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Lessons from the Other Realm: Being a male witch in 2019 is complicated


TextDouglas GreenwoodIllustrationCallum Abbott

How do men make their mark – and remain respectful – in a spiritual practice shaped by female energy?

Welcome to Witch Week, a campaign dedicated to exploring how witchcraft, magick and beauty intersect. Discover photo stories shot featuring real witches in NYC, a modern reimagining of the witch, and one witch’s mission to get a tan, as well as in-depth features exploring herbology, science and alchemy, and male witches. Elsewhere, we’ve created four special covers to celebrate the campaign and our one year anniversary – something wicked this way comes.

Ask anybody to name a witch and the first name out of their mouth is bound to be a woman’s one. Rightly so: from the Shakespearean times of The Tempest all the way through to the practise’s 20th century pop cultural revival, courtesy of Sabrina the Teenage Witch, The Craft, and an iconic turn from Bette Midler in Disney’s Hocus Pocus, ‘witch’ and ‘women’ have been bedfellow phrases. 

From an outsider’s perspective, the space has been so dominantly female-led for the best part of 500 years that it’s surprising any dudes have been operating in those circles at all. But despite being almost non-existent in popular culture, there are many men who identify as witches in 2019.

Historically stories of the occult and womanhood have fed into one another for centuries. In the 1400s, early records show that over three quarters of those engaged in witchcraft in Europe identified as women. Those figures are much the same now, even if the overall numbers (around 100,000 back then) have imploded into the millions now. It is, even with a smattering of men involved, a divinely feminine space, but that historical image of women conjuring spells, sprinting around forests in the nude and generally condemning men to hell in peace is a confused one, because the narrative surrounding witchcraft is closely tied to the hunts that demonised the occult for centuries. In essence, those witch hunts were a form of gender-based oppression based on the assumption that only women were part of the problem; they were sexually dangerous, capable of worshipping a different deity or trusting in nature and spirits to solve our problems rather than a male God. 

Modern male historians – even those who identify as feminists like Britain’s H.R. Roper – frequently referred to witches as “hysterical women” in their writings, and when it came to those aforementioned witch hunts, it was overwhelmingly women who bore the brunt of the fears of Christian people. Men were present during these kinds of activities – albeit mostly in smaller numbers – but they’re seldom mentioned in the history books because they weren't as easy to transform into scapegoats. Even as witches persecuted for their practice, their gender still afforded them some kind of privilege. It’s a privilege that lives on to this day, even in a time when men make up a fairly small percentage of witches (Finland and Russia were the two exceptions, where the 75/25 split was flipped back in the 15th century). But the important thing to remember is that the occult thrives off of feminist ideals, and the male participants recognise that. 

The founder of Olde Ways ApothecaryMichael is an initiated witch with two decades of experience, specialising in spellwork. He’s well versed in the syncretic religion of Espiritismo, an Afro-Latino branch of witchcraft that he inherited from a number of women in his life, namely his grandmother, who was his idol growing up. “She used to have a line down her hallway of women waiting for tarot readings,” he reminisces. “From then on, I was immediately attracted to it and tried to get as much information as I could about what she did. She was trying to tell me to (leave her be), but I knew that what she practised was a part of me. If someone was sick when I was a kid, I’d pray for them or make them some sort of tea. I wanted to heal and help people, and would see spirits. No one ever shut that down for me.”

That the vast majority of those around him practising witchcraft were women didn’t hit Michael until later in life. “When I got older and people started telling me: ‘You’re not a witch because you’re a boy. You’re a warlock or a wizard’.” It’s likely that pop culture – namely boy wizard Harry Potter – played a notable part in most people coming to that closed-minded conclusion: that all women who practised witchcraft were witches, and all the men who did the same were wizards. So why do most male witches reject those titles, and what’s the difference anyway? 

Well, contrary to popular belief, the word ‘witch’ doesn’t carry a gender – “it’s a verb,” Michael points out, “something you do”. While witches mainly specialise in healing the sick and manifesting love through spells (the less spectral things) wizards are predominantly Celtic figures who act as spiritual guides and mentors. And as for the word warlock? Best avoid it. “It’s a term that was used if someone broke their oath,” Michael points out. “If someone was facing imprisonment for witchcraft, and someone sold you out, that person would be a warlock.”

