On Witches

enter at your own risk jk i'm fucking with you but i am gonna be talking about witches that part is real

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(tw: suicidal ideation, some violence)

What goes too long unchanged destroys itself. The forest is forever because it dies and dies and so lives.

Tales From Earthsea: Dragonfly, by Ursula Le Guin

(new playlist I made for my friend Tara 💌)

I’m debating whether or not if I should start at the very beginning?

Fuck it.

Yeah, let’s start there.

*

When I was thirteen, I became a Wiccan.

This was really clarified as an identity when I told my sister that I religiously identified as a “Muslim Wiccan.” Astaghfirullah, but true. I have identified with witches longer than I have identified with most things.

I was really into Joan of Arc (like obsessed) as a teen around the time I watched that Leelee Sobieski Joan of Arc film and as much as I think I sublimated my lesbian love into devotion for this historical character I also think it was Joan’s devotion to God, as well as her word, her own visions, intuition, knowing—that I found so compelling. I remember her being one of the first women history that I felt spinally aligned with, as if her integrity ran through me as well. This is how I learned to tend to myself, by reading about rebellious women. I longed to read stories of defiance, of women who weren’t just held captive like Sherherazade, but who had the ability to plunder and fight men. Like the wives of the Prophet Mohammed — particularly Aisha, or his daughter Fatimah — who were horsewomen, women who could fight in war, women who could defend their bodies and their families. I sought women who were witches or warriors or both.

I was moved most by women who didn’t want the life that had been paved for them, women who were dreamers and romantics, and wanted a life worth living and worth carving. Imagine if I had gotten married to some random Muslim boy in my twenties, finishing my law degree….. and what? I know what happens to other Bangladeshi Muslim girls like me, of course I know, especially girls my age, my generation. We are asked to comply but we aren’t ever given a choice not to. If you do, you have to burn the whole thing down, that’s the price I paid for my freedom, I had to go to war for it. Nobody tells you about the cost that some of us have to make to breathe for ourselves, for our own bodies. A body that was never wholly given to you so that once you have it you have to claw to protect yourself with blood. To confront familial expectations—and to say no—is always to confront death. It is to die a former self to be rebirthed as a new version. No one tells you that either. Nobody tells you how to be a witch, but sooner or later you have to claim it, with blood.

I told my father when I dropped out of university that I couldn’t be tamed and that if I had chosen the life that they had wanted me to have — a life of a charade of normalcy — I would’ve killed myself. I don’t say that lightly, but it makes sense why I was constantly feeling as if all that was facing me was death, it was my only option in both a figurative or a literal way. To choose yourself takes a grave act of courage, but it also takes foresight in believing that the leap into the unknown will serve you. What if that’s witchcraft? Self belief?

*

Clarissa Pinkola Estes writes in Women That Run With The Wolves, a book that saved me as well, “A mother with a child who is different must have the endurance of Sisyphus, the fearsomeness of the Cyclops, and the tough hide of Caliba to go against a mean-spirited culture. The most destructive cultural conditions for a woman to be born into and to live under are those that insist on obedience without consultation with one’s soul, those with no loving forgiveness rituals, those that force a woman to choose between soul and society, those where compassion for others is walled off by economic tiers or caste systems, where the body is seen as something needing to be “cleaned” or as a shrine to be regulated by fiat, where the new, the unusual or the different engenders no delight, and where curiosity and creativity are punished and denigrate instead of rewarded, or rewarded only if one is not a woman, where painful acts are perpetrated on the body and called holy, or whenever a woman is punished unjustly, as Alice Miller put its succinctly, “for her own good,” where the soul is not recognized as being in its own right.”

I had thought in my early teens, as I had been taught and told to believe, that I didn’t really have a say. This was taught to me by my mother while she steamrolled all of us into oblivion, even though to her being a woman was akin to being worthless. That by, even Allah’s decree, we were useless, lesser than. And so, that was my natural state, I believed that I was naturally unworthy. And everything she did to me solidified that. But my fighting nature got the best of me, it resuscitated me enough to believe that my femininity was not a prison and that I could find value in it even if it didn’t completely define me. “Early in the formulation of classical psychology women’s curiosity was given quite a negative connotation,” writes Estes, a Jungian psychologist, “whereas men with the same attribute were called investigative… In reality, the trivialization of women’s curiosity so that it seems like nothing more than irksome snooping denies women’s insight, hunches, intuitions. It denies all her senses. It attempts to attack her most fundamental powers: differentiation and determination.”

