A Witch’s Place Is in the Struggle
So why witchcraft and activism? Why not just magic more broadly or a Necronomicon-style book that will summon the Old Ones to reclaim the world? A few reasons.
1. I know witchcraft best. 2. The second option would drive you insane. And 3. Out of all the flavors, traditions, and schools of the occult, I think witchcraft is set up particularly well to take on the problems we face in the world right now. Here is a short, sweet, and incomplete list of why I believe that is:
Witchcraft requires a living relationship with the land.
Witchcraft emphasizes femininity.
Witchcraft comes from a time before capitalism.
Witchcraft is a magical practice, not a dogmatic religion.
Witchcraft is weird, wild, and hard to define.
Witchcraft resists nihilism and alienation.
DEFINING MAGIC, POLITICS, AND WITCHCRAFT
Before we go any further into the relationship between activism and the occult, it might be good to stop and define just what it is that I’m talking about when I say magic, politics, and witchcraft.
Let’s start with magic. There are about a billion ways to describe what magic is. Find two people who have been practicing for years, ask them what they think magic is, and there’s a good chance that you’ll get two very different answers.
I don’t love everything he wrote, but I do like this concise definition of magic from the famous occultist Aleister Crowley: “The art and science of causing change in accordance with the Will.” In Crowley’s practice, the Will means something akin to concepts like dharma or fate, but his description works pretty well for magic as a whole, no matter the specific practice.
Magic is about realizing that we can change the world, often with just our thoughts. Even trippier than that, magic is about realizing we actually change reality all the time, every day, without noticing it. It’s also about recognizing that just as the material world has an effect on us, we in turn have an effect on the material world. Another occult phrase you’ll often hear used to describe this concept is “As Above, So Below, As Within, So Without.” Essentially, both spiritual beings and things in the material world, like gods, spirits, and the stars, shape us, but we simultaneously shape the world around us through mastery of our inner worlds.
You might be thinking, “But that’s too simple. I’ve already done that!” Yes, you have. We all do magic all the time without realizing it. That’s what makes it so cool! When you saw this book, you had a vision of yourself reading it. You may have seen yourself getting pleasure or knowledge from it; maybe you even imagined reading it in the very place you are reading it now. So, to make that vision in your head reality, you bought (or stole, or borrowed) this book. Now you are reading it, in accordance with your vision. See how simple that is?
To recomplicate things, yes, magic is made up of the simple, everyday acts of manifestation we engage in, but it also involves reorganizing your material world to better suit the reality you see in your head. Really good magic essentially hacks the part of your brain that creates and absorbs reality and makes it work for you. Something like the placebo effect is often brought up to dismiss “magical thinking.” Basically, it’s been proven that if you believe something has power, or that interacting with it will have a specific effect on you, then that result is statistically likely to happen, whether or not it was “supposed” to. “Aha!” the skeptics say, “this proves magic is just all in your head!” Well… no, that’s actually what we’ve been saying all along. If anything, things like the placebo effect don’t disprove the effectiveness of what we call “magical thinking”; they prove it. What you’ll be doing in magic is, in many ways, leveraging the placebo effect on yourself to create the life and circumstances that you want. The power of belief is the power of magic.
This is a hard concept for many people to understand at first. You might think, “Sure, my thoughts have an impact on me, but they can’t possibly have much impact on the material world around me.” That’s an easy trap to fall into, but if you stop and reframe things, chances are you’ll realize that you’re already living in the reality others have magically constructed around you. So let’s go through some examples.
I’m going to ask you to do a very hard thing and think of Donald Trump right now. Have you ever noticed how he says fake things, pretty much all the time, but people believe him? And, much more importantly for our purposes, even the people who don’t believe him end up living in his constructed reality whether they want to or not. Trump probably isn’t a billionaire, but he acts like he is, so people treat him like he is. He also isn’t fit to be president of the United States, but he pretended he was capable of holding the position, until one day he really was president. This, my friend, is magic.
Lying to yourself and believing it make you delusional, while lying to others and them believing it form trickery—but doing both simultaneously is magic. Another example is the power (remember this word) that large companies possess. I’m almost certain that you have a Netflix account (or that you are borrowing your friend’s), but despite the company being so big and so ubiquitous as of the writing of this book, Netflix still hasn’t really made any money. Yes, technically they have ended up with hundreds of millions of dollars in profit at the end of the last few years. But after making that profit they need to spend the money, and borrow more, to spend billions of dollars making content. The same goes for Twitter and Amazon. Wait, what? But they’re so important! How can they have never actually made a cent? Because investors speculate they will make money someday—or, in other words, they are willing their profitability into being. Things and corporations and people have power because we believe they do.
