Witchcraft is popping up all over the place in pop culture these days. Music videos by artists from Beyoncé to FKA twigs involve a witchy aesthetic and young people are finding value in claiming the identity of “witch,” trading digital spells over Tumblr and Instagram. On this episode, we explore the current popularity of modern witchcraft and talk with real-life witches about how their self-made spirituality informs their identity. The resident witch columnist at Autostraddle, Mey Rude, gives us a rundown of her favorite witches in films (hint: one of them is happy to help “poor unfortunate souls”), we read tarot cards with astrologist Rhea Wolf, talk Azealia Banks with writer Emma Rault, and learn some tongue-in-cheek spells from artist Rebecca Artemisa. Tune in!
INTERVIEW WITH RHEA WOLF:
INTERVIEW WITH MEY RUDE:
WITCHY MUSIC VIDEOS:
REVIEW OF THE WITCH:
IDGAF SPELLS WITH REBECCA ARTEMISA:
This episode of Popaganda is sponsored by She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry. The first documentary about the women’s liberation movement, She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry is a critically-acclaimed film that’s now available to own. Featuring the women who made change happen then and continue to bang the drum of equality today, look for it on DVD, iTunes, Amazon Video and wherever you watch movies.
• Check out Mey Rude’s Witch Hunt column at Autostraddle for all things witchy.
• Get in touch with astrologer Rhea Wolf at her personal site or check out her book The Light That Changes: The Moon in Astrology, Stories, and Time.
• You can find your very own brujeria zine at Rebecca Artemisa’s Etsy shop (along with a lot of other great art, like the print featured as the image for this episode on Soundcloud).
• Thanks to writer Emma Rault for her take on witchy aesthetics in music videos.
• Read Britt Ashley’s print review of horror film The Witch right here.
Our show was transcribed by Cheryl Green of StoryMinders. We’re proud to make Popaganda accessible to people who are Deaf or hard of hearing.
SARAH: This is Popaganda, the feminist response to pop culture podcast. I’m Sarah Mirk.
[shuffling deck of cards]
RHEA: Hi, my name is Rhea Wolf, and I’m a practicing witch and priestess.
[shuffling deck of cards]
So I’m gonna ask you to cut that deck.
RHEA: So that just means to take a pile where you feel it’s right, and then put what’s on top on top.
SARAH: Like this?
SARAH: OK. Now I’m kind of worried I’m gonna draw like a death card.
RHEA: That’s OK.
Rhea Wolf is many things: a practicing witch and a professional astrologer. She’s written zines about witchcraft and a book about the moon. She is not, however, a professional tarot card reader. But I cajoled her into helping me do a tarot reading, a reading specifically about this podcast.
When we see witchcraft in pop culture, it’s usually either presented in the past or portrayed in caricature. You know, like in the Disney film Hocus Pocus.
[audio from Hocus Pocus: crowd cheering]
WOMAN: All Hallows Eve has become a night of fun, which we wear costumes and run amok!
GIRL: Amok! Amok! Amok! Amok!
SARAH: Don’t get me wrong. I like Winifred, Sarah, and Mary as much as the next kid who grew up in the ’90s, but pop culture depictions of witches leave out a lot of real-life witches. There are many, many people who sincerely practice witchcraft today. Though various witchy spiritual practices have been around for thousands of years in various cultures, today witchcraft is going through a pop culture revival in the United States. Lots of younger women are finding it empowering to identify as witches, claiming a witchy aesthetic and sharing spells on Instagram and Tumblr. At the same time, women, men, and queer folks of all ages are finding community and power in applying age-old witchy wisdom to modern problems. There is a huge body of work on witchcraft, including whole bookstores worth of titles on how to develop your own practice.
On today’s episode, we’re exploring specifically the current popularity of witchcraft in music, movies, and other media. We’ll hear from a queer witch columnist, discuss new horror film The Witch, and even learn some spells. But first, let’s not forget about the tarot reading.
RHEA: So, the future of Popaganda.
SARAH: Wow. So you just laid out five cards on the table here.
SARAH: Mmm, I have no idea what any of them mean.
RHEA: Yeah. So what do you see here?
SARAH: Let’s see. There’s four big stakes, like big sticks in the ground, with two people celebrating in the middle and a bunch of fruit.
RHEA: So what does that make you feel like?
RHEA: Bountiful! That is the present state of Popaganda.
SARAH: Oh! The present state of Popaganda is bountiful?
RHEA: Is bountiful. There is a bounty that you can claim at this point. And part of that bounty that you can claim at this point might be about just recognizing all the resources that you have available to you, whether that’s physical resources or emotional, intellectual, or spiritual resources. So recognizing, also, that what inspires you can be trusted.
SARAH: Great. Love it. Feeling bountiful.
RHEA: All right. And then in the outcome card, you have the Queen of Swords. Look at her.
SARAH: Ooh! Man. She looks pretty powerful. She’s sitting on a big throne in front of a bunch of clouds, and she’s holding the world’s biggest sword. She’s kind of gesturing in a kind way, like come here. She’s wearing a cape of clouds too and has a crown made of golden butterflies on her head. This is our outcome?
SARAH: This is pretty sweet.
