Pagans are abnormally resistant to being lumped together. We have a dizzyingly wide array of traditions, organizations, and practices that exist under the umbrella term “pagan” and there is simply nothing that is 100 percent true for 100 percent of pagans 100 percent of the time.
This is my fancy way of saying that these are MY opinions, and while I am a member of the pagan community, saying that I am speaking for any member of it other than myself is laughable.
With that in mind, I may begin.
I’m an unabashed intersectional feminist. That’s not why I became a pagan and a witch, but it certainly means that a path that recognizes divinity in the form of a god AND a goddess sits much more comfortably with me than a religion where the most divine experience a female can hope for is that a god will impregnate her without her permission with a baby who is going to grow up to be a human sacrifice for the whole world. Feminism informs a lot of how I view many things in the world, including both my politics and my pagan path.
The most current iteration of contemporary feminism (I honestly forget which wave we’re supposed to be on at this point) has examined the history of women in western culture and rightly acknowledged that the persecution of witches was, at bottom, not just a way for Christianity to successfully suppress the last vestiges of paganism, but a way for Patriarchy to assert itself against dangerous women who had too much power in their society.
During the various times at which the hysteria surrounding witchcraft was at its highest, accusing a woman of witchcraft was often a convenient trump card men could play against women who would not otherwise submit to them. The fact that it was also endorsed by Christian churches gave it an irresistible sheen of rectitude. If the woman accused happened to actually BE a witch, well, that was just serendipity. Many of us witches died in the burning times. But there were many others who were burned as witches who did not actually practice the craft.
Hence feminists, having reframed their understanding of the persecution of witches as being synonymous with the persecution of women more generally, have become fascinated with witchcraft and the language and practices that surround it. It has led to a healthy surge of interest in paganism more generally, and helped foster an interest in making pagan spaces more welcoming to all marginalized populations. These are good things. I love the quote, “We are the granddaughters of the witches you couldn’t burn.” There are several branches of craft whose practice is embedded in feminism, so blurring the lines between feminism and witchcraft might seem for some completely natural and unassailable.
But then there are the misfires, where modern culture gets the craft fabulously wrong. The Sephora “Witch Starter Kit” is perhaps the most infamous among them. But there are more subtle instances as well. The trendy all-female co-working space from New York City, The Wing, has taken to calling its membership a coven. When I heard this, I have to admit, I was taken aback.
For those who are not familiar with covens, let me explain. In many of the more traditional corners of paganism and witchcraft, covens are serious business. Many covens operate in secret. Joining a coven is often highly selective, and can include an oath, the kind that one does not break without serious consequences. It is true that some groups may call themselves a coven without demanding an oath, but coven membership usually includes at least a commitment on the part of its members to do magical work together as a unit, and to support each other’s growth in the Craft. There are lots of hugely powerful solitary witches out there, but for those that choose to participate in a coven, it is no small thing. It is highly personal and meaningful, even sacred.
A girlfriend of mine who was joining The Wing asked me about my feelings of wariness. She happened to be Jewish, so I explained it to her this way: “If a local restaurant that had no public affiliation with Judaism started calling their dinner service a seder (the traditional meal associated with the holiday of Passover), how would that make you feel?” I did not need to explain it further to her.
Popularizing and even commercializing concepts that have their origin in a specific spiritual practice is a fraught proposition. And that is why mainstream feminism’s fascination with witchcraft is so problematic. It’s not hard to see how this would happen. Witches do not make it easy to figure out what we do. The craft lends itself to misunderstanding because it has deliberately hidden itself from scrutiny. So when feminists wander in and blithely begin using the language of witchcraft for their own purposes, they often do not realize what they’ve done. To feminists, a coven is a group of witches, women who live at odds with their patriarchal society and who are willing to risk social approbation with their defiance. To those who practice the craft, membership in a coven is a sacred bond between witches as people. It is often held in secret and not lightly invoked, and membership in one is not something one sells to the public for a monthly fee.
Even the word “Witch” is not what it seems. Witches are not all female. Contrary to what Hollywood movies tell you, men who practice the craft are not always “wizards” nor are they “warlocks.” That latter word in many pagan circles is actually patently offensive, as it signifies an oath-breaker. Many men who practice the craft, particularly wiccans but many others, identify as witches. When feminists use the word “witch” to signify female empowerment, they are usually ignorant of the fact that in modern pagan circles, “witch” is actually a gender neutral term. My brothers in the craft work hard on their paths, and do not deserve to have their right to the title of Witch erased.
Right about now, there are some of you reading this who are about to scream “CULTURAL APPROPRIATION!!” and get agitated for one of two reasons — Because you either want to saddle up and demand justice for my brothers and sisters in the Craft, or because you like to sneer at the idea of cultural appropriation as being the province of oversensitive ninnies. I’m not interested, frankly, in using this post to hash through my opinions of what it means to culturally appropriate something, or what it means to feel offended, or what it means to live in a culturally eclectic nation. I am not trying to solve all those big thorny problems here. And this particular instance is actually more complicated than it appears.
I’m not saying anything outrageous when I say it’s a good idea to learn a thing or three before you go adopting another group’s language and practices for your own purposes. The potential for embarrassing yourself with your own ignorance is high. (Ask any mom who’s tried to demonstrate she’s cool by copping her teen daughter’s slang.) It would be good for feminists to show enough baseline respect for modern day witches to actually learn what a witch is, what a coven is, before blithely co-opting the terms for their use.
That said, because paganism is so all over the damn place with its endless permutations of traditions, practices, and nomenclature, it is hard to call someone out for “appropriating” our words. Pagan culture is too much of a moving target to conclusively say that someone’s use of a term or an object or a practice is patently incorrect. And it’s not like paganism itself isn’t guilty of a massive shit-ton of cultural appropriation — let’s start with the ubiquitous “smudging” with sage bundles, move on to the endless belly dancing at festivals, and proceed directly to the use of chakras in healing work. Our hands as pagans are not clean on this point by a long shot if you want to get picky about it.
But even if you don’t want to get petty about it, the fact remains that while many witches are devotees of particular traditions grounded in specific cultures, more and more witches, particularly in America, are eclectic practitioners, who draw from magical traditions from every culture around the world and blend them together. It is not so simple to accuse someone of appropriating a thing when you cannot provide a definitive explanation of it or demonstrate an exclusive right of possession to it.
As a feminist and a witch, I have a deep appreciation for what the history of witches and their role in society has to teach our modern world about female empowerment. I am proud to come from a spiritual path that embraces the idea of BOTH divine male AND divine female. I want people to understand what witches bring to the world, and celebrate us as people. But as an intersectional feminist, I feel the need to hold my sisters and allies to a high standard of conduct when it comes to recognizing my identity as a witch. We’re still fighting for our right to worship as we wish without being persecuted in many places.
Being careful with words that are meaningful to the pagan community may seem like a small thing to focus on. I’m not sure it rises to the level of the dreaded cultural appropriation. But words matter. Witches are not a concept, we are real flesh and blood humans and we are part of your communities. The words that represent our collective identity and practice as witches are defined by us, not you. If you want to to use these words, do so with respect, with full understanding of their context, and most of all, how our community in ALL its diversity ascribes meaning to them.
Witches know all too well the feeling of being misinterpreted by people who have their own agenda. It doesn’t have to rise to the level of drowning or burning to be an awful thing to do.