Now think about borders for a second. They’re fake—literally. Borders are lines drawn on pieces of paper or screens, rather than fixed features on the globe. However, they govern everything about how society works the world over. Stand on one side of the invisible line, and you are a citizen, but step to the other side without the right talisman—or, as the nonmagical might call them, legal documents—and you are a criminal. Even if you move between two states or provinces within the same country, those invisible lines still determine a whole bunch of things you can or can’t do, and that’s only because we have chosen to believe that borders are real.
Finally, let’s go even bigger, conceptually, and think about money. Money is also fake, strictly speaking. I like to call money “belief points” because it’s something that only has power because we believe in it. More and more, our money isn’t even a physical object, but simply numbers on a screen—and those ones and zeros determine who lives and dies in this world. To really understand the gravity of this, think about how wild it is that you can be a totally good person, with a family and people who love you, and maybe even tons of practical skills, but if you don’t have enough numbers on a screen or pieces of colorful paper in your pocket, society determines you are worthless. It’s totally nuts! Even if you go back in time to when money was backed up by things like gold and silver, those metals don’t really have a ton of value beyond the imagined one we placed on them.
As I hope you can see by now, it’s true that your mind has incredible power—but it’s not the only thing that does. Something that steams my broccoli when I read books about magic or see new age lectures is how they will often shift all responsibility to the individual. Think of all of the circumstances that are truly outside of your control. Is it my fault that rising sea levels washed my home away? Or that the markets crashed and I lost my job? The truth is, you and your mind have incredible power, but it’s just one power among many, all fighting, existing, and supporting one another—which is exactly what politics is.
Pick up any almost any book on magic and you’ll read a lot about energy. Energy is the current flowing through all things, both in this world and others. It takes different forms; manifests in different fashions, moods, and flavors; and exists in unique ways in all of us. Lots of people have come up with words to describe this thing we call energy, like chi, prana, or, if you’re a big ole nerd like me, the Force.
I don’t like the word energy. I think it sounds wishy-washy, lame, and like a placeholder that’s waiting for the English language to come up with something better. The word I like to use instead is power.
Power has a bunch of negative associations surrounding it because we are so used to power being employed in horrible ways. If you have power, surely you must want to control, abuse, and mistreat those with less power than you. It doesn’t have to be that way though! Everything in the world has power, and although we may have different powers at different levels, that doesn’t mean we have to hurt one another. There is a difference between “power with” and “power over” others.
One of the biggest reasons I like to use the word power instead of energy, and the reason we’ll be using that word in this book, is because politics is about power. If you grew up like I did, you probably sat in class as a young person and took detailed notes as your teacher explained that politics is all about compromise.
Well kid, that teacher lied to you, although not maliciously, because they probably believed what they were saying. The thing is, politics has never been about compromise, and believing it is starts you at a disadvantage when the time for compromises actually does come.
Sure, compromises happen all the time in politics. They’re necessary at some points. But the important thing to keep in mind is that the people sitting at that compromise table got there through power, and one or more people are going to have their power taken away or redirected, at least somewhat, by the outcome of the compromise. Here’s an example: Every treaty the United States ever made with indigenous peoples was technically a compromise of sorts, but if you actually ask the people who got the short end of those compromises, they’ll tell you they were all about the use, abuse, and misuse of power. Similarly, history is full of times when people pooled their collective power to change things for the better. Just like in magic, politics is about feeling the flow of power, finding it in yourself, and combining it with other people’s to make something happen.
As with magic, everyone and everything in the political world has power. Finding out who has the power to do what, how much power it will take for things to change, and how to raise the power of a group of people is something both magical people and activists do every day. We’ll get more into exactly how to find and direct power in chapter 4, but for now just remember this shorthand version: Magic = Energy = Power = Politics.
One of the questions I’m asked the most often is “Okay, so you’re a witch… like, what exactly does that mean?”
I joke, but it’s honestly one of the hardest questions to answer! Witchcraft isn’t as easy to pin down as other magical traditions, since every witch practices their craft a little differently. This individuality and diversity are part of what I love about the craft, but it can make it hard to define exactly what someone means when they call themselves a witch.
