Two years ago, flush with momentum for a big work project that fell over and left my calendar lying open like a gaping wound, I found myself flattened by burnout. For a year I tried to work and couldn’t. Just thinking about it conjured the mental image of my small, broken self burrowing among the roots of a tree, curled into foetal position. My body had enforced a period of rest, and I settled into it – begrudgingly at first.
Eventually I began to feel my strength return, due in part to a book which had helped me return to myself before, and which advised (among other things) a regathering of that which had brought me joy as a young person.
This is how witchcraft re-entered my life.
At seven, my big sister goes through a candle-making phase. I watch as she unrolls a creamy, combed sheet of beeswax, marvelling as it becomes pliable with the warmth of her hands. The scent of honeyed wax pins me in place.
At ten I discover a half-buried bathtub underneath the trees in our backyard, and convince my little sister to help with the excavation. We dig out its filthy insides and discover hundreds of crystals – amethyst, rose quartz, jasper, obsidian – the buried treasure of a fleeing witch. Frightened, we scoop earth back into the tub and run home, but not before I pocket a handful of dirty, precious gems.
At 14 I shoplift a tarot deck from a crystal shop, and soon after learn the rule of three: that anything I put out into the universe will come back on me threefold. I take stock of my meagre possessions and decide the penalty will be worth it.
Despite a lifelong adoration for the iconography, objects and rituals of witchcraft, I’ve never gone full witch. My Capricorn sun won’t allow it (though my Scorpio moon pulls hard).
I believe in magic in the same way I believe in astrology: knowing it’s unlikely that every person born at the same time is a personality clone of the other, scientifically speaking, while also knowing that my mother is a Libra, my husband a Virgo, my daughter an Aquarian – and none of them could be anything else.
Similarly, I’m aware that I’m unlikely to bend the laws of nature instantaneously with the wave of a magic wand, and I would be sceptical of another’s claims to be able to do so. But at the core of most modern magic practices lies beauty, rest, romance, ritual, intention and play. I fail to see what harm can come from moving towards things like that.
If I’m a witch at all I’m a baby, my practice cobbled together and still a fledgling. Every month on the full moon, I draw three tarot cards and reflect on where I find myself, where I am going, and what I will need. I’m learning how to make sigils. Returning to essential oils. Last month, under the instruction of a sea-witch friend, I charged my crystals and a carafe of water under the light of the full moon.
Perhaps I can’t manifest a fortune or make someone fall in love, but in a society that values productivity, individualism, and rationality over all else, there is a subversive power in seeking community, taking time to listen to intuition and following the cycles of nature .
And there is power in women together.
Light as a feather, stiff as a board
Light as a feather, stiff as a board
We sit surrounding her small, prone body, four girls kneeling with ring and index fingers positioned under knees, waist, armpits, head. Chanting in unison, we lift, locking eyes in stunned silence as her body rises easily, as if she’s made of nothing but air. We are ten, this should not be possible, and yet here it is.
I didn’t always believe in the power of women.
At 13 and 14 I had a wonderful tribe of girlfriends, who I knew would have my back forever. But after moving to a different school I went through a regrettable period as a “pick-me” girl, banking my worth on being unlike other girls. I surrounded myself with guy friends, most of whom I can easily identify now as fitting the exact description my Dad gave them then: as “skanky hoes”.
Pop culture at the time fed us a constant diet of girls divided and feuding. Christina vs Britney, Paris vs Lindsay, Heidi vs Lauren. Every teen movie featured a popular girl flanked by twin cronies relentlessly bullying a tomboy who would later be revealed to be hot with the removal of her glasses and a ponytail (at this point winning the heart of the guy, the only prize worth vying for). Sure, we had the Spice Girls – but gossip about infighting between the women kept tabloids selling for years, and any conversation about them always started with which Spice was “best”.
