that they were around before most of the major religions were twinkles in their Sky Daddies’ eyes.

Am I saying that witches actually fly around on broomsticks, have demonic orgies, boast bright green faces, or stand over cauldrons whispering about bubbling and toiling and troubling? No, of course not. And we’re going to get into such absurd propaganda tactics used against witches later in this post. But to laugh at the idea that they exist, or even to diminish them to a stereotype or archetype as Peterson has done, is not only blatantly misguided but also a perpetration of a millennia-long war on the idea of powerful women. Okay, stay with me here. Let’s break it down.

Some Current Witchy Statistics

According to a study on American religion done by the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, the annual growth of witches in the U.S. averaged 143% between 1990-2001. Alex Mar, a journalist and author who dove deep into the subculture of witchcraft in America, estimates that as of 2016 there are at least a million witches in the United States, “comparable to Seventh-Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses.” Meanwhile, the popular networking website Meetup boasts 113,450 witches worldwide, with some of the largest American gatherings in New York ( 4,042), Los Angeles (2,495), Salt Lake City (2,073), Kansas City (1,615), and Tulsa (1,520). Hell, witches even have their own version of ComiCon: PantheaCon.

And that’s just in the United States, where witches are (sort of) tolerated. Are you ready for some less happy numbers? Because they’re coming up. For now, suffice it to say that unless you are ready to disagree with the actual numbers, witches in some form do exist in this world. At least, as much as Seventh-Day Adventists or Jehovah’s Witnesses exist.

But Witches Are Ridiculous And Scary

In perhaps the most impressive smear campaign in history, society has taught us to laugh at and fear witches simultaneously. The word “witch” itself is a strange dichotomy, invoking (depending on the audience) either scoffs or shudders. This is not an accident. This is exactly the reaction you’re supposed to have when confronted by this idea.

From the 2015 film “The Last Witch Hunter”

The fear of witches is old, old, old. As I mentioned, Goddess worship (the precursor of modern witchcraft) was around long before most religions. Middle Eastern and African high priestesses presided over advanced civilizations 15,000 years before the Indo-European warriors came down from the north and obliterated them. Around 3,000 BCE, these warriors imposed their violent, male-centric pantheons by force, which evolved into most recognizable religions of today (Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Norse mythology, Greek and Roman mythologies, etc.) You can see echoes of this blatant war on Goddess worship even in our most cherished Bible stories: the vilification of Woman in Genesis (especially combined with the serpent, a historic symbol related to priestesses) is some of the oldest anti-witch propaganda out there.

This fear has resurfaced many times, which we’ll discuss in the section on witch hunts. For now, understand that when you see someone scared of witches, you’re seeing ancient history and ingrained culture on full display. After all, the percentage of witches out there is still small (and the percentage of scary, morally ambiguous witches is smaller still): these people who are afraid of witches have never met one, let alone been put in a compromising position by one. So where is their fear coming from? Propaganda.

From Disney’s “The Sword in the Stone”

But what about the ridiculousness of it? What makes intellectuals who otherwise tend to do research before drawing conclusions dismiss the idea of witches outright? Because if you can’t scare something out of existence, you try to laugh it away. When media is not perpetuating the stereotype of terrifying, demon-screwing monster, they are displaying the ridiculous, green-faced hag. (And even then, the most iconic witchy accessories — the broomstick, the black hat, the cauldrons — are not so much from actual witches as they are from sixteenth and seventeenth century anti-witch propaganda).

Even the Harry Potter series, trend-bucking as it might be, is wildly off base and doesn’t do anything to make witches seem any more legitimate or realistic. Indeed, even the most preliminary investigation into the subject will reveal that J.K. Rowling doesn’t know what she’s talking about. (Yes, I’m a bit salty that the only socially acceptable witchcraft spokesperson exploited an ancient, disenfranchised culture without a smidge of actual research.)

