There’s an article in the Independent that has riled up the witchcraft community: Ceri Radford’s “I spent a week becoming a witch and the results were worrying,” where she culled tips and instruction from a book she cites, Luna Bailey’s The Modern Witch’s Guide to Happiness.
The community’s response on Twitter?
- “vapid anti-witch bullshit”
- “poor journalism”
- “This bitch has no clue”
- “written by an idiot only looking to be trendy through appropriation”
- “hot mess of an article”
- “absolutely shameful”
- “ignorant and frankly disappointing and offensive”
- “piece of shit”
- “articles like this just piss me the fuck off”
- “a smug shithead”
- “I just read the vomit in question and I am fucking livid”
- “dipshit sneer piece … 85% dumb jokes”
- “complete horseshit”
- “wildly offensive article”
- “fucking idiot”
- “hex that bitch”
Love and light, apparently.
The salient takeaway point from the article, however, is the one fueling the anger and animosity: Radford’s conclusion that witchcraft is in “dogged resistance to logic” and requires a “suspension of belief in the scientific underpinnings of the universe.”
And my private response to myself after reading her article? Oh, man… We as a collective (so clearly I’m not saying we unanimously believe, but the dominating voice after averaging high and low and everything in between together) have put out a particular narrative about modern witchcraft, and then when we see exactly that narrative being reflected back at us tinged with a smidge of snark, we go off our rails because clearly none of the shadow work or meditation we’ve been doing has had any success.
As one who is passionate about science, raised by a scientist, engineer, and inventor parent with multiple patents and who made me study his doctorate level textbooks on physics when I was in high school, I wholeheartedly believe much of what we call witchcraft or ceremonial magic can and will be rationalized by science. Now working amongst Silicon Valley techies and cutting edge innovators, I noticed that the most brilliant among them have more questions than answers when it comes to metaphysics. Few of them are zealously atheistic. In fact, most of them adopt the mindset of, “Yeah… there’s something out there, something to it all, I just don’t know what it is.”
The occultist is someone who occupies liminal space, who will never be believed or stand as a credible voice because we are at the frontlines seeing what no one else is seeing, so how do you expect those without the Sight to see? Getting mad at someone for not being able to see what you can, because they do not occupy that same liminal space and have not witnessed it firsthand, is absurd. Getting mad at that person for having a platform to broadcast such an opinion that embarrasses you when you don’t stand on the same authoritative platform is just bitter envy, plain and simple.
Does Radford’s interpretation and practice of witchcraft align with what I know and experience of the Craft? No. But I readily acknowledge she’s pretty accurate about how the Craft is presented to the public at large.
Let’s talk about Radford’s teacher of witchcraft, in a manner of speaking. She cited The Modern Witch’s Guide as her source of inspiration. I cannot comment or review the book because I haven’t read it. What I can say is it’s printed by a general interest nonfiction publishing house, not an occult-oriented press, that covers everything from biographies of historical figures and popular science to sports, arts and crafts how-to manuals, children’s books, and self-help. I might speculate that the acquisitions editor there is looking less at “will this push the envelope of occult philosophy and advance esoteric practice to untrod heights” and more for “will this sell?”
We can also skim the free preview pages of the book that taught Radford witchcraft. Here’s the first page of the Introduction:
Let’s assess Radford’s article within the narrow context of what it is. It wasn’t journalism. She never claimed it to be journalism. It was a fun tongue-in-cheek fluff piece where she plucks up a book– The Modern Witch’s Guide— follows its instructions for one week to learn witchcraft, and is now reporting back in a tone clearly intended to be humor. Whether Radford’s style of humor misses the mark for you is subjective. I also noticed that the article is categorized under “Books,” not “News” or heck even “Editorial.”
Plus, I’ll have to confess myself that I’ve often stumbled across self-identifying witches saying things exactly like “rose quartz soaked water will calm traumatized animals” with a straight face or adopting the dangerous mentality that there exists a spell and sigil to solve every problem you might encounter without having to do any further Work beyond mixing three herbs, an essential oil, lighting a candle, and whispering an affirmation to Goddess.
We shouldn’t always blame “mainstream media.” A lot of the content generated by the community invites mainstream media’s perceptions and warrants reasonable scrutiny. In too many interviews I’ve done, fellow witches and practitioners of the Craft have pushed me to give sound bites of astrological predictions for all people everywhere for the next 365 days of the calendar year, how do I clear my root chakra in 5 easy steps and manifest prosperity tomorrow, or please teach me a Taoist sigil to help improve my life but oh, can you do it in 15 minutes because that’s the amount of time my producer has allotted for that in this podcast. As a practitioner who is dead serious about astrology, I absolutely loathe those “Jupiter retrograde omigod and also what effing Pluto is doing who knows how many billions of miles away is having an impact on my everyday life, you know, more so than the choices I made yesterday” messages that our very own people put out there. And honestly, the crystal-infused water bottles or cure-all laboratory-manufactured essential oils… ::head to desk:: We’re the ones who have deflated the alchemical quest for the Great Work to self-care, twin flames, and law of attraction.
