Witchcraft has been on the rise over recent years. What drives people to yearn for the dark arts?
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A green-skinned woman with a hooked nose points her finger at a frightened girl wearing ruby slippers. After tossing in the eye of newt, a woman stirs a cauldron before she jumps on a broomstick to fly off into the night. A blonde housewife from the early 1960s wiggles her nose to magically finish housework.
These and similar images accompany the idea of a “witch” as much as clouds do the sky. But not every cloud is in the sky, and not every witch fits these categories. Some do work hard to stand out from the crowd with eccentric clothing and jewelry, but many witches today look just like everyone else. The old lady who offers milk and cookies to neighbors is just as likely to practice magic as the sullen teenager who wears all black. People you work with, interact with and even love may now practice witchcraft.
For decades, what was once considered taboo and unseemly has slowly become more and more mainstream.
An article by Quartz explained that as “occult references have creeped into pop culture and our tolerance for different religious practices has increased, witchcraft has become more and more normalized. We can see this in teens’ appetite for Harry Potter and Twilight, a ‘witchy’ aesthetic creeping into fast fashion, and Ouija boards being sold as toys. Barnes & Noble even has entire sections on witchcraft and the occult now. In this way, magic is becoming both popularized as an aesthetic choice, as well as a recognized form of spirituality.”
As witchcraft has become more accepted, its many different traditions have also come to the fore. Everything from Native American religions, Wicca, paganism and general spiritualism falls under the category of witchcraft.
This exposure has translated into a spike in practitioners: The American Religion Survey found that the numbers in the U.S. surged from about 55,000 in 1990 to almost 1.3 million in 2008—and the number continues to increase.
Why the rising attraction to mysticism and the occult?
The Witch as Woman
The most common image of a witch is that of a woman, but this was not always so.
Before the Inquisition, men and women were accused equally of witchcraft. It was not until two Dominican inquisitors published Malleus Maleficarum (“Hammer Against Witches”) in 1486, which became an instruction manual for witch-hunting, that claimed “all witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable.”
So began almost 300 years of persecution of those accused of witchcraft, most of them women.
Women’s suffragist Matilda Joselyn Gage called out this oppression in her 1893 book Woman, Church and State. She claimed that the “witches” the European Christian churches tortured and killed were simply scientists and people who worked with plant extracts to do things that the dominant church did not understand. “The so-called ‘witch’ was among the most profoundly scientific persons of the age,” she wrote.
She was perhaps the first modern person to cast witchcraft in a good light. Her influence extended to her son-in-law L. Frank Baum, author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. This book became the well-beloved movie, whose characters and costumes formed the popular caricatures of witches still used today.
Other films and television shows followed, casting witches in more regular or even glamorous settings. Modern witchcraft stories typically have strong female characters taking control of their lives. Such stories appeal to those who feel helpless.
But witchcraft is more than just entertainment. It promises to give the half of humanity that has felt oppressed, held back, or shamed for simply being born a woman the opportunity to control their destiny. It tells them they can have power if they reject the status quo.
Painted in this light, witchcraft can seem to be a noble cause—yet this view completely overlooks the darker side of these practices.
Gage pushed for women to rebuff the roles assigned to them. She wrote, “A rebel! How glorious the name sounds when applied to a woman. Oh, rebellious woman, to you the world looks in hope. Upon you has fallen the glorious task of bringing liberty to the earth and all the inhabitants thereof.” She believed that if women collectively fought back, they could change the world for the better.
Along with Gage, other writers spoke openly of rebelling against church, state and any traditional expectation of women’s behavior. From that point on, witchcraft and politics have gone hand in hand.
“Witchcraft is feminism, it’s inherently political,” Gabriela Herstik, a witch and author, told Sabat magazine. “It’s always been about the outsider, about the woman who doesn’t do what the church or patriarchy wants.”
“But the fact that there are no set criteria for being a witch is, for many, precisely the appeal,” The Atlantic reported. “Witchcraft beckons with the promise of a spirituality that is self-determined, antipatriarchal, and flexible enough to incorporate varied cultural traditions.”
Looking at the corruption, scandals and resistance to change in governments and traditional religions today, is it any wonder witchcraft has grown in popularity?
Injustice Breeds Rebellion
Both real and perceived injustice leads people to feel powerless to effect change in their own lives or society. This has pushed many away from traditional institutions.
The Public Religion Research Institute compiled statistics on Americans’ religious affiliations and found that from 1971 through 1991 only 6 to 8 percent considered themselves “unaffiliated” with organized religion. By the year 2000, it had doubled to 14 percent and reached 25 percent by 2016. While most stopped believing what their congregation taught, women cited off-putting views about homosexuality and clergy sex abuse scandals as reasons for leaving their affiliations twice as often as men.
Governments are faring little better. In multi-party democracies, citizens of a government can rebel when they feel that their voice is not heard by simply changing political parties. Those drawn to witchcraft tend to leave the political parties supported by traditional churches, moving to those that allow more personal choice—one of the appeals that attracted them to mysticism in the first place.
Nearly every period of social unrest sees an increase in witchcraft adherents. In the same Atlantic article referenced previously, Arinze Stanley noted that American interest in witchcraft has risen with “plummeting trust in establishment ideas.” Spikes in interest came during the women’s suffrage movement, Woodstock, the Anita Hill hearings in the ‘90s, after Donald Trump’s election and during the #MeToo movement.
