Why Witchcraft? Why Now? A Note on Global Histories of Magic
Witchcraft seems to be having a moment. But if it is a moment, it’s one that is surprisingly fragmented. Consider, for example, the plethora of recent pop culture references to witchcraft (from Dr Who to a dark revamping of Sabrina); numerous social media groups devoted to it; feminist activists who self-identify as witches; exhibitions on witchcraft and magic (most notably at the Ashmolean in 2018); the return of magic (and religion more generally) as a topic of interest within the academy (especially among anthropologists, historians, and art scholars); the daily reports of violence against those accused of witchcraft (in the metropole as much as in the so-called periphery); and how witchcraft is used to denigrate female political opponents.
What common threads could possibly tie together this diversity of contexts in which the ideas, practices and terminology of witchcraft, magic, enchantment and related ideas appear today? Is it indeed possible to outline a global account that links such a range of things?
Second Sight: Witchcraft, Ritual, Power seeks to recognise this global moment by bringing together a range of artworks that respond to the imagery, tropes and politics of witchcraft, magic, and related ideas and practices. However, the purpose of the exhibition is not merely to document and mirror this cultural moment—as if the reasons for how and why this resurgent interest has arisen are given. By bringing a variety of artists together, the exhibition instead asks us to re-examine—and, at the very least, to make transparent and explicit—our assumptions about what it is that we believe connects different magical contexts and practices (between the past and present, across cultures, and between aspects of the human experience).
What historical connections do Emily Hunt’s early modern–inspired etchings and Clare Milledge’s interpretation of the ancient Song of Amergin suggest between the past and present forms of magical thinking? What is the relation between the protective rituals embodied in Eric Bridgeman’s Papua New Guinean shields and the witches globe collected by John Bostock—in what ways does it even make sense to think about ‘cross-cultural’ echoes between present-day Papua New Guinea and pre-modern Europe? What similar connections do Mikala Dwyer’s Spell for a Corner (2015) and Monika Behrens and Rochelle Haley’s watercolours each draw between sexuality and witchcraft rituals?
In short, is there one timeless and global account of witchcraft and magic? Or do we need several (even if perhaps loosely inter-related) accounts? Here I will highlight at least four such accounts that are popular today.
Cross-cultural definitions of witchcraft
Interestingly, even the United Nations (UN) has taken a position on this problem. In September 2017, it held an Experts Workshop on Witchcraft and Human Rights in Geneva to discuss ways to end the torture and killing of thousands of people around the world each year who are accused of practising witchcraft or are the victims of witchcraft practices (e.g. the trade in body parts of people with Albinism).
The workshop participants were immediately struck with the challenge of creating a common language and terminology around witchcraft: The fact that many languages and cultures had adopted the English terms ‘witchcraft’ and ‘sorcery’ did not necessarily mean that everyone was talking about the same thing. The UN’s solution was to define the violence associated with witchcraft accusations and practices (in all cultural contexts at all times) as a form of human rights violation. Having thus globalised witchcraft on the coat-tails of human rights, the UN’s final report could then justify recommending that activists, governments and academics everywhere adopt the umbrella term ‘witchcraft’ as a way to unite conceptually—‘at an international level’—an abundance of local practices and beliefs, from muti in Africa to sanguma in the Pacific. Whether the UN’s politically strategic manoeuvre to 'mainstream’ this issue via human rights will prove effective at ending violence in each locality remains an open question.
Feminist and Queer Representations of Witchcraft
Among present-day artists, one of the most powerful narratives that knits numerous witchcraft-related contexts together emerges out of feminist theory and history. In its most radical form, this argument claims that witch trials and witch hunts in the past were part of an age-old attempt to subjugate and control women—their sexuality, their bodies, and their knowledge forms (e.g. as local healers). The art writer Izabella Scott usefully (if controversially) articulates this position in her 2016 article “Why Witchcraft Is Making a Comeback in Art”, arguing that ‘the history of witches is not just a fairytale’. Within this view, today’s concern with witchcraft around the world arises via an emerging realisation that witch trials are an important episode in an (until now hidden) global ‘history of female suppression’. (Of course, this one example does not represent the diversity of feminist approaches to this issue.)
