Tanzina Vega: I'm Tanzina Vega, you're listening to The Takeaway. For some of you, the word witch probably conjures up images of pointed hats, Black cauldrons, and maybe even some broomsticks. For most actual witches today, the reality looks a lot different. Some do in fact, cast spells, but not the kind of dark magic we see in movies like Hocus Pocus, or The Craft, which is also turned to things like crystals, tarot cards, potions, or altars.
Though it's been viewed with suspicion throughout history, witchcraft today continues to enchant the popular imagination. In recent years, we've seen an explosion in the popularity of witchcraft across the United States, from practices rooted in English Wicca to African Yoruba, to Latin American Brujeria. To explain our growing fascination with witchcraft, and the role it has in our modern lives, we turn two self-described witches, also called brujas in Spanish.
Griselda Rodriguez-Solomon: Hi, my name is Dr. Griselda Rodriguez-Solomon. I'm the co-founder of brujas of Brooklyn.
Pam Grossman: My name is Pam Grossman. I'm the host of the Witch Wave podcast and the author of Waking the Witch: Reflections on Women, Magic, and Power.
Tanzina: Actually, defining the word which today isn't exactly straightforward. According to Pam, it really depends on the individual.
Pam: My definition of a witch is it is someone who is a carrier of divine feminine power and who chooses to use that power to transform the world hopefully, for the better, but certainly the word which has been a negative epithet that others would call outsiders and people that they hoped to oppress. I use the word in a intention of reclamation and with a lot of love, and positivity.
Tanzina: Griselda, what about you? What does it mean to be a bruja?
Griselda: To me, a bruja is a person, a witch is a person that is very much aware of themselves in every capacity from the highs to the not so highs, the dark, and the light and the shadow. For me, in particular, as a Black Latina, a bruja witch is a person who is reclaiming a level of power and embodiment in particular, in the context of dehumanization, whether it's a woman, a person of color, or queer person.
It's a person who is unapologetic about their power and the reclamation of that power has happened in the context of a lot of opposition. It's a beautiful identity. It's a healing identity. It's an identity that has existed for millennia. We're seeing a very beautiful resurgence of it again, with the dawn of the Age of Aquarius.
Tanzina: Pam, let's talk a little bit about how you were drawn to witchcraft. When did that start for you? What was intriguing about it for you?
Pam: Well, like many children, for me, it started at a very young age. I loved fairy tales, and mythology, and spent lots of time alone in the woods, in this kind of world of make-believe, play, and magic. Then as a teenager, I discovered that there were whole sections of libraries and bookstores that had actual spellbooks. So I no longer had to pretend to be a witch, I could actually buy a spellbook and learn how to do ritual, and how to cast spells, and how to honor the moon.
It just connected with me on this very, very deep level, very intuitive level. My practice grew up with me as I grew up and got deeper and a little bit more, I suppose, sophisticated, but it's not that far off from what I was doing as a child in the woods honoring nature, honoring my intuition, honoring the state of play that one can be in when one is truly free.
Tanzina: Griselda, what about you?
Griselda: My journey started before birth, my mother is a bruja, she doesn't identify as one because she still has the word associated with the negativity and the dark magic. We grew up in a world with altars, and candles, and ritual. My mother became more connected to the Catholic Church in our teen years and moved away from those practices. It wasn't until my sister and I were maybe in our early 20s that we were intuitively caught back to certain practices.
We would go to the few new-age stores that were around and were reading about setting up an altar and working with nature, and a lot of it what resonated. We were like, "Oh, this is what mommy did." We became a little more intentional in reading and researching to put words to the things that we had already seen growing up. It's been a beautiful journey to reclaim these practices in a very intentional way.
Tanzina: I'm wondering too what does that practice look like, Griselda?
Griselda: It looks very different for different people because just like there are different ways to honor Christian faith, there are different ways that witches and brujas has practice our faith. I know in the West there's Wicca and that's a very specific established way in which witches, especially in the West have developed witchcraft. For my sister and I, it's very much rooted in a faith that's birth out of Dominican Republic and Haiti. It's almost like a Dominican version of Vodoun is called the 21 divisions or [Spanish language]
It's very much working with the elements of nature to enhance the energy of a space to create an altar. It's a devotion to God, that's also something that I always am very clear on with witches. We do believe in God, we honor God, it just looks different than what Christian faiths have us believe. What the practice looks like is living, as unapologetic, and with as much integrity in every moment of your waking life as possible.
Tanzina: Pam, what about you? What does your witchcraft practice look like today?
Pam: It doesn't sound dissimilar to what Griselda just described. I also have an altar, I celebrate the Holy Days of the pagan calendar. These are holidays that mark the change of the season. I meet in a coven with other witches and we celebrate the cycles of the body, the cycles of the moon, that word embodiment, which came up earlier is a really important one because witchcraft certainly is about, yes, casting, spells, and doing rituals, but it's also about how you feel as a human being, and making sure that you are generating and honoring that connection of your body to other people, to other life forms, and to nature at large.
