Coming Out of the Broom Closet
While many practitioners of Wicca feel that their faith is still taboo, pop culture appropriates it
Features / October 29, 2018
A book by Scott Cunningham entitled Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner, states that “there is not, and can never be, one ‘pure’ or ‘true’ or ‘genuine’ form of Wicca.”
“There are no central governing agencies, no physical leaders, no universally recognized prophets or messengers. Although specific, structured forms of Wicca certainly exist, they aren’t in agreement regarding ritual, symbolism, and theology,” Cunningham writes. “Because of this healthy individualism, no one ritual or philosophical system has emerged to consume the others.”
The religion itself can be difficult to define in simple terms, but what unites practitioners of Wicca is their devotion to living in harmony with nature and the divine. One key element of accomplishing this is through ritual worship.
Many refer to Wicca as a sect of Neopaganism, although as Cunningham notes, consensus on this label is not unanimous. The practices most commonly associated with it—such as crystal magick, spell casting, and smudging—have roots that date back to several places, times, and cultures throughout history, which many modern witches strive to acknowledge and respect today.
Considering this, it’s no surprise that the Sephora witch kit, and other products like it, have incited debate and controversy from the community since they became popular.
Sephora likely didn’t expect to attract criticism from dedicated witches when they agreed to put Pinrose’s “starter witch kit” on shelves. Sold in whimsical, pastel packaging, this product was set to offer nine small perfumes, a tarot deck, white sage, and rose quartz for the low price of $42.00—but after going viral online, the product never made it to the tills. When practitioners caught wind of Sephora’s distribution plans, they protested on social media until the product was recalled.
In a Youtube video about the starter witch kit posted on Sept. 2, a Wiccan woman under the username BehatiLife explained, “For centuries, witches have been a target for violence and assault because it’s so misunderstood. Witchcraft and witches have been kind of hidden under the scenes because they’re constantly getting attacked.”
“If you wouldn’t do this to any other religion, if you wouldn’t mass market and paint it pastel for other religions, what makes you think that it is okay to do it for witches?” she asks.
Pinrose has since issued an apology on their website and agreed to stop producing the kits, but conversations about appropriating Wicca remain relevant. The starter witch kit isn’t the only example of this kind of malapropos consumerism.
Basic Witches: How to Summon Success, Banish Drama, and Raise Hell with Your Coven is a self-proclaimed guide to modern witchcraft—written by two atheists. It sold like hot cakes in 2017, although Jaya Saxena told news site RNS that she and her co-author made “no claim to the religious practice of Wicca, paganism or any other faith … [but] see the cultural image of a witch as a separate and valid identity.”
The same RNS article reminds readers, “Critics say a perfect storm of Instagram-era online branding combined with leftist political posturing has made witchcraft the latest victim of cultural appropriation.”
Local Wiccan Mila Krajina and KPU “Religion, Magic, & Witchcraft” instructor Jason Ramsey agree.
Growing up, Krajina was surrounded by elements of Wicca. Her mother read tarot, taught her about energies, and kept crystals in their home. Although she practiced less as the years went on, Krajina started learning more about the religion and began performing rituals throughout her childhood and adolescence. Now a committed Wiccan, she says that her gradual immersion in the faith “felt natural.”
“It grounds me, and I like that it can be a solitary practice,” she says. “You don’t have to go anywhere to learn anything. You can just pick up a book and do stuff on your own and it’s intuitive, but I also feel more connected to the earth when I’m practicing it.”
Krajina was upset when she heard about Sephora’s distribution of the so-called “witch kit,” but says that it wasn’t the first time she had witnessed this sort of appropriation of Wicca in popular consumer culture. Nor was it the first time she was made hyper-aware of her own identity as a Wiccan, which she says has sometimes resulted her being treated with contempt and hostility by those she shares it with.
“I want people to treat things with respect, because I feel like the more people use it as a fashion trend … the more I have to deal with people being ignorant towards me and writing me off really quickly,” she says. “It adds to that whole part of someone asking you if you’re religious and you go, ‘Oh, yeah. I’m kind of a Wiccan,’ they just write you off as that girl who buys stuff at Sephora and smudges.”
“This is my religion and I take it seriously,” she adds. “But because there’s this whole Harry Potter world, this whole pop culture sense to what I’m doing, it’s like people see it as fantasy.”
Womanhood is an important aspect of Wicca for Krajina, who feels that its emphasis on feminine energies, life and death, and menstrual and environmental cycles resonates with her.
Despite the positivity that lies at the base of her faith, she says that the social perception of witches in Western culture still prevents her from expressing her beliefs openly.
