Witch-Aesthetics Redux, or, Everything Old Is New Again (Except Us)

Witch-Aesthetics Redux, or, Everything Old Is New Again (Except Us) March 18, 2018

Hello, beautiful creatures. In the wake of some comments I’ve seen elsewhere about last week’s piece, “Witch-Aesthetics and the Elitism of Curmudgeonry,” I realized that some of what I wrote touched a nerve. Being the contrary sort of queer I am, I want to dig a little deeper on that subject, because I think there’s a lot more going on under the surface of our derision than we might realize, or be comfortable with. After all, when we’re criticizing people for finding value and power in witch-aesthetics, we should be really clear who we’re talking about: People of color. Queer and transgender people. Neuroatypical people.

And, intersecting with all of these, young people1, most especially young women.

Let’s break into that a little further, shall we?

Hating the Young (Because We Aren’t Anymore)

The cliché that “younger folks think older folks are irrelevant and don’t understand them” is rivalled in its dullness only by the cliché that “older folks think younger folks are ignorant and don’t want to learn.”

The reality is, of course, more complicated.

Older folks can have knowledge, experience, and perspectives from which younger folks could benefit. They can also be ignorant, unable to learn new ways of thinking and seeing the world, and unwilling to speak in a language that younger folks can understand. Likewise, younger folks can have enthusiasm, open-mindedness, and fresh eyes from which older folks could benefit. They can also be ignorant, shallow, and so convinced of their own cleverness and ingenuity that they’re unwilling to entertain the notion that someone might know a better way of doing things.

Here’s the funny thing: I could’ve written that previous paragraph exactly the same way, but swapped the words “older” and “younger,” and it would still be true. A dirty trick, yes, but it underscores the point that none of these generalizations are intrinsically true. Moreover, they’re irrelevant. The problem isn’t that young people are lazy, nor that old people are jerks. The problem is the way in which the perennial communication gap between generations has played out within the p-word world.

The current spate of open-source witchery we see on Tumblr, Instagram, Pinterest et al. is hardly a new phenomenon, nor is the derision with which older folks hold forth about it. I’m old enough to remember folks gnashing their teeth about “online initiations” in the early 2000s, or wailing and weeping about “chatroom covens” and “fluffy bunny” Pagans in the 1990s. Everything old is new again, eh?

As I wrote in a comment on the previous post, it’s easy to deride Kids These Days for not wanting our advice, but honestly, why would they? Because we know better? Well, how many of us listened to our parents and predecessors?

What I find curious about modern witch-aesthetics is the extent to which it can be seen as a response to the lack of the kind of mentorship that witch-elders (or heathen elders, or other Pagan elders) could offer, but for the breakdown in communication that’s clearly happened. What the younger generation isn’t getting from their elders—lore, instruction, mythology, community, support—they’re finding on their own and sharing with one another, or (re-)inventing out of necessity. They’re treating witchcraft like an art… one in which they can sample, remix, mash up, remaster, collage, and create something new from all the bits and pieces of occulture they’ve been able to find and collect.

It’s incumbent on those who would presume to occupy the role of “teacher” to do so in a language our would-be students can actually understand, rather than deriding them for not already knowing what they’re here to learn… or more to the point, for not being us. There’s responsibility for bridging that communication gap on both sides, yes, but that’s the point: there’s responsibility on both sides.

Complaining that Kids These Days just don’t wanna Work Hard Like We Did is not only flat-out wrong, it’s disingenuous. It fails to account for the number of cheesy witchcraft paperbacks purchased by our generations in the Seventies, or the number of people who paid good money to mail-order witchcraft schools. Complaining that Witchblr and #witchesofinstagram are shallow and superficial may or may not be true, but really, were we any less shallow and superficial when we were coming up? Is the witch-aesthetic of tarot-card-printed t-shirts and crystal pentagram jewelry really so different from the faux-Sixties or gothic-RenFaire aesthetics so beloved by so many of us oldsters?

(Spoiler alert: no, it’s really not.)

(Photo by Thanh Tran on Unsplash.)

Is It Still Misogyny If We All Do It?

Previously, I wrote that slagging off the witch-aesthetics found all over Tumblr, Instagram, and Pinterest was “the usual, tiresome sort of dismissal of Things Women Like.” That’s not wrong, but it’s not precisely right, either. Taking into account what I just wrote about the age demographic of most of the folks we’ve been discussing, I misspoke. What I should’ve written was “Things Young Women Like” or, more specifically, “Things Girls Like.”

