The Feminist Magic of the Older Witch
There is a woman in my life for whom I don’t have a title. She’s just Joan. Old enough to be my grandmother, she’s not related to me at all—she is, in fact, my mother’s former schoolteacher, who took her in when she got kicked out of home and has remained a dear friend ever since. I guess the right term for her is “family friend.” But for my whole life those words have felt inadequate to describe her, and the fullness of what she provided—provides—to my life. As a small child, I spent every afternoon after school with her, in the small garden outside her flat, where she would shuffle tulip bulbs around and I would arrange forget-me-not leaves into fairy beds. She took me to the local lake to feed the ducks, taught me about goslings and defended me from angry swans. She attended my music recitals and school graduations, she fed and housed me when my parents couldn’t, and she indulged me in endless, sprawling games of make-believe, in which I was a mermaid or princess, and she was always a witch.
Joan never married or had children. As a child, it seemed to me that she existed purely for my benefit: to tell me stories from the olden days, to buy me books, to generously play the witch to my heroine. She was like my grandmother, but she was not a grandmother; she was a role model, a quiet, thoughtful, endlessly knowledgeable presence, whose experiences and understanding of the world were vastly different from my own.
“Grandmother” seems to be the only role we let older women play, but it is inadequate even for the grandmothers I know—my own and others’—with its reductive connotations of docility and bland kindness that don’t even begin to touch on the real wealth an older woman can share with those younger than her. But there is, maybe, another role for old women—one we tend not to mention in polite society. Witch. More specifically: crone.
The witches in fairy stories are almost invariably old women. The crone—withered and malevolent—is what we grow up thinking of when we think “witch.” What’s so scary about an old woman? Why has she held on so tenaciously to her role as children-frightener that we still recognize that terror long into adulthood? Maybe the same thing that made Joan perfect for the witch role in my make-believe is the same thing that made her so important in my life: her untethered wisdom. That Joan was unattached to a man always felt daring, somehow. She has an aura of asexual freedom from the boring trappings of compulsory heterosexual courtship. For me, that’s exhilarating; maybe for others it’s a step too far outside of the narrow roles of femininity. Old women no longer have to contend with the vagaries of the desiring gaze, and without an inherent eroticism a woman is a creature even less knowable than before. Or maybe the monstrousness of the crone is that she’s visible at all, when we prefer our old women to disappear completely. Many post-menopausal women complain of becoming suddenly see-through, as people bump into them with shopping trolleys and ignore them in conversation. Maybe the crone, appearing at a christening to which she was conveniently not invited or materializing unpleasantly in the window of a candy house ripe for the snacking, is shocking just for making herself known.
Helen Garner’s wonderful essay on growing old and doing away with the irritating trappings of decorum expected of women, “The Insults of Age”—now this is a real crone tale. The glee with which she yanks an impertinent schoolgirl’s ponytail, her brusque dismissal of simpering publicity agents, her cheerful but steely demands to be taken seriously are all classic witch behavior. As is the popular poem “Warning” by Jenny Joseph, which I’m sure my mum forwarded to me several times back in the days of luridly formatted chain emails. The promise of a gleeful, unencumbered old age is the promise of hard-earned cronehood. I’d like to think I see it on my horizon, too: a moment in my life where I cross the membrane into that realm of invisibility, and find myself somehow weightless and free.
Being a witch promises us a lodestone: a legacy, a lineage of women, weird and wise, who came before us.
Although the witches from fairytales might all be crones, current witch discourse remains obsessed with—and targeted at—youth. And the witch definitely is having something of a cultural moment, though it’s by no means her first. Her popularity seems to experience a perennial revival alongside surges in women’s rights: the revitalization of Wicca in the 1970s, the boom in magic-adjacent popular culture in the 1990s, and now, the era of the digital witch, where many magically inclined young women find their communities in the ether of the internet. Vice is chock-full of witch-themed content, some of it fascinating, most of it self-consciously shallow. (The best features are about visiting renowned forest witch Susun Weed, who lives in upstate New York, or about modern-day brujas engaging in the rituals of their ancestors after decades of colonial displacement from their own traditions. The mini-documentary on Romanian witches who accept payment to cast love spells and predict the future is also a must-watch.) Sites like HelloGiggles, Zooey Deschanel and friends’ foray into fluffy women’s media, have articles called things like “Witchcraft 101,” with instructions on how to make a sufficiently mystical-looking grimoire. Rookie had a similar series on witchiness, with crystal guides and tips on how to set up an altar. And make-up giant Sephora recently courted controversy by advertising beginners’ witchcraft kits, containing a bundle of sage, a rose quartz crystal and several mystical scents. (The kits were eventually pulled from production after an outcry from the witch community.)
The enduring figure of the teen witch is evidence enough of a youth-obsessed witch revival, as is the recent reboot of Sabrina the Teenage Witch, reimagined as The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina with a distinctly less bubbly and more Beelzebub-centered storyline. Focusing on the teen witch makes sense considering girls’ historical association with uncanny events (Salem, Joan of Arc, the long tradition of pubescent girls attracting poltergeists and hauntings), and our continuing uneasiness over teenage girls’ near-supernatural powers of change. But I’m no longer a teenager, and I won’t be in Vice’s target demographic forever. The appeal of identifying as a witch now, as I look into my future, is much more complex than when I was a 13-year-old first toying with Wicca.
We’re at a cultural turning point where it feels like real change is at once within reach and about to be snatched away for good. Even as the #MeToo movement powers on, toppling predators from their thrones, the most powerful man in the world has made his predatory nature part of his brand and his platform. Women are spurred into solidarity with one another by the eerie plausibility of “The Handmaid’s Tale” just as much as they are by the aspirational fantasy of “Wonder Woman.” The world, not just for women, but for everyone, seems to have gone awry. Scientists tell us we have 12 years to undo a century of climate destruction. People are choosing to remain childless rather than bring new life into an uncertain world. Nazis are a thing again. A sense of unreality permeates everything, and for women, who have spent generations locked in a grim battle for rights—at our jobs, in our bedrooms, on the operating table—that other reality is a dark one. We teeter on this precipice; we could go either way; things are not in our control on any plane of the familiar. We’re simultaneously the vectors of change and the bodies upon which it’s wrought. It is a perilous place to be, in this uncharted terrain.
Being a witch promises us a lodestone: a legacy, a lineage of women, weird and wise, who came before us. It gives us a context in which to fit our suspicions, fears, superstitions and our new, unexpected lateral power. It provides meaning in an otherwise barren spiritual landscape, without demanding the sacrifice or cognitive dissonance of most mainstream religions. It suggests a connection to a broad, if invisible, network of other women practicing the Craft. And it promises a compass with which to navigate the unknowable territory of growing older.
This excerpt from Witches: The Transformative Power of Women Working Together by Sam George-Allen (Melville House, 2020) appears by permission of the publisher.
Sam George-Allen is an Australian writer and musician. Her essays, memoir and cultural criticism have been published in the Guardian, the Griffith Review, the Lifted Brow, LitHub, and Overland. She lives in a haunted village in the south of Tasmania with her partner, a dog, a cat, and five chickens. Witches is her first book.