A more nuanced approach—one less reliant on historical claims—holds that the mere idea of the witch as an excluded Other today contains an emancipatory potential for those artists and activists who choose to revive and deploy it. This is the approach taken, for example, by the queer artist Kevin Talmer Whiteneir Jr, who argues that the icon of the witch provides a useful model for queer artists today:
Much like witches, queer bodies, moments, and experiences exist in a liminal space, one which disrupts familiar and accepted boundaries and is positioned as a threat to religious and civil order.
In 2017, Whiteneir Jr wrote “How to Have a Queer Witch’s Sabbath” as a practical guide. He further outlined his vision for the witch’s queer potential at a recent conference on witchcraft at Lancaster in the UK (the location of the famous Pendle Witch trials in 1612). For Whiteneir Jr, the witch is as an archetypal boundary figure, at once threatening and disrupting established orders. And perhaps, in this way, the witch is a figure for our (disrupted) time. This approach is interesting because it generally eschews empirical questions about what the figure of the witch is or was in favour of what it could be.
Fear, emotions, and the unconscious
Yet another powerful narrative is that witches are a manifestation of our natural human inclination towards fear and anxiety—of darkness, the unknown, the monstrous, the Other. In 2012, a Guardian article posed the question in these terms: ‘why are witches modern art all of a sudden?’ That is, why are art museums suddenly interested in exhibiting older artworks representing witches, by artists such as Albrecht Dürer, Hans Baldung Grien, and Francisco de Goya? The article’s explanation: These artworks remain ‘modern' because they provoke anxiety. In this approach, witches are a common manifestation of our universal human fear of ‘superstition, madness and human irrationality’.
This idea, which gives particular weight to our emotions and unconscious, is also particularly popular in museum exhibitions dedicated to documenting the materiality of witchcraft: witch balls (as seen in Second Sight), small shoes, bones, and other objects are placed in walls or doorways; dolls are stabbed; locks are attached to bridges; shields are decorated. The museums tend to point to the widespread use of protection and good luck charms as evidence (via our fears and anxieties) of an enduring interest in witchcraft.
Modernity’s Marginalisation and Making of Magic
A final powerful explanation for our revived interest in witchcraft (and magic more generally) lies in way that witchcraft throws into doubt central tenets of modernity, such as the belief that the world can be divided neatly into the animate and the inanimate, words and things, nature and culture, etc.; and that we live in a disenchanted world governed by natural laws.
Magic, witchcraft, animism, enchantment, fetish, sorcery and similar terms played an important historical role in how Europeans imagined themselves to be modern actors. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, European colonisers often used these interchangeably to describe and criticise non-European cultures, religions and ways of thinking—to describe what the modern subject was not. In 1917, Max Weber famously described how Europeans, for whom ‘the world is disenchanted’, had come to believe that ‘there are no mysterious incalculable forces’. This belief stood in contrast to the ‘savages’, who still had ‘recourse to magical means’. Before Weber, anthropologists such as James G. Frazer argued that cultures evolve from magic to religion and then to science. The extent to which modernity has been defined in opposition to magical thinking is also evident in the British anthropologist E. B. Tylor’s highly influential definition of ‘animism’ in Primitive Culture (1871) as including the ‘idea of pervading life and will in nature far outside modern limits, a belief in personal souls animating even what we call inanimate bodies’. For Tylor, animism was a mark of the child-like mentality of ‘savages and barbarians’, who were led to magical thinking through their failure to distinguish the animate from the inanimate. Of course, the powerful inference from this was that modern civilised subjects were, conversely, those who could differentiate between the animate and the inanimate.
For artists to take seriously an animistic or magical point of view today is therefore a particularly potent way of challenging the very basis on which Europeans imagined themselves superior and that thus justified imperial and colonial endeavours. In this light, the interest in witchcraft today is part of an attempt to rethink modernity. As anthropologists such as Birgit Meyer and Peter Pels have noted: ‘modernity not only constitutes magic as its counterpoint but also produces its own forms of magic’.
Second Sight shows that taking witchcraft and magic seriously can mean different things—and that we need to consider what stories we tell ourselves about why a global interest in witchcraft and magic has arisen at this moment in time. Such stories are valuable, but they too need examining.
Josephson-Storm, Jason A. The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017.
Meyer, Birgit, and Peter Pels, eds. Magic and Modernity: Interfaces of Revelation and Concealment. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003.
Tambiah, Stanley Jeyaraja. Magic, Science, Religion, and the Scope of Rationality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.