‘Witchcraft’: A new book from Taschen illustrates its complex history

Written by Marianna Cerini, CNN

Look up “witches” and you might want to see one of a series of depictions: ugly old ladies and young, sensual temptresses; anti-heroes and hopeful role models; evil creatures who mix deadly elixirs and righteous sorceresses who help girls find their way (a la Glinda the good witch in “The Wizard of Oz”).

A new title from Taschen’s Library of Esoterica aims to explore this wealth of complex identities in a visually vivid volume that is not so much a book as it is a spellbinding tribute to a character and practice that is as old as time.
“Witchcraft” delves deep into the many facets of a centuries-old tradition in the Western world, weaving more than 400 classic and contemporary works of art with essays and interviews of what editor Jessica Hundley describes as “a diverse association of writers, learned and modern practitioners, each embracing practice in their own individual ways. “
IN "witch sabbath," artist Jacques de Gheyn II depicts the Sabbath with a pen-and-ink drawing of a swirling kettle.

In “Witch’s Sabbath”, artist Jacques de Gheyn II depicts the Sabbath with a pen-and-ink drawing of a swirling kettle. Credit: Lent by TASCHEN

“I wanted to present witchcraft through symbolism and art, but also fresh, personal perspectives,” Hundley explained in a telephone interview. “So much of the esoteric is often shrouded in secrecy and burdened by stigma. With ‘Witchcraft’, we worked together to introduce the subject in a way that felt spacious and less intimidating.”

With 500-plus pages, the compendium spans the history of witchcraft and the representation of witches in literature and fairy tales; the tools of the craft and the rituals that have long been a part of it. There are also sections dedicated to fashion, creative media and the witch in film and pop culture.

A story of feminine energy and rebellion

While the word “witch” has its etymological roots (wicce) in Old English, the genus of the ‘Western witch’ can be traced back to Greek mythology and the earliest folk traditions of Egypt, Northern Europe and the Celts.

Each culture represented the mysterious figure differently, yet some of her traits recurred across geographically widespread lands: a witch was a mighty goddess, often associated with home and love, but also death and magic. Above all, she was a term for complex femininity.

William Holbrook Beard, "Lightning struck a flock of witches," United States, date unknown.  Beard depicts a stunning view of storm-bound witches on the run - the convention was sent off by lightning from dense lightning.

William Holbrook Beard, “Lightning struck a herd of witches,” USA, date unknown. Beard depicts a stunning view of storm-bound witches on the run – the convention was sent off by lightning from dense lightning. Credit: Gene Young / Smithsonian American Art Museum / Courtesy of TASCHEN

“The iconography of the witch, as it has changed over the centuries, has always revolved around the idea of ​​feminine power and reflected society’s changing attitudes towards it,” the book’s co-editor, Pam Grossman, said in a telephone interview.

In the 11th century, when man-centered Christianity spread throughout Europe, the perception of femininity changed.

So-called witches (often any woman who strayed from the precepts of monotheistic religion) began to be regarded as dissidents in their society, fearing and isolated for their presumed connection with the devil.

By the 14th century, the collective imagination had transformed witches into heretical outcasts. For the next three centuries, witch hunts and executions – including the Salem trials of 1692 – would sweep over both the old and the new world.

In Kiki Smith's work "Pyre woman kneeling," a female figure of bronze tops a bonfire.  The statue commemorates women who were burned for witchcraft.

In Kiki Smith’s work “Pyre Woman Kneeling”, a female bronze figure tops a bonfire. The statue commemorates women who were burned for witchcraft. Credit: Martin Argyroglo / With permission from TASCHEN

“The image of the witch that has been crystallized in our minds – the image of a devilish, frightening woman – was born out of this very period,” said Grossman, who is also a writer, curator and teacher of magical practice. “In particular, the advent of the printing press really helped to popularize it. What she really was, of course, was even more frightening: a threatening woman.”

What emerges from “Witchcraft” is that witches and their practices have long been a metaphor for women seeking authority over their own lives (the pact, essentially a female-dominated society, is also part of this metaphor). . When browsing the book, which contains works with such different names as Auguste Rodin, Paul Klee and Kiki Smith, it is hard not to notice how so many of them represented witches as violent, powerful creatures, even if they were avoided by community.

Whether it’s aging babes or hypersexual young beauties, they are the embodiment of a rebellious spirit that “wants to undermine the status quo,” Grossman said.

A resurgence of witches

In the 18th and early 19th centuries, when the persecution of witches ended (at least in the Western world), and witchcraft began to be recognized as the last trace of pagan worship, the magical figure was reworked. This time she was made a fantastic subject as well as a symbol of female rage, independence, freedom and feminism.

