“We are now between the worlds, and what is between the worlds can change the world!” This phrase is a familiar way of setting the ritual circle within eclectic Pagan practice, after calling the cardinal directions. The words facilitate separating out participants from the everyday world together and make collaborative magical work possible. The feminist Witches I research direct their shared magic to healing each other, their broader communities, and the earth, bound together in a holistic cosmology of interconnection. How do these twenty-first century, North American women come to recognize themselves as Witches?
Contemporary Paganism is a new religious movement that champions magic as both group worship and personal empowerment. The religion positions itself as the reclamation of traditions historically repressed by missionizing Christianity, especially but not exclusively in medieval and early modern Europe. Historical precedent, continuity, and legitimation are ongoing cosmological negotiations within Pagan communities. A predominantly white, Western movement, contemporary Paganism is a product of, a backlash against, and a popular audience for, anthropological ideas about magic.
The witch/Witch distinction
There were no actual witches in early modern European witch trials. Starting in the 1500’s and lasting about 300 years, 40,000–50,000 people in continental Europe, the British Isles, and later colonial settlements were executed as enemies of their governments and communities, accused of working with the devil to ruin livelihoods, harm children, and ultimately destroy the world. Witchcraft was a fearful fantasy of an upside-down Christianity, flipping the proper hierarchy of good over evil, but the people accused of this nightmare inversion were themselves Christians, persecuted by their own religion.
Witch hunting continues around the world today, local fears exacerbated by particular forms of exclusivist Christianity—products of colonially inflected missionizing. If we widen perspective to include conspiracy-theory-driven moral panics, then one can argue that the practice of witch hunting is just as close to home for people in the West as it ever was, for example in attacks on trans* adults and kids, drag artists, non-heteronormative families, and LGBTQ+ communities more broadly.
Given the continuing relevance of diabolical witch fears, making a clear distinction between victims of witchcraft accusations and religiously self-identified Witches is not just a thought experiment. When discussing witch-hunting stereotypes and victims of those stereotypes, I do not capitalize witch or pagan, because the accused do not self-identify with those terms. These words are dangerous, externally imposed labels. I do, however, capitalize Witch and Pagan when referring to current practitioners, in recognition of the legitimacy of their religious movements, just as I would with terms like Buddhist, Muslim, or Christian.
Much responsibility for the confusion about witches and Witches can be laid at the feet of anthropology. As Western ethnographers spread out across the globe trying to make sense of the practices of other people, they unconsciously carried with them ethnocentric assumptions about magic and religion. Using inherited, Christian terminology, anthropologists used terms such as “witchcraft” to describe examples of ritual practices, or what today scholars sometimes call “expressive actions,” that were meant to accomplish more than their immediate physical results in the material world.
While all so-called magical practices, following a traditional Christian distinction between proper religion and illegitimate magic, could sometimes be defined as witchcraft, the term was especially associated with actions meant to cause harm. All of this created conceptual problems for anthropologists trying to understand specific practices in specific contexts: there was one big category, with generally negative connotations, into which cross-cultural and transhistorical human actions were gathered. Such conflations ultimately make it difficult to determine if there is such a thing as a concept of witchcraft at all, outside of its original early modern European context.
Anthropology also has a complicated relationship with the term “magic.” It has defined and used a distinction between religion and magic in the service of colonial assumptions, but it has also served as a repository of practical examples for contemporary magic-using communities in the West, from the nineteenth century through the present. Even as foundational anthropologists like E. B. Tylor and James Frazer were promoting a cultural evolutionary scheme from magic through religion to modern science, white Victorian contemporaries throughout Europe and North America were drawing divergent moral conclusions from this supposed evolution. Some chose instead to champion magic over and against religion, and perhaps in collaboration with science, as a practical alternative for overcoming the disempowerments of the modern, industrial world. Formal ritual magic practitioners, such as members of the Golden Dawn, and channelers, such as Spiritualists, experimented with techniques far outside the realms of mainstream religious practices. In colonial settlement contexts, such as South America and the Caribbean, oppressed communities of color, often enslaved or formerly enslaved, including those of African, Indigenous, and mestiza descent, continued to develop worship and protective practices that were derided as magical by ruling authorities. Such traditions include Ifá, Vodou, Santería, conjure, and brujería, the last term, tellingly, a literal translation of the English word “witchcraft” into Spanish.
Magic as resistance
Victorian interest in occult science and magic coincided with political upheavals around historical axes of power. As movements for women’s suffrage, abolition, colonial independence, and workers’ rights drew attention to ways that traditional structures perpetuated multiple injustices, popular interest in alternatives to traditional religious institutions also grew. In the West, the category of magic was and is the realm of rejected knowledge, of the marginalized, illegitimate, and illogical, of those people and parts of culture relegated to the sidelines as unsanctioned and unofficial. Magic happens in the shadows.
This is not a historical quirk. Among the social justice communities I researched in Toronto, Canada, a familiar joke frames contemporary Paganism as the civil religion of the political left. In practical terms, this means that religious leaders and ritual practices from Witchcraft and other Paganisms are often welcome in community spaces in ways that representatives of more officially established religions, especially mainline churches, may not be. When people are resisting systemic injustice, they question traditional systems, including religion. Early anthropologists juxtaposed magic and religion, accidentally suggesting magic to their contemporary audiences as an attractive alternative not only to traditionally oppressive religious institutions but to oppressive social structures in general.