A couple of years ago I got really obsessed with the TV show Penny Dreadful, clearly consumed with the occult, I felt a deep representation in the way that Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) struggles with her magic, simply because she had been made to question herself from childhood, never having a person who could help her understand how to not misuse her powers. Like with everything, if ego gets in the way — if lust and desire gets in the way, powers are corrupted. On top of that, the lovelessness and darkness that had consumed her in her life had also abstracted her from her own powers so that she was always verging between two worlds and two selves—the lightness and darkness; evil and good; the one consumed by ugly visions and the other that’s trying to decode it all. It’s only after S2 where Ives goes to see a witch in the more, the “cut-wife” / Joan Clayton (played by Patti LuPone!!!) that she begins to train herself as a witch, and gain fluency over it by trusting herself and have an elder to show her the way. When I tell you it’s one of the most affecting episodes of television that I’ve seen… it’s probably because it showcases so much that the path of womanhood (I mean womanhood here in a political sense) is about self-determination, but also about having those who guide you and show belief in you as well. But claiming what you are—for yourself—is also a journey to becoming a witch. Saying no when you have been forced to say yes your whole life is the first act of gaining your power back, as is chooing to believe yourself, and learning to trust your own intuition, your own voice.

As Silvia Federici writes in Caliban and the Witch, “On the one hand, new cultural canons were constructed maximizing the differences between women and men and creating more feminine and more masculine prototypes. Women were inherently inferior to men - excessively emotional and lusty, unable to govern themselves - and had to be placed under male control. As with the condemnation of witchcraft, consensus on this matter cut across religious and intellectual lines. From the pulpit or the written page, humanists, Protestant reformers, counter-reformation Catholics, all cooperated in the vilification of women, constantly and obsessively.”

Currently, I’m reading Kundalini Tantra by Swami Satyananda Saraswati and it has a whole chapter dedicated to kundalini & madness, with an explanation that locating and harnessing kundalini could potentially be misread as psychosis or a psychic break. “Some of the people in the west who are locked up as insane would be recognized in the east as having undergone higher spiritual experiences,” writes Saraswati, adding, “Socrates was poisoned because he did not behave normally. Christ was crucified on the cross because his teachings were not understood. Al-Hallaj, the Sufi saint, was skinned alive because he spoke truth without fear of society. Joan of Arc and the witches of Salem were burned at the stake, as were many others. All have been persecuted and harassed by the mundane populace for their vision, which arose as a result of inner work.”

Most Eastern faiths, even Islam, have a presence of magic laced into the allegories, the stories, the parables. What is kundalini if just a resource of magic? Same could even be said about chi. What about spiritual ontologies across the world from Yoruba to the Indigenous Nations across North America? What about Tarot, iChing, or the Akashic, aren’t these vessels and vehicles for magic? We know that where we are as a civilization — given what white supremacy has borne, given what it has hidden in the cracks of consciousness, yours and mine, hiding our truest selves from our current selves — that decolonizing is about unlocking magic. It’s about reclaiming the parts of you that were dimmed. There’s a deep correlation here between the denigration of women and witches. How interlinked they are. How our power was always misremembered as something to be feared.

I think of my mother and the person she could have been if she had been allowed to be free if she had been given the support that she deserved before it was too late. If she had someone to believe in her powers and not convince her into the craze.

*

I’m obsessed with this show called A Discovery of Witches, definitely a top 2021 hit. I don’t know how I came across it but… I mean, alchemy? Yeah, that’s extremely my shit. It also came to me at such an interesting time—just as I was teaching my first class, where two of my students were extremely involved in the world of Tarot (hi Anna and Kerry!)—meanwhile Studio Ānanda is working on an oracle project… so things started to feel electrifying because I was getting signs of synchronicity… which I’ve come to understand always means things are falling into place. So much of spirituality is trusting things will happen as they should, and knowing there is divine timing to all things. With Kerry’s direction, I was led to the works of Ithell Colquhoun and Niki de Saint Phalle peeling deeper into the layers of Tarot and symbology and how tales, narratives — about good and evil — are such majestic gateways to understanding us as humans. Carl Jung, a master of alchemy, really did such breakthrough research on this — merging the teachings of Vedic scholars with the theories of the chakras and lining them to the stages of alchemical evolution. It’s wild how so much of spirituality can be broken down to the elements, but also how much crossover exists in our spiritual temporailities as a people. How symbols have meanings and if you learn the symbols, then no surprises—you have a better understanding of the meaning of what you’re seeing. You’re no longer shrouded in your own psyche. And how these symbols are cross cultural, cross faith, they’re how we communicate beyond consciousness.

So many spiritual ontologies from North & Mesoamerica to the Caribbean to India right to Africa pray to the sacred elements of fire, water, wind and earth. Astrology is ruled by the elements (fire, water, wind, and earth) as is Chinese Medicine (it has an extra element of metal as well) and Ayurveda (the Doshas are pitta (fire), vata (wind) and kapha (earth)) so in a foundational way, humans have many similarities in our Indigeneity. Not so surprisingly — as we confront climate more and more, we will have to better understand these elements as well, as they are the ones in true power.

