In the Blog
A Short History of North American Witchcraft
Illustration by Shelby McLeod
Witchcraft is a concept that Western culture and society at large has been obsessed with for as long as it has existed. Its idea represents the ultimate “other” from a dominating patriarchal, Christian society: a collective of women free from shame and imbued with power, grace, and sexuality. In this dominating society, the idea of a free community of Pagans proved unacceptable, the most notable example being Salem’s oppression of real or imagined witches. However, though the accusation of witchcraft had been a tool of oppression in Puritan times, its modern actual practice has bloomed into empowerment.
During the Salem Witch Trials, the Puritan society of the 17th century directed its fear and hysteria towards (mostly) women that didn’t quite fit into their ideals, thereby oppressing and killing those that dared to be different. The first person killed in the witch trials was Bridget Bishop, a woman known for “publicly fighting with her various husbands, entertaining guests in home until late in the night, drinking and playing the forbidden game of shovel board, and being the mistress of two thriving taverns in town.” Dozens more were killed in the process, but unsurprisingly, more than two-thirds were women.
“If you look at some of the witchcraft trials and persecutions in history, there were some men, but mostly women,” said Stacy Rapps, witch and owner of the Enchantments occult store in New York City, in an interview by the Huffington Post. “Most of them were unmarried, they may have even been lesbians, they were healers, they were usually outspoken, very independent… Witchcraft was a way to persecute women who were strong and outspoken in a time when women had no rights, and had no function other than to be baby machines.”
In colonial Latin America, much like in colonial North America, witches were persecuted heavily out of fear that they might “band together in a female conspiracy to control male actions,” according to Susan Miden Socolow’s book The Women of Colonial Latin America. Accused brujas were “often older nonwhite women, frequently widows past childbearing age” whose power was “derived from their sexual, racial, and social ‘otherness.’” Though, arguably, it is likely that the witches of Salem were accused out of hysteria than because they were actual witches, some of these women farther south may have actually practiced witchcraft. Witches were said to make deals with the devil in order to gain magical powers, and would often to try to empower themselves sexually as their main focus: love magic. They also tried to empower themselves politically. One account of an actual witch from the time described a “Guachichil woman accused of being a witch, who attempted to use her power to stir up her people against Spanish authorities.” Of course, she was hung like many others.
Though the fear surrounding magic and witchcraft was hard to shake, during the twentieth century those that did not fit the overarching standards began to explore a new sort of witchcraft, and through it, found empowerment and community.
When Gerald Gardner published his book Witchcraft Today in 1954, he created a new religion: Wicca, which drew on a multitude of preexisting spiritual practices. With it the world of witchcraft went public.
I spoke with Heather Greene, Wiccan and editor of the leading news agency for Pagans, The Wild Hunt, in order to further understand the trajectory of witchcraft’s history and its modern realization. “While Witchcraft existed prior to the 1950s, Wicca did not,” Greene said. “[Wicca] was created in the way art is created– an artist doesn’t just make things up, they’re inspired by what’s around them and they congeal it into something new and accessible, and that’s what [Gardner] did.”
To be clear, not all witches are Wiccan and vice versa. Though many Wiccans identify as witches, not all do. Other witches do not identify as Wiccans, either, like brujas from Central and South American communities. It must also be said that Wiccans practice Paganism, but not all Pagans practice Wicca. Paganism itself is very vast and very old. It covers early forms of religion like Druidism, a nature-based religion under the Pagan umbrella, which was originally taught by Celtic priests over 2000 years ago and is still practiced today (for more information on one of its churches, go to A Druid Fellowship).
“Paganism is an umbrella term for a lot of different religions including Wicca,” Greene said. “Wicca is not the only [Pagan religion], it’s just the most common and probably the most populous.”
It is also particularly Western. After Witchcraft Today was published, Wicca spread throughout the United Kingdom - Gardner’s homeland - through the next couple of decades. Wicca also made its way over to the United States and Canada.
This Gardnerian witchcraft came at the right time to the right place to take hold in communities disillusioned with the dominant culture’s norms. Some groups in the late sixties and the seventies took vague ideas from Wicca, like the American radical feminist group called WITCH (Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell) that used Western society’s long-held fear of witchcraft to further their political statements by “throwing hexes” at Wall Street bankers and beauty pageant goers. Second-wave feminists, like Zsuzsanna Budapest, took hold of these new beliefs and made them their own.
Dr. Zsuzsanna Budapest’s mission was to empower other women through a feminine community and through finding their deity, The Goddess, in their own spirits. She went on to write books on Dianic Wicca such as The Holy Book of Women’s Mysteries, Summoning the Fates, and even an autobiography, titled My Dark Sordid Past as a Heterosexual.
“Women hesitate less and less at the thought of finding the Goddess within themselves and in each other,” Budapest said. “Peace will prevail when women rediscover sisterhood once again; across borders, across cultures and oceans, and hold together as a gender who represent the virtues of peace.”
Dianic Wicca was only one of the new practices formed.