SARAH: I get a butterfly crown?
RHEA: You totally are gonna get a butterfly crown. It’s gonna come in the mail now.
RHEA: But the Queen of Swords: swords are traditionally associated with the element of air, and the element of air is about our intellectual capacity. So it’s about communication, it’s about our intelligence, it’s about our ability to make decisions and to be able to cut the bullshit and do what needs to be done. It’s about facing the consequences of actions. That’s a good thing.
SARAH: So that’s a bullshit-cutting sword?
RHEA: Yes. This is a bullshit-cutting sword.
RHEA: Yes, she does that.
RHEA: She’s like, “Enough is enough!”
SARAH: Witches today practice all sorts of varieties of witchcraft in all sorts of ways. Some approaches to witchcraft, like Wicca, have official non-profit structures and government recognition. People in the military can get Wicca pentacles on their gravestones. Some practices are rooted in cultural traditions or family traditions, like Hoodoo and Santeria. Other witches like Rhea learned on their own from books and friends.
RHEA: Well, I had experiences from a pretty young age in which I felt really connected in the natural world and had psychic dreams from the age of eight and was always a spiritual seeker, even though I was raised in a home that was pretty secular and non-religious. So I, myself, asked to go to church, and my parents very obligingly took me to church every week. It was at that church that they showed a video, when I was about 14 or 15 years old. It was a very uncharacteristic video for them to be showing. It was trying to warn us away from the wrong path, which was pretty unusual for the church that I went to. But in that video, a woman appeared on the screen and said, “Hi! My name is Jen, and I’m a witch. What that means to me is…”. She started describing the spiritual path, and I instantly knew that’s my spiritual path. The other thing that I knew was that’s my friend Jen that I go to summer camp with, and there she is on this TV screen, proclaiming herself to be a witch.
SARAH: That’s so funny. Your friend was the cautionary tale.
RHEA: And she actually turned me on to the name for the path that I felt like I was already doing, which was a very individually-oriented connection to spirit. I was going to a church in order to get whatever spiritual connection I could get, and that was what’s offered in the mainstream world. But the way that she described it, I instantly knew, oh that’s what I’ve been doing. That’s what I’m interested in. And at that point, I was already doing things like spending a lot of time in the occult section in my small-town Kansas library and reading tarot cards that I had ordered from some catalog somewhere. So I was already experiencing some of the tools of witchcraft.
SARAH: And so what shape did your practice take for the next few decades of your life? Was it something you went to a group for, or were you just on your own?
RHEA: I was pretty much solitary, and that’s kind of the term that’s used for witches who aren’t part of a coven or part of a group, a spiritual group that meets regularly together. So I was a solitary witch through my teens and my 20s. When I was in college, I did a self-dedication ceremony where I got my special athame, and that’s the ritual blade that’s used that witches often use to create sacred space and also to cut herbs that they might use for different practices. So I dedicated my athame, and I dedicated myself to living life as a witch. I was about 20 or 21 when I did that. It really was a solitary practice for me until I moved to Portland. I met a few other people here and there, but it wasn’t until 1999-2000 that I moved to Portland and started meeting other people who practice witchcraft, who call themselves witches. Then it was starting a school in 2005, the Blue Iris Mystery School, in which I started really practicing with other witches.
SARAH: The phrase “solitary witch” just sounds so lonely.
RHEA: Well, I mean it is in a lot of ways, and I definitely have a hunger for spiritual community. I love being in a group and worshipping and practicing in a group situation. But the thing about being a solitary witch is that part of my understanding of witchcraft–and I don’t proclaim to be a spokesperson for all the different ways that witches practice–but for me, part of being a witch means that the most important connection and relationship in my life is between me and the Goddess. That’s how I choose to call a deity, a higher power. And so it’s through cultivating that relationship, that direct communion, that direct relationship with spirit that’s really the most important component of practicing. So therefore, it’s not as important whether I’m doing that with a group or by myself.
SARAH: When I learned about witches in school, it was always in a historical context. Witches exist in the history book, between the periods of 1500 to 1800, when there were the horrible witch trials, and thousands of people were murdered. But I didn’t know that there were still witches around today or that there was Paganism or Wiccanism that people still practice today, that witchcraft survived those purges.
RHEA: It’s becoming more prominent or more known that there are actually people that are witches, and that they aren’t nefarious. They aren’t scary, they aren’t green-skinned, they don’t fly on broomsticks, right? Like all of the superstitions that we’re taught about what witches are. Or even when we’re taught about the burning times, we’re often taught that women were burned as witches, but they weren’t really witches because witches don’t actually exist. That it was this hysteria of the time in which women were demonized. I think both things are true.
SARAH: You mean that women who were practicing a religious and cultural tradition of witchcraft were identified as witches and could be killed as well as women who were mainstream Christians and weren’t practicing witchcraft at all?
RHEA: Right, right. Yeah, both things are true. Mmhmm.
