Magickal Cultures

Reconciling Witchcraft & Global Folk Traditions

"I come from a Chicana background and was raised observing Dia de Los Muertos and keeping altars in the home.  In my family and culture, keeping an altar is a typical part of your everyday home and life.  Observing my people's traditions in these contexts taught me to think about and search for spiritual insights outside of any organized or colonial religion.  It suggested to me that there are many ways to talk to the divine and to connect with what we want and what we love."
-Rebecca Artemisa, Artist & Witch, 2020

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, The old devil woman reviving her arm, Japan, 1889
A woodcut from a series of illustrations created for a 19th-century Japanese collection of ghost stories and folktales.

The allure of modern witchcraft lies in the promise that anyone can reclaim their power through a hodgepodge of spiritual mysticism.  In contrast to religion, witchcraft purposely avoids strict rules, with no definitive "right" or "wrong" ways to practice.  But there are ways to practice magick without perpetuating damage.  Whether it's educating oneself about witchcraft's colonialist history, avoiding practices not meant for you, or creating your own rituals, many Asian, Latinx, Indigenous, and Black witches who practice their craft offer guidance on how to respectfully incorporate other cultures' practices into your own.  Of course, no one group is a monolith, and individuals from disenfranchised communities have vastly different opinions on these issues.  

Brought over to North and South America by European colonizers, the word witch was used to demonize the spiritual practices of Indigenous peoples and survivors of the transatlantic slave trade.  Not everyone who practices spiritualities commonly associated with the witch aesthetic identifies with the word, and laveling their sacred rituals or medicinal practices "magick" is considered offensive; it was also a tactic used by colonizers to justify violence against Black and Indigenous people -- and continues to be used by those in power today.  

People around the world are still being persecuted and killed over the accusations of witchcraft.  In Nigeria, for example, children are deemed witches and abandoned and ostracized by society.  While the Afro-Brazilian religion Candomble, which has historically been practiced in secret, is no longer banned in Brazil, its followers are being victimized by an evangelical Christian movement that denounces their worship as demonic, calling it witchcraft as a reason to condemn it. 

Identifying as a witch should be an intentional self-declarative act.  Formal power structures that gatekeep communication with the divine are antithetical to modern witchcraft (a fact that sets it apart from many other religions).  Magick, in many ways, is everywhere and for everyone.  Some practitioners may be more experienced and knowledgeable but no witch can rightfully claim a monopoly on spiritual access.  

On the other hand, certain terms, rituals and herbs that are often commodified and marketed today are appropriated from marginalized spiritualities that would not consider them magickal at all.  The widely used term chakra is specific to the South Asian religion of Hinduism.  Another example is the term gypsy, which has been used for centuries as a racial slut to persecute Romani people, but is now used by countless brands to market a bohemian look associated with fortune-telling and crystals.  Smudging with palo santo and white sage is considered a sacred practice for many native North American tribes, one that was only passed down to members of their community and previously was done in secret.  Until the American Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed down in 1978, it was illegal for Native North and South American tribes to practice many of their ceremonies, including burning white sage, yet now one can find sage bundles offered at retailers across the globe.

Wiele & Klein, Two Malaysian Exorcists dressed in elaborate ritual costume, Malaysia, Early 20th Century
These embellished sorcerers were able to invoke real states of frenetic trance that were said to liberate cursed victims from evil possession.

Aspiring witches must respect the boundaries of closed practices that explicitly state they can only be practiced by people who are descendants of a cultural heritage.  Hoodoo, for example, originates from slavery and was created specifically for a certain people. 

And while a modern reclaiming of witchcraft is about women taking back neo-pagan religions like Wicca from the men who made them, these late 20th-century feminist reclaimings often still grounded witchcraft in cisheteronormative gender binaries.  While the "lady witch" archetype is empowering to some, it erases the queerness in many of the disenfranchised practices New Age witchcraft grounds itself in.  Two Spirit, for example, is a pan-Indian term coined in 1990 to describe the social title given to members in the community who fulfill a traditional "third-gender" role.

Gromyko Semper, Alchemy of a Babaylan, Philippines, 2013
Babaylans were thought of as spiritual leaders of the tribe in pre-colonial Philippines.  A warrior-priest/priestess of ancient Filipinos, they presided over the religious rites and were thought to serve as mediators between gods and humans. 

In Yoruban-based spiritualities, across the transatlantic slave trade diaspora, from Candomble in Brazil to voodoo in New Orleans, guardian spirits are often depicted as gender-fluid, intersex, homosexual, or androgynous.  Forced assimilation to Christianity then transformed them into more binary,  heteronormative, cis deities.  None of the aforementioned are synonymous with witchcraft, to be clear.  But for those who do identify with the term, it's powerful to learn of the rich-queer history in spiritualities from around the world.

Myrlande Constant, Haitians, Lend a Hand to Mother, Haiti, 2008-17
The voodou inspired piece allies sparkle to engage in the attention of Iwa spirits.  The colors of the flag are highly symbolic and codified based on the different attributes of Iwa.

The multiplicity of traditions offers seekers inclusivity and fluidity and spirit-centered and magic-based rituals that can be adapted to the needs of each practitioner, while bringing together both ancient and future-forward spiritualities, accepting of all, without judgment or limitation.  The folks turning to modern witchcraft were often made to feel othered, ostracized, or excluded from more mainstream faiths.  Ultimately, in witchcraft, they find a more accepting, diverse, empowering collective -- to call their own.

Andre Hota, Obalauiye, Brazil/England, 2010
Orisha and considered deities in the Yoruba tradition, the Obaluaiye spirits who incarnate as humans to relieve suffering in the earth realm.

"The witch transcends all time and space, and will prevail in the hearts and minds of anyone who wishes to shed their soul like a serpent.  The witch lives because the witch has never died."
-Bri Luna, Founder of The Hoodwitch, Visual Storyteller & Bruja, 2020

Katelan V. Foisy, Queen of Sticks from The Hoodoo Tarot, United States, 2020
A collaboration deck which explores arcana archetypes through the lense of American rootwork traditions and hoodoo symbolism.