In the same way that the 1960s and 1970s saw a resurgence in many of the same social struggles as the progressive era a good part of a century earlier, magic also returned to popular discourse. At a moment when sexism, racism, and poverty were being analyzed as produced by social systems, institutional religion once again rose to public consciousness as at least partly responsible for those inequalities, and activist communities encouraged each other to stop supporting oppressive religions. This lead to several practical responses: some activists abandoned religion as inherently oppressive and irredeemable; some focused attention on reforming their religious institutions to support social justice, such as feminist, Black, and Womanist theologies, especially within Western traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam; and some developed their own, new religious movements, such as Goddess religions, feminist Witchcraft, and other forms of Paganism formulated to create social change rather than reinforce historical oppressions.
Wicca, one of the most well-known forms of contemporary Paganism, was founded by retired civil servant Gerald Gardner in 1950s Great Britain. Wicca promoted itself as the true heritage religion of Britain, in contrast to the Church of England, which Gardner and his followers denounced as sexually repressive, sexist, and controlling. Gardner drew directly on anthropological lineage to establish the legitimacy of Wicca’s claim.
Gardner coordinated with Egyptologist Margaret Murray to present his initiatory magical tradition as evidence for the organized, European witch-cult that she had hypothesized could have survived the cultural genocide of early modern Christian persecutions. Murray based her own theory on Frazer’s idea of a universal fertility cult in The Golden Bough and then applied it to creative readings of English witch trial transcripts. She argued that those persecuted as witches were not vicious, satanic heretics, but instead salt of the earth practitioners of the Old Religion. Their folk religion combined reverence for nature with spell work to improve individual lives and the agricultural welfare of whole communities. Gardner adopted this perspective, placing magic at the center of Wiccan practice. While both Murray’s witch-cult theory and Gardner’s ancient claims have since been disproven, Wicca nonetheless represents an impressive case of religious inspiration based in anthropology.
Although Gardner remained unconscious, at least in his public statements, of having used anthropology to shape his religious practice, his explicit use of The Golden Bough to legitimate his movement served as precedent for other Pagans to use anthropological material as spiritually inspirational. For Pagan groups working to reconstruct ancient practices, archeology is a major resource. For eclectic Pagans who understand themselves as inspired by ancient, nature-oriented practices, but also emphasize creating new rituals that reflect contemporary experiences, ethnography serves as a repository of possible ritual forms, deities, and magical techniques.
As new religious movements have grown, the relationship between anthropology and magic has further entwined, with scholars, including me, conducting ethnographic work with Witches and other Pagans. Unsurprisingly, our research publications then enter back into the swirl as potential spiritual resources for the communities with which we work. This continuing overlap requires anthropologists to remain mindful that we are building relationships and conversations with our fieldwork communities, rather than extracting data from passive subjects, and that their perspectives are as important as our own, even, perhaps especially, when they are in conflict. I will never experience the magic I research in the same ways as my interlocutors do; and therefore I must put as much effort into presenting them in ways that they will recognize as I do into presenting my own analyses.
Words make worlds
As Pagan studies burgeoned in the early 2000s, associated scholars, including many of my mentors, were clear that Witchcraft was only an appropriate label for white-dominated Wicca and other Paganisms explicitly associated with European pre-Christian folk traditions. Because the label of witchcraft has been used to demonize colonized people and their practices, Witchcraft was approached as a deeply inappropriate term for religions belonging to BIPOC communities, especially Yoruba-inspired traditions such as Vodou, Candomble, and Santeria, and Indigenous traditions like curandera. These religions have had to fight for legitimacy and to resist racist projections of primitivism as well as cultural appropriation by white spiritual seekers. The concern was that wrapping practitioners in a discourse of Witchcraft would do harm.
As I was outlining these power dynamics in a lecture for my “Witchcraft, Magic, and the Occult” course, a student furrowed her brow and raised her hand. Ivory is Black, transfemme, and embraces through her mother and grandmother lineage in the Trinidadian-Yoruba tradition of Ifá. She responded, “I am a Witch. When you say that my tradition is not Witchcraft, when you say that I am not a Witch, you delegitimize me where being a Witch is a good thing. Look at WitchTok, look at YouTube. People listen to Witches! They buy stuff from them. When you say that my tradition is not Witchcraft, you make Witchcraft white.” Ivory’s experience and expertise emphasize that words like magic and witchcraft change moral meaning as they move across social contexts. Witch can become accusation, empirical description, or praise as it reflects perceptions of practices and people, rather than anything inherent in a particular object, action, or identity.
Concerns about Witch as a racist label have driven efforts to limit its use within scholarship to Wicca and other contemporary Paganisms. But in this moment when making real change requires solidarity across identities, it is time for white-dominant spaces like academe and contemporary Pagan communities to conscientiously open it back up. Not only is it a matter of empirical fact that there are BIPOC individuals who identify as Witches and who understand their ancestral traditions as forms of Witchcraft religions, but the shift is also political. It legitimates claims of authority to speak and teach, diffuses white dominance within Witchcraft spaces, and recognizes the voices of those elided or marginalized by scholarly and contemporary Pagan discourse, especially women and queer folks who are Black, Latine, and Indigenous.
Ivory’s critiques highlight the double edge of “witch.” It has historically been a slur imposed on racialized communities. Yet many contemporary subcultures now reclaim Witch as a desirable identity, precisely because of its colonial history. In contexts where Witch identity is valued, continuing to insist that the label is inappropriate for BIPOC folks sours from allyship into whitewashing. Both communities—academic and Pagan—need to reassess cultural and academic anxieties over using the term Witchcraft for postcolonial religions and practitioners of those religions when, and only when, practitioners use the word for themselves. This means there is no one, easy rule about who is a Witch and when. Like the magic Witches work, the word Witch itself is a process: changed by, but also changing, the world.