Behind the latter “rebranding” stood the suffragette movement, which used the archetype of the witch as the persecuted “other,” an example of patriarchal oppression.

Witchcraft gained popularity again in the 1960s, when second-wave feminism saw witches and their pacts as expressions of feminine power and matriarchy (on the activism side, there was even a group of women who in 1968 founded an organization called WITCH).
The Boston-based group, WITCH Boston, gathers on September 19, 2017 at Boston Common for a convention toward the end of the DACA program.

The Boston-based group, WITCH Boston, gathers on September 19, 2017 at Boston Common for a convention toward the end of the DACA program. Credit: Lauren Lancaster / Courtesy of TASCHEN

The practice made another comeback during the 1990s, following the Anita Hill hearings and the emergence of third-wave feminism; and then again in the wake of Donald Trump’s election in 2016 and the #MeToo movement.
Over the past four years, the practice has become mainstream, spurring articles, podcasts and Instagram accounts.

“I believe that for many women and increasingly queer and non-binary people, the witch has come to represent an alternative to institutional power, as well as a way to exploit their spirituality in a way that is not mediated by someone else, “Grossman said.

“Witchcraft is a means by which you can feel that you have some power of action in the world. And because so much of it is about creating your own rituals, it allows individuals from different backgrounds to take part in it on their own terms. “

Anthony "Bones" Johnson, "Lilith,"England / Ibiza 2018. In his latest series, Anthony "Bones" Johnson painted scenes that honor the alchemical forces of nature and the power of women.

Anthony “Bones” Johnson, “Lilith,” England / Ibiza 2018. In his latest series, Anthony “Bones” Johnson painted scenes honoring the alchemical forces of nature and the power of women. Credit: Lent by TASCHEN

The witch-like tale has also evolved on screen, and “Witchcraft” dedicates its last pages to it.

From the terrifying Wicked Witch of the West in “The Wizard of Oz” to the beautiful Samantha from “Bewitched” and the tenacious Sabrina from “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” (who could not be further from the original show starring Melissa Joan Hart), the witch has switched from villain to protagonist, and from someone you would be afraid of, to someone you might want to be.

“Whether they instill fear, seduce, use violence, or act for the greater good, the way visual art portrays witches is always a reflection of the cultural moment of which they are a part,” Hundley said. What has remained unchanged through the centuries, she noted, is that the very nature of the witch is to contain all of these archetypes in her at all times.

“The witch is in a state of constant development,” she said. “She’s a shapeshifter.”

“Witchcraft” is available in Europe now and will be released next month in the US.

Add to queue: Authorization of witches

READ: “The one-time and future witches” (2020)

Witchcraft and activism are woven together in this Gothic fantasy novel by Alix E. Harrow, set in an alternative America where witches once existed but no longer do. The year is 1893, and the alienated Eastwood sisters – James Juniper, Agnes Amaranth and Beatrice Belladonna – join the suffragists in New Salem as they begin to awaken their own magic, transforming the women’s movement into the witch’s movement.

Browse: “Major Arcana: Portraits of Witches in America” (2020)

Frances F. Denny’s photographic project “Major Arcana: Witches in America” ​​is an ambitious visual document of the modern face of witchcraft. Denny spent three years meeting and photographing a diverse group of witches around the United States and capturing the different ways “witchcraft” is expressed.

WATCH: “Motherland: Fort Salem” (2020)

Witches become superheroes in this action-packed series, which is currently in its second season. Three young sorceresses who have been drafted into the US Army – Raelle Collar, Abigail Bellweather and Tally Craven – use their supernatural tactics and incantations to defend the country against a terrorist organization known as the Spree, a witch resistance group.

LISTEN: “Between Worlds” (2018-today)

Host Amanda Yates Garcia discusses tarot, psychology, mythology, pop culture, witchcraft, magic, art and history along with a number of special guests in a podcast that aims to explore the many expressions of practice.

WATCH: “American Horror Story: Coven” (2013)

The third season of the FX horror series “American Horror Story” takes place in the post-hurricane Katrina New Orleans, and centers on a convention of witches descended from the survivors of the Salem trials, while fighting for survival against the outside world . The show deals with femininity and race, as well as issues surrounding modern feminist theories and practices.

Top image: Titled “Ritual”, this 2019 work by photographer Psyché Ophiuchus shows a ceremonial circle taking place in Fairy Glen on the Isle of Skye at dusk.

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