Here are a couple things that I think make up witchcraft and set it apart from other forms of magic. Other people might also believe or do these things, but it’s the unique combination of them that makes witchcraft special.
To me, witchcraft is a verb. It’s about what you do. That’s why the word craft is right there in the name!
Witchcraft is a witch + their craft. Half of being a witch is about coming into your own power and learning how it relates to the power of the universe, and the other half is what you actually do with that power.
Witchcraft embraces both the spiritual and the physical—it’s got a foot in both worlds. Some magical traditions are all about transcending “reality” and moving beyond the physical. It’s a powerful way of living and some great teachers I’ve known are very much on that train, but it just never appealed to me! When you’re doing witchcraft, you’re working as much with physical stuff like herbs and rocks as you are with nonphysical stuff like power and spirits.
Because witchcraft is as comfortable with the heavens as it is with the earth, it also makes it, well, earthy! Witches get their power from the landscape around them, even if you live in a concrete jungle instead of a wooden one. We’ll get to this more in chapter 5, but if you live in a city and don’t see much nature day to day when you’re doing witchcraft, you are still working with the power and spirits of the land around you. Witches are born from their landscape.
What’s also cool and unique about witchcraft is that it’s one of the few parts of the magical world that leans toward the feminine. Now, you can be any gender and do any form of magic, but let’s not kid ourselves here: When most people think of other types of magic, whether that’s Druidry, Thelema, ritual magic, or grimoire magic, they think of old white dudes in robes. There’s nothing wrong with that—some of my best friends are white dudes in robes—but it makes witchcraft stand out, like the one female superhero in the movie poster or the one queer character in the hot new teen drama.
Lastly, and most relevant for this book, witchcraft, in my humblest (but really how humble, I mean I’m writing a whole book on it here) opinion, is inseparable from politics. For most of history, witchcraft has always contested with political power, and we need to understand this history if we’re going to use witchcraft for political means.
A RADICAL HISTORY OF WITCHCRAFT
To understand witchcraft’s place in the struggle, we have to look at the history of the art and how witchcraft came to be stamped out. You may have read in an old Llewellyn book or seen a post on a Geocities website that is somehow still running in the Year of Our Lord 2019 that witchcraft is a religion. This religion, commonly now known as Wicca, is the surviving arm of an ancient pan-European goddess-worshipping cult that the church violently stamped out with the witch trials.
But, the thing is, none of that is true. Seriously, none of it. Witchcraft refers to the various crafts that witches do (hence the name), and while Wiccans may practice witchcraft and be witches, not all witches are Wiccan and historically most haven’t been. Wicca is a fairly new religion, created in the 1950s by an Englishman by the name of Gerald Gardner. There’s no historical evidence of any widespread goddess cults in Europe; the witch trials took place long after most traces of paganism had either been eradicated or adopted by the Catholic Church; and pretty much everyone killed during the so-called Burning Times was a Christian anyway.
This might disappoint you to hear—after all it’s a great story. Just picture the agents of Diana holding secret meetings in the forest while running from the church and brewing kombucha with other midwives in a big feminist cult. You had better believe I would watch that movie! But of course, history isn’t that simple, and this cool story, like so many others we’ve been told, just doesn’t hold water.
The good news is, the truth is far more radical and, in my opinion, much more liberating than a fantasy. The church and state did indeed link up to kill witches and stamp out all traces of a magical worldview, but rather than being an attempt to wipe out paganism, it was a way of ushering in a new economy, paradigm, and means of suppressing the population through control of the female body and the land.
As the world moved from the medieval to the early modern period, a whole bunch of things were changing, particularly in Europe and the Americas. Europe was shifting from an economy based on a feudal system to a capitalistic one. In order to do this, the first thing that had to be tamed was the land itself. Before the early modern era, the land wasn’t something that you “owned” like we can today. Kings and lords had territory that they controlled through force, and peasants often worked the land in a kingdom in exchange for protection, but the land in between and outside the control of a lord or the church was considered unowned wilderness.
This land, known as “the commons,” was what we call a “de-commodified” place, or a place where you don’t have to pay to do anything. Think long and hard about the last time you were in a place where you weren’t expected to pay, in some way or another, for the right to just exist there. Pretty crazy huh? The commons gave people the option of being able to “drop out” of society if it wasn’t serving them or they wanted to work on their own farm for their own benefit. It wasn’t a perfect life, and the Middle Ages aren’t a time I’d particularly want to live in, but it’s important to remember just how different things were in the past so we don’t fall into the fatalistic trap of thinking things have always been bad in the same way forever. When we look back at the different ways people have lived, we can find more liberating and creative ways to move forward.