Brent is a fantasy-fiction author who, like Michael, identifies as a witch. “I practice witchcraft, but I do not identify as a Wiccan,” he tells us. “People have been doing magic since the beginning of time whether they realise it or not – it’s the art and science of causing change on a spiritual and material level. Witchcraft is the practice of magic. It's performing a symbolic act with the intention of receiving a tangible result.” 

Male witches have become far more commonplace and well documented since the occult’s 20th-century revival, which was catalysed by the vision of an old British eccentric from Merseyside in wartime Britain. Wicca’s modern father went by the name of Gerald Gardner, a writer and anthropologist who moved into the quaint surroundings of southern English suburbia in 1939 and, with a select group of peers, started to unpack Wiccan practises and form a coven in the hidden depths of the New Forest. His first book about the subject, High Magic’s Aid, was released in 1949. It was disguised as a fictional fantasy but secretly exposed its knowing readers into the semantics of practising Wicca.

He was, for decades, the go-to voice of British witchcraft, being interviewed on the BBC about his work once it became legal to express Wiccan values in the real world. And yet despite his influence, there’s an AngelFire page (and Guardian article) dedicated to dismantling how he managed to shoehorn his way into the occult fraudulently, titled the Dirty Old Man Behind Wicca. Many historians have also noted discrepancies in his stories. If there’s anything that the 21st century, post #MeToo era has taught us, it’s that men (maybe Gardner included) love nothing more than presenting as woke in order to permeate women’s spaces, claiming they’re onside when they would probably much rather compromise their safety.

With that a possibility, riding off the back of Gardner’s controversial notoriety and the rise of second-wave feminism, women-only occult spaces like Dianic Wicca gained popularity to rule out any sort of patriarchal influence. But even today, male witches appreciate that witchcraft needs such spaces that they can’t step in to. “I don’t look at these binaries in witchcraft and take them personally,” Michael says. “I understand that I’m a part of a tradition that’s feminine. I don’t struggle with that. I’m more feminine than I am masculine, but female empowerment – especially in the spiritual world – is very important.” 

“I don’t look at these binaries in witchcraft and take them personally. I understand that I’m a part of a tradition that’s feminine. I don’t struggle with that. I’m more feminine than I am masculine, but female empowerment – especially in the spiritual world – is very important” – Michael Cardenas  

Brent is on the same page: “Holding space for women, especially women who have experienced trauma at the hands of men (which is basically all women), is vitally important to me,” he says. “Women excluding men from their practice is not something that I take issue with at all.” He also condemns the attitudes of trans-exclusionary covens; commonplace in the witchcraft world. “(They) exclude trans-women on the basis that you must have a womb, ovaries, and a period in order to be considered a woman,” he says adding, “which is bullshit and gross.”

That sentiment remains even as the gender binary is slowly starting to disintegrate, and the performative roles for men and women simply become positions for people – all people – instead. In many ways, the occult has been way ahead of the pack throughout history when it came to gender roles. Its most prominent roles have always been women, and never have they been subservient to anyone other than themselves. Despite the imbalance of persecution when it came to the waves of witch-hunting, men and women have both existed on an equal playing field spiritually, and few spells are written to favour men or women. Heck, even in Viking times, male sorcerers were known as ‘seiðberenðr’ – a phrase that literally translates into English as ‘male womb’. 

Unlike Christianity, which values the distinctly heterosexual male-female polarity when it comes to relationships and gender roles and has a contentious relationship with queerness, the occult is inherently queer. Its left-of-centre approach to things means that its followers – male, female and gender non-conforming – have established a unique relationship with the semantics of identity.  

After all, witchcraft is all about spirituality; the intangible, rather than the bodies we’re born into. So while it’s great to see that men have, for the most part, learned to practise witchcraft in a way that respects its infallibly feminine roots, it’s equally as exciting to see it become one of the first religious practises that’s dismantling the notion of gender altogether. “A lot of the time we’ll let our human-ness get in the way of things,” Michael tells me, when I ask what matters most to him – a rarely outnumbered man in a woman’s world. “It’s not about me being a man in the witch world. It’s not really about the shell or the people,” he claims, “but the spirit.”

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