If you’re suspecting that I’m about to call this a manifestation of misogyny, give yourself a silver star2, because you’re exactly right. After all, there’s an awful lot of Witchblr made up of young white cis gay men with a singular aesthetic—one which revolves around the general themes of black, ravens, keys, antlers, skulls, forests, and naked young men—and I note with interest the decided lack of pearl-clutching aghast outrage about the shallowness and superficiality of their social media witchcraft. This hatred of girls and the things girls like is an especially pernicious flavor of misogyny, because it’s one that encourages other women to join in with men and boys, gay or straight or otherwise, in feeling superior to girls and the stupid girly things they like… and hey, didja notice how “girly” is pejorative, rather than complimentary? It’s almost as though our culture thinks there’s something intrinsically wrong… with… girls…

Huh. Well, how about that.

The point is, people take their tools where they find them. Shaming people—especially marginalized people, and most especially multiply-marginalized people—for finding power and meaning in something that doesn’t match our subcultural notions of Pagan propriety and previously-established aesthetics is… not awesome. More often than not, it comes across as “punching down,” attacking a group with less power than we have, but who we’ve nonetheless decided are acceptable targets, as a way of shoring up our own flagging self-esteem and insecurities.

If we’re concerned about the latest wave of silly witch-aesthetics and girly “lifestyle witches,” we really need to ask ourselves what’s actually bothering us—or, perhaps, what’s scaring us—about young women speaking a language we can’t follow and empowering themselves in ways we don’t understand.

Sounds almost… spooky, doesn’t it?

Until next time, dear ones, be thoughtful. ♥

  1. By “young,” I’m mean folks in their teens and twenties. That may not seem “young” to you, but I’m in my forties, so forgive me the generalization.
  2. (It’s not a gold star only because I kinda telegraphed it with the subheading.)

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25 responses to “Witch-Aesthetics Redux, or, Everything Old Is New Again (Except Us)”

  1. Misha! You’re preaching the truth! I’ve already wrapped you in glitter and hung sparkly keys from your fingers, but here put on this scarf with tiny bells! I bow down to you for going there…to the land of sexy young white cis gay men wielding crow wings. I’ve got to be honest here and say that I am friends with many such people. I want to add that Keeping Her Keys has a lot of young women (of all sorts, not just the cis kind) community members. I answer their questions daily. Oh, you forgot about Pinterest. That’s Witchblur for us slightly older designing witches.

    • Thank you so much, Cyndi! ^_^

      I’m friends with a lot of spooky cis gay male witches, as well, and I love them to pieces. I also give them some good-natured ribbing about their aesthetic.

      And I didn’t forget about Pinterest. I have one of my own, in fact… as well as a Tumblr. Ssshhh! Don’t tell anyone! 😉

      • pretty much the sum 🙂 as an old craft curmudgeony witch, the ‘everything old is new again except for us’ struck me as amusing. this thing has been ongoing for at least the 45 or so years I’ve been a witch and probably longer, lol. it has nothing to do with any of the social science characterizations you’ve teased out here. it has more to do with what i’ll paraphrase with a few modern tropes/clichés “the first rule in Fight Club” and “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas”. It’s that simple.

        • Maybe I am taking your quotes wrong … I don’t think the issue is about the keeping of secrets. The issue I think is the communication gap and each sides reaction as well as how it is just another turn of the wheel.

          • it’s not about keeping secrets, it’s about the sanctity of silence. It’s about sincerity and trust that what you share won’t end up in some book, blog or website, or any other medium, indiscriminately. Sadly that went by the wayside decades ago, and it has nothing to do with generation or gender or whatever demographic one wants to use. Most old crafters I know, myself included, won’t share anything or associate with folks who don’t demonstrate discretion. That is the crux of it, plain and simple.

          • Still not understanding. The crux of any relationship is trusting the other persons descrection. That is nothing unique to any of this. One earns trust and trust is gained by backing one’s words with action. If effective communication is not there then the words cannot be appropriately backed be apropriate action because the required understanding for the desired descrection is never reached. It the the responsibility of both parties to reach a common language that allows for effective communication, but if both parties are too wrapped up in the mentalities mentioned in the main article that level of communication will never be reached and breaches of trust will happen.

          • in old craft the desired discretion IS explicitly conveyed right at the outset. It was broken by some who had other ideas and is no longer communicated. There is no longer that old bond between old craft and modern witches, and so we part ways.

          • To be fair, there are a whole lot of reasons for this rift besides a broken confidence here and there. The old initiatory traditions never really accepted the idea that anyone could be a real Wiccan or witch outside of “proper” initiation. The biggest reason for the rift is just simple math. Even at it’s height, initiatory traditions by design would never have the infrastructure to serve even 10% of those ultimately called to these paths, even if most people could fit themselves to that environment.