RHEA: So I think what’s happening right now is, definitely as we come into more earth consciousness about how we are not separate from the planet in which we take life, that we have an obligation to protect this planet as well, that more earth-based spiritual traditions are coming up to the surface. And people are looking for a way that their spiritual path can meet and match their activism in that realm as well. So I like to tell people how rather than needing to co-opt First Nations’ religions from this continent, that we can all find a connection to a lineage of indigenous wisdom and culture. In this case, maybe it’s European indigenous culture, or maybe it’s African, or maybe it’s Asian. But we all have a connection to people in our ancestral lines that practiced reverence for the earth, that practiced a way of being in relationship with the elements and with the planet as alive, as a living being.
SARAH: In our pop culture, there’s not, I can’t think of any realistic modern representations of witches or witchcraft. When witches do show up on TV shows or in movies, it’s always this sort of extreme, outlandish version: everything from the Wicked Witch of the West, who’s sort of the classic green and warty witch, to silliness in films like Hocus Pocus, to the goth, sexy ladies of the ’90s movie The Craft. Where does modern witchcraft lie within all those representations? Can you think of a pop culture representation of witchcraft that actually reflects your experiences? And if not, what is misrepresented about witchcraft in our pop culture consciousness?
RHEA: Well, I think that I’m not the best spokesperson for pop culture consciousness in general. Anything after the ’90s is kind of lost to me.
RHEA: But I found a lot of resonance, I was a big fan of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, the TV series by Joss Whedon. And I did find a lot of resonance in how witchcraft was dealt with in regard to the character Willow.
SARAH: If people haven’t seen the show, can you tell us about Willow and what she practices?
RHEA: So one of the things about Willow is she’s not only a witch, but she’s also queer. So we’re bringing in two different labels that are often connected with “other,” with something mysterious or outside of the norm. One of the things that I liked about how it was portrayed there, it was treated like it was a real thing. I mean, let’s just start there. It wasn’t caricatured. She was definitely doing a lot of magical, supernatural things that I, myself, can’t do as a witch, at least not in my body.
SARAH: Such as battling vampires.
RHEA: Yeah, such as flying through the air and doing glamour spells on herself to change how she looked. I mean, I can’t do it in the way that it’s presented on TV. But I felt like a lot of the complexity of what she was working with in terms of power, in terms of how do we use our power: do we use it to create more balance in the world? Do we use our power with others, in service of the good, or in service of mutually-beneficial relationships? Or do we let the power overtake us and move into situations in which we’re using a power-over dynamic, where we’re dominating, we’re seeking to dominate situations?
SARAH: That was Rhea Wolf. Her book on astrology is called The Light That Catches: The Moon in Astrology, Stories, and Time.
SARAH: You’re listening to Popaganda, the feminism and pop culture podcast. Today’s theme: witchcraft.
The classic pop culture representation of witches comes, of course, from horror films. There’s nothing like a powerful, subversive woman to set the hearts of men on edge. There is a brand new horror film out this month that’s all about witches. It is called aptly The Witch. But it feels different than the previous horror films about witches. Here to tell us about the new film is Bitch Media managing editor Britt Ashley.
B: Hi, Sarah.
SARAH: So you are a fan of horror films, yes?
SARAH: And you are also a bit of an aspiring witch.
B: Oh yeah.
SARAH: Is it fair to say that you’re an aspiring witch?
B: Yeah, I would say that my spirituality falls into that category for sure.
SARAH: I guess we can go ahead and call you the resident office Bitch Witch.
B: Please do.
SARAH: You went to go see this new film, The Witch, and you’re here to tell us all about it. Let’s go.
B: All right.
[spooky music, dialogue from The Witch]
MAN: What we went out into this wilderness to find. Leaving our country, kindred, our fathers’ houses, for what? For the kingdom of God. Let us pray.
The new horror film The Witch begins as the patriarch of a Puritan family is found guilty of some unnamed religious transgression. The offense is never explained but it is apparently dire enough that he is cast out of his prosperous village by a jury of his peers. As the verdict is handed down, the camera focuses on eldest daughter Thomasin, who is played by the mesmerizing Anya Taylor-Joy. She lingers for a moment, wide-eyed and almost blasphemously radiant, amid the dour grey shades of the 17th-century courtroom. She seems to be contemplating staying behind, but her reverie is swiftly shattered as her father reaches back and physically pulls her off-screen. When we next see her, she is piled unceremoniously into the back of a lopsided wagon, dwarfed by the domestic objects her family is allowed to take with them. Her body moves, but not of its own accord; she is more property than person, subject to the rhythm and whims of the rough road ahead as she is carted off into exile.
The Witch has been both the object of critical praise and the subject of much debate. Critics agree that the film is visually captivating—“a finely calibrated shiver of a movie”—that rings the deep-seated bells of ancient fairy-tale fright but debate whether it’s actually a terrifying film. For me, the film about supernatural forces held an all-too-real horror. Writer and director Robert Eggers culled the majority of the dialogue for the script from primary source historical documents on witchcraft. Many of the movie’s most viscerally frightening moments are not fiction, but rather direct transmissions from our American past. Seeing The Witch in theatres during the same week that hatemonger Donald Trump swept the Republican primaries and the Supreme Court considers a case that could gut abortion access nationwide brought to mind a distinct kind of fear: the horror inherent in a power dynamic which grants a select few men the ability to leverage control over the bodies of many people. It’s easy to see our culture’s Puritan overtones as Republicans invoke the need to “protect” women in a host of new laws that infringe on our bodily autonomy.
