I read an interesting piece today in Frieze, an art magazine, on the “The Return of the Witch in Contemporary Culture.” In general, this piece is not too different from the many, many thinkpieces on the revival of interest in either witchcraft or the occult in modern culture, just a bit more concentrated on witchcraft’s recent appearances in the contemporary art scene. One quote in particular stuck out to me for being both provocative, and obviously included by someone who is not really a part of the modern occult scene:
‘The visibility of witchcraft today has its roots in long histories of oppression and instability,’ explains artist Hestia Peppe, currently researching for a practice-based PhD in divination as an expanded practice of reading at Sheffield Hallam. ‘Many are experiencing context collapse caused by war, climate change, massive digital noise, spectacle and algorithmic control. If agency and knowledge are withheld or obscured then you have to look for other ways to get them.’
Peppe makes an important distinction between two approaches to magic: ‘Witches’ magic is the wisdom and practice of oppressed peoples; the occult is the organized keeping of secrets by those in power’. Witches’ magic is embodied knowledge; occult magic is closer to black-box military technology. ‘It is naïve to simplify the politics of magic and overlook its use by fascists and white supremacists,’ says Peppe.
The first paragraph is a pretty common explanation of the political role and potential of witchcraft as a strategy for the oppressed. But I’m guessing most readers who are involved in the occult world would be a little perplexed by the second paragraph (while also maybe understanding the rhetorical move being made). For one thing, it really makes no sense to distinguish modern witchcraft from occultism, considering almost all the traditions of modern witchcraft emerged out of the occult revival of the nineteenth century, and the revival of that revival in the mid-twentieth century.
For example, Wicca could not exist as a tradition without the occult magic of groups like the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and Aleister Crowley’s Ordo Templi Orientis (and even without Freemasonry, for that matter). And many of the currents of “traditional witchcraft” today are even more explicitly aligned with various traditions of contemporary left-hand path or Luciferian occultism, especially when it comes to publishing houses (not to get too materialist in the analysis here…).
By mentioning the “organized keeping of secrets,” Peppe seems to be talking about esoteric initiatory societies; of course, traditional Wicca is one such society, as are many modern witch covens. Or perhaps she’s talking about the complex “technological” systems of magic that originated in the late medieval and early modern grimoires — but then there’s the fact that the grimoire tradition really gained steam after the invention of the printing press, becoming a global phenomenon of widely dispersed magical techniques and practices during the colonial era, including in spiritual traditions of the oppressed such as the Afro-Caribbean traditions that developed in the context of the Atlantic slave trade.
Really, folk magic — what is probably meant here by the term “witches’ magic” — has always intersected and blended with the so-called “high magic” of the occultists. And, as I’ve described in past newsletters, occultism has always included radical leftwing political perspectives.
This is without even getting into the association of occultism, especially branches like chaos magic, with the anarchist left, including by such luminaries as Alan Moore.
And this is without even getting into the fact that many oppressed peoples would seriously balk at their folk practices, even if they’re okay with the term magic, getting lumped in with “witchcraft.”
So the dichotomy quoted here breaks down on further inspection, and wouldn’t really pass muster in any study of Western esotericism.
Still, Peppe is onto something as a rhetorical flourish. It’s true that witchcraft, as a particular current within the modern occult revival, absolutely tends toward leftwing and progressive politics, and the article is right that this is likely because of the gender and sexual politics signified by witchcraft as both a belief system and as shorthand for a particular history of gendered oppression.
The distinction here being made between witchcraft as “embodied knowledge” and occultism as “black-box military technology” breaks down under scrutiny, but it serves a particular rhetorical purpose — witchcraft (as in the Margaret Murray kind) signifying here a mostly female, anti-patriarchal expression of folk knowledge vs. occultism signifying a mostly male, pseudo-scientific pursuit of hidden knowledge for the purposes of gaining and maintaining power (cf. Illuminati Masonic conspiracy theories). And no one can deny that there are many white supremacist, fascist, alt-right folks interested in Western esotericism, especially in the “traditionalist” school. See Dark Star Rising by Gary Lachman.
Still, I think even with the current witchcraft revival among many people who might self-identify as progressive — for example the Trump binders and the Kavanaugh hexers of The Resistance, who might see witchcraft as a shorthand for #MeToo or as an anti-authoritarian spiritual tradition, or, in a previous generation, the feminist Goddess movement of the 1970s or Starhawk’s Reclaiming tradition — the more common trend in all branches of the occult has been toward subculture and depoliticization rather than toward radicalization and organizing. This might be less true in the witchcraft community than in the non-witch occult community, but not enough to make any serious mark on social justice organizing in this country. Not yet.
Take one historical example of the tendency toward depoliticization that’s always been particularly frustrating to me. In Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches, by Charles Godrey Leland, one of the founding texts of the twentieth-century witchcraft revival (and here we will bracket any debates about the lack of authenticity of this text as actual evidence of a surviving European witch cult), Aradia is born from the union of the witch goddess Diana and the fallen angel Lucifer (!) in the context of the deep economic inequality and political oppression of feudal Catholic Europe:
In those days there were on earth many rich and many poor.
The rich made slaves of all the poor.
In those days were many slaves who were cruelly treated; in every palace tortures, in every castle prisoners.
Many slaves escaped. They fled to the country; thus they became thieves and evil folk. Instead of sleeping by night, they plotted escape and robbed their masters, and then slew them. So they dwelt in the mountains and forests as robbers and assassins, all to avoid slavery.
It is in this political and economic context that Diana gives her charge to Aradia:
And thou shalt be the first of witches known;
And thou shalt be the first of all i' the world;
And thou shalt teach the art of poisoning,
Of poisoning those who are great lords of all;
Yea, thou shalt make them die in their palaces;
And thou shalt bind the oppressor's soul (with power);
And when ye find a peasant who is rich,
Then ye shall teach the witch, your pupil, how
To ruin all his crops with tempests dire,
With lightning and with thunder (terrible),
And the hall and wind....
And when a priest shall do you injury
By his benedictions, ye shall do to him
Double the harm, and do it in the name
Of me, Diana, Queen of witches all!
Later, Aradia teaches a similar doctrine of political and economic resistance to her witch pupils, including the meaning of the witches’ sabbat: