Strewn throughout fairytales and folklore, the popular figure of the witch is synonymous with magic, transgression, and wickedness, and is nearly always female. But the history of witches is not just a fairytale, but a history of gynocide—that is, the killing of girls and women—one that feminists have addressed as a history of female suppression. And for female artists working today, paganism is making a comeback.
Historical representations of the witch have flitted between the ugly hag and the brazen sorceress, at times depicting her as a bestial old woman with drooping breasts, and at others as a saucy temptress who brews love potions to bewitch men. In the 16th and 17th centuries, folklore imagined witches as a tangible threat to society. “The land is full of witches,” chief justice Anderson, a witch hunter, told an English court in 1602. “I have hanged five or six and twenty of them… Few of them would confess it.”
Witches were the infidels of the Renaissance era, perceived as a curse on divine and social order, and possessing of devilish powers. It was believed that witches could control fertility and bring about male impotence—suspicions that speak less of witches and more of patriarchal anxieties around the female body and its “powers.” Historians estimate that 100,000 people—mainly women—were accused of witchcraft over a 300-year period, and more than 35,000 were tortured and executed.
It is perhaps not surprising, then, that 19th- and 20th-century women’s liberation movements turned to the history of witch burnings to express the continuing plight of women living within the patriarchy. Witches were a symbol of the suppression of female power and the female body. The early suffragist Matilda Gage published Woman, Church, and State in 1893, tracing female persecution through the witchcraze. Later on in the 1960s, the American women’s liberation group W.I.T.C.H (Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell) drew on wiccan practices for political stunts, dressing up as witches and hexing Wall Street.
Revisionist feminist histories of witch burnings emerged across the 1970s, such as Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English’s contentious theory that witches were in fact female healers eliminated by the medical establishment. More recently, the Italian feminist Silvia Federici has examined the connection between capitalism and the disciplining of the female body in her work Caliban and the Witch (2004).
Now artists are turning to witchcraft and magic, setting up covens, writing spells, and organizing workshops in practical magic and feminism. Just this past February, WITCH, a Chicago-based performance collective inspired by the original women’s liberation group, staged a “ritual performance” to protest unfair housing practices in a local neighborhood. Below, we take a look at six artists whose practices—in sculpture, painting, performance, video, and workshop—are by turn linked to witchcraft.