In the sixteenth century, something called the enclosure movement began exerting power in England and other parts of Europe. This was a process through which the newly forming states and governments of the continent were appropriating, buying, and dividing up the commons all over the place. Now, wherever you went, you were always on land that someone owned. This essentially put a price tag on everything, including people. Since everyone needed to pay to live anywhere, whether by buying their own land, paying taxes, or renting a space through a property owner or landlord, they had to constantly be working in order to make money. Think of it as the feudalism fire sale: Everything must go! You can’t beat these prices! Plants, animals, and people all stopped having intrinsic or spiritual value and started only being as valuable as they were efficient, especially at making other people money.
“Okay,” you say, “this is all interesting, but where are the witches?” Don’t you worry—I’m getting to that!
This new worldview and economic order wasn’t popular with the general population at first, and it required violence to take root, including shutting down peasant revolts, bringing indigenous people in the Western Hemisphere under European control, and finally, eliminating anyone at home who posed a threat.
It’s important to remember that violence like this always begins outside or at the edges of a culture before taking up space in the heart of a society. At the onset of capitalism and the birth of the modern world, the type of violence I’m describing was often first inflicted upon indigenous people in the Americas, where Europeans were seeking further lands to bring under their control. These people just couldn’t continue to be considered humans if they were simply going to become cogs in the slave trade. Likewise, the cooperative, sharing, land-based way of life that most of these people knew could not exist within the European economy of commodification and hierarchy, and because of this, it had to be destroyed. Natives in the Americas were accused of unholy pacts with the Devil, eating children, and engaging in sexual acts that most people in Europe found evil. Sound familiar?
When this violence moved past the margins of society and into its heart, we were given the witch trials. As you may already know, during this time it was still primarily those on the “outside” that were targeted. Mostly women, almost exclusively poor, and often disabled or elderly, the victims of the trials represented that which needed to be tamed in order for capitalism to take root. “Witches,” that is, healers, those unable to work, and those who practiced magic, had to be done away with. Our entire reality was about to change.
If you happen to be a masochist like me, then you would probably love nothing more than reading over the convoluted, hard-to-find witch trial records from this time. However, assuming you don’t love the sensation of mentally flogging yourself, I’ll keep this part short. Basically, it’s very hard to study real witchcraft from the time of the witch trials, which really amped up in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and even harder to research it from earlier times, because most people back then whom we would now consider witches—people who cast spells, talked to spirits, or healed and hexed other people—rarely referred to themselves as such. Like I said earlier, witch is a legal and political word used against others. Imagine if in the future most traces of Islam were gone, and we only had the trial records of Islamic terrorists to go by as historians. You’d get a pretty crummy picture of what Islam looked like to the majority of people practicing it, right? That kind of scenario is essentially what we are up against when looking at witchcraft historically. Back then, walking around calling yourself a witch put a literal target on your back, so you just didn’t do it. Plus, once you were in court, any testimony you were likely to give was probably just whatever you thought the judges wanted to hear. You try keeping a level head after days and weeks of torture!
What we can tell from the trial records and other historical evidence is that a belief in magic was widespread in Europe. A lot of these beliefs revolved around the fairies or, if that word makes you feel like you are at a ten-year-old’s birthday party, land spirits. Fairies and other spirits were said to dwell in certain hills and were not, under any circumstances, to be messed with. In addition to all the magic surrounding Catholic saints, it was common to also retain folk beliefs around a Queen of Fairy and a King of Fairy, although you might know the latter as the Devil.
The Fairy Queen was so popular an idea that a lot of peasant revolts during the early modern period actually said they swore allegiance to her and claimed to be defending her kingdom. One of the most notable instances of this was the “White Boys” in Ireland. No, I’m not making up that name, and yes, it’s okay to giggle.
Some people chose to engage with this magical realm further, through the use of spells, charms, spirit contact, and herbal lore. Most of the time, these individuals were women, referred to as cunning folk, wise people, or other regional names describing the same profession. It’s possible this vocation or calling goes back past even pagan times into the ancient, shamanic past, but for now, this is just a theory.
One thing is clear though—this widespread belief in magic was unacceptable to both the newly forming Protestant religions springing up across Europe and the emerging capitalist economy. A world where certain hills cannot be built on because of fairies dwelling inside or where you can’t work because of an ill placement of Saturn in the sky is a world that cannot exist alongside one founded on work ethic, profit motive, or endless expansion across finite resources.
