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The case for
Witchcraft is more popular than ever. What’s going on?
What is a witch? Forget the warty-nosed, pointy-hatted “hags of yore”, says Kate Wills in the Evening Standard. Today’s witches are mostly millennial women with slick social media profiles and “soothing advice about manifesting your dreams”. You can spot them a mile off: the “witchcore” look is all black dresses, lacy tights and black boots. Many still meet in “covens” and draw Tarot cards (on Instagram Live), but “eye of newt” has mostly been replaced by essential oils and herby sprays.
Why are we suddenly so obsessed? Social media has given the privately weird a way to meet like-minded folk – in this case, would-be witches. On TikTok, witchcraft is bigger than Joe Biden: videos tagged #WitchTok have been viewed more than 21 billion times, while #Biden is languishing on 14 billion views. There is a burgeoning genre of witchy books, many focused on how to hex your ex, including How to Turn Your Ex-Boyfriend into a Toad and Bitchcraft: Simple Spells for Everyday Annoyances and Sweet Revenge, available at all good bookshops. Pop stars are at it too: Lorde came out of the broom closet in 2017, telling fans she was “basically a witch”, and Lana Del Rey cast “online binding spells” to stop Donald Trump causing too much mayhem in the White House.
What do modern witches get out of it? Witchcraft promises you the “mystical power to change your life”, says Suzannah Lipscomb in UnHerd, and a claim to a fashionable “victim status”. (What group is more historically oppressed than witches?) It fills a substantial hole left by the decline of traditional religion, providing a set of mystical beliefs and a “fellowship of believers for the unbeliever”. Though it may be unfair to call them unbelievers – in the 2011 census, 12,000 people in the UK listed their religion as “Wicca” (pronounced “witcher”, a clue to the core doctrine).
How long have witches been around? Since at least the 4th century BC, according to Demosthenes, who saw Theoris of Lemnos tried as a “filthy sorceress” and executed, along with her children, for using “potions and incantations” for malicious purposes. But the obsession with witches came much later: it really took off in the late 15th century, when the Dominican inquisitor Jacob Sprenger convinced Pope Innocent VIII to issue a 1484 bull requiring Catholics to find and punish sorcerers.
Did people take him up on it? Not at once, but back in Germany Sprenger published his own detailed manual for would-be witch slayers, the Malleus maleficarum. Translated into English as The Hammer of Witches, it is entirely weird, says Sean Thomas in UnHerd: “obsessed with the bizarre behaviour of alleged witches”, including detailed descriptions of women “coupling” with demons, eating babies and getting busy with the Devil himself. Satan, said Sprenger, is “cold, dark and heavy”, and possessed of a long and icy penis.
What did the book recommend doing? It urged the use of torture to extract confessions, especially commending to the reader the use of strappado – a technique in which suspected witches had their hands tied behind their back before being hoisted into the air by the wrists, resulting in agonising pain, dislocated shoulders and eventually death. Perhaps because of its “maniacal cruelty”, says Thomas, the Malleus was an early modern bestseller – by 1520 it had run to several editions.
Did we hunt witches in this country? Apart from the North Berwick witch trials of 1590, notable for the use of “pilliwinks” (giant thumbscrews for crushing hands and feet), we were late bloomers in the witch-hunting craze. It wasn’t until the arrival of the notorious Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins, that English witches had much to worry about. In the 1640s he travelled the country, lustily pursuing his vocation of finding eccentric, unpopular women, torturing confessions out of them, then either sending them to court or stuffing them into a barrel of pitch to be burnt alive.
Why didn’t they just hex him to death? They may have done. In 1646 the 26-year-old Hopkins was at the peak of his powers: feared, in demand and rich. He was paid £16 to identify the witches of King’s Lynn – an enormous sum at the time. But in 1647 he abruptly “retired”, and a few months later he was dead of tuberculosis.
Was witch-hunting just a European thing? Far from it. In many parts of the world, it’s still going strong. The Saudi religious police set up an official witch-finding unit as recently as 2009, and every year “thousands of people” in the developing world are accused of witchcraft and subjected to “banishment, torture and murder”, says Diego Rinallo in The Independent. It’s such a big problem that in July this year the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution cracking down on human rights violations against witches.
But are witches in the West accepted now? “Witches are just normal people,” says 23-year-old TikToker @ChaoticWitchAunt (real name Frankie Castanea) in the Daily Mail. We might wake up in the morning and “do a banishing ritual to clear away negative energy” or “cast spells as we cook”. But other than that, says Castanea, who has amassed more than 1.4 million followers in just two years, “witches are just like everyone else”.
So can anyone be a witch? Absolutely. “Just gather some tools and start researching spells,” says Castanea. You’ll need a wand – a stick rolled in herbs and burnt at one end is a popular choice, but many incorporate crystals – and some kind of “altar” to bedeck with spooky objects. One word of warning: witchy magic doesn’t always go to plan, as when the magician’s assistant ended up with all those mops. Castanea once accidentally hexed her family home after failing to protect it before “casting a painful curse”. Everything that could go wrong did. “My dad lost his job, my sister broke up with her boyfriend.” They’ve had to introduce a strict rule: “No hexing in the house.”
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