          • it’s more than a few broken confidences here and there. it’s the broken confidences that led to the creation of a demand, the ‘calling’. I don’t know what you mean when you say ‘old initiatory traditions’. The tradition is witchcraft, anything else are orders within that tradition, so I am assuming what you mean by that is post gardner orders. it is different from old craft. The ‘proper initiation’, as you call it, didn’t make a witch, it laid out the terms under which the teachings would be passed. It was a ‘confidentiality agreement’. All of the symptoms the Misha lays out above are a result of that breach ,creating that demand, that ‘critical mass’. None of that has a place in old craft ‘aesthetics’.

          • Ok. So if there was no broken confidences then the demand would be lower … but correct me if I am wrong… wasn’t really old, before Gardner witchcraft/paganism et al for the people, by the people? The reason the religions that are called pagan were given that name was because it is what they called country dwellers which is where paganism had it’s roots for the longest?

          • well, not really. witchcraft shouldn’t be joined with paganism. They are not interchangeable. That all comes from Murray’s thesis, and that study was pretty much confined to Europe. Witchcraft isn’t a religion, but a type of religious practice. One doesn’t have to be ‘PAGAN’ to be a witch. Witchcraft can be practiced within any religious framework. Pagan religion may be ‘for the people, by the people’, but witchcraft isn’t, and never was. The classical ‘pagans’ and even as far back as sumer all had laws against what we would call ‘witchcraft’. Just about every culture in the world has the type which would fall under the label ‘witch’.

          • I think there has been a reawakening of humanity’s relationship with our ancestral gods which began probably in the late middle age and came into full flower in the middle oh the last century. It was far too large and powerful to remain contained within any one or several traditions or orders. Nor was it theirs to dispense or withhold.

          • Well see … the thing is … I have read many books and to the best of my recollection none of them said this is “x” traditions way of doing things. I have done many google searches and found much with similarities, but again to the best of my recollection only sacredtext.com has anything that claims to be of “x” traditions. So you say this stuff has been leaked, but I haven’t found proof. I have no doubt those who were initiated knows exactly what out there has been leaked from their tradition. Question is if a person who hasn’t can’t figure it out has the confidence really been broken?

          • well, you’d have to go back to my original post, “the first rule in fight club” 🙂 the first rule in the craft is you don’t talk about it, except with other witches and that in private. The breach in confidence has nothing to do with secrets, but just plain blabbing about it in public.

          • Yet that is denying one very important part of being human; we are social creatures. It also denies another important part of being human; we are nosy curious beings. My final thing it denies about humans; they have powers of observation. These powers of observation will lead any to be curious about why which leads to the social aspect. You lot have created the perfect trap, yet deny it and seem to want to use it as a means to control. This use of human nature to control others is why I have rejected all the Traditions and any other who seek to use human nature in this manner.

  2. I am so glad I am not the only person who has noticed this. As a person who is new to the P-word community I have to say that one of the reasons I had out right rejected learning from a Tradition was because of this very behavior. When I called them to task on it by asking why is it permissible I was told it is because all covens are autonomous and that the fight over that was settled before I was born. I would rather the incredible hard work of finding out what works and what does not, how to work with the Gods, etc. on my own than to be told every day how insignificant, unworthy, etc. I am from a group of individuals who say they know best but are unwilling to share that information unless I am willing to put up with what would be called mental abuse in any other setting to get it. This is something that those who have influence in the Traditions may want to consider, because it is why I won’t learn from a Tradition nor recognize them as anything more than a stepping stone that will soon be forgotten much like the Model T was to vehicles today. Just my opinion, scathing as it is.

    • And, see, I don’t think your opinion is particularly scathing. Being part of traditional witchcraft has been hugely formative for me, but that’s not without its downsides, too.

      Individual covens have every right to run their affairs as they see fit, barring violations of other folks’ rights and autonomy, and traditions have every right to choose what is or isn’t a part of How They Do Stuff. At the same time, though, I’m seeing a lot of handwringing about Kids These Days not wanting to Do It The Right Way, and at a certain point I start to question if the fault is with Kids These Days, or with the folks offering the teaching. Then again, I’ve heard this same song sung in the 2000s, and the ’90s, and the ’80s… and, if issues of Pagan periodicals are to be believed, even before then. And the wheels, they go round and round…

      • Those wheels do go round. LOL. There is a huge communication gap between the elders and the 20 something’s and younger. Word usage and vocabulary as well as thought patterns are significantly different than even mine (36 years old). I was willing to play translator between the gap at one time, but even I had to say enough is enough and this just ain’t worth it. FYI I have managed those who are 2 to 4 times my own age since I was 22, so I felt I could have done a great service in this capacity. Unfortunately the elders only wanted to abuse and I don’t have to take it.