Another thing that had to change in order to usher in the capitalistic, modern world was how we viewed and took care of our own bodies. Before the commodification and mechanization of the world, the metaphor doctors and healers would use for the human body was that each was a garden! Every garden is different, and while plants of a certain species generally act in the same way, there’s always the chance for diversity. Under this premise, healing was more personalized and holistic, taking into account all aspects of a person, just as you would with a garden. The combination of capitalism, the scientific revolution, and the Protestant Reformation changed this metaphor. Suddenly, your body wasn’t a garden anymore, it was a machine.
This change sounds minor, but the stories we tell about how the world works end up making the world work that way! Machines are standardized, and anomalies must be done away with. Parts of a machine are interchangeable and detached from whomever it is “you” are (if you are anything more than just a bunch of parts). In addition, machines are only as good as what they are able to make and produce. This turned things like childbirth, previously seen as a highly individual experience, into the mechanized process we know today. It also altered our perception of those giving birth into baby-making factories, further dehumanizing women and alienating us from our bodies. Or, rather, making womanhood about one specific part of the body and how that part functions (hint: I’m talking about pussy). Plus, since the creation of the workforce is of the utmost interest to the ruling class, under this system, all rights and practices of abortion and birth control were taken out of the hands of women and placed in the hands of the male-controlled state.
Given all of that, is it any wonder the maleficia, or potions, that accused witches brewed were often made of abortive herbs or that accused witches themselves were often the ones in charge of birth in a community? Is it any wonder that the stories so many of us heard when we were young involved witches killing children? Eventually, women would be pushed out of medicine altogether in Europe. The village healers would be killed off or discredited, and schools would shut their doors to the few women they allowed in to begin with.
It is hard to overstate the violence of this time period and just how much blood it took to tame the old world and usher in the new. To be accused of being a witch was as good as a death sentence. In almost every case it meant you were taken from your family and home, held in a cell where sexual abuse was common, tortured into confession, and put before a court where, unless you had a great number of people there to vouch for you, you were sentenced to death. Now, substitute the word witch with one of our many modern equivalents like felon, terrorist, illegal, or even refugee. People slapped with labels like these are often subjected to horrors not so far removed from those inflicted on the witches of old. This is not to say that modern witches share in this oppression or are targeted to even remotely the same degree as any of the groups I just mentioned. But it reminds us of our legacy as witches and our duty to stand up when the injustices that were enacted on our spiritual ancestors are enacted on others today.
The world is in a tough place right now, and the view from my window says it’s going to get darker before the light kicks in. These acts of violence are being felt on the margins of mainstream society now, but due to our rapidly changing climate they will move toward the center of society before long unless we act swiftly. Whenever systems of oppression expand, they will always need new witches to burn to fuel their fire. As witches, we must remember this and stand in solidarity with oppressed people everywhere.
It’s a bleak world out there, and I can’t tell you that the fight to make it better will be easy, because it won’t, but remembering your history can make the path a little clearer. We have all the tools we need to make a world better than that of the feudal or even the modern era, but we need that spark of inspiration to go forward. If you are reading this, it is because the spirit of the witch survived through torture, rape, abuse, and murder to find you and light a fire within your heart. You may not have ancestors of blood who were caught up in the trials, but it does not matter. This ancient calling brought you here, and we are so happy you can join us.
THE POWER OF THE WITCH TODAY
Whew, you made it! Go give yourself a cookie—you earned it!
Alright, so that was then, this is now. Given all this history and all this knowledge of magic, what place is there for witches in the revolution?
When I look across the landscape of witchcraft today, I get this weird, confusing mixture of excitement and disappointment churning in my tummy. All the potential witchcraft has to offer our modern causes excites me, but to be honest, I’m a little disappointed by how it’s currently being used.
Imagine you have the power to change and shape reality and you have thousands of years of magical knowledge at your fingertips because of the internet. But right at the time when humanity leans dangerously close to the brink of extinction, you use all that to… put pentagrams on knee-high socks? It feels weird, right?
I don’t think the commodification of witchcraft is entirely witches’ fault. Capitalism is really good at neutralizing a threat through commodifying it. Put a price tag on something and you can own and control it.