“I’m still scared to let everyone know what I do and what I am,” she says. “It’s not like you can go out into a park in the middle of Vancouver and start doing a healing spell with three other women. It’s just not socially acceptable right now, you know?”
Jason Ramsey, who teaches a course on religion, magic, and witchcraft at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, agrees that sex and gender is an essential component of both Wicca and its recent boom in pop culture.
“The social structure back in Europe in the Middle Ages and beyond was obviously very much male dominant, and what was happening in Medieval times was that groups of women sometimes would come together to discuss questions of female health and the regulation of fertility,” says Ramsey.
He continues, “Females talking to other females about birth control, about pregnancies, about various tactics to take control of their own powers of fertility and their own body with no men around was seen as extremely threatening.”
Such knowledge was passed from generation to generation, according to Ramsey, but the members of these groups remained on the outskirts of society, oftentimes ostracized and marginalized as menaces to the patriarchy. Because they challenged the status quo, the figure of the older, disenfranchised woman disseminating controversial information to younger women eventually evolved to embody the mythological interpretation of a witch in European culture.
“By taking up and inhabiting a completely different cultural space, they were actually sort of surpassing the possibilities for life that the dominant society offered them,” says Ramsey. “By advancing in the ranks of Wicca, they were involving themselves in themes that made sense to them.”
The themes of feminism and reproductive health seen in this form of Wicca remain relevant now, particularly considering the recent backlash against the marginalization and victimization of women seen in the media. The #MeToo movement has dominated popular discourse this year, as have conversations about calling out abusers publicly. Trump’s presidency—and his simultaneous affronts to feminist ideologies—has fuelled these discussions and forced members of the public to defend legislation that is fundamental to women’s health, such as Roe V. Wade.
Environmentalism and anti-consumerism are also themes which Ramsey suggests influence the increasing popularity of the faith. Using nature as “something to be dominated and used and reshaped for our own desires is a cultural choice,” he says, and those who feel uncomfortable with that may be more likely to turn to nature-based belief systems such as Wicca.
He supposes that the religion offers people an opportunity to challenge the patriarchal, capitalistic society that they’re a part of. Because of this, he says it makes sense that practitioners were outraged by the Sephora witch kit and other similar products.
“The kind of objectification of nature, the kind of commodification of nature and other things, that Wicca helps people escape in the first place—If Wicca is now being used primarily for that in those stores, it’s sort of offensive,” he says.
Krajina echoes this statement in reference to the Sephora witch kit, expressing that, “if you’re selling that at a spiritual store, it’s a totally different thing because it’s a spiritual store.”
“If you’re selling it to younger girls or people who are more in the mainstream, I find that offensive because that store has nothing to do with spirituality. It’s actually the opposite,” she says.
Exploring these concepts “in a playful or ambiguous way,” allows those who aren’t willing to commit to the religion to claim aspects of it that “make them feel empowered but do not require them to say, ‘Hey guys, I’m a Wiccan,’ and have to deal with all of the questions that will come,” according to Ramsey.
“Wicca is not mainstream. Despite Sephora, it’s still not mainstream—at least not real Wicca,” he says. “You have those who are fully committed and maybe understand themselves as being fully or partially outside the system. But it also, in the form of mass consumer goods, can appeal to those who only want to play aesthetically with things and have that kind of deniability.”
However, he understands how the desire to connect with notions of female empowerment might lead to unintentional appropriation of Wicca. Some may intend to use it as a medium for self-love and growth, which Krajina attests is both common and possible.
“I feel like it’s coming back now because of how the world is today. There are so many screwed up things happening and this is all about healing, and I think people need that in this world right now,” she says.
Krajina says that, for her, practicing Wicca is therapeutic. She believes that it can serve the same purpose for anyone who chooses to pursue it, as long as they’re careful to do so respectfully.
“There’s a sort of respect you have to have for what you’re using and respect for where it came from,” she explains. “The number one rule we have is, ‘An it harm none do what ye will.’ It’s like, if you’re not hurting anybody and you’re not offending anybody, then you be a Wiccan. You do what you’ve got to do. That’s what I would want from any other Wiccan.”
Krajina suggests that those who are interested in the religion learn about it on their own time to determine if they’re truly interested and, if so, which level of commitment they’re comfortable with.
“From a starting standpoint, just really know the religion, and then once you feel like you’re not totally incompetent, start getting into it and trying new things,” she says.
“It’s not about what you have at all,” she continues. “It’s about what you know. It’s about how much you want to practice it, because there are a bunch of different levels. Some people do sabbaths and some people do full moon rituals and go really heavy into it and then there are other people who are on the lighter side of the spectrum.”