(This is another one of those quote heavy reviews, but :shrug:)
So, I can’t be the only one who’s hearing a lot of talk about witches lately, right? Podcasts?(including the author of this book’s own) Friends dabbling in crystals? Little sister shoving the Co-Star app at you and asking what time you were born?? I feel like witches are in the zeitgeist right now, one way or another, and as any The Craft-Matilda-Practical Magic loving 90’s teenage girl can tell you, not even for the first time in my lifetime. I am pretty ok with that, because at least this time, I’m hearing a lot of voices I feel were excluded from the conversations the first time around (I know adults, of many cultures, this time. And some of them practice ancestral witchcraft. Would’ve blown my then-Catholic mind, that’s for sure.) Anyways: Witches… They’re everywhere right now. Including my local library, where I wandered upon this lovely book just sitting there in the new deliveries, like it was waiting for me. Kismet.
So, the subtitle of the book is “Reflections on Women, Magic & Power,” and it’s delightfully and definitely that. This is 100% a feminist take on witchcraft, popular takes on witchery, historical reflections on femininity and magic- and access to both and who controlled both – and I loved nearly every minute of it. I wound up with two pages of google docs quotations, which I am only going to include a few of here, but will be putting into Goodreads after, because everyone should read them, so link. The thing about the book is it covers a lot, and I’m only going to talk about a few of the highlights (and one thing I would have liked some improvement on), so I suggest you read it. October is coming, you know, guys. Also: History/Scmistory, in case you need it.
The overall theme is the power that witchcraft enables women to wield, to play with, to inhabit, to possess. Literal power (if you’re a believer in that kind of thing), but also all sorts of societal power – the power of healers, and midwives; the power of solitude; the power of knowledge; political power – endless amounts and avenues of power, basically. Freedom, in a lot ways, that was inaccessible in any other spheres to women, historically. And Grossman manages to really do a great job of discussing how magic is both individualized, and yet intricately connected to a community. How it can be mystical, fully honoring the feminine, and still practical. How the word itself is both “loaded and coded” – an epithet and a blessing all in one. Those are good parts; recommended. Not where I want to focus though.
First, Grossman rehashes most of European witch history, a little Haitian, Persian, Hebrew and a handful more along the way. There’s no way to talk about witches and skip over the 100,000+ deaths in Western Europe alone by the end of the 15th Century – nearly 75-85% of whom were women.
*Although my ‘favorite’ and by ‘favorite’, I mean ‘Thanks, I hate it’ piece of historical information was about how the Crucible is STILL being GROSSLY mis-taught in schools so horrifically, still, to this day. Basically, it’s the difference between “based on true events” and “true story”, but Arthur Miller wrote the Crucible as an allegory for/response to the McCarthy hearings and what we now call witch-hunts (we didn’t used to! Not even pre-20 century, really), and how he managed to place all the blame on an 11 year old that he literally made up a story about and we teach it as if it is a fact (or at the very least fact adjacent). As Grossman puts it, she could also make up a story about how the then 11 year old and the 60 year old she accused of witchcraft, if they did have an ‘affair’ as Miller claims (even though there was zero historical evidence of such), would, you know be pedophilia and maybe it was a trauma response of a tiny. child?, “but that would be a fabrication, based on nothing but my own biased, wild imaginings, and influenced by the conversations and events of my own time and place.” You know: Exactly like the Crucible? So maybe someone should get on writing that version so we can teach it to 9th graders every year and they could learn that traumatizing young girls is also just as dangerous & damaging as calling people witches? sigh.*
Since I’m of an age with the author, the best parts for me, though, are the pop-cultural touchstones she navigates the history lessons and narrative through. She manages to revisit all the great fictional witches of my youth – From Oz to Salem, to Riverdale, Sunnydale, Hogwarts, Eastwick, Cherry Tree Lane and so on – while introducing me to a few I hadn’t heard of before, and makes them seem both worthy of revisiting and a stepping stone in a logical progression to a more inclusive witching community, which is a goal I can heartily endorse.
In YA fictional witches, for example, we often see the interplay and intersectionality of identity, femininity, teenage girlhood, and access to friendship, power, vengeance, justice, grief, control, crisis, chaos, and coming of age. Teenage female witches are/were often written as a unique investigation into areas of insecurity, budding sexuality, trivializing, triumphs, talent, and tenacity. Grossman also discusses how we see signs of progress in Hermione as the descendant of witches like the original Sabrina, The Teenage Witch, Buffy’s Willow, or other teen witches of “old”, as she’s allowed to learn, adapt, thrive, and survive WITH her magic. She’s allowed to grow into her power and herself in a way her predecessors were often forbidden. (I would argue that her Hogwarts cohorts – especially Luna – might even embody this more, but I get that nobody really wants to nitpick that with me.)