We didn’t have body positivity or queer groups or any understanding of feminism beyond vague, platform-shod proclamations of “Girl Power!” Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth, which frames our preoccupation with unrealistic beauty and body standards for women as a tool of distraction and control, was released in 1990. I was five at the time, so I missed it, but even if I’d been handed a copy as a teenager I’d likely have sneered at its opening pages, writing it off as the rantings of some disgruntled, unattractive old lesbian. I was too busy trying to impress skanky hoes for feminism.
The world told us girls weren’t cool, and we lapped it up. Any girls that were cool were the exception. So we pushed and elbowed (with feigned nonchalance) to be that exception.
No surprises, then, that so many of us grew from pick-me girls into pick-me women; subtly putting down our female co-workers; sneering at book clubs and knitting circles, rolling our eyes at mother’s groups in cafes and jealously guarding our seats at the boardroom table.
Real-life witchcraft isn’t like the stories and movies of our childhoods: the evil old hags luring children in for supper; poisoning maidens with apples for the crime of being hotter than thou; or becoming (rightfully) pissed when some brat stole the shoes right off the feet of her freshly-murdered sister.
“Real” witchcraft is practiced (and punished) in different ways depending on the culture it springs from and the hands from which it is made. It is the brujería of Latin America, the modern paganism of Wicca and the chanelling of orgasmic energy in sex magic. For indigenous communities who’ve suffered at the hands of colonialism, magic can present a path back to what their ancestors always knew (which is why it’s so important that conversations about appropriation and whitewashing within the craft continue). Magic is also genderless, with room for women, gender minorities, and men alike.
While witchcraft can be so many different things there’s no doubt that, generally speaking, it is in the middle of a moment.
Data from the US shows a huge rise in those identifying as witch or wiccan. Part of this growth appears to be in reaction to the tidal wave of patriarchal sewage emboldened by Trump and his cronies. In 2017, neo-pagans shared a binding ritual against Trump online, which was then enacted by witches all over the globe on each waning crescent moon.
Social media has also aided recruitment, with WitchTok and Instagram influencers sharing their aesthetics, rituals, and tools of the trade online, and amassing huge followings in the process. We’ve seen reboots of old favourites like Sabrina and Charmed, and newer offerings like American Horror Story: Coven, Siempre Bruja, and The Witch.
As with any subculture, capitalism has tried to jump on board – and you can now buy symbols of the occult from any number of shops you’d find in a mall (though Sephora did recently pull its “Starter Witch Kit” after a public backlash ).
But those who assume the growth of witchcraft is simply a fad, a non-threat, a passing trend, are missing the point.
Which is that we have been sold a lie: that it is in women’s nature to be separate from and in competition with each other.
We have been fed this lie in order to keep us apart, because together we are frightening.
And we are waking up.
“One witch you can laugh at. Three you can burn. But what do you do with a hundred?”
― Alix E. Harrow, The Once and Future Witches
In November I will take part in a session called Hex!, for the witch-themed Verb Festival. But the truth is, I am not the type of witch to hex.
If this were a witchy universe, full of nothing but magic, I would be a green witch.
I would potter about my cottage in the woods, receiving desperate women at my door. I’d serve them bone broth from my cauldron, leaving them to rest while I put their babies to sleep on a soft mattress at the back. I would collect ingredients for my potions from dried bundles hanging from the rafters, and a garden overflowing with both beauty and medicine. It would be the cottagecore version of what I already do in bathrooms at bars and gigs, telling young drunk women they’re beautiful, and to dump their boyfriends.
In my human form I am propelled forward by the need to make an impact, to effect change, to be spoken about after I am gone.
But as a witch I would be content conjuring small miracles every day, for the women gathered around me like a cloak.
By Melody Thomas
Melody Thomas is a writer and podcast-maker from Wellington. A long time Capital contributor, last year she was a finalist for Best Columnist in the Magazine Media Awards for her Wāhine column She is the creator and host of award-winning sex and sexuality podcast BANG!, and is currently working on a book based on the series. Melody is co-director of Popsock Media, a narrative podcasting company focusing on beautiful and impactful storytelling, which was launched in 2020 alongside Kirsten Johnstone.
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