The Witch centers on a community’s fear of women’s bodies, making this cinematic psychodrama feel alarmingly relevant in a 21st- century cinema market crowded with supernatural conceits. The community in question is Thomasin’s pious family, who are struggling to survive in the bleak new American wilderness. Though The Witch has plenty of gory moments, the film’s horror manifests as a steady thrum of doom and despair that crackles beneath each scene. Daily rural life in the era is full of brutal and mundane tasks. As the family tries to eke out an existence in the difficult land, they begin to experience an accumulation of misfortunes: sons disappear, crops rot, family heirlooms vanish, and the goats get weird. These horrors drive the family’s parents and children deep into paranoid hysteria as they aim their increasing suspicions at Thomasin. As the family’s troubles get darker and darker, Thomasin’s vitality seems to bloom in stark contrast to the grim events.
Ostensibly, her family’s main fear is that a witch has cursed them. But as the film progresses, it becomes clear that Thomasin’s body is equally threatening to their well-being. Thomasin’s physicality is situated on the border between girlhood and womanhood, and just like her family’s homestead on the forest border, it is no safe space.
As winter draws closer, Thomasin’s parents openly discuss the benefits of sending her away to work as a servant, since she has shown the first signs of womanhood. It is unclear whether or not they would receive some sort of payment in doing so or if they would simply reap the benefit of having one less mouth to feed. Either way, she’s viewed as more of a financial commodity to be traded or dealt with than a genuine person. In several early scenes, the camera catches her brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) gazing lustfully—and fearfully—at her developing body. Despite his own fear and shame, he continues to seek physical comfort from Thomasin, climbing into her lap and allowing her to soothe him even as he begins to blame her for the family’s misfortune. Her body may be currency, temptation, or solace, but it is always subject to the projections and judgments of others.
When Caleb returns from the surrounding woods fevered and bewitched, Thomasin’s family gathers around his bed to pray. The tightly shot, claustrophobic scene quickly turns chaotic: the boy is afflicted with vicious seizures and spits a whole, shiny red apple from his mouth. Immediately afterward, twins Mercy and Jonas (Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson) claim they cannot remember their prayers and suddenly the whole family devolves into a frenzy, placing blame squarely on Thomasin. More than horror or grief, this scene is permeated with a sense of danger: Thomasin’s family closes in on her while she crouches on the floor. Here The Witch goes against genre convention—instead of rooting for a family to keep themselves safe from a terrible villain, we see the attack from the suspected villain’s perspective. Even as her family accuses her of consorting with the Devil, the camera renders her incredibly vulnerable. We see her parents’ faces twist with disgust and fear while Thomasin’s gaze remains open and pleading. She is without allies, utterly panicked. Yet she turns toward her accusers, arms outstretched, exposing herself. We are left fearing for Thomasin’s physical safety.
Like any good horror film, The Witch is rife with opportunity for allegorical interpretation, and one of the most compelling narratives bubbling beneath surface is the origin story of America itself. It’s nothing new to see the female form as an embodiment of original sin: something to be feared, judged, and ultimately controlled by patriarchal forces. However, the treatment of Thomasin’s body in The Witch is particularly resonant as we find ourselves waiting on a verdict in the most far-reaching Supreme Court case on abortion rights since Roe v. Wade.
The real terror here wasn’t a witch hiding in the woods, but rather the God-fearing men at home, dutifully deciding the fate of the women around them.
SARAH: That was Bitch Media managing editor Britt Ashley discussing new horror film The Witch.
This episode of Popaganda is sponsored by the film She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, the first documentary about the women’s liberation movement. She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry is a critically-acclaimed film that is now available to own. Featuring the women who made change happen and then continued to bang the drum of equality today. Look for it on DVD, iTunes, Amazon Video, and wherever you watch movies. ShesBeautifulWhenShesAngry.com.
Witches of the internet age unite! In olden days, I’m not sure how witches would communicate. Books and lore and methods of healing were passed from hand to hand, down through the generations. Well, now witches use Tumblr. Our next guest, Mey Rude, runs a Tumblr called Femme Witch Coven. It is amazing! She’s a queer, trans, Latino witch and also an editor at the excellent website Autostraddle where she writes a column about modern witchcraft called Witch Hunt. All the way from the wilds of Pocatello, Idaho, it’s Mey Rude.
MEY: Yeah! So my full name is Meylinda Chavela Valdivia Rude, and it’s kind of abruptly a Norwegian name cuz my dad’s Norwegian.
MEY: But my mom–
SARAH: It’s got such a good sound to it, though.
MEY: Yeah. My mom’s Mexican, and that’s where the first three parts of my name come from. And then a friend of mine, Amy, and I came up with the idea–We would, just based on our aesthetics, we would post pictures and selfies. And then we would comment on them, being like, “Oh, you look so great. You look like a femme witch.”
MEY: So we came up with the idea of this femme witch coven where it’s just this sort of embracing of femmeness and the magic and power that come with that and the community that comes with that.
SARAH: So tell me about your own witchcraft and your own practice and background. How did you wind up becoming a witch, and how do you incorporate that practice into your life now? What does it do for you?