My favorite of Grossman’s conclusions is that it isn’t until women start writing (or at least getting published, & power in, writing witches), that their devil pacts are possibly seen as freeing, rather that stunting, helpful rather than helpful. Fairy tale witches all get a pretty sore deal/bad rap – It’s when women start telling witch stories that we start seeing witches as a route to fulfilling potential, rather than eternal damnation. One of the clearest examples of this is when it comes to witches and the roles of women’s bodies. There’s the obvious discussion surrounding childless women, and historically, their role in witch-tales. (Even those with less than the average number of children were suspected, depending on the times, and the infant mortality rates in the area.) In older tales – non-mothers were in anti-mother roles: that is they were enemies of children, and often everyone else (Mother Gothel, Maleficent, whoever tries to eat Hansel & Gretel). And yet, one of the most magical non-mother witches in pop-culture, once women started telling the stories? Mary Freaking Poppins. As Grossman puts it, “I aspire to be such a woman to the children I know. To swirl into their lives with great magic and devotion, but to have the liberty to leave when the winds change.” Said every fairy godmother/favorite aunt, ever.
The freedom that witchcraft gives to more taboo parts of women and their bodies is also not to be overlooked – many rituals use menstrual blood, for example, and that ‘ickiness’ is portrayed in popular culture as another disgusting thing about witches (Carrie, for example). Aging is also taboo – “often fiction witches are themselves afraid of mortality [from the Wicked Queen in Snow White to the Sanderson Sisters in Hocus Pocus to Laria in …Stardust]. As such, they’re double bound – punished by society by aging, then vilified for going to extremes to maintain their beauty and their youth.” I mean, sure… but it still pretty extreme to want to eat children, so I’m not sure they should get a pass their either, but I do take her point. There’s also the role of the hag – Baba Yaga, or another crone -, which Grossman discusses in relation to post-menopausal women as society’s version of women at their “most horrifying”. But, for spiritual witches, especially, crones provide comfort, wisdom, guidance, mentorship, and that shows up in stories as well- The “Mrs.” witches in A Wrinkle In Time, Hecate, Mama Odie from The Princess and the Frog.
Anyways: Do you want to learn a lot you didn’t know about witches, and remember that there are some kick-ass witch books/movies/shows you should revisit soon? Then you should check this book out. Drawbacks? For me, it’s a little disappointing that a book that proclaims that “Magic is made in the margins” doesn’t explore as many of those margins as I, personally, might have liked. While I felt that the author did a good job of addressing some questions of multicultural differences and similarities – and I’m going to give a specific shoutout to the YA fiction section, where I felt like she went into a great deal of depth on the topic, including LGBTQ witches – I just wanted more of it, all around – to have it be less of a sidedish and more of the main course? It’s hard to know what the line is here though, because if it’s a book that focuses on (at different points) pop-culture or historical touchpoints in relationship to witches, than obviously so many of those touchpoints are going to be the whitewashed, heteronormative, classist examples we’ve mostly heard of before, and I can’t really fault her for allowing the book to focus mostly on these. I guess it’s just that I see the lack of inclusivity on some issues – specifically disability when she was talking about witches and body horror, and the interplay of that historical significance, or the prevalence of non-white witches and what has their history been when not viewed through a Eurocentric lenses – that I would’ve liked to read a lot more about.
And there’s also a lot to be said about running out of space. Grossman does manage to cover some of this and the idea of witch as fashion icon, prophet, artist, craftsman, spiritual leader, source of political power and more. Including: What is a witch now, in 2019? Everything from witchblr and spells for binding the “evil in the white house” on Pintrest, to actual facts witch-hunts rising in numbers, violence and deaths across the globe since 2009 (including 4 people put to death in Saudi Arabia, and a 20-yr-old mother murdered, and her 5-yr-old daughter tortured in the midst of an ‘anti-sorcery epidemic’ in Papua New Guinea). There’s a lot of witch stuff to explore, is all I’m saying, so I think the author did an extremely admirable job.
Need more evidence? Here’s a few of the aforementioned quotes.
“The witch is notorious shape-shifter and comes in many guises. More than anything, though, the witch is a shifting and shadowy symbol of female power and a force for subverting the status quo. She is also a vessel that contains our conflicting feelings about female power: our fear of it, our desire for it, our hope that it can and will grow stronger despite the flames that are thrown at it.”
“While a witchy wardrobe can certainly be sexy at times, it doesn’t tend to prioritize body consciousness. More often than not, witch fashion is about loose layers that veil the form or fabrics that cloak and cover. It conceals more than it reveals. It creates a shroud, albeit one emblazoned with spangles and talismanic symbols. And so the wearer is self-modulating and self-protected, a walking woven spell. If she’s shocking, it’s because she wants to be. This witch is a voluntary disturbance. Women have been told over many lifetimes that their bodies are wrong and unbecoming – that they belong to other people. The fashion witch is self-possessed, first and foremost. She controls how much of herself she shares. Whether others consider her anatomy a monstrosity, or a thing of majesty, is of little concern. She knows her body is her own. And that is true power.”
“Books were my broomstick. They allowed me to fly to other realms where anything was possible.”
Y’all: She’s a book witch. I think I need to figure out where here coven meets.