The depiction of witches in U.S. mainstream media has varied greatly over the years. Some witches are presented as haggard and conventionally unattractive women draped in black, stirring concoctions in ominous pots. Others fit into the classic childhood fantasy image of a witch with green skin, pointy hats, and flying broomsticks. And then there are the attractive, mysterious witches who blend perfectly into society while secretly wielding their dark powers against enemies. Though these images are all vastly different, there is one thread that tends to bind many of them together: a prominent focus on the White experience.
From the late 1960s to the mid-70s, occult and witchcraft records became an unlikely phenomenon in the UK and USA. These spoken word LPs included narrations of rituals and spells by witches and covens, usually accompanied by bizarre, early electronic esoteric music. Some were relatively obscure private press releases – just look at The Art of Witchcraft by Babetta, AKA ‘Babetta the Sexy Witch’, and Ian Richardson and Barbara Holdridge’s Malleus Maleficarum, which were both released in 1974 and which today fetch hundreds of pounds online – but what’s odder is that major labels were often the ones putting these records out. It wasn’t unusual to find albums like Alex and Maxine Sanders’ A Witch is Born or Louise Huebner’s Seduction Through Witchcraft arriving through Capitol Records, A&M, or Warner Bros – but why did these occult oddities exist in the first place?
WELLNESS EDITOR EMILIA ORTIZ SPEAKS TO PEOPLE IN THE LGBTQ+ COMMUNITY ABOUT HOW THEY NAVIGATE THEIR SPIRITUAL FAITH
Dazed Beauty Wellness Editor Emilia Ortiz is the no bullshit, Brooklyn-based bruja, spiritual advisor, creative, mental health advocate, motivational speaker, empath, fairy Godmother you’ve been waiting for. Passed down to Emilia through the generations of her Puerto Rican lineage, Brujeria encompasses various indigenous forms of spirituality and witchcraft practices used by Latin American, Caribbean, and African peoples. Harnessing her spiritual gift, Emilia decided to turn her attention to mental health guidance – something she felt she never had access to growing up – and set up her own self care platform, Sprititual Mami.
Christmas lore usually comes in the shape of a jolly red-suited man winding a sleigh through the starry night sky with his trusty band of reindeer. There are, however, some holiday figures who are much more ominous—chief among them the belly-slitting, child-abducting, half-woman, half-demon Alpine monster known as Perchta.
According to old Austro-German legend, Perchta is a malevolent pagan goddess who stalks the snowy landscape by night during the Twelve Days of Christmas. Like Italy’s Christmas witch, La Befana, she is also associated with the Feast of the Epiphany on 6 January. Perchta’s aim is simple and chilling: to ensure local customs are upheld under the pain of death. In bygone times, this meant no weaving during the holidays, unless you dared to incur Perchta’s wrath—and what a wrath she had.
In The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Sabrina Spellman (Kiernan Shipka) is torn between the witch and the mortal world, as certain expectations have been placed on her teen shoulders. Dating a human is not the done thing, but this is 2018 and Sabrina wants to have a choice in the way she lives her life. First love is intoxicating, particularly if there is also a forbidden factor. This is far from the first complicated romance between a person in possession of magical abilities and someone that has none.
Witch stories are often tied to teenage girls like Sabrina as a metaphor for puberty — but the movies and television show discussed below center on women in adulthood experiencing another kind of transition. Instead of learning how to use their powers, marriage and settling down threaten the abilities they possess. A commitment to a mortal comes with some major sacrifices in mid-20th-century rom-coms I Married a Witch and Bell, Book and Candle, which mirror the expectations placed on married women at this time.
“We may not be Christian here, but we still pray,” said a woman dressed entirely in white as she addressed a large audience of African American women. Standing behind a lectern, speaking in the cadences of a preacher, she added, “I understand God more now, doing what I’m doing, than I ever did in the Church.”
The call and response that followed (“No one’s going to protect us but who?” “Us!”) was reminiscent of church—but this was no traditional sermon. The speaker, Iyawo Orisa Omitola, was giving the keynote address last month at the third annual Black Witch Convention, which brought together some 200 women in a Baltimore reception hall. The small but growing community points to the hundreds of young black women who are leaving Christianity in favor of their ancestors’ African spiritual traditions, and finding a sense of power in the process.
Over the past decade, white Millennials have embraced witchcraft in droves. Now a parallel phenomenon is emerging among black Millennials. While their exact numbers are difficult to gauge, it’s clear that African American pop culture has started to reflect the trend. In the music industry alone, there’s Beyoncé’s allusion to an African goddess in Lemonade and at the Grammys; Azealia Banks’s declaration that she practices brujería (a Spanish term for witchcraft); and Princess Nokia’s hit “Brujas,” in which she tells white witches, “Everything you got, you got from us.”
Flying through the skies on a broomstick, the popular image of a witch is as a predominantly female figure – so much so that the costume has become the go-to Halloween outfit for women and girls alike. But where did this gendered stereotype come from? Part of the answer comes from medieval attitudes towards magic, and the particular behaviours attributed to men and women within the “crime” of witchcraft.
Taking one aspect of the witch’s characterisation in popular culture – her association with flight – we can see a transformation in attitudes between the early and later Middle Ages. In the 11th century, Bishop Burchard of Worms said of certain sinful beliefs:
Some wicked women, turning back to Satan and seduced by the illusions and phantasms of demons, believe [that] in the night hours they ride on certain animals with the pagan goddess Diana and a countless multitude of women, and they cross a great span of the world in the stillness of the dead of night.