I read an article about witches in the latest (March) issue of Atlantic magazine yesterday. Atlantic, or as they call it now, The Atlantic, is a hallowed name in journalism. It was founded in 1857 and is widely respected for its literary reviews, in-depth articles on many subjects and moderate worldview. Why would they print an article on witches?
Witches have been around for a long time. Or have they? Even the Church couldn’t decide. In 1484, Pope Innocent VIII issued a bull declaring that witches did indeed exist, and thus it became a heresy to believe otherwise. This was quite a reversal, because in 906 the Canon Episocopi, a church law, declared that belief in the existence and operation of witchcraft was heresy.
Needless to say, the history of witches is long and dark. Women have been persecuted and even executed for being witches. The Salem witch trials were the most recent in the US, but hardly unique. In Saudi Arabia, the punishment for practicing witchcraft is beheading, and in many other countries, being accused of it is practically a death sentence. But this article is not going to be a history of witchcraft and the persecution of witches. Let’s get back to the Atlantic article.
Juliet Diaz is a witch, and she’s proud of it, considers it her profession. She made a half million dollars last year practicing that profession. Describing herself as a “plant witch,” she sells anointing oils and “intention infused” body products from her online store. She also instructs 8900 witches in her online school and runs workshops. She is the author of a bestselling book, “Witchery: Embrace the Witch Within.”
There are many kinds of witches, and witchery, long viewed with suspicion and hostility has become a mainstream phenomenon. There are sea witches, city witches, cottage witches, and kitchen witches. And especially, influencer witches. It’s a very flexible profession, and you can pretty much define your own specialty and methods of practice.
I suspect that most of my readers here are as skeptical as I am of the powers claimed by practitioners of these “black arts,” but apparently there is a growing acceptance of it. Nobody knows how many witches there are, or how many believers in their powers. A report in the Christian Post contends that the number of witches (and Wiccans) has dramatically increased in recent years, and that there may be as many as 1.5 million witches in the United States, which is higher than the 1.4 million mainline Presbyterians. That’s a lot of broomstick riders!
Comparing them to a religious sect is interesting in another sense: Isn’t belief in witches similar to belief in God? There is no evidential or factual basis for either one. It’s fact-free, faith-based belief. The only benefits either one provides are in the imagination of the believer.
With the growth of secular populations in the US and other countries, the growth in belief in witchery is puzzling. Some possible explanations are posited in the Atlantic article. Historically, belief in the occult has corresponded with periods of stress and crisis in societies. When society seems to be unable to deal with dangers, some people turn to other “powers” to solve the problem. The rise of feminism over the past thirty or forty years is another possible reason. Witchcraft, while not solely practiced by women, is an expression of feminine power. Abrahamic religions, and the societies they dominate, have always operated as paternalistic power structures that sought to control women. The recent rise in witchcraft may be attempts by some women to push back against that misogyny.
Belief in witchcraft seems fairly benign compared to religious belief. Witches are not trying to influence government to teach their beliefs in schools, or take rights away from women. If we are going to have faith-based belief in our society, I prefer witches to priests.