Season of the (Feminist) Witch

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I’m going out to left field today. This post relates to a book I’d love to write, but really isn’t about books or writing. Every so often I need to write about something else.

This morning I felt the first cool kiss of autumn in the air. My favorite season is here. This is the time of year I am happier, more energetic and more productive than any other.

Plus, we’re entering the season of the witch. I’m not a skull and bones kind of Halloween girl. I’m a witches and black cats and spells, kind of girl.

But that’s not the only reason I’ve had witches on the brain lately. A few days ago I saw an ad on Facebook asking “Are you struggling with witchcraft?” *cue eye roll* It was trying to get you to sign up for some kind of online coven. (I have a whole other rant about opportunists and religion but that’s for another day.)  That made me realize something else: witchcraft is back in vogue!

And there’s a reason for that–it’s linked to feminism. Go with me on this.

I came of age in the mid-to-late 90s when all things witchy were cool:

  • Pop Culture– Goth fashion, long black or velvet dresses. People began wearing pentacles in public (I am not a fan of that symbol, but no worries if you are. I prefer the triquetra.) New Age stores were everywhere.
  • TVCharmed, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Buffy the Vampire Slayer 
  • MoviesThe Craft, Hocus Pocus, The Crucible (with Winona Ryder), Practical Magic
  • Books – This was heaven. Borders had a whole section on Wicca. Hundreds of books. It was amazing. I probably owned at least 50 myself during this time.

That was during the third wave of feminism, when Girl Power and Lilith Fair was all the rage. Women were fighting for reproductive rights, LGBT rights (there was no QIA at that point), intersectional recognition in feminism, against gender violence and more.

Then things quieted down in the 2000s as both witchcraft and feminism began to be viewed as passe. Women began saying feminism was no longer needed and maybe even dead.

But suddenly a few years ago (long about 2015 or 2016) witchcraft began to creep back into pop culture, right along with a fourth wave of feminism that I would argue began with the 2016 presidential election (I really, really want to write a book about that!)

Suddenly you have a repeat of the 90s (sometimes way too literally):

  • Pop Culture– “Basic Witch,” a really commercial version of witchcraft that uses its trappings (crystals, sage, “spells”- all packaged in book or a monthly subscription box!) to appeal to the yoga moms and millennials. (This is so NOT real witchcraft.) And most New Age stores have moved online.
  • TV/StreamingReboots of Charmed and Sabrina the Teenage Witch (as Chilling Adventures of Sabrina), American Horror Story: Coven
  • Books – The oldies but goodies written by Starhawk, Doreen Valentine, Silver RavenWolf, Raven Grimassi and others are still around. But now you also have Basic Witch, 5-Minute Magic for Modern Wiccans and other books looking to “modernize” the craft.

It’s interesting that now most of this is darker, especially the reboots. But so is our culture, with its hatred and bigotry (exactly the opposite of what most witchcraft is about, at least the kinds that call themselves white or green). And frankly, women have a lot more to fight for this time around: our reproductive rights are being threatened more than ever and we’re taken even less seriously on issues of sexual violence – just look at the appointment of Judge Cavanaugh to the Supreme Court, the high profile rape cases like Brock Turner, and the police who got probation a few days ago for raping a woman they had drugged and detained. Women’s rights are sliding backwards again and the patriarchy is trying to reassert itself. And at the same time we find a rise in the popularity of witchcraft.

All of this makes sense, if you think about it. Witches, or at least the women accused of witchcraft in the US and Europe, have always been the resistance. They often lived alone, which in itself was bucking the system because it kept them out of the control of men. They had power in their independence and in the healing arts (herbs, midwifery, etc.) that they provided the community. People feared their magic and spells, regardless of whether or not any were ever cast. They were the original “nasty” women.

One could argue that the Spiritualism trend of the 1800s and early 1900s, which gave women to the ability to speak in public for the first time and tangentially led to the suffrage movement, was the witchcraft of the first wave of feminism. (God I want to write a book about this!)

After centuries of being “forced” underground, modern Wicca (one of the most well-known forms of witchcraft in the US) was founded in 1954 by Gerald Gardner, who claimed it was an unbroken continuation of the ancient forbidden practices. (Believe what you will about that. I think it is BS.) It grew in popularity over the next twenty years and had it’s first public heyday in the late 70s and 80s. (Think Stevie Nicks in the music world, The Mists of Avalon for a literary example and Teen Witch for a movie example.)

Not coincidentally, this was during the second wave of feminism, when women were beginning to enter the workforce for the first time and demand their rights (abortion legalization, equal pay, an end to sexual harassment, etc.) equal to their male counterparts.