“In the 70s there was a limited number of groups and practice. Then, a differentiation started to happen, similar to the way that Christianity differentiated, or a cell differentiates when a baby’s being made in its mother’s womb,” Greene said. “That started happening, and now there’s a beautiful, colorful rainbow of different religions.”
However, Paganism once again faced strong, widespread cultural opposition in the 1980s after its massive growth in the decades before. The “Satanic Panic” started with the public shock and outrage at the publication of a memoir called Michelle Remembers, which outlined one woman’s alleged abuse at the hands of Satan worshippers. Though it was discredited almost immediately after publication, the fear that it inspired started a craze of false allegations and very public United States court cases.
“Between 1984 and 1986, the investigation into these labyrinthine claims of satanic ritual abuse would send at least 26 people to jail in interrelated convictions, despite a complete lack of corroborative physical evidence for any of the claims,” according to Vox.
Though many Pagans, like Wiccans, had nothing to do with worshipping Satan, they were still afraid to practice publicly.
Archpriestess at the Aquarian Tabernacle Church and Dean of Wiccan Seminary Belladonna Laveau told me about what it was like to practice during that time of fear. “In 1988 when it was time to do a ritual, me and my friends would move all the furniture in the living room and make a little place for us to have circle at, and we would have little tiny altars that we would kneel in front of,” Laveau said. “It was a much smaller, quiet, don’t-let-the-neighbors-hear-us kind of thing, and now anywhere from 100 to 1000 people get together at big campsites and worship outside.”
Though during the 1980s Pagans had to practice more quietly, the introduction of the Internet in the 1990s provided the Pagan community with a massive increase in practices and practitioners. “There was communication boom with the internet and with people being able to connect… the Pagan community started to come into its own; the Pagan world started to really strengthen with that connectivity,” Greene said. “That really helped. It also enabled people to see that there were more people out there like them.”
Since then, Paganism has integrated itself more into society. For example, in 2007, the Veteran’s Association approved the Wiccan pentacle for military headstones. Earlier this year, they also approved the Druid’s Awen symbol.
“25 years ago, if there were 100 witches in the park doing a ritual, it would have been seen as a threat to culture,” Laveau said. “Now it’s just another facet of our culture.”
Brujeria also still lives on. However, this feeling of “sexual, racial, and social ‘otherness’” felt by many is giving rise to other mystical religions practiced in Latin America: such as La Santa Muerte, Santeria, and Voodoo to name a few. In fact, though Catholicism is on the decline in Mexico, Santa Muerte, a quasi-Catholic practice of worshipping and making deals with the saint of death, is growing fast. The oppression of colonial witches that made deals with the devil, centuries later, turned into a religion for working-class Mexicanos in which they could make deals with death. Santa Muerte, known popularly as “La Nina Blanca,” or “The White Lady,” is a “complex multitasker,” according to Dr. Andrew Chesnut, author of Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint. She offers vengeance to the cartels, health for the sick, and protection for the everyman. However, like the brujas of the colonial days, “her most important task is love magic.” Also like in colonial times, La Santa Muerte is condemned by the religious majority. Though it goes against the overarching religion, this kind of empowerment, a feeling of security in love, life, and career, is what the brujas attempted to provide to their communities. With time, the oppression that they faced could turn into the reality of community and of liberation that we see in Santa Muerte today.
Like with Latin America’s new religions, acceptance does still pose an issue to modern Wiccans in North America. “They think you’re silly,” Greene said. “They don’t see that there’s a religion or that you’re serious about what you’re doing.”
The bigger issue today is not acceptance by others, but acceptance by peers. Some sects, like Dianic Wiccans, do not allow cis men or trans folk into their practice. “When Wicca was born in 1959, it was very binary. Women do this, men do this. However, it was matriarchal instead of patriarchal and exalted women above men,” Laveau said. “As we have moved into the new millennia, we’ve found that it’s just the same old shit in a different package. Oppressing any gender is not okay.”
However, Laveau notes that people of all genders are more and more welcome in Wiccan spaces and in Pagan religions in general. “A lot of trans people come to Paganism,” Laveau said. “Across the board, modern witches have released that [old] ideology.”
Greene stated that the reason why the community is so accepting is because it is quite young – if not in age, then at least in spirit. “I think that a lot of Pagans came to it in their youth,” Greene said. “You get into your teens and your twenties and you think, ‘There’s more, there’s gotta be more,’ and there are so many different Pagan religions that allow you to walk your own path and also allow you to be who you are. Whether that’s cisgender or trans or gay or bisexual, artist or lawyer, whatever it is that you are. It’s very open to that kind of youthful spirit.”
Laveau notes that one of the most important, and most empowering, parts of modern Wicca is the vast spiritual community. “Being Wiccan helps you learn how to deal with the challenges of life in stride. It takes away the whiny syndrome and it empowers you to be the best you that you can be,” Laveau said. “When you have your coven supporting you, it’s easier to take those steps and be courageous because you have people cheering you on.”
“The most rewarding part of it is the creative aspect of it,” said Greene. “It allows you to grow and to learn and to fail and to explore and to be a spiritual artist.”