Thoroughly Modern Magic
By Genevieve Williams
Forget the warts and pointy hats, today’s witches bring Pagan practices of the past into a new millennium.
Witchcraft sure ain’t what it used to be. Back in the day, a twitch of your nose or a wiggle of your fingers could make things happen that would easily amaze your friends and neighbors. Today, magic coexists with computers, modern medicine, cafe lattes and robot missions to Mars. And while modern witches may not use their fabulous powers to stir their tea–as Sandra Bullock did in Practical Magic–they’d be the first to claim that their practice is down to earth.
In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where the supernatural exists alongside the everyday, witchcraft is, well, practical. Buffy may flinch to see Willow floating a pencil with ease, and Giles certainly doesn’t appreciate it when he has to tidy up after a novice witch’s miscast spells. But in a town where even the mayor has been known to chant the odd incantation now and again, witchcraft is just business as usual.
Witchcraft has also become an equal opportunity vocation; anyone with the desire and a little time on her hands can practice it. If the burgeoning New Age press industry is any indication, people are becoming witches in increasing numbers. According to Margot Adler, author of Drawing Down the Moon, a sociological study of witchcraft in America, witchcraft is the fastest-growing religious movement the U.S. today.
And the fastest-growing segment within this movement is teenage girls. While movies like The Craft and TV shows like Charmed are more fantasy than fact, they document a groundswell of interest that has been growing in America since the 1960s and is now hitting the mainstream. Books like Silver Ravenwolf’s Teen Witch and Jennifer Hunter’s 21st Century Wicca directly address the interests of the 13-to-21 set.
Wicca, the largest subset of modern witchcraft-oriented practices in the U.S., is recognized by the federal government–including the Armed Forces–and regularly receives mainstream press coverage. Witches tend to be white, under 30, middle class and city or suburban dwellers. They are educated, highly literate, and politically aware. The increasingly solitary practitioners stay in touch with one another via an astonishing network of magazines, mailing lists, discussion groups, and web sites.
Net girl Willow is a perfect example of today’s independent witch. Early on, Willow is established as a smart, witty character who’s just intelligent enough to be a misfit. Far from being a technophobe, she’s also an accomplished computer hacker, routinely rooting out obscure information or breaking security encryptions. She’s also ethical, never using magic as a shortcut to increase her popularity or make her mother more attentive, though she does have a weakness for the occasional love spell. In short, she fits the modern profile of today’s witch to a T.
Although she initially patterns her craft after computer teacher Jenny Calendar, much of her knowledge comes from studying notes and books, and she uses her growing powers to help her friends, though not always with the best results. In “Becoming,” Willow uses Jenny’s notes to re-effect the gypsy curse uniting Angel’s soul with his body, a dangerous procedure made even more difficult by Willow’s injury (from the attack in the library). Though present-day witches do generally believe in mind over matter, one’s physical health does have an effect on one’s ability to perform spells–many witches eschew the combination of magic and drugs for this reason.
But Buffy wouldn’t be Buffy without monsters, and there are evil witches in Sunnydale as well. Remember Catherine Madison? She was your average middle-aged single mother of one…except that misuse of her witchcraft had allowed her to transfer her soul into the body of her own daughter. Clearly, she was willing to do anything to regain her glory days as a cheerleader–including harming or even killing the competition. Witches tend to be very careful about using magic to get what they want, because magic is seen as having its own way of granting wishes. That’s certainly what happens to Catherine Madison, who is indeed immortalized as Sunnydale High’s top cheerleader–imprisoned in a trophy of herself for presumably all eternity.
It’s the episode “Gingerbread” which most clearly integrates medieval and modern perceptions of witchcraft. Those accused of witchcraft in the Middle Ages were by and large not witches at all, but social misfits upon whom it was easy to blame misfortune. This episode suggests that the witch in the classic fairy tale “Hansel and Gretel” was a victim of such prejudice, driven to her death by a demon posing as two children who successfully blamed their misfortune on her. Likewise, the demon picks out Sunnydale’s misfits–two of whom, in an interesting twist, really are witches–for persecution. These witches, however, are thoroughly modern, using magic to protect others and themselves. Willow attempts to cast a protection spell on Buffy during this episode, and Amy transforms herself into a rat to escape being burned. (A transformation, by the way, which so far hasn’t been reversed–thus the show also warns of the dangers of meddling with magic. Good thing she enjoys her running wheel.)
Willow’s statements in “Gingerbread” to the contrary, present day witches emphatically do not worship Satan. They do frequently pay homage to non-Christian deities, hence Amy’s invocation of the Greek goddess Hecate at the episode’s climax. Modern witchcraft, like so many other present-day occult practices and perceptions, grew out of the Spirituality movement of the late 19th century, when interest in pagan deities and practices experienced a resurgence of popular and scholarly interest. In his Behind the Crystal Ball, Anthony Aveni traces the connections between 19th century spiritualism and modern witchcraft, finding many: the aforementioned interest in Pagan religion, the rise of occult societies such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the new interest in divination (including crystal gazing, palm reading, and the Tarot), and changes in mainstream Christian attitudes that allowed these ideas to gain popularity.
The first specifically witchcraft-oriented books appeared in England in the 1950s, following the repeal of a centuries-old law which made witchcraft illegal. But it was when witchcraft crossed the Atlantic and established itself in the United States that it really took hold. Starting in the 1960s and taking on a distinctly feminist overtone along the way, witchcraft took root as an alternative spirituality that is rapidly becoming an accepted religious practice. With the publication of Phyllis Curott’s Book of Shadows in 1998, witchcraft has hit the mainstream in a big way, becoming more than just a Halloween curiosity.
In the world of Bu ffy, though, witchcraft largely avoids any religious overtones; Willow is no more a religious crusader than is Buffy herself. Likewise, most modern witches see their craft as having secular applications as well as religious ones, though they’re more likely to perform a spell for love or prosperity than to reunite a vampire’s lost soul with his body. Still, that’s what makes Buffy so much fun to watch; it’s more interesting to see Willow use her powers to battle the forces of darkness, as opposed to the trials and tribulations of high school. Floating pencils is all well and good, but if you can’t use it to stake a vamp once in a while, what’s the use?
This article originally appeared in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan club magazine in the fall of 1999.