Finding your inner power is so important, especially for women, girls, queer people, and people of color, who are told so often to shrink themselves for others. Witchcraft is a tool for accessing that inner power, and it gets me so mad to see all this potential energy directed at purely surface-level aesthetic stuff. Are women really going to have our power reduced down to image once again?
I think not, because we can’t afford to. Witchcraft has survived empires, and it will survive this weird time as well.
In fact, if done right, witchcraft actually has the ability to not just survive, but thrive in this current climate where down is up and up is down. Witchcraft loves a liminal space and has traditionally been used by people with no other route to achieve justice. We certainly find ourselves in the first place and need a whole lot of justice done.
Here’s my hot take on witchcraft as we move further into the twenty-first century. In magic there is something called “consensus reality” which comprises all the stuff people generally agree is “real.” Consensus reality dictates the rules of your life and what is or isn’t possible for you to ever experience. For instance, it’s consensus reality that gravity pulls things down and that London is located in the United Kingdom. Back in the day, you could also say things like “America is the best country ever” or “Jesus loves me, this I know” were part of consensus reality, but many concepts that used to be agreed on have become fractured, now true to some and fake to others. Why? Because of the internet.
The internet has created a whole new range of possibilities in terms of what is considered reality and what isn’t. “The world is round” isn’t even consensus anymore! All this chaos can be a little scary, and incredibly weird, but I think we should try to be as optimistic as we can about it all. Things once considered impossible are becoming not just possible, but happening before our eyes. Consensus reality is falling apart—and I for one think that’s a great thing. The old world is dying—you can feel it—and a new world that we haven’t seen before is being born. This is a very magical time we are living in, where reality is reshaping itself and we have the power to be the ones that give that new reality its next form. This is an age of weirdness. This is an age of witches.
Those who fight to make the new world a good one need the fangs and claws only witchcraft, a magic born of a marriage between the earth and the outcast, can give. It’s long overdue that we fight like we have something precious to lose and the power to win. Now is not the time to just take pictures of our altars, but rather to use them. Now is the time for revolution.
ACT UP and the Power of the Dead
Throughout this book I’m going to give you real-life examples of times when politics and a kind of magic came together to create something positive, new, and transformative. There aren’t too many groups of activist witches in the past—and that’s where you come in! Take these stories more as an inspiration and a way to illustrate what it is I’m getting at. To start things off we’re going to talk about how one group in the 1980s and ’90s responded to one of the worst epidemics in history.
I don’t really have the space here to cover the entire AIDS crisis. I’m sure you know at least a little bit about it, and yeah, it was bad. Actually, to say it was just bad is probably the biggest understatement possible. Between 1981 and 1991 over ten million people were diagnosed with the virus—over one million in the United States alone—and globally deaths have reached over eight million in this decade. To be diagnosed was as good as a death sentence, since initially there were essentially no medications to treat the disease and as treatment was developed it cost tens of thousands of dollars a year.
Gay men, black people (especially black women), and trans women were by far the groups most likely to become infected and die from the disease, but because of stigmas surrounding queerness, sex in general, and racism, treatment came slowly, if at all. Hospitals routinely turned people away who were sick and dying, and some cemeteries even refused to bury someone if they had died of AIDS. Those who made it through the worst part of the crisis often describe it as having lived through a war.
Into this war came a committed and smart group of activists called ACT UP whose early actions and protests created models other groups still follow. ACT UP stands for the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power (look, it’s our new favorite word!). ACT UP was able to tap into the power of rage, anger, and desperation among people suffering through the AIDS crisis and direct that power into accomplishing their goals. In other words, they refused to be blinded by rage and instead allowed themselves to be propelled by rage. ACT UP used tactics of disruption, public theater, and ritual to capture media attention and direct its power to advance the group’s goals.
Let’s focus on the ritualistic actions of ACT UP. For a group that went head-to-head with religious organizations on more than one occasion, ACT UP understood the political importance of ritual to not only call on the living, but the dead as well.
Here’s the deal: AIDS activists, including ACT UP, absolutely had the moral high ground in their fight. When you or your loved one is dying, who wouldn’t fight like hell for a cure? On top of that, ACT UP wasn’t stupid; they had science, data, and hard facts backing them up about the rate of the disease, potential cures, and how effective things like condoms were at keeping it from spreading. The thing is, large groups of people aren’t swayed by facts. This might disappoint you, but if it does, I welcome you to look at the book you’re reading and remember we are literally talking about magic. Moving on.