Okay, So Then Who Are These Witches

Witches are, at the most basic level, people who choose to identify as such. There are a number of strains of witchcraft, from Gardnerian to Dianic to Feri to eclectic. Each of these groups hold varying beliefs, rituals, traditions, and histories. Because of their aversion to hierarchy or authoritarianism, there is no overarching dogma to uphold. The closest thing to an official set of rules would be the “13 Principles of Wiccan Belief” penned by the Council of American Witches in 1973. And this was mostly a clarifying document for the benefit of a skittish public.

Witches can be parts of covens, they could be solitary practitioners. They could approach their tradition as a full-on religion or as a craft, a practical thing with no higher spiritual connotations at all. They might be Goddess worshipers, Christian, Buddhist, neo-pagans, etc. Many witches are also atheists (hi, that’s me), choosing not to believe in any god but rather taking a naturalistic pantheistic approach to the universe. While many witches are women (it is a traditionally feminist culture), some of the most prominent witches, including Gerald Gardner and Raymond Buckland, were male.

And the magic thing? A perpetual agnostic, I’m not going to make claims about what “magic” is, or whether whatever it is exists or doesn’t exist. What constituted as witchcraft back then would be called midwifery, homeopathy, or medical science today. So who knows. I can, however, guarantee the sparkling explosions of light from the tips of gnarled wands is a thing of fiction. No one’s running around yelling Avada Kedavra (if only because it would violate the Wiccan Rede and put you on shaky ground regarding the Rule of Three).

The Profound Insensitivity Of The Political Term “Witch Hunt”

So why do I care? Why write this post in the first place, wasting both of our time on a brief overview of a subculture that barely scratches the surface? Well, for one thing, I’m just tired of being erased. It’s exhausting to have to remind people that my identities exist: atheist, witch, bisexual, you name it, I’ve had to contend with the systemic erasure of all of them. Like, I really don’t care if you are disturbed by my existence or agree with it, but at least acknowledge I exist.

But there’s a bigger issue here, and it has very real, very deadly consequences. The word “witch hunt” as been tossed around a lot in this past year (thanks to the Mueller investigation and the subsequent panic it is causing in the White House).

This isn’t even the one where he called it “the biggest witch hunt in American history,” apparently forgetting the origin of the term…

For a while, I couldn’t really understand why it triggered me so much. Although I consider myself a witch, I haven’t personally experienced discrimination (apart from having to thoroughly hide all my paraphernalia whenever my landlord needed to show up at my apartment). Was it the fact that, through my studies, I’d learned that over 100,000 people (almost 90% of whom were women) were accused of witchcraft and murdered across the world during the Burning Times (approximately 1300–1700 CE). Or maybe it was the fact that modern witch-hunts (real, deadly ones) are taking place all over the world, with deadly consequences. Remember those sad witch stats I promised you earlier? Well, hold onto your pointed hats:

In 2009, Amnesty International reported that up to 1,000 people in the Gambia had been abducted by the government on charges of witchcraft. In 2014, scholar Felix Riedel calculated there were over 1,110 people in witch-hunt sanctuaries in Ghana. In Tanzania, an estimated 20,000 people (mostly elderly women) have been murdered for being witches. In June 2013, National Commission for Women reported that according to National Crime Records Bureau statistics, 768 women had been murdered for allegedly practising witchcraft since 2008. These are only some of the figures I could pull from online, and they barely scratch the surface.

Are all these people actually witches? No, definitely not. Most are victims of a hysteria that seems to have plagued our world since 3,000 BCE. But what these numbers show us is that poo-pooing the idea of “real witches,” erasing the term from our vocabulary, or co-opting it to defend rich white men from well-deserved consequences only proves how blind you are to the number of people (mostly women) who are still the victims of witch-hunts to this day.

So What Should I Take Away From This?

Obviously, you should now be considering the Wiccan way as a personal spiritual path. Just kidding, witches don’t convert people. All this post is supposed to do is enlighten you to the fact that A) witches exist, and their numbers have been growing explosively in the United States over the last thirty or so years, B) the fear and ridicule inspired by witches are actually the remnants of an ancient propaganda machine designed to suppress a scary idea, and C) dismissing the concept of witches or co-opting the term witch hunt is actually tone deaf to the shocking number of people still suffering from actual persecution to this day. It’s not really that hard.