Whether we like it or not, the voices in our community that speak the loudest, that are most heard, the “witchcraft” most seen by the public at large is the witchcraft described by Radford.
Let’s say today, right now, I want to learn witchcraft but am not quite sure where to start and let’s also say that no one in my immediate circle knows a damn thing about witchcraft. What would the average human being in today’s world do? Well, let’s buy some books. Which books? The bestsellers, of course. So we go on Amazon to check the top 10 most popular books on witchcraft and select a couple of those to read. Then there’s Instagram and YouTube. Surely if I scroll through the #witchesofinstagram and #witchlife or #witchythings feed for 15 minutes I’ll get a good sense for what modern witchcraft is, yes? And I can type in keywords into YouTube to pull up the most watched videos about beginner witchcraft.
Why do we fault someone innocent like Radford for her astute observations? Yeah, I do have critical commentary that’s negative about my community. Astrology isn’t garbage, but a lot of what gets presented as astrology is too reductive to be useful, and the reductive distillation of astrology isn’t coming from “mainstream media.” It’s coming from our own community. Tarot, feng shui, and reiki isn’t junk science, but when you choose to approach these arts devoid of method and reason, then don’t get mad when people call it junk science. There are kernels of important truths to chakras, crystal healing, incense, and anointing oils, but the one-liner buzzworthy memes about these practices do more harm than good. And yeah, go ahead, quote me: I do think a lot of what gets peddled as spell-crafting is hogwash. So perhaps you should go after me with the same vitriol and ad hominem attacks the community has launched at Radford.
What the article left me with is a reinforced awareness that the general witchcraft community has the tendency to conflate science and religion. Obviously we’re not the only ones guilty of it, but I’ve tried the “but Johnny is doing it, too” defense before and in no rational, enlightened space has that excuse or justification ever worked.
I do believe Craft can be explained by science, but not science readily known today, and so when we are still treading in the realm of hypothesis and theory, we need to tread with care. We also need to train and study and cultivate a mindset like scientists, if we claim we want the Craft to be treated seriously. You can’t put out junk and then get mad at onlookers for pointing and laughing and remarking, omigod, that’s junk.
Also, many of us in the community can agree that there’s no generally agreed upon definition for the scope of “witchcraft” or “witch.” We also, generally speaking, conclude that’s a good thing and we want to be inclusive. As long as you say you’re a witch and you openly claim that what you’re doing is witchcraft, then it is and shall be witchcraft. At the end of a long-winded social and personal analysis, I agree with that position wholeheartedly, because it serves the greater good, but then I also need to be prepared for the consequences of that position.
If anything at all in the marketplace of ideas that wants to be witchcraft is accepted as witchcraft and we live in a capitalistic free market society, then the fun, fluff aspects of the Craft will rise to the top (while so-called serious practitioners of the occult continue to remain invisible and marginalized), the Ceri Radfords of mainstream media will skim from that top to judge the rest, and those of us who say that anything and everything can be witchcraft will need to live with the implications of that all-inclusive position. And again, just to reiterate, I side with the all-inclusive position of an open definition for witchcraft, and because of that, I’m ready to live with the ramifications of that position.
Radford’s final takeaway point: “We shun science at our peril.”
I agree with that, and I believe most of you practitioners of the Craft reading this blog right now agree with it, too.
Of course, I get it. The reason Radford’s article pissed us off is because of the subtext. She’s implying that witchcraft as we all practice it is counterproductive and in opposition to science.
Witchcraft and magical practice, or more precisely, the occult is complicated. It’s the liminal space between science and religion, which is why it’s ideologically dangerous when not approached responsibly and with wisdom.
In the world of research, innovation, and academia, thought leaders in those fields go to excruciating lengths to define method and process of reasoning. In stark contrast to that approach, the loudest and most popular voices in our community have decided “anything goes.” So when rational people point at that and say, “That’s not science,” you can’t be mad. Because they’re right. It’s not science, not anymore.
By the way, Radford is also the author of this article: “Why a book about witch trials feels weirdly relevant today,” where she writes commentary such as “In pop culture, witches are sanitised and sexualised” and “it’s worth remembering that tens of thousands of people were executed for witchcraft in Europe and North America.” Instead of condemning her, if you welcomed her, you might actually find her to be more of an ally than adversary. Just a thought.