But women are not the only ones who feel oppressed by religion, government and society.
A Pew study found that the number of adherents of pagan, Wicca, Native American and other New Age religions who made less than $30,000 per year grew 15 percent from 2007 to 2014 and represented over half of all followers. In addition, the number of women rose from about half to close to two-thirds, and the number of millennials increased by 13 percent to just under half.
“The more frustrated people get, they do often turn to witchcraft, because they’re like, ‘Well, the usual channels are just not working, so let’s see what else is out there,’” self-professed witch and author Pam Grossman told The Atlantic. “Whenever there are events that really shake the foundations of society…people absolutely turn towards the occult.”
This response is natural, since any form of practicing magic promises power to the powerless and acceptance of the outcast. University College Cork lecturer Miranda Corcoran described witchcraft “as a means for the marginalised to grasp a small sliver of power, or for the disenfranchised to exert a tiny semblance of control. After all, unlike many other forms of ritual magic, witchcraft has traditionally been associated with women, the poor, and those on the periphery of society.”
Ms. Grossman linked her idea of magic with protesting, saying, “I’m doing magic when I march in the streets for causes I believe in.”
She is not alone in that belief. People who call themselves witches around the world gather to cast spells against, or hex, what they see as abuses of power, including the “patriarchy,” presidents, prime ministers, corporations, people accused of crimes, stock markets and even bars.
One group organized a gathering on Facebook in 2018 to hex a public figure accused of rape. They claimed to embrace “witchcraft’s true roots as the magik of the poor, the downtrodden and disenfranchised and [its] history as often the only weapon, the only means of exacting justice available to those of us who have been wronged,” The Hill reported. (Witches will often use the term magik or magick to differentiate between stage magic and “real” magic.)
An article by Quartz confirmed this sentiment: “Today, spirituality and religious practice are still finding a place in politics. Quakers protested the Vietnam War for almost two decades, Tibetan monks protested the Chinese occupation of Tibet by lighting themselves on fire, and the Satanic Temple engages in all different forms of theatrical and ‘legislative’ protest. When you couple the current political climate with the building popularity of witchcraft, no wonder witchy protests are on the rise.
“The notion of ritual is integral to both witchcraft and protest. The act of protesting—of chanting and carrying signs—is already ritualistic in and of itself. The way we say something over and over again as a group in order to give power to a thought is structurally similar to magic’s incantations.
“When we protest, aren’t we all taking part in one huge, unwitting ritual?”
Protesting and witchcraft indeed share an explicit link with what people seek—power. It offers the ability to change their circumstances or as a group to alter the course of events to what they think is right.
When the traditional institutions of church, state and societal norms fail to provide, many will want to take power back to themselves. Many are departing from Christianity because it has failed to give them what they desire. Yet, ironically, the Bible has more to say about the problems seen in society than they think—just the religious leaders of today fail to teach their parishioners what God’s Word actually says.
First, God sees the hypocrisy, injustice and oppression in governments and religious institutions around the world, and He indicts the leadership: “For the leaders of this people cause them to err; and they that are led of them are destroyed” (Isa. 9:16).
Realize what God is plainly stating. It is poor leadership—whether in politics or religion—that causes the problems seen in society.
While there are some in charge who work hard to make life better for those they rule, many do not. Throughout history, there have always been those in power who seek their own gain at the expense of others.
To be clear, no church that claims to follow Jesus Christ can excuse or support the oppression of women or minorities. One verse from Paul describes how God sees His people: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). God sees every race, social and economic class, and gender as equal.
(It is beyond the scope of this article to examine how God views women. Our article “The Role of Women—Widely Misunderstood!” explains why women are so special to God.)
But even though God understands the outrage of those who feel suppressed under unjust leadership, He instructs us to show respect to those in authority: “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resists the power, resists the ordinance of God…” (Rom. 13:1-2).
The rest of the chapter in Romans explains that, rather than going out to riot and push back at authority figures, adherents ought to obey God’s commandments and treat others respectfully.
Yet God promises He will not leave those who are obedient powerless. It is actually the opposite. In time, He promises to give those who are faithful incredible power.
Notice what is said in Revelation 2: “To him that overcomes, and keeps My works [the things He has instructed us to do in our lives] unto the end, to him will I give power over the nations” (vs. 26). God also explains that those who follow Him will be made kings and teachers (5:10), and He will give them “power to become the sons of God” (John 1:12; 10:34).
This is the great purpose God has for each of us! There may be difficulties and suffering we must endure now, but He ultimately wants you to become as He is—a glorious, all-powerful being who will bring lasting change and correct the wrongs in this world.
Instead of seeking to take power to ourselves, He wants us to seek Him so He can give it to us.
I Samuel 15:23 shows that rebellion—resistance and rejection of authority—is the same as witchcraft to God. That is because both refuse His guidance and both involve taking power to yourself.
The problem with taking power to yourself, though, is that it denies the opportunity and true purpose God has for each individual—which is granting power far beyond anything witches can experience.
But to obtain this incredible ability to effect change, there are certain guidelines to be met and instruction that we must follow. God would never give this kind of power to someone who is not qualified to receive it. Read our book The Awesome Potential of Man to learn more.