Necessary Magic

Why modern witchcraft is nothing like 'Harry Potter'

Allusions to magic and witches are everywhere these days. The number of rainbow unicorns and clothing with slogans about being magical I saw at Target last weekend was astounding (or nauseating, depending on your point of view). Netflix, meanwhile, has reissued Sabrina the Teenage Witch and a prequel to The Dark Crystal. Our politicians endlessly frame people they don't like as witches and various campaigns they don't like as witchhunts.

But this is not the magic that interests me. I'm a white person, of European descent, but my people have been settlers on Turtle Island/in America for centuries. I'm so hungry to know what the original spiritual and magical practices of my ancestors were before Christianity and patriarchy colonized their homelands. I want to know how my people lived when they were indigenous to their own lands, before they left to become colonizers themselves, before Turtle Island became the US and before Aztlan became the American Southwest; before white settlers in these lands became so hungry to fill their spiritual holes that they began appropriating practices and sacred objects from Native and Asian cultures, selling bundles of sage at Urban Outfitters, and creating vague concepts like "the New Age."

Who were we as a people when we celebrated the solstices and the equinoxes, when we knew the phases of the moon and the life cycles of non-human relatives? When we weren't afraid of sexuality, ashamed of our bodies and actively exploiting women and gender minorities in the service of profit and power? Who could we be now if we celebrated and lived in these ways?

Magic happens in places other than Hogwarts.

Who are today's witches, and who were the witches, historically? One of my favorite books on the topic, Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture, calls itself "a radical view of Western Civilization and some of the people it tried to destroy." These people were mostly women and gender-deviant folks; heretics, midwives, herbalists, priestesses, artists, queers. In the Americas, some of these folks might also be called brujas, curanderas, medicine people. These are my people, and we haven't been destroyed.

Weirdly, we're making it into mainstream media. Last month, The Guardian ran an article titled "Monsters, men and magic: why feminists turned to witchcraft to oppose Trump." For real. It features a rundown of witchy forces in pop culture, and a history of feminist witch-inspired political actions going back to the '60s. I recommend it.

But I'm not so interested in the part of magic that has to do with hexing people (although someone recently invited me to a Facebook group called Hexing the Patriarchy, and I'm not going to lie, I joined). I'm not into dark magic, and unlike in the Harry Potter universe, most modern magic I see isn't about fighting evil. It's not learned in boarding schools and it's not dominated by heroic boys and men. There is no Ministry of Magic, no golden plates of food magically refilled by invisible labor. There is no Dumbledore to save the day, and there are no orphan messiah figures.

The witches I know cook and garden and make and are deeply connected to the Earth. They have parents, they are parents, and the ancestral knowledge of female and gender-variant folks is crucial and rich. Sex and sensuality are part of the traditions, as are activism and organizing. One of the publications that most stirred me in these directions is a self-published zine called Learning to live with heart in this most brutal of worlds; the politics of spirituality. For me, that's what this is all about: learning to live with heart, in a way that is connected to earth, seasons, mystery and the pre-colonization traditions of my people—despite the brutality of racist capitalist empire, despite the erasure of original knowledge.

We have to get so creative to find our way, and there is no Hogwarts. I have a friend who's attending an online pagan seminary because there's nothing local to engage with, and I've found myself Googling everything from herbs to sigils, a form of spellwork based in the creation of written symbols I embed into my art.

Sometimes this path is lonely. I spent the summer solstice alone this year in a spectacular field of wild penstemon wondering where my people were and why we weren't celebrating it together. The knowledge is scattered and ambiguous—are we making it up as we go, or connecting to something ancient, meaningful and grounded? Where do we find each other when there is no Leaky Cauldron Pub or Quidditch World Cup, no Daily Prophet newspaper? What does it mean to practice magic here and now?

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