In Frightening Times, Witchcraft Rediscovers Its Political Roots

From levitating the Pentagon to hexing Trump, witchcraft has a long activist history—and a new activist future.

O n a February night at midnight, during a waning crescent moon, American witches cast a binding spell on President Trump. The idea came from author and “magical thinker” Michael M. Hughes, who crafted a minimal, tongue-in-cheek ritual using elements familiar to practitioners of Wicca but accessible to all. The ritual centered on an inverted Tower tarot card (which signifies disaster averted), and called for simple objects like candles, baby carrots, incense, and salt. The post made the rounds among various pagan networks and webpages, and went viral quickly, with coverage on mainstream sites like Rolling Stone and Buzzfeed, and in newspapers like the Boston Globe. Breitbart covered it too, naturally, referring to the event as “black magic” and noting that Christian Trump supporters would be counteracting the binding spell with prayers of protection.

Witches across the country joined in with alacrity. TIME had a video of witches hunkered down with candles and smartphones in front of Trump Tower in New York City. In Chicago, a group inspired by the 1960s activist collective W.I.T.C.H. (Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell) also performed a rite outside the Chicago Trump Tower. Twitter lit up with news of the ritual, cheering the witches on with pictures of Endora from Bewitched, Nancy from The Craft (who has a binding spell performed on her at the end of the film), and Fiona from American Horror Story: Coven.

Witchcraft as political activism is making a comeback.

It’s not hard to see why witchcraft as political activism is making a comeback. From the “Bern the Witch” event to Pizzagate, there was an inordinate amount of misogynistic witchcraft rhetoric during the election, much of it centered on Hillary Clinton. And the oppressive attacks on freedom and dignity being perpetrated by the Trump administration call to mind the witch hunts of history. What’s more surprising is that Trump-era occultism highlights a schism within the witch community.

Political witchcraft has a long pedigree. In 1940, elderly British witches worked magic to stop Hitler from invading England after the fall of France. Some of the witches, exposed to harsh weather during the hours-long outdoor working, took ill and lost their lives defending their country. Witchcraft-tinged political activism has been widely practiced in the United States too, especially since the 1960s. The radical feminists of W.I.T.C.H. were famously controversial and irreverent. In 1967, activist Abbie Hoffman and poet Allen Ginsberg led a mass ritual to levitate the Pentagon. In California, feminist witch and author Starhawk (aka Miriam Simos) formed the Reclaiming Collective, a coven with many daughter groups around the world that still engages in protests and ritual workings for environmental justice. Starhawk’s book Dreaming the Dark: Magic, Sex and Politics is a primer full of ideas and advice for the activist witch.

As an emergent spiritual movement embracing nature as sacred, Neo-Paganism in the 1960s was poised to capitalize on this spirit of insubordination and become a radical social presence for progressive cause. But that didn’t really happen.

I’ve been frustrated with the lack of political and social activism among my fellow pagans since the late 1980s, when I began practicing witchcraft. Perhaps the revolutionary energy dissipated in times of plenty and complacency. As the internet replaced deep study and experiential magic with online discussion and, later, shallow memes, the role of the witch as a flesh and blood social warrior started becoming obscured. I thought we had lost our way entirely, leaving the path through the forest for the well-lit avenues of cyberspace — but workings like Hughes’ show that political witchcraft still has a breath of life. The internet, rather than killing witch activism, may be giving it new life.

The notion of witchcraft as a spiritual movement with political underpinnings may still be a foreign idea to many Millennial witches, whose witchcraft practice tends to be steeped in pop culture imagery. And yet, Millennials’ savvy and constant use of personal technology has catalyzed renewed interest in witchcraft from a number of unexpected avenues. Witchcraft is undergoing a full-blown cultural revival, seen in the intersecting realms worlds of art, fashion, media, and performance culture. Further, just as many young people are now energized and inspired to become politically active to oppose Trump, it seems that the witchcraft community is now poised to offer avenues of expression and activism not previously considered by a young generation in search of personal transformation through social upheaval. Resistance is an act of magic, and vice versa.

In recent years, social media has made witchcraft activism more widespread and diffuse, but has also made networking accessible and lightning-fast. Hughes created a Facebook page for the binding spell that currently has over 12,000 “likes.” A Tumblr page called The YerbaMala Collective offers instructions for magical workings and text easily printed and copied for signs from their “Anti-Fascist Spellbook.” And slogans like “Burn It All Down” and “Calling All Vampire Femmes to Feast on Fascist Blood” denote the group’s lively, take-no-prisoners ethic.

