Swedish Motors

Appropriation

Photo Trista McGovern and Glynnis Forsberg

Last fall, I spent an evening sitting around a large wooden table laden with branches, dried flowers, lit candles, and the found bones of small animals. A small group of us had ventured to The Future, a witch shop and community space in south Minneapolis, for a workshop on how to cultivate closure with magic.

The natural altar on the table served as our education in objects used for easing emotional transitions. Our instructor named the plants one after the other: yarrow, for setting boundaries; ocotillo, for healing the heart; ginger root, for energy. I wrote them down in my notebook

Singing and long baths are both helpful aids in transitions we were told, but our instructor stressed that there was no “right way” to perform magic of this kind. There are no rigid spells we need to follow or expensive objects we need to purchase to make our wishes known by the universe.

We wrote down our hopes, and crafted symbols (called “sigils”) from the first letter of each word to solidify our intentions in the ritual. “I open myself to new forms of community,” I wrote.

I was baptized Protestant, but like many people in my generation I never felt moved by religion. The time I spent in the woods of Northern Wisconsin on my family’s yearly camping trips were more spiritually nourishing than anything I experienced in church.

That connection to nature, combined with an innate belief in the spirit world, motivated me to seek out a free-form spiritual community after graduating from college. When I moved back to the Twin Cities last June, I began researching witch culture.

I do not have a label for what I believe, nor do I feel that one is necessary. I am a spiritual person, and I find that grounding my spirituality with physical objects and ceremonies is healing, productive, and transformative.

I use plants, altars, and writing to foster my language with the invisible forces at work in my life. That is what I consider magic.

One woman sitting adjacent to me at the workshop asked a question that has stuck in my mind since. “What if we accidentally conjure something we don’t want by using magic that has no written rules?” she said.

Modern witchcraft, for the most part, is open-ended. It converges self-care practices in activities that range from seeking healing energy from crystals, to setting intentions before a day, to casting spells. Within the last decade, self-identified witches have used social media to increase the accessibility of their craft. This new wave of witches is intersectional and identity-focused, which in turn fosters politicization. For example, after Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court last year, many witches traveled to New York City to hex the patriarchy — a ritual that doubled as a catharsis for survivors of sexual assault and raised donations for Planned Parenthood.

Witchcraft’s power ultimately comes from its long history of resisting and healing under oppression. The use of the word “witch” is subversive. It is important to remember that many African, Indigenous, and feminist belief systems have been violently persecuted for their association with magic. When my fellow workshop attendee wondered what negativity we might accidentally conjure, I thought not only of the metaphysical, but also of how associating one’s practices with a history — and not fully understanding that history’s weight— is tied to cultural appropriation.

Consumerism has sometimes co-opted spirituality for profit. Urban Outfitters sells crystals and sage bundles. Sephora rolled out (and quickly retracted, after public outcry) a “Starter Witch Kit,” consisting of sage, rose quartz, and “potions.”

Problems arise when spiritual items are commodified outside of a cultural context, and thrown together to imply a kind of “witchy aesthetic.” For example, on the packaging of Sephora’s “Witch Kit,” a horned deity wears a sash embroidered with symbols that have nothing to do with one another alongside, inexplicably, Prince’s Love Symbol #2.

I believe spirituality cannot be sifted out from systems of power and oppression in our white supremicist, patriarchal, and capitalist society. Although witchcraft has a history of fighting against those systems, not all incarnations of witch culture invoke that history responsibly.

My practice is flexible, and grounded in what feels natural for me, but I do have a set of guidelines. As a non-Native person, I never burn white sage or seek counsel from white people purporting to be shamans. I stay away from putting my money toward mass-produced and environmentally irresponsible magic-related items — although mass commodification does have the upside of increasing access. I research what my own Irish ancestors may have practiced, and remain aware when I am drawing on traditions with origins outside my own ancestry, which I do so without pretending to be an expert.

The magic I believe in does not exist in a vacuum. I don’t assume that the privilege I am afforded is a result of supernatural manifestation. This understanding is at the heart of what I believe spirituality to be: a joining of conscious and unconscious forces to honor the complexities within all things.

Lydia Moran is a writer in Minneapolis. Her work traverses many realms — from magic to Prince. She loves swimming in rivers and the Northwoods.