Watching A Discovery of Witches felt like watching a guide to finding my own witchcraft compass. Do you sometimes stop and think of how remarkable it is that the things that shape you just find their way to you? How, in a way, this is an example of intuition working in action. You are magnetized towards what is deep inside of you and it will find it ways to you. I think that’s the thing inside of me ~ whether it’s kundalini or magic or a deep sense of divine certitude ~ that’s pulled me out of those depths of darkness and pushed me onto a trampoline of my own mind to keep myself from never giving up. To keep jumping up and down to give myself momentum even when I feel flat.

I’m writing the Divination chapter in Who Is Wellness For? right now so this is all very what I’m processing right now. How connecting to spirit, first through forms of spiritual annunciation whether that was through Tarot or Astrology, brought me to myself. It was through my chart that I understood that I was resilient and that as much as I wanted to give up, I shouldn’t. No joke, I started my writing career because my first reading I got when I was 18 told me I should be a writer three times. I had to believe it would pay off, I just had to trust that understanding my chart would help me become the person I needed to be. And guess what… it has. It has been one of the single most helpful instruments I have ever learned for my own liberation. What joy to know yourself? Truly. To know yourself as intimately as the stars know you.

Recenlty, I’ve been lucky enough to read my friend Jessica Dore’s book Tarot For Change that comes out this fall and in the opening chapter, she shares that “legend has it that the mystics of Egypt hid their secrets for spiritual evolution—about how to attain the ideal of union with the Absolute—inside a set of playing cards.” Dore explains that they knew some people would just play the cards, but that for others more inclined toward “spiritual growth, the cards would function like seventy-eight magic portals, with secrets inside.”

:)

*

Last night I finished watching Rungano Nyoni’s I Am Not A Witch, possibly one of my favorite movies of all time. I think this film is an act of genius, but it’s also such a troubling portrayal of witch camps in Zambia, a world I did not know about. In an interview with The Irish Times, Nyoni, who is Zambian-Welsh, explains, “The women are usually controlled through magic potions or, in the witch camps in Ghana, through an invisible shrine. They can’t leave the camp without permission. And the shrine stops them from flying at night, so that protects the local villages from them. There are lots of rules about the shrine. One, conveniently enough, is that only a witch doctor can see it.”

The film revolves around a young girl named Shula (the phenomenally talented Maggie Mulubwa) who is accused of being a witch. Shula’s sweetness, her calmness, as well as her very moving but silent presence in the film gave the story so much dimension, but highlighted the tragedy of present day witch camps, and how often accusing someone of being a witch has historically led to their death, in one way or another.

There’s an absolutely incredible scene where a man from the village is accusing Shula in this epic story that feels part fiction but the man’s eloquence and frankness is so compelling that you wonder if it’s true (especially alongside Shula’s complete ambivalence to the accusation) only for him to say that she chopped his arm off while he stands, both of his arms unscathed. When asked what happened to the chopped arm, he replies, “It was a dream.” To which an entire village of men, standing there accusing this nine year old of being a witch, exasperatedly reply, “Ugh it was a dream!” As hilarious as this moment is… the truth of how many people come up with narratives (pulling things from all kind of places in their subconsious) only to readily accuse any woman of anything. Wild, then, that on the other end of the spectrum, our testimony, especially when it comes to our bodies, our memories, are questioned to such a gross extent that there needed to be a hashtag of “Believe Women” in order to encourage people to even… factor us in.

Federici writes, “For the witch hunt destroyed a whole world of female practices, collective relations, and systems of knowledge that had been the foundation of women's power pre capitalist Europe, and the condition for their resistance in the struggle for feudalism… We must conclude that witch hunting in Europe was an attack on women's resistance to the spread of capitalist relations and the power that women had gained by virtue of their sexuality, their control over reproduction, and their ability to heal .”

They killed witches across the world in the making of the new world. They still manage to kill witches, lock them up, deny them their rights. I keep thinking of women’s power has just been coded as witchcraft. Maybe that’s why I’ve always felt like I was just coming back to myself when I was learning these ways. They just feel like a lineage that was always mine.

*
But I want to end on survival, on hope.

In the episode of Penny Dreadful, the “cut-wife” asks Ives:

“Why do you want to learn the arts?”
“To know myself better,” Ives replies.

“And what if you don’t like what you find out?” The cut wife asks.

“Better to know…” Ives whispers.

I’m of the same camp as well. It’s always better to know yourself, than to not. Hey, maybe if you do, you’ll discover a witch looking back at you. Wouldn’t that be delightful?


How To Cure A Ghost is a free (almost) weekly newsletter. If you find value in what I write and read this regularly, please consider financially supporting its creation by becoming a paid subscriber or Venmo or PayPal me. If you find value in what I write but can’t financially support its creation, please share.