  3. You have some damn good ideas, but you needn’t be so tentative and self recriminating and eager to avoid any trace of offense at all cost. I’m not saying we need another Milo Yiannopolous (or even the one, really), but I’ve come to believe if you don’t piss someone off or at least challenge some comfort zones with writing, it probably wasn’t worth the effort to write, or read.

    Much about modern Paganism hits a curmudeonly nerve with me, and I’ve come to the conclusion that “The Problem” is not about who is too fluffy or who is about shallow aesthetics or not “real” enough. It’s not about women or young women or “today’s kids” or this tradition or that. The problem as I see it is a mindset which says there is nothing more, and can be nothing more, to modern Paganism than aesthetics. I think that comes from our historical aversion to dogma and authority but also from a very positive value of inclusion which has run amok in a sense. At it’s logical extreme, the Big Tent vision of neopaganism holds that not only are we not supposed to impose our own beliefs on anyone else, we’re not supposed to have them at all. Within Paganism, we’re told, we must unconditionally accept any belief and practice (or lack thereof) as being as authentically Pagan and valid as any other belief and practice, or else we’re “haters”. We’re not supposed to circumscribe, even for ourselves, boundaries for what we consider authentically Pagan or not. We’re also not supposed to form any moral or ethical judgments about anything rooted in Pagan spirituality, because, you know, who are we to judge if some middle aged couple initiates 14 year old girls skyclad? Yikes, yeah we’re seeing the toxic fallout of a relativism which says anything is valid if it’s “their truth.” Even far short of the abuse problem, extreme mandated inclusion, or perhaps mandated nihilism for the sake of inclusion, is no virtue at all. It amounts to a crushing of individual sovereignty toward the goal of tolerance. It is not a healthy route to diversity or tolerance, and for me at least, it is a large part of that curmudgeonly sense of “what’s wrong with Paganism”. It’s what’s wrong, not who’s wrong.

    Authenticity is not something we can or should attempt to define for others, but we must have the power to do so for ourselves. We recognize that right in virtually any other identity or culture we can think of. There is certainly no consensus of what it means to be a Real Jew or authentically Jewish, but I would venture to say for every individual Jew, there is something which stretches the concept past it’s breaking point. Where that is will be radically different for Hasidic or Reform or secular Jews. Probably all would agree that if I, as a gentile with no interest in conversion, started wearing a yarmulke and started doing stand up with inside Jewish comedic material that I would not have the right to demand that I be accepted as being “as Jewish as any of you.” Dressing up in Navajo ceremonial garb will not make a white guy a Native American, not even if he does it right. Aesthetics are not enough.

    One of my boundaries of Pagan authenticity is Christopaganism. I don’t accept it as authentically Pagan. I have no desire to tell anyone else what works for them, but it doesn’t ring true to me. Some will bristle at that judgment, but I make no apologies for it. Insisting that I must accept it is to insist that I accept Paganism as being nothing more than an aesthetic. There is a sentiment which says that anything which is politically progressive, LGBT friendly, goddess oriented, environmentally conscious and New Agey is enough to make it Pagan. It is not enough for me.

  4. Thank you, Misha- as an official “old” (soon to be 47), and a fellow experience-r of the above-mentioned decades, I have to wholeheartedly agree with your assessment. I am an “old” who personally thinks glitter is the BEST, and thinks social media is really, really neato, and I salute your stance on this! I think Nicole E. also brings up some valid points- and it sounds like young AND old have been walking away from the “traditional” groups for the same reasons. When certain people of certain traditions insisted that theirs was the only way (in the 90’s), I turned tail and ran. Why? Because elitism is narrow as hell, and from what I can see, not entirely correct. Witchcraft and paganism ARE interchangeable- to say otherwise is at the least elitist, and at worst, RACIST (as well as sexist), because there are so. Many. Kinds. Of witches! Of pagans, too! To insist that there’s only one way excludes so many traditions that arguably can be called both “pagan” and “witchcraft” (or even just witchy!) is so limited…and so, so boring. Big hugs to you, and to ALL the witches, young and old, every color, every stripe, every permutation of gender/race/choose-your-faulty-terms-of-division-HERE- and glitter. Lots and lots of pretty, pretty glitter! ~* XD *~