Tanzina: Why has witchcraft become more popular in recent years?
Pam: If you trace the use of the word witch, it was almost always a negative epithet until about the 19th century with the first wave of feminism. With every wave of feminism, we've seen a new generation, reclaim the word witch and reclaim the archetype of the witch. As generally a woman, though people of all genders can be witches, and are witches.
It's generally someone who honors the feminine, and who wants to subvert the status quo because let's be honest, the status quo is, generally speaking, controlled by white heteronormative men. When all of the major institutions, religious institutions, political institutions, economic institutions are run by the same type of person that means everybody else becomes marginalized, disenfranchised, and disempowered.
The witch I think is a symbol of power, and agency, and connection that really resonates with anybody who has been deemed other. Witches represent a new paradigm where more of us are honored, where everyone is seen as powerful and sacred.
Tanzina: A lot of the popular culture around witches, especially as we are-- Right here on the fringes of Halloween, are very white. We're looking at Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Hocus Pocus, even Wicked on Broadway. Griselda, what happens when a lot of our imagery about witches and brujas, to a certain extent is really focused on whiteness?
Griselda: Yes, very important question. I think that this way is a lot of people of color from identifying with these paths and traditions because we don't see ourselves in them. I never saw myself in this imagery of the witch until I started doing my own research and looking deeper into different faiths and realizing like, "Oh, so it wasn't just European women that were persecuted during the inquisition in 400 or 500 years of these campaigns to terrorize women and working poor people because then, these techniques that European men were enforcing and acting on their own women were brought to the so-called New World, and were fine-tune on the backs of Indigenous and African people, women in particular."
There's a whole history that then gets overlooked before we go and jump into Salem. That history is the history that brujas of color, witches of color are reclaiming because not only is it about stories of people of women that were violated, persecuted en masse and their legacy hasn't been reclaimed, but there's magic in that. It's important that my sister and I have this platform, and so many other brown and Black brujas and witches, because we're tapping into an energy that's very cosmic, and it's very universal.
A lot of the practices that witches of all colors and backgrounds are practicing and reclaiming today are actually housed and embodied by people of color, by communities of color, Indigenous people, African people, their legacies, their traditions are being reclaimed in a beautiful way, but they're mostly embodied by white bodies.
Vega: Pam, what about you? What are some of the stigmas or misconceptions about witches and witchcraft today?
Pam: Well, a lot of them route back to the 14th century when women primarily were being accused of being witches by the Catholic Church at the time. The Association of Women as being lascivious or evil, having some malevolent power, and being in league with the devil, having some demonic power is something that was part of a very intentional propaganda campaign that then sparked the witch hunts throughout Western Europe and later in the New England colonies, from the 14th through 17th centuries.
That stigma is unfortunately still with us and it really speaks to our fear of powerful women or women who seem to be an aberration somehow. Sometimes women were accused of being witches because they owned land, or they were older, they didn't have children, or didn't have enough children. It still is a word that is used today to shame and silence women.
Vega: For those of us who aren't witches, or brujas, I'd like to ask both of you, is there a way that some of us can bring some magic into our own lives, especially in such a difficult, difficult moment, for so many people, Pam.
Pam: All human beings can benefit from ritual, and from trying to connect with something that is greater than ourselves. I call it capital S, spirit. Some people call it God, some people call it many gods. Whatever your paradigm is, that resonates with you.
I think, doing some actual physical activity, whether it's lighting a candle, or setting out some beautiful flowers, or some offering to that greater spirit and then really mindfully putting out intentions and blessings, for the most vulnerable among us, is a lovely practice that someone can do, regardless of their faith or religious beliefs because this world really, really needs those blessings, and really, really needs us to all set our intentions to mindfully and actively transform the world to a place that is just, and compassionate, and healthy for everybody.
Vega: Griselda, what about you? How can people bring some magic to their lives in such a difficult time?
Griselda: Finding the sacred and the mundane is a magical practice that can really enhance mood, that can really increase positivity, that can really uplift our outlook on life. It's finding the things that you do daily, like washing dishes, or taking a shower, or engaging with your children, and making that a magical ritual, a practice and that means presence because you get to appreciate the running water and washing dishes.
You get to appreciate the awe in a child in the process of learning. The most difficult but the most rewarding aspect of this little bit of magic that I'm imparting is being able to stay present, and finding the sacred in the mundane in the most difficult moments.
Vega: Griselda Rodriguez-Solomon is co-founder of Brujas of Brooklyn and a sociology professor at the City University of New York. Pam Grossman is the host of the Witch Wave podcast and author of Waking the Witch: Reflections on Women, Magic, and Power. Pam and Griselda. It's been wonderful to talk to you both
Pam: Thank you so much. It's been a pleasure.
Griselda: Thank you. Supreme pleasure.
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