MEY: Yeah, definitely. Well, I identify specifically as a bruja, which is like a Mexican witch because I came about it sort of two ways that converged with each other. I’m a trans woman, and I’m also a lesbian. While I sometimes pass, I’m also like six feet tall, and I have these broad shoulders and big hands and big feet, and my voice doesn’t really help me pass. So a lot of the time in public and around other people, I’m extremely othered, and people will give me nasty looks or avoid me or just call me–they’ll treat me as though I’m weird. So on one hand, I wanted to sort of embrace that and empower it and say my weirdness is something that I own, it’s something that gives me power, it’s something that I can use to make my life better. That’s half of it. The other half, when I started coming out as trans, this was about five years ago, I guess, I was rebuilding my identity from the ground up kind of. So I wanted to be more in touch with my mother’s side of the family, the Mexican side of me. So I started looking more into–My mother was raised Catholic, and so was I. I’ve always been attracted to a very Mexican form of Catholicism that has a lot of adoration for Our Lady de Guadalupe and a lot of things that are tied into traditional Mexican folk beliefs and indigenous religions. So I started digging deeper into that and finding that I really related to it, and that it’s a very feminine and brown form of spirituality, which, as a mixed-race trans Latina, that really made me feel empowered. So combining those two things, wanting to empower my weirdness, and then wanting to empower my heritage combined really well in this form of witchcraft where a lot of it’s based around Our Lady de Guadalupe. Right now, I’ve got two candles of her burning to help me represent her better and have her with me as I’m doing this interview, and then also a yellow candle I’m burning for wisdom and clarity. And I’m wearing a medal with Our Lady de Guadalupe’s image on it just so that she’s here with me and in my words and in my answers. So just, she guides me in a lot of what I do and offers protection and healing and help just in my life and in a way where I can be in control of my own spirituality. I was also kicked out of my church when I came out as trans. So I had to rebuild my spirituality up from the ground. So a lot of it’s about being who I am out loud and customizing a spirituality and a power and an identity that is able to fit who I am.
SARAH: Well, I think it’s working. I think you’re sounding pretty wise and pretty clear [chuckles].
MEY: Thank you.
SARAH: I’m sorry to hear you were kicked out of your church when you came out as trans. What church was that, and what was that experience like? And can you talk about what you were just saying about rebuilding your spirituality in a way that made sense to you?
MEY: Yeah, well, like I said I was raised Catholic. But then also, when I was in 6th grade, my mom left the Catholic church and joined an American Baptist church. They had a really great youth program. So I started going to the youth group there, and then I got really involved in a lot of volunteering and ministry things. Then, when I was in college, I started teaching Sunday School and volunteering in the youth group and just volunteering in a whole bunch of ministry positions. I even worked at that church as a janitor for a little bit. So it was like my whole life, basically, was this church. Then, I came out as trans, and I came to church as the real me. My friends were, for the most part, super great. They were like, “Oh, you look so beautiful. You look more you than you’ve ever looked before.” A lot of them were like, “This makes a lot of sense. We kinda guessed!” But then other people looked at me like I had abandoned God. One person said that I was spitting in the face of God. Then the pastor called me in for a meeting and said that I wasn’t allowed to volunteer anymore, especially not with kids or with the youth, and that if I wanted to be a part of the church still, they would have to have a meeting of the elders to talk about me. So I definitely didn’t feel comfortable there anymore. So I left, and I was sort of–spirituality has always been a big part of my life, but always I’ve been using my own brand of spirituality. Like, I’ve never bought into a lot of the Christian teachings about oh, these people will go to hell, pre-marital sex is a sin, being gay is a sin. I’ve never really thought that those were valid things. I was drawn to the love and the hope and the power, and often, the femininity that you can find Christian and Catholic spirituality.
SARAH: So you identify as a bruja, which is the Spanish word for witch. Can you tell me a little bit about how you try to incorporate that culture into your life? One issue with witchcraft is that claiming traditions that aren’t your own can be a form of cultural appropriation. And this is a big conversation in modern witchcraft.
SARAH: Is how to claim your own spirituality and make your own feeling of spirituality without just sort of taking from other cultures what you don’t understand or they don’t have a deeper connection to.
MEY: Yeah, absolutely it’s a huge problem. When I started trying to find more information about Our Lady de Guadalupe and brujeria and curandismo, which is like Mexican folk healing, a ton of it is written by white Americans and Canadians and British people who went to Mexico for six months and think that they’re experts on it now. It’s just so frustrating to see the top Google results and all these books written by these people who were tourists and think that that makes them experts on this deeply cultural and traditional practice and spirituality. These are things that have been passed down for generations. These are things that started in pre-Columbian times. And then they were colonized with the Catholic church mixing in with them. So there’s already that struggle that I find where I’m trying to balance the actual Mexican beliefs with the Spanish beliefs, if that makes sense.
SARAH: Yeah, so it’s a culture of brujeria, but it’s complicated because some of it is from this colonizing force of Spain, and some of it is from the indigenous people of Mexico, Central America, Latin America.
