Priestess, sorceress and spellcaster Isabella Greenwood speaks to trans witches about how their craft and gender identity complement and inform each other
Witchcraft is, in its purest essence, queer. It is a practice that affirms connection with our truest selves, while also superseding oppressive, patriarchal and heteronormative hierarchies. It is a tradition that encourages authentic self-expression as well as providing tools for self-preservation, should that self-expression be threatened. It is also something that has historically protected minority groups, and given power to those who needed it the most.
As a spiritual practice that requires honest and unbridled expression of oneself, it is no surprise that throughout history there have been several recorded accounts of queer, trans and gender non-conforming identities within pagan and spiritual spaces. Although, since queer identities have been systematically erased over the centuries and historical figures largely did not construct gender as we do, it is impossible to come to any conclusive statements around the gender identities of these figures.
Throughout history, masculine clothing, and signifiers of masculinity and authority like armour and swords, were secretly reappropriated by women seeking power in society. Joan of Arc, who was described as a “monstrous, disorderly and notorious woman who dresses in men’s clothes”, dressed as a man in order to fight in battle and was tried for witchcraft and paganism, before being burned at the stake for the crime of cross-dressing.
Margaret Murray, a noted Egyptologist, archaeologist and first-wave feminist, who is often thought of as the mother of the modern Wicca movement although many of her theories about witchcraft have since been discredited, suggested that Joan was a member of the Dianic cult and that her male attire was an outward sign of that pagan faith. During her trial, Joan refused to stop wearing men’s clothing, saying that she would rather die. “For nothing in the world will I swear not to arm myself and put on a man’s dress,” Leslie Feinberg quotes her saying before adding, “Joan of Arc suffered the excruciating pain of being burned alive rather than renounce her identity.”
In religious and spiritual spaces, female-born figures like St Marinos the monk, Pope Joan and Anastasia the Patrician also used clothing to pass as male, transgressing gender that otherwise limited their own spiritual authority. In ancient Rome, priests of the goddess Cybele, known as the Galli, castrated themselves after joining the order and subsequently dressed only in women’s clothing and jewellery.
Outside Europe, many cultures have had spiritual figures that exist outside of a Western binary idea of gender too. The Meru tribe in pre-colonial Kenya was led by “mugawe”, highly respected spiritual leaders who were biological men, often gay, who wore women’s clothes and hairstyles. In Indian mythology, the hijras, who include transgender and intersex people, were given special power by Lord Rama, while Hindu gods Shikhandi and Mohini were able to transform from their gender assigned at birth.
Trans identities are magick – what is more magickal than transmuting and transforming into your most authentic self? Pax (she/they/a) discovered her practice around the same time she moved into her trans-femme identity, deeply intertwining the two: “As a result, my practice in magick has always been about rebirth, renewal, healing, transformation and love”. For Pax, this rebirthing of oneself is a fundamental part of our own personal development. “All people should have the right and privilege to be able to shape ourselves in our divine image,” she says. Is magic not an art of shape-shifting, renewal and of change? Witches like Pax truly embody this.
“Trans identities are magick – what is more magickal than transmuting and transforming into your most authentic self?”
Pax believes that everyone, trans or not, should think about their own perpetual renewal. “All people should strive to transition and grow towards comfort rather than discomfort and fear”. The true witch is brave and seeks constant self-becoming despite reservations. She understands that to be a witch is to be in constant communion with the life/death/rebirth cycle, and trusts that to change is to affirm the multifaceted nature of life and the fluid energy that surrounds it.
While traditional witchcraft includes elements of gender essentialism and binaries, witchcraft circles have come to understand gender more fluidly in understanding the “masculine” and “feminine” as energies, as opposed to genitalia or gender assigned at birth. Through this understanding, anyone can embody masculine or feminine energy, sometimes both at the same time – or neither at all. This understanding also allows for fluidity – you can identify with one in one moment, and another in another. It is also a nod to mythological stories of trans deities who move freely between genders, and are revered as sacred and holy for their ability to do so.
Author of Bending the Binary: Polarity Magic in a Non-Binary World and high priestess of a majority queer coven, Deborah Lipp (she/her) states the importance of working with higher energies while honouring the fluidity of gender. “Bending the binary [in witchcraft] is about accessing the power while unhooking from oppressive paradigms of gender and orientation,” she says. Lipp believes in the inherent magical nature of gender and the importance of interacting with gender’s sacred energy without falling into restrictive binaries. Lipp’s coven meets within sight of the Statue of Liberty, taking her message of inclusiveness and protection as their guide.
For witch Florence (she/her), witchcraft is inherently queer, as it is about intentional shifts and changes. “To be a trans witch, is one step closer to the edge of mortal experience. Cis people do not lead lives of constant social and physical change,” she says. There are qualities of sacred magick, tied to transmuting into oneself, that cis people may not experience in everyday life. Trans and queer identities honour a more total and holistic experience of the self and of the divine.
For Florence, being trans is deeply intertwined with the history of witchcraft empowering the oppressed and ostracised. “The witch is commonly depicted as someone on the outskirts of society who is not accepted,” she says. Witchcraft gives a new kind of power and home to those who have been denied safe spaces and respect in the past. For a lot of trans-identifying people, everyday life can be full of microaggressions and acts of erasure. “It is this distaste for our society that drove me to witchcraft.”
Witchcraft, with its fluid understanding of energy and myriad of gender-changing, unisex, bisexual, gay and trans deities, has the potential to offer a safe space that honours and values trans identities. True witches are alchemists of power, shifting disharmony into resilience and expression. They honour the legacy of ancestors of the craft as well as historical queer figures – armour and cloak-clad – that have sought to liberate others and honour their truest selves, despite limited resources. Trans-identifying witches deserve more credit in the witchcraft community for transmuting into their most authentic form, and creating a safe and inclusive space for those who are yet to come.