Because we live in a world dictated by power, magic, and its movements, people for the most part aren’t moved to action by facts, because facts alone are hollow. They matter to build your narrative, but unless you breathe a spirit or a story into them, facts alone are pretty meaningless. Throughout the AIDS crisis, millions of people, including activists, died. This is a fact, but not enough people cared about it. ACT UP knew it had to get moral and emotional power on its side to win, and the only ones that could speak to the real horror of AIDS were the dying and the dead.
One of the most famous actions and public rituals to drive this point home occurred when activists marched down the streets of Washington DC, holding the ashes of their dead loved ones in little boxes and urns. They chanted “Bringing the dead to your door, we won’t take it anymore” as they walked and dumped their friends’, lovers’, and family members’ ashes on the lawn of the White House.
Political funerals like this became part of the ACT UP toolbox. Not only did it unleash the grief of survivors, it targeted that grief at a specific person: the president. On top of that, it made the spirits of the dead an ever present force to be reckoned with. By politicizing their own deaths and insisting they be turned into acts of ritual, the power of these activists persisted long after they left this world.
Another example of ACT UP’s powerful protest tools can be found in the speech known as “Bury Me Furiously.” Bob Rafsky delivered this fiery, moving declaration at the funeral for Mark Fisher. This, right here, shows how political action and magic can be deftly tied together to produce a powerful effect. The text called out in red is my own emphasis.
Let everyone here know that this is not a political funeral for Mark Fisher—who wouldn’t let us burn or bury his courage or his love for us any more than he would let the earth take his body until it was already in flight. He asked for this ceremony—not so we could bury him—but so we could celebrate his undying anger.
This isn’t a political funeral for Mark. It’s a political funeral for the man who killed him, and so many others, and is slowly killing me: whose name curls my tongue and curdles my breath. George Bush, we believe you’ll be defeated tomorrow because we believe there’s still justice left in the universe, and some compassion left in the American people. But whether or not you are—here and now—standing by Mark’s body, we put this curse on you. Mark’s spirit will haunt you until the end of your days. So that, in the moment of your defeat—you’ll remember our defeats, and in the moment of your death—you’ll remember our deaths. As for Mark, when the living can no longer speak, the dead may speak for them. Mark’s voice is here with us, as is the voice of Pericles, who two millennia ago mourned the Athenian soldiers who didn’t have to die and in whose death he was complicit, but who had the nobility to say that their memorial was the whole earth. Let the whole earth hear us now: We beg, we pray, we DEMAND that this epidemic END. Not just so that we may live, but so that Mark’s soul may rest in peace at last. In anger and in grief, this fight is not over ’til all of us are safe.
Act up, fight back, fight AIDS.
To my knowledge, there weren’t many witches in ACT UP, and I doubt many of the members knew or thought they were doing magic. However, the results speak for themselves, and we can look back now and see pretty clearly that they were working with some powerful magic. Through their confrontational methods, ACT UP was able to reduce the price of AIDS drugs, widen access to care, and help ease the stigma surrounding the disease.
This type of magic usually falls under the umbrella of ancestor work, or working with one’s ancestors to bring healing, provide strength, and give you victories in both magic and in life. It’s one of the most powerful forms of magic, and that’s why I think it will be great for your first exercise in this book.
MAGIC IN ACTION
CONNECTING TO THE ANCESTORS
Most books on magic will start you off with breath work and meditation, before moving on to spells and rituals. I think it’s important to get the basics down before you try anything too hard-core (you should probably give vanilla sex a go before someone hangs you from the ceiling and whips you, right?), but you can get those steps from any book. Besides, before you even get to the basics, I think it’s smart to have some friends on the other side backing you up.
We all have ancestors; they’re some of the spirit allies we come preprogrammed with in life. They’re the native apps on our spiritual phones, if you will. Even though they’re ubiquitous, and not “special” like demons out of a fifteenth-century spellbook, the reason I think it’s smart you get in with your ancestors before doing other magic is that your ancestors have your back, no matter what. They fought, struggled, and died so that you could be born, so they have a vested interest in seeing you succeed.
A lot of people have really good reasons for thinking they can’t do ancestor work or why they don’t want to do it at all. Hey, some of our ancestors were terrible people with views and ideas we don’t agree with!
Lots of people also don’t know who their ancestors were because they were adopted or in many cases (shocking!) due to political reasons. Genocides, wars, slavery, and colonialism, just to name a few awful things, can make it impossible for so many of us to trace our lineage back more than just a few generations. I can only map my Irish family back a couple hundred years. After that, all records stop because the British Empire had all family histories destroyed.