MEY: Yeah. Exactly. So then, when you have, on top of that, white people from other countries again trying to be in charge of a narrative of brujeria, then it becomes even more convoluted, more watered down. So I try to be careful and make sure that I’m finding sources who are Mexican or Latina or Latino. I talk to fellow brujas and try to make sure that the things that I’m doing are practices that aren’t based in white people’s interpretation of what this form of witchcraft is.
SARAH: So you write this Witch Hunt column for Autostraddle.com, and one of my favorite pieces that you put together for that was writing about your 15 favorite witches from pop culture. So we don’t have time for all 15, but I was hoping you could share with us three witchy role models from pop culture that you love.
MEY: Yeah, definitely. The first one that I love is Kiki from Kiki’s Delivery Service.
[music from Kiki’s Delivery Service]
SARAH: I love that movie.
MEY: Yeah, it’s so great. I think the positive and aspirational representation for kids, especially girls and young queer people, is super important. And I think that this movie is the epitome of that. It’s just all about this young girl who goes off into the world and learns to embrace herself for who she is and embrace her power and find her power.
SARAH: OK, great. So how about your two other favorite witches from pop culture?
MEY: Well, OK, so my favorite animated movie that isn’t Miyazaki is probably The Little Mermaid.
[music from The Little Mermaid]
MEY: I know it gets a lot of bad press, but–
SARAH: She does have her voice stolen and returned!
MEY: She does.
SARAH: Only by a man [laughs].
MEY: But as a young trans girl, seeing this mermaid who desperately wanted to be a girl and would do anything to reach that goal. She sings Part of Your World before she ever meets Eric. I related to that so much, and so I’ve seen that movie dozens of times. As much as I love Ariel, I also love Ursula.
SARAH: Ursula the sea witch.
MEY: The sea witch. She’s so cool and confident in who she is. She’s a shape shifter, but her main form is this fat, brightly make-uped, sort of off-putting to traditional looks of what a woman should look like form. And she’s fine with that. She embraces it. I’m also fat. And as a fat woman, she’s a role model. She sings that great song, Poor Unfortunate Souls, and she sings it with such glee and abandon. She’s just loose and free to be herself, and I relate to a lot of Disney villains more than I relate to the heroes. Ursula’s a great example. I like her better than 90% of the Disney princesses, so.
SARAH: I’m with you on that one, for sure. OK, so who’s your last favorite witch from pop culture?
MEY: My last favorite, and maybe my most favorite of all of these, is Nancy from The Craft.
MEY: I’m so gay for Nancy. If I had gone to high school with her, I would’ve been like super scared of her and intimidated, but secretly, I would’ve wanted to be her friend. And even more secretly, I would’ve had a big crush on her. She’s just, she really gets to the spirit of what I talked about earlier with embracing your weirdness. That scene where the girls get off the bus, and the bus driver says, “Watch out for weirdoes!” And she says, “We are the weirdoes, mister” and gives this awesome smile.
[music and dialogue from The Craft]
DRIVERHEA: Watch out for those weirdoes.
NANCY: We are the weirdoes, mister.
MEY: That really, I was like, ooh, that’s what I wanna be. I wanna be the kind of person who can say that and say that with power and with strength and with happiness. That is the ultimate form of witchiness to me.
SARAH: Well, that’s so wonderful. Thanks so much for sharing all those witches with us, Mey.
SARAH: Yeah, definitely.
[Ursula sings Poor Unfortunate Souls]
URSULA: Those poor unfortunate souls
So sad, so true
They come flocking to my cauldron
Trying spells, Ursula please!
And I help them
Yes, I do!
SARAH: You’re listening to Popaganda, the feminism and pop culture podcast. Today, we’re talking about magic or more specifically, the current revival of witchcraft in pop culture. Recently, a number of female pop stars have incorporated a witchy aesthetic into their songs and music videos. Writer Emma Rault looked at the trend of witches in current pop music.
EMMA: The image of the witch—the outcast with often-underestimated powers—runs deep in feminist and female-centered art. Right now, a shift is happening in the use of this imagery in music that is both potent and fascinating.
It’s a shift that was typified by Beyoncé’s surprise release of the music video for her song Formation last month. There are heavy spiritual overtones to several of her personas in the video. In some scenes, she speaks like a visionary from beneath the brim of her black hat. In others, she moves with sinuous elegance atop a New Orleans police car that’s sitting in the middle of a flooded body of water. On her blog Red Clay Scholar, Dr. Regina Bradley describes these roles as Beyoncé embodying “conjuring women.” She asks whether the scene of Beyoncé on top of the police car could be intending to summon Mami Wata, the water deity who could be either a healer or lure travelers to their watery grave. “Conjuring blackness is physical, conceptual, and spiritual,” writes Dr. Bradley. “All three are necessary to make protest and resurrection possible.”
The current witchiness aesthetic in music is more a symbol of protest than the introverted, ethereal vibe artists like Kate Bush and Stevie Nicks tapped into in the late ‘70s. Today’s witchy music videos are incandescent with anger—they engage with the world and are recognized as a threat to the status quo.
There’s possibly no more outspoken pop witch than rapper Azealia Banks. On Twitter last year, Banks declared herself a witch. The declaration prompted swift pushback from right-wingers, as writer Sady Doyle summed up in a Guardian article about the issue: “It was the strangest thing: simply by calling herself a witch in public, Banks had managed to evoke real fear,” wrote Doyle. “Rightwingers treated her as if she were actually planning to blight crops and hex her enemies, all the while claiming that they didn’t believe in witchcraft.”
