Double, Double, Toil and Trouble: A Reading List About Witches

The Witches Sabbath, by Frans Francken II, 1607.

Sara Benincasa is a quadruple threat: she writes, she acts, she’s funny, and she has truly exceptional hair. She also reads, a lot, and joins us to share some of her favorite stories (and some of her friends’ favorites, too). 

What is a witch, anyway? Is it an old woman with green skin stirring a pot of something weird and stinky in an animated fairy tale? Is it a man who lives in the wilderness in isolation and emerges only to perform specific rituals to bring the rains? Is it a hippie chick in Berkeley in flowing fabrics appropriating cultural totems and symbols in order to get a desperate wealthy tech couple fertile and baby-ready? Based on my research, the answers seem to be “sure,” “yes,” and “I mean, I guess so.”

The witch trend is real, and it’s spectacular. It’s also annoying, boring, ridiculous, and silly by turns. It can be beautiful. Witchcraft is lived spirituality that doesn’t fit into the prescribed rubric of mainstream religion in a given societal setting. In my experience, it is not incompatible with a belief in science, in the concrete world, or even with other religious beliefs. I was raised Catholic, and knew plenty of Catholics who engaged in tarot, scrying with a crystal ball, or reading tea leaves. For all the ways in which Catholicism messed me up, I’m grateful that I was raised surrounded by beautiful images of a divine mother goddess, whether or not she was actually just a scared teen mom who came up with a really great backstory and conned a village and, by proxy, the world. (God, teen girls really are magic.)

I’m a middle-class white woman in Los Angeles, and it’s easy enough for me to put on pretty crystals of indeterminate origin and burn some incense and tell everybody I’m a witch while doing Stevie Nicks cosplay and talking about feelings. In 2018, that’s on trend for women who look like me, live near me, and have my type of education and background. And my path to witchcraft is not particularly dramatic or fascinating: the religion in which I was raised did me very few favors as a queer woman, I rejected it as a corrupt international corporation, and I kind of made up my own thing with some help from psychology books, cognitive behavioral therapy, the occult shops I began visiting in middle school, mainstream American English translations of Buddhist and Hindu texts, yoga classes taught by women with expensive tattoos, AA meetings and literature, and a hippie partridge in an organic local pear tree. Nothing mind-blowing or inventive, and that’s okay — it’s my own path to the sacred, and it helps. Also, I’m a sucker for candles.

But in seeking to create this list of articles and essays on witchcraft, I wanted very much to include a diversity of voices beyond blog posts about how “The Craft” was fun to watch. So here you are, and may you enjoy all the weirdness that follows.

1. “[Protection Edition] Uplifting Tituba: Protecting Witches of Color Then and Now” (Brianna Suslovic, Witches Rise, December 2016)

Suslovic recounts the tale of Tituba, a slave brought from the West Indies to America to serve in the settlement of the radical religious sect that dominated colonial New England. Tituba became the scapegoat for the Salem witch trials, but too often ignored is the fact that Tituba was beaten until she “confessed” to witchcraft: Suslovic writes, “As a slave in the colonies, Tituba acted in self-protection. One might call it self-preservation at the hands of a physically-violent and systemically-violent scenario.” It’s a short piece, and one well worth your time — Suslovic handily connects the notion of witches and witchcraft to wider society: “To me, witchcraft as a practice promises not only survival and healing, but also liberation  —  from respectability, from internalized oppression, from the apparent necessity of resilience that often blinds us from observing the real necessity for structural change.”

2. “Love Notes From The Universe: An Interview With Diego ‘Yung Pueblo’ Perez” (Bri Luna, The Hoodwitch, June 2017)

I first found Diego Perez’s work through writer/producer Travon Free’s Instagram account. Luna describes Perez aptly: “Diego offers beautiful short poems and messages that feel as if they were left behind for you via sticky note by a divine guardian angel.” It’s good to get to read him in longer sentences rather than the snippets one gets on Instagram, though those are lovely as well. Here’s what resonated most with me: “My advice to people is to find a healing technique that gives you real results, one that challenges you, but does not overwhelm you. There is a great variety of techniques out there, different types of meditations, yoga practices, energy healing techniques, and so much more that can really give us tangible benefits in our lives. What matters is that we find one that suits us and that we use it consistently.”

