A quick Google search can tell you what the word “witch” means. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as “a person (especially a woman) who is credited with having usually malignant supernatural powers.” An aged woman, with green wrinkly skin, makes evil potions and is defeated by a hero at the end of a story. Pretty straightforward, right?
But here’s the catch. Contrary to popular belief, witches exist outside the realm of fiction and folklore and the word “witch” is not synonymous with a woman. There are men who practice witchcraft as well.
“A question was raised in one of my classes that, is this [Wicca] a religion for women? And I am not for excluding anybody which is why it’s important for men to explore what sacred femininity is all about. I think men who are willing to do that are some of the best allies for women who are feminists. So, they were welcome,” says Chrystal Rowanwood.
Chrystal Raven-Rowanwood, 36, is a solitary witch residing in Port Moody. She was a teacher of witchcraft for specifically those people, who were intrigued and wanted to explore what it encompassed, beyond the popular culture belief.
Even though the classes are currently on a hiatus, Rowanwood recalled that as soon as the word about her classes was out, they were fully registered right away, indicating the need for learning witchcraft in the community.
“I opened the school not so much for people who already identified [as witches] but for people who were unsure, curious or even those who didn’t plan to identify that way. I wanted to be able to offer my knowledge and experience. I opened it partially for people who didn’t know where to go aside from Google and the library. And we all know that Google can be useful only sometimes.” she said.
Although Wiccans (people who practice in witchcraft) are gaining more acceptance today, the journey to exploring witchcraft and becoming a witch is not as straightforward as it might seem.
The impact of stereotypical images of witches in our heads is not a new phenomenon. Literature and cinema have contributed significantly in perpetuating the idea that witches are both, women and evil.
Goo Thompson, 60, has been a witch since the age of 26 and she has heard of the stereotypical tropes and experienced mockery firsthand because of her identity and beliefs.
“I remember a number of years ago, people were laughing at me which was actually very disconcerting. They would quote tropes like ‘Don’t turn me into a toad’ and other ridiculous things. But I try to be patient and gentle but, overall, it’s looked at in a mocking way which is rude,” she said.
Take a look at cartoons like Tom and Jerry or the three witches in Macbeth by William Shakespeare and the hypersexualized witch costumes for Halloween. They’re all a result of “the image of a Hollywood-culture witch being ingrained” in everyone’s mind, Thompson said.
Despite the centuries of ridicule, the witch community has stood tall and provided support to one another, allowing everyone to continue making their own choices and live their life on their own terms. Thompson has been doing the same.
“One of the edicts of Wicca is that you’re your own authority, it’s not about being told what to do which is the case in a lot of other religions. The idea of Jesus or Mohammed, that I do believe existed, but have this godlike energy put upon them by people who quote them saying this and that which I noticed were all men,” she said.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons why many young people are drawn to witchcraft, something Thompson recalls was not a trend when she started attending the British Columbia Witch Camp She believes the upward trend is more about connecting with like-minded people and exploration than about spirituality.
Another way to measure growing interest in witchcraft is by the sales and availability of books dedicated to witchcraft. On Amazon alone, there are more than 10,000 books.
Online stores that specialize in witchcraft supplies, such as spell kits, money kits, herbs, candles, oil and more to continue rituals at home, have noticed increased sales during COVID-19, indicating that perhaps people are spending their extra time, exploring witchcraft.
But with the increased interest, it’s important to remember the painful history of witchcraft which began in the mid-1400s when the Catholic Church burnt a woman after she was accused of killing a child by using witchcraft. The Church condemned anyone who identified as a witch or a follower of Wicca. This resulted in the murders and burning of more than 60,000 women labelled as witches by 1782.
But women are dismantling the longstanding patriarchal prejudice against witches. They’re joining the community to break away from the stereotypical representation that has overshadowed their beliefs for centuries.
Whether as solitary witches or engaging within the community, they’re reclaiming the words “witch” and “Wicca.” Witchcraft provides them (especially women) the opportunity to make their own decisions, without the dictation of a male-centric religion, helping witches to strengthen their ties with feminism.
Photographer and tattoo artist Jessie Robertson, 37, is of the belief that feminism is about equality and having authority and it is time to reclaim both as witches.
“For centuries, the patriarchy and most organized religions have ostracized those who they could not control or understand. Many of the people who were deemed witches, whether they identified as one or not, were healers, visionaries, wild women, strong and unique individuals who didn’t fit the status quo,” she said.
She believes that Wicca and witchcraft create space for the sacredness of women, which had been missing for the longest time.
“For me, studying witchcraft, pagan ways, and reclaiming the word ‘witch’ ties into feminism. It’s direct defiance against what the patriarchy has tried to villainize for thousands of years, people (especially women) taking back their power in society,” she added.
Thompson echoed the sentiment, highlighting the empowerment witchcraft provides to women.
“I’m really done listening to men. Not that I don’t love men, I’m married to one and gave birth to another but the patriarchy has not served us very well. But within witchcraft, I have control over my own destiny, decision-making, I am my own authority,” she said.
Witchcraft provides the opportunity to not only dismantle patriarchy but, also continue activism against all wrongs. This is another reason why people are drawn to it.
Sharon Pink, 36, is of the view that witchcraft is a form of activism and resistance against all kinds of tyranny.
“I was in a class, nine years ago, and our teacher brought a dictionary and in the dictionary, she looked up the words ‘wizard’ and ‘witch.’ A wizard was explained as a ‘magical man’, he’s powerful, whereas the witch was an ‘ugly, haggard woman’. So, for me being a witch is resisting, as best as I can, the ongoing harm to Indigenous people, capitalism, colonization and just…oppression.”
Despite the popularity, there are only approximately 10,225 adherents of Wicca, according to the 2011 Census Canada. The Universal Life Church Canada, an international nondenominational religious organization, suggests that since there are various paths under the umbrella term “Wicca” and because many witches fear discrimination, forcing them to never come out of the broom closet, practitioners of witchcraft and Wicca remain unaccounted for in the census and otherwise.
While the numbers might not reflect the popularity of witchcraft, Thompson detailed the improvements she is beginning to see in the way the community operates to ensure inclusivity and equality for BIPOC, mixed-race and gender-diverse people.
“Witchcraft originated from such a white culture so trying to get diversity or BIPOC feel comfortable is a challenge. It’s a Catch-22 because you want to be respectful of other religions and beliefs and you don’t want to draw them into your belief system without authority. This is what keeps people out of witchcraft and doesn’t draw them in.”
She added that the community of witches is hoping to rid itself from gender identities, modifying its vision and guidelines to ensure that people feel safe and know that they are valued which is matriarchal, unlike other schools of thought.
As a witch, Thompson believes that the community acknowledges that respect and equality are fundamental rights of every living being. “We’re all equal. We all have the same rights and all of us should be treated with respect. To have the opportunity to love who we need to love, and practice our beliefs as we see fit.”
Listen: Goo Thomspon takes us inside her ritual space