In a music video released a few months later, “Yung Rapunxel,” Azealia Banks overtly links the role of spirituality with her Black heritage. In the video, she rides a rodeo bull surrounded by owls and occult symbols in between fighting riot police. There’s a connection between protest and mysticism in this video: the witch draws on a power that exists beyond real-world weapons and uniforms. It suggests magic as a potent way of challenging existing power structures.
Witchery in music is so prevalent that a few years ago, music journalists coined a new term for a subgenre of electronic music: witch house. The work of Scottish trio CHVRCHES, fronted by Lauren Mayberry, has been called “witch house” because of the band’s dark, repetitive synthpop melodies and their aesthetic fascination with triangles.
The earlier work of genre-blurring musician and artist Grimes has also been called witch house. In her 2012 video “Genesis,” Grimes takes on an otherworldly air. Set in the desert, it features American rapper Brooke Candy wearing a battle-sex-goddess getup, but also being a perfect hedge witch: walking the edges of the world, she is the physical embodiment of the landscape’s power. In the visual imagery surrounding last year’s release, Art Angels, Grimes also inhabits a range of archetypes of supernatural power, from a blood-stained dark angel to an icy glamazon casually wielding an axe to a gender-bending vampire. “I’m only a man/I do what I can,“ sings Grimes in the video to Kill v. Maim. In her bubblegum-pink-and-gore universe, the notion of playing by some established rulebook sounds supremely ironic.
Part of the power of these pop music witches is to disrupt expectations. The supernatural is unsettling, it upends assumptions of normal behavior. It’s Regan licking her tutor’s ankle in The Exorcist, it’s Gloria from Orange is the New Black helping take down a powerful enemy with eggs, spices, and dog hair. That unsettling quality is also very much what British artist FKA twigs’ sexuality-laced music videos are all about. FKA twigs is a master of surreal imagery and shape-shifting. Her 2015 video “Glass & Patron” opens in a forest heavy with a Blair Witch stillness before cutting to a white van parked ominously amid the trees. This flips your expectations: more serial-killer forest than magical forest, perhaps. This isn’t going to end well; what story of a woman left in the back of a van in the woods does? But twigs takes command of the narrative with dizzying speed and force. In the video, her long-nailed fingers spider suggestively down her belly. Then suddenly, frighteningly, she pulls a many-colored scarf out of her vagina. Then the moment turns again, on a coin. We see dancers enveloped by the fabric: dreamy, tender, suspended in space.
In the video for her song “Video Girl,” FKA twigs splits into two selves as she watches the execution of a man convicted of racial violence. One of her selves weeps behind the glass, while the other self straddles him, turning into a taunting contortionist as he lies dying. Here, she is both powerful and tearful in the face of the world. It’s that raw power combined with nuance of understanding— radically, exultantly individual—that is the hallmark of the modern witch: an indomitable spirituality that defies the violence of the human world.
SARAH: You’re listening to Popaganda, the feminism and pop culture podcast. On today’s show, we’ve been talking all about modern witchcraft and magic. To help close out the show, we have illustrator Rebecca Artemisa, who’s made a series of zines about witchcraft and magic.
Thanks for joining us on the show.
REBECCA: Thank you so much for having me.
SARAH: So Rebecca, you have done some adorable zines about witchcraft, including a Field Guide to Brujas and a little zine called The IDGAF Book of Spells.
REBECCA: [laughs] Yes.
SARAH: That’s, of course, short for The IDGAF Book of Spells.
REBECCA: It’s true.
REBECCA: Actually, I do give very much of a fuck.
SARAH: So what’s your background with witchcraft? How did you become interested in writing and drawing these beautiful collections of stories about brujas.
REBECCA: I think definitely there’s culturally, like when I was really little, my mom and all the ladies in our neighborhood would talk about La Llorona.
SARAH: And La Llorona is Mexican folktale.
REBECCA: Yeah, she’s a Mexican folktale, and she’s a scary witch woman who steals misbehaving children who don’t come in after dark [chuckles]. But for a really long time, I was really scared of the concept of witches and brujas. And then, as I got older and saw more of the healing process side of curanderas and what they do–which is also a huge part of my culture–I became like oh, this isn’t so scary. I mean, there’s two different kinds. It’s a balance, I guess. So I started kind of putting that in my work, where I wanted to write about things that were kinda creepy and dark and also have something that was kinda sweet and happy and nurturing.
SARAH: Tell me about learning about curanderas. That’s a really interesting thing that you point out where witches aren’t just scary; there’s a whole healing aspect.
REBECCA: Yeah, and some people see La Llorona as a really compassionate character. And I thought that was interesting too.
SARAH: What’s the story of La Llorona, if people haven’t heard it?
REBECCA: Oh, well, basically, the story of her being scary I guess comes from she was apparently a very jealous, mean woman who had two children. Her husband paid a lot of attention to them, and she got jealous, and she threw her children into the river so that she’d only pay attention to her. Then, she was so distraught with grief over what she did that she threw herself in this river. This is a story they tell children.
