What is it with witchcraft, the talk of tarot, problem-solving using planets? It is undeniable that there has been a surge in popularity for the astral, mystical and magical. These practices have existed and evolved for centuries: the earliest evidence of tarot usage was reportedly in 1750; astrology dates back to before 3000 BC; the term clairvoyant (“clear vision”) derived from 17th century French; the first convicted witch was Alice Kyteler in 14th century Ireland. Historically the attraction is clear: potions and spells originated as healing tools at a time of limited medical knowledge. Witch covens supposedly developed as forms of female unification in days of male domination. Astrology was a scholarly tradition, aiding the development of astronomy. But today, with our extensive comprehension of practical scientific evidence, what is the attraction?
We were originally told that only the mad sought answers in the unknown. Clairvoyance was reserved for the crazies. Witches were shrivelled old hags accessorised with warts, toothless grins and poisoned apples. Horoscopes were the vague descriptions pasted in flimsy magazines. The introduction of witch-hunts offers a possible explanation to these associations, having begun when witchcraft reached peak popularity. Some individuals felt threatened by the power imbalance witchcraft presented, leading to accusations often acting as cover-ups for an innate fear of change and loss of control. Horror stories were spread, designed to generate fear and “Kill the witch”, but we have come full-circle and the stories today remain just that – stories. The turnaround could be due to a sudden craving for hope. We are now surrounded by the known, which perhaps is our downfall: all-knowing can dissipate hope. Scientific and medical progression has allowed us to feel more secure physically than we did in the 1500s but consequentially has also conjured up a sense of existential insecurity. We may now receive better treatment than the likes of a Roald Dahl spell concoction, but we are also acutely aware of an imploding universe and the prospect of eternal oblivion. So maybe it is now, in fact, the hopeful who are turning to the depths of the occult – or maybe we have just been driven to the depths of madness, too.
Pre-conceptions of divination have also largely been shaped by what has been presented to us by the media. There is an undeniable hunger for the unknown that the industry has cashed in on. ‘The Wizard of Oz’ (1939), ‘Bewitched’ (1964-72), ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ (1968), ‘Carrie’ (1976) and ‘The Shining’ (1980) all present the likes of the occult as abnormal outsiders or villains. Disney is particularly guilty of negative witch depictions: Queen Grimhilde in ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ (1937); Maleficient in ‘Sleeping Beauty’ (1959); Ursula in ‘The Little Mermaid’ (1989); Winifred, Sarah and Mary in ‘Hocus Pocus’ (1993). All of these representations are of old women ostracised by society with cravings for youth – even the good witch we warm to in ‘Bedknobs and Broomsticks’ (1971), Eglantine, is an ageing outsider. These are the films and shows that we have grown up watching, so no wonder we are scared.
While we will always remain wary, the stereotypes have somewhat shifted. ‘Sabrina the Teenage Witch’ (1996-2003), ‘Charmed’ (1998-2006), ‘The Craft’ (1996) and ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ (2003-2017) portray witches as aspirational, empowered young women. Mixed representations still remain, but occult characters are now regularly at the forefront of plots, portrayed as striking and powerful rather than shrivelled figures lurking in shadows. Awareness for divination is now steadily increasing in popularity, the attraction ever-growing and evolving.
Literature has had an equally large impact on our judgements. Many films and shows derived from books, after all. ‘The Malleus Maleficarum’ (1487) negatively presented necromancy and witchcraft. The book was published when witch hunts were becoming a regular occurrence and it rapidly became a bestseller, leading to witch hunts spreading across Europe. This is a contrast to today, where the ‘Harry Potter’ series remains the best selling books in history and which paint an idealistic image of sorcery, influencing an influx of wannabe witches and wizards. The response hasn’t been met without criticism, however: copies have recently been burnt by priests in Poland due to fears of sacrilege. If media has the power to threaten even the most avid believers, it is clearly key in shaping our perceptions of these practices, whether for good or bad.
Then there is the added influence of consumerism and the current technological age. Brands cotton onto our interests, converting them into unavoidable necessities. There are now blurred lines separating genuine interest from brand assets and online trends. Intrigue about any given topic today is accessible everywhere for everyone to see at any given second (with apps like Pattern popularising practices), making the previous sole form of communication, word of mouth, comparably redundant. So, Jane’s Tweet about her cool new crystal could be partly why divination is rapidly becoming the hot new trend.
Perhaps the burden of our frantically overwhelming lives is forcing us to seek out guidance in the form of tarot. Perhaps we feel that by putting our fate into the hands of the planetary system, the weight will be transferred from our shoulders and onto that of the astral – they can handle that shit better than us, anyway. Maybe we are looking for some excitement, something to fill the void and distract us from Brexit. We might have watched ‘The Craft’ one too many times and crave a sense of empowerment. Or it could just be the power of Jane’s social media spam. It is most likely a combination, our superiority complexes always getting the better of us. After all, why am I here if not to be ruled by the movements of Jupiter and Mercury?
Words: Cressi Sowerbutts, Storehouse Content Team, @cressiclaire
Illustrations: Asha Wilson, Storehouse Content Team, @that_there_asha