Witch Side Are You On? Witchcraft & Halloween

In a world of Sexy Scientist costumes and whitewashed Geisha get-ups, the witch has prevailed as a feminist fallback for socially conscious trick-or-treaters. And, er, we’re about to ruin that for you too...

Feature by Rianna Walcott | 13 Oct 2017

As Halloween draws near and witch costumes begin to fly off the shelves, it seems a fitting time to examine what the witch is, and what she once was. I don’t practice any form of spirituality, but as a child I was very interested in the less commonly practised spirituality of Jamaica – obeah magic. With that in mind, I can’t claim to be expert in any of the spiritualities, but I can guide you through some of the modern-day manifestations of witchcraft.

The Halloween Witch

When we think about Halloween a very specific type of witch comes to mind, with green skin, a hooked nose, and pointed hat. However, many historians are agreed on the fact that the origins of this witch costume are steeped in anti-semitism. Jewish people in Europe since the 1200s have been persecuted and discriminated against via their appearance and dress; forced to wear special garments – badges, belts and hats – that were implemented over time and form the basis of the witch costume we know today.

The anti-semitic stereotype of hooked noses became synonymous with witchcraft, and Jewish people were often cited as stealing children and poisoning people. The iconic witch is therefore built from a mixture of symbolic items meant to demonise Jewish people, which have now to some extent detached from their original purpose.

It’s difficult to determine the appropriate response to this problem. Should the costume be discarded altogether, or is it sufficiently far removed from its origins that it can no longer be considered representative of contemporary anti-semitism? This is an ongoing debate, but regardless, if you are dressing up as a witch this Halloween it is better to be informed about the roots of your costume.

Black Magic

African traditional and diasporic spiritualities are practised by approximately 100 million people, making it the 8th largest religion practised globally. African spirituality takes many different forms, including Louisiana Hoodoo, Haitian Vodou (often westernised as Voodoo), Brujeria, Santeria, Obeah, JuJu and many more. These derive from West African religions, and have withstood travel, diaspora and the slave trade to evolve in new environments.

These spiritualities are often stereotyped in a specific way. For instance ‘Voodoo’ is well known, and calls to mind clichés of sticking pins in dolls, potions and sacrifices. The reality is musical and spiritual, with shared deities (Orishas) also found in West African traditions. The reason for the stigma around common conceptions of Vodou and other types of African spirituality can be linked to white supremacy.

In the wake of the Haitian revolution, where the slaves revolted and freed themselves from French colonial rule, white slaveowners in the US aggressively vilified Haitian spiritual practices as barbaric in order to prevent them from similarly empowering enslaved black people, for fear of uprisings on US plantations. The Haitian uprising is credited to a secret Vodou ceremony on the night of 14 August 1791, where slaves gathered and ‘slit the throat of a large black creole pig and distributed its blood to the revolutionaries, who swore to kill the blancs – white settlers – as they drank it’. The myths surrounding Vodou today have their roots in subsequent fears of this empowering religion, a ‘rival power base’ to the slave-owning Christian church.

However, in modern-day times these spiritualities are being given a new platform. Artists like Princess Nokia showcase contemporary Brujeria among young Afro-Latinx people in her song Brujas, which establishes a sisterhood and community tied to ancient Yoruba tradition, but which is still relevant to the contemporary diasporic condition.

Similarly, Beyoncé made references to Yoruba spirituality in the imagery of Lemonade, through her deliberate embodiments of the Orisha Oshun – the yellow dress in Hold Up alludes to the garments of the goddess of fertility and love. The revival and mainstreaming of African and diasporic spirituality through pop-culture is largely being treated as trendy, but it must be noted that this accessibility is based on cherry picking the most palatable parts of the traditions. We’ve been taking the herbs, the crystals, the deities and the solidarity while leaving the sacrificial chickens in the closet.

The Cool Witch

Part of the sanitising of witchcraft has been held within the commercialisation of the practice. The trendy, accessible kind of witchcraft is noticeably white. It looks like Urban Outfitters selling candles, sage incense bundles, white YouTubers like Harmony Nice, celebrities like Lena Dunham and Adele swearing to crystals’ healing and protective powers, and Gwyneth Paltrow telling us to put jade eggs up our vaginas. This type of witchcraft is revolted by the gorier parts of spirituality, tending towards a pastiche of rituals and practices with origins from all over the world. It’s appropriation, whitewashing and in some cases capitalistic exploitation of black spiritualities for which black people have been persecuted throughout time.

The problem with mainstreaming the cultural capital of witchcraft and spirituality is how often we get it wrong and become offensive to what is, after all, a widely practised religion. Amalgamating different practices of spirituality has the effect of further marginalising the practices that are less publicly acceptable, and the people for whom it is more than a trend.

The resurgence of modern day witchcraft is not always capitalistic, but is sometimes tied to feminism: the witch is political. The rebooting of 90s witchy feminism – the autonomous and powerful women of shows like Buffy – is especially timely in the current political climate. Political witchcraft is appealing, an act of power in a moment where the freedoms of women, people of colour and LGBTQ+ people are under threat. The gathering of Brooklyn witches who came together to hex Donald Trump is a prime example of witchcraft allowing for a reclamation of personal autonomy.

So which witch are you this Halloween? Making the effort to distinguish the lazy stereotype from the consumerist trendy witch who just wants to smell like rosewater, and the political aesthetic from the historical spiritual practice may seem heavy for an annual holiday that lasts an evening. But paying attention to the rising visibility of witchcraft and spirituality in the modern day might be worth your time. After all, if she catches you trivialising her culture this Halloween she may just hex you.