But there remain disputes about how, exactly, witchcraft and social activism should coexist, and these do seem to fall along generational lines: An old guard of experienced witches, practicing the literary England-derived traditions of the 1980s; the Gen X witches, many of them young women who entered the fray influenced by The Craft, able to order books and materials freely from a burgeoning pagan internet in the 1990s; and, increasingly, witches whose practice and milieu is entirely based in web texts, images, and short-form instruction. High-profile discussions of witchcraft in the public arena are often fraught with tension, where claims of expertise and experience often dwarf the less dogmatic (and, it must be said, often less informed) rhetoric of Millennial witches. That Old School attitude was in full force, permeating the discussion of February’s binding spell. Hughes told me on the phone, “It really shocked me that the worst backlash [to the anti-Trump ritual] came not from the fundamentalist Christians but from some of the witches! The level of venom was surprising.”

Many of the more seasoned witches who took part in the February 24th binding (including members of my own coven) were enthusiastic supporters, and freely interpreted the working in their own idiosyncratic ways; the Wicca tradition has eclectic roots. Hughes encouraged variations, like saying “You’re fired!” instead of the customary “So mote it be” (a salutation used in Wiccan rites, originally used by the Freemasons). But others expressed concern or even outright opposition to the rite. Across the blogosphere, witches and pagans disagreed over whether the potential repercussions for those performing the magical working were worth it; some argued that binding spells can tie a witch’s energy to that of the target of the binding for an indeterminate length of time. One prominent but seemingly paranoid ceremonial occultist aggressively ridiculed Hughes’ idea as “seditious lunacy” and launched a counter-spell. Peter Bebergal, author of Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll, observed: “Since no measurable effect is likely to take place, it will be easy for Christians to claim they stopped the binding,” calling it a “tragic irony” that accepting the possibility that witchcraft and magic have real effects means that “it would be disingenuous to not accept that a Christian prayer was able to prevent the spell from taking hold.”

The controversy has seen veteran witches, who learned their magic from books and formed their communities at festivals, at odds with Millennial witches, whose knowledge is more scattershot and who may never have attended an authentic live ritual. Both sides opined on why the binding spell was either a brilliant idea, or a dangerous one, or a good idea that was poorly designed. Hughes was firm in his intention that the rite was meant to help exorcise Trump (metaphorically) from our own psyches, and from his own experience it was successful: “Afterwards when we were celebrating it felt like we had expunged him from our collective consciousness.”

Witches casting spells in public to subdue the president seems no more surreal a phenomenon than anything currently emanating from the crucible of the White House.

Filmmaker Anna Biller, whose study of, and participation in, witchcraft rituals informed her campy retro horror comedy The Love Witch, voiced similar thoughts: “With Donald Trump dominating every news cycle, sometimes it’s a good thing for us to get our minds free of him and focus instead on the positive things in our lives. So he may not change as the result of the spell, but the way we spend our time can change.” Longtime witch Inanna Arthen said, “You know what will reap bad karma? Having the power to do something and doing nothing. Pagans protect the innocent and take care of their own. It’s cowards who die the thousand deaths.”

Desperate times call for desperate measures. Witches casting spells in public to subdue the president seems no more surreal a phenomenon than anything currently emanating from the crucible of the White House. And going forward, as women’s autonomy and dignity is challenged by a misogynistic regime that seems bent on modeling our treatment of women on The Handmaid’s Tale, and indeed creating a sort of tyrannical government seeking a return to holy wars, it’s not a far stretch to assume that women’s resistance will increasingly be characterized as witchcraft or worse. It will be in the best interests of progressive witches among us to demonstrate solidarity, support, and flexibility in the uncertain days ahead.

Magic, in its contemporary context, can be as benign as meditating or hugging a tree, as nurturing as cleaning up parks on Earth Day, or as radical as chaining ourselves to warheads. The 1960s gave us the witchcraft of upheaval; 1970s witchcraft became more focused on causes like feminism and environmentalism; the 1980s gave us New Age spirituality and witchcraft mainstreaming. The 1990s saw a witchcraft revival in a time of growth and plenty, and a concomitant rise in the Religious Right’s superstitious paranoia (and a Satanic Panic to match).

Now, witchcraft as fashion and meme assumes a savvy sophistication that will not, alas, protect us from an inquisition. But infighting and posturing cannot be the way forward. Too much is at stake — perhaps even literally, as the Burning Times stealthily return. The sacred circle grows stronger if we extend our hands to those standing just outside it, and stand firmly on the Earth we’ve sworn to protect, and raise our voices to whatever gods and goddesses are there to hear and inspire us, and weave magic to protect, unify, and empower all who need it.

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