REBECCA: And when she got to the gates of heaven, God was like, “You can’t come here. You threw your kids in a river. That doesn’t–.” So she’s doomed to walk the earth, picking up misbehaving children to drag into the river with her. There’s a whole different other side of that where some people are like, right about her being this really sad person who had an abusive husband, and that’s why she did what she did, to kind of escape.
SARAH: Yeah, that’s a really sad story. And of course, it’s a cautionary tale that’s told to a lot of Latino kids specifically.
REBECCA: Yeah, yeah. And I guess the more compassionate version I’ve heard too, where some people are like, she saves children who fall in rivers to redeem herself. I thought that that was an interesting twist, which kind of made me less scared of her as a kid, which was when I started getting into more like what do Mexican witches mean? What does this actually mean? I know what I see in shows, but [giggles]–
SARAH: Well, I’m hoping you can share some spells with us today from your book of I don’t give a fuck spells.
SARAH: So tell us about this book and the spells that you have in there.
REBECCA: So I basically just wanted to be really silly at first and just make a fun, kind of light-hearted book. But yeah, then I started thinking how do I do things that are good for myself? So one of the spells I wrote were help for a broken heart if you’ve lost a loved one, or you’ve had a bad break-up.
SARAH: So this is a spell that you wrote and illustrated yourself about how to heal a broken heart.
REBECCA: Yeah, yeah.
SARAH: OK, what’s the spell? Tell us.
REBECCA: I would say: “Wait, wait, wait. Wail, wail, wail. Wait, wail, and wait. Make your favorite hot drink every night. Plant a cornflower seed in the ground. Watch it grow up. Watch it bloom. Watch it turn blue. Watch it turn lavender. Watch it turn brown. Be kind as it dies, and let it go.” And yeah, that’s it [chuckles].
SARAH: That’s beautiful.
SARAH: Is that a spell you’ve used yourself to heal a broken heart?
REBECCA: Yeah, I think. Actually, I’ve lost a couple friends over the years and actually gotten really into putting plants around my house and gardening recently. I always really loved growing things, but it’s really therapeutic to build something, nurture something, and then receive the benefits from that. And then, it eventually dies. You kind of help. You kind of learn a little about yourself in that process even though it’s just a plant. It’s nice to grow something, take care of it.
SARAH: That’s wonderful. OK, how about another spell to share with us? What’s another spell we can learn?
REBECCA: I would say conjuring the ghost of punk.
SARAH: So this is a spell to conjure the ghost of punk.
REBECCA: Yeah, which is hard to do cuz punk is dead, but–
REBECCA: This is conjuring the ghost of punk. “Steal, don’t steal. Borrow, yes, a good album. Light a few candles. Get thee to a record player. Bring offerings. Twirl three times, and punch the palm of your hand like you’re gonna fight somebody. The spirit of punk will assist you shortly with instructions on smashing the state.”
SARAH: Is there a specific record you recommend?
REBECCA: I guess, I don’t know. There’s so many, although I was really into Black Flag as a kid. I must say.
REBECCA: When I was little, I was super into Black Flag. And then, of course, I discovered Riot Grrrl, and was just like–I don’t know if people describe that as punk, but I kinda would maybe.
SARAH: Great. OK. So what’s the final spell you’re gonna share with us?
REBECCA: Let’s see. I would say the accountability spell.
SARAH: Ooh, an accountability spell.
REBECCA: Cuz I think it’s something we all need some of, including myself. So it starts off with: “Own it all. Remember the time you said and did something not so kind, thoughtful, or wise? Did it hurt someone? Apologize and accept whatever response you get. Did it hurt you? Forgive yourself. Write your accountability down on paper. Press a wildflower seed into the words. Crumple it all up. Bury it in the ground. Cover it with dirt and leaves. Pour three drops of lavender oil on the freshly covered earth, and don’t do it again.”
SARAH: Well, that seems like a really good place to end this show is with an accountability spell.
REBECCA: Yeah [laughs].
SARAH: Rebecca Artemisa, thanks so much for joining us to share these spells with us and teach us.
REBECCA: Thanks for having me. Yay!
SARAH: How to resurrect punk, how to heal a broken heart, and how to own our own accountability. If people want copies of your beautiful, full-color zines, A Field Guide to Brujas and the The IDGAF Book of Spells, they can look you up on Etsy. Just Google your name.
REBECCA: It’s true.
SARAH: Rebecca Artemisa. And we’ll also put a link, of course, to your work in the show on our website, BitchMedia.org.
SARAH: Popaganda is produced by the team here at Bitch Media. Our jingle is by Mucks and Owen Wuerker. Additional music was provided by Blue.Sessions. Look up their creative and minimalist sounds by going to Google and typing in Sessions.Blue. And the show is produced by Alex Ward at the studios of XRAY FM, an independent radio station in Portland, Oregon. This episode of Popaganda is sponsored by the film She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, the first documentary about the women’s liberation movement. She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry is a critically-acclaimed film that is now available to own. Featuring the women who made change happen and then continued to bang the drum of equality today. Look for it on DVD, iTunes, Amazon Video, and wherever you watch movies. ShesBeautifulWhenShesAngry.com.
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