And that, right there, is why I’m putting ancestor work in the first chapter of a book on political magic. All of us come from overlapping histories of oppression that helped create the problems we face today. Some of our ancestors were the oppressed and sometimes they were the oppressor, and either way we have wounded genes that have been passed down through us that we need to heal if we are to fix the world.
That racist uncle you don’t want to work with? Well, you don’t have to pal around with him or forgive him just because you’re related. In fact, what you should do is sit down with him and try to get his spirit to move on, because having it linger around is causing problems for a lot of people. Or how about that great grandmother of yours who was barred from following her dreams because of some sexist, racist assholes? She needs to know that because of her you’re following your dreams and her spirit doesn’t need to hold on to this pain anymore.
Ancestor work will make your magic better and give you protection while you do the cool stuff I know you’re dying to dive into as a witch. However, more importantly, healing our ancestors and their past trauma will heal you and the space you occupy. Think about the spirit of Mark in the speech I quoted a couple of pages ago. How will his spirit ever rest until justice is served? And what pain must he feel and inflict while in that state of unrest? Now imagine whole nations and whole bloodlines wiped clean because of injustice. How can we ever move toward justice if the crimes of the past are still hanging around as ghosts?
Even after reading all this, you might still have no interest in working with your ancestors of blood at this point. That’s totally cool for now! Sometimes people need to warm up with different ancestors first, and you can absolutely do that since blood isn’t the only thing that makes an ancestor: You also have ancestors of spirit.
This concept may seem a little weird, but we actually engage with it more often than you might think. When people talk glowingly about women or people of color who “paved the way” for them in their path, or about figures like the founding fathers as though they were deities and not just men, or about the legacy of a group of people we are a part of, these are all brushing up against the idea of spiritual ancestors.
Let’s say you’re a musician who was inspired as a kid by the music of Queen, and to this day, even if you don’t listen to them every day, you have a poster of Freddie Mercury hanging by your instruments to inspire you. Or perhaps you’re queer, maybe you’re HIV positive, and even though you only know a few Queen songs, Freddie Mercury inspired you to come out or gave you the strength to survive, so now you have a “saint” candle with his face on it, in jest but also in seriousness. Even though both people in this scenario aren’t related, and even though they certainly aren’t related to Freddie Mercury, it doesn’t stop him from being an ancestral figure to them. Are you starting to see what I mean?
If you want to get a feel for what ancestor work 101 looks like, let’s dive in and make an ancestral altar! (But if you don’t, remember your magical practice should feel right for you, so feel free to bounce around in this book and try exercises however you like if this one is still not speaking to you.)
For this exercise, you will need:
A flat surface in your room or home, preferably a shelf or small table that you don’t need to put other stuff on
A cup of water
A white candle
And that’s really it! If you would like to get fancier and add pictures or items belonging to your relatives or objects you think they may have enjoyed, feel free to do that, but don’t feel the need to go wild if you don’t want to or can’t.
Now let’s put that altar to use! Everyone’s magic is different, so when you first start doing this exercise, try it out once a week and see how it feels. If you feel like you need more oomph or if you just like spending time with your ancestors, try doing it once a day and see if it feels different.
Fill the glass with fresh water and stand before your altar. Hold it out with both hands and say aloud the names you are offering it to. If there are too many names to count or you don’t know any of them, you can always just say “to all my ancestors, named and unnamed” or add that phrase after you’ve listed some you want to honor in particular that day.
As you do this, imagine a warm light flowing from you to the cup. It might help if you imagine the cup empty and it being filled up with light like water. I can’t say when you should stop doing this, but trust that you’ll know when it “feels right.”
Place the water on your altar, light the candle, and stand for a minute or so with a spirit of gratitude. Maybe you want to list things out loud that you are grateful for that your ancestors taught you or passed on to you. Or maybe you want to leave things undefined and simply send up some thanks. Try both and see which one feels better.
Blow out the candle when you need to, and go about your day.
Whether you decide to do this simple practice once a day or once a week, try to get more elaborate once a year. Halloween, or Samhain, is the go-to day for honoring your ancestors for many, including myself, but you could also choose a birthday, saint day, or other significant day. Whatever day you choose, put a little more pizzazz into your altar. Maybe pour whiskey instead of water, or leave out some favorite food for those you are honoring. If all else fails, flowers always work like a charm.