3. “The Year Of The Witch” (Pamela Grossman, Huffington Post, July 2013)

I was at Pam Grossman’s wonderfully witchy wedding outside New Hope, Pennsylvania, several years back, and it was a hell of a good time. As an author, the host of the Witch Wave podcast, the creator of the WitchEmoji sticker pack, the organizer of academic symposia on witchcraft, and more, Pam marries the practical with the ethereal every day. She writes, “The archetype of the witch is long overdue for celebration. Daughters, mothers, queens, virgins, wives, et al. derive meaning from their relation to another person. Witches, on the other hand, have power on their own terms. They have agency. They create. They praise.”

4. “The Rise of the L.A Art Witch” (Amanda Yates Garcia, Contemporary Art Review Los Angeles, November 2016)

I like Amanda Yates Garcia very much personally and professionally. As a client, I can say that I’ve benefited enormously from her work — she does not cross the line into therapy or medical work, but is a truly helpful, thoughtful and creative spiritual consultant for those of us who don’t much like the idea of “confessing” to a priest or who may feel uncomfortable in an anti-queer, anti-woman religious setting. She’s branded herself as The Oracle of Los Angeles, and does justifiably popular work as a tarot reader, educator on myths and symbols, feminist writer, and more. She writes, “Given that many of the art witches practicing in Los Angeles today are women, people of color, and/or LGBTQ, for them an interest in systems of power, who has it, and how that power operates is of particular consequence.”

5. “Why We Write About Witches” (Sarah Gailey, Tor.com, October 2016)

I love this piece by Sarah Gailey for Tor.  One moment in particular stood out: “Witches serve as a tidy packet of expectations for our consumption, and outcomes go hand-in-hand with those expectations. Here, the stories say, is a woman with power. Finally! What you’ve all been secretly wanting, all your lives! Power! Even more power than mortal men. Now that this woman has that power, what will she do with it? What will become of her?”

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I’m a witch because it’s fun and because it suits me. It improves my life and helps me be kinder and more compassionate. I perform rituals as the spirit moves me. To do a ritual is to make something abstract real and special and important, at least for the few minutes or hours that the ritual lasts. These are things most humans crave: the idea that we are not just alone; the feeling that Something Kind is listening and gives a shit about our pain; the sensation of relief after we release a tough relationship, project, job, belief. For me, witchcraft is as much a psychological and philosophical practice as a spiritual one. As a writer, it helps me unblock.

Witchcraft gives me a break from the mundane and a brief trip into the magical realm. And I don’t hear the dead or see the future or move objects with my mind. I remain a fan of vaccinations for children, of real climate change science, of STEM careers for women, of respect for the law of gravity.

Being a witch grounds me in reality and makes me a more down-to-earth human. So whether or not Something Kind is listening, I’m talking, and chanting, and meditating, and praying, and lighting candles, and doing the damn thing. If nothing else, I look hot in heavy kohl eyeliner and elaborate fringed scarves, so hey. Blessed fucking be.

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Sara Benincasa is a stand-up comedian, actress, college speaker on mental health awareness, and the author of Real Artists Have Day JobsDC TripGreat, and Agorafabulous!: Dispatches From My Bedroom. She also wrote a very silly joke book called Tim Kaine Is Your Nice Dad. Recent roles include “Corporate” on Comedy Central, “Bill Nye Saves The World” on Netflix, “The Jim Gaffigan Show” on TVLand and critically-acclaimed short film “The Focus Group,” which she also wrote. She also hosts the podcast “Where Ya From?”

Editor: Michelle Weber