We saw this pattern repeat in the 90s and its happening again now. So it seems that in times of resistance, we as women naturally seek to copy our fore-mothers and seek solace and power in witchcraft, which grants us equality with (and in some forms of Wicca, dominance over) men.

Now, of course, not all women are witches, by far. Christianity is still far more popular. (Everyone has a right to their own beliefs, whatever they may be.) And there is still a great fear and hatred of anything pagan by many people. I just think the correlation is interesting.

And since this is a blog about books and writing, here’s a list of my favorite fictional witchy books:

  • A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness
  • The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe
  • The Daughters of Temperance Hobbs by Kathrine Howe
  • Kim Harrison’s whole Hallows series.

And our own Spellbound Scribe Shauna Granger has her Elemental series and Melinda Kavanaugh series. Happy witchy reading!

Please don’t ask about my personal beliefs. Those are my business and honestly a very, very long and complex answer. I’ve studied witchcraft for years from a scholarly perspective, so my true beliefs may not be what you expect. But then again they may. 😉

Let’s Make Some Magic

English: Sparkler, violent reaction (guy fawke...

Harry Potter. The Lord of the Rings. The Belgariad. The Wheel of Time. The Hollows. All of these influential series have something major in common: they take place outside the realm of “normal” human life.

Magic. They’ve got it.

For all of us over here at Spellbound Scribes, magic is an integral part of writing fiction, whether it’s in small doses or large. Here’s how I go about making mine.

Chinese floating lotus lanterns on a pond.
Chinese floating lotus lanterns on a pond. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Make Some Rules

Magic could just run around willy-nilly, but it’s kind of hard to write a story when literally ANYTHING could happen with no rhyme or reason to it. What are the basics that form your magical system? Is it earth based? Spirit based? Blood based? How do the practitioners access it? Is it inborn or can it be taught? Does it necessitate ritual or does it come from within a person?

Once you have your groundwork laid, stick with it. Make sure that if your character has to perform a ritual to do something, you don’t just have them poof it into existence later without the chanty-chanty abracadabras.

Another thing to look at here are taboos. Do most practitioners use earth based magic but abhor blood magic? Or the other way around? Taboos and forbidden corners of magic are fun to play with, especially if you can force your protagonist into using something she doesn’t want to touch. A perfect example of this is Rachel Morgan in the Hollows series by Kim Harrison. She starts out a die hard earth witch, but after a couple books, she dabbles in ley lines and then into what is essentially blood magic. Her transition causes her character to seriously question her morality. This sort of thing can be a phenomenal character developer.

Fire Dancing Treasure Island
Fire Dancing Treasure Island (Photo credit: davidyuweb)

Set Some Limits — Then Push Them

Everything has limits. Your bank account. Your patience. Your ability to tolerate Jersey Shore. Your magical system should have them too.

In David Eddings‘ Belgariad, death is one of those boundaries. The sorcerers in the books can do pretty much anything with the Will and the Word, but they have some limits that draw back on that seemingly endless possibility. One of those is bringing someone back from the dead.

One point they make with that is that if someone’s dead, they’re probably dead for good reason. Like…a sword in their heart sort of reason. Bringing them back won’t heal the wound, and they’ll just die again anyway. What does Eddings do? He pushes Garion to fight this barrier to save the life of a newborn colt.

Eddings is a great example of magical limits, because not only is death a hard limit, but in this world, doing things with sorcery is almost as physically exhausting as doing them the normal way. Find limits for your magical system, then use them to create obstacles for your characters. Magic’s great and all, but it can’t be a cure-all.

As the time goes and our watches sway, the gre...
As the time goes and our watches sway, the great magic of the urban beauty and nature stays, it observes people and brings magic into our minds! Enjoy!:) (Photo credit: || UggBoy♥UggGirl || PHOTO || WORLD || TRAVEL ||)

Mix Together that Black and White

The most fun thing about getting to write magic is that it opens up a whole other level of allegorical possibility and chances for your characters to explore their morality. Sure, maybe they can get their annoying sister to stop talking just by waving a hand, but should they? Magic is something that can be clearly abused, but sometimes it’s at its most powerful when your character has to abuse it herself — and justify it.

While I’m not a huge fan of the “magic is addictive” trope (and I think fellow Scribe Kristin will agree with me), there are plenty of gray areas to explore with your characters in the magical world you’ve created for them. The best part is that you’re God of your own world, and you get to control what happens.

Kind of like a magical power, isn’t it?

What do you think about when you’re creating your magical systems? What limits do you like to set?