Finding a movie for a group of leftist, working class, gender queer, Latin American witches is a challenging task on a good day, but with five bucks between us and no working transportation, it meant that we were sneaking into the UC Boulder student union while trying not to get caught. The choices were limited to either Mona Lisa Smile (2003) or The Examined Life (2008) [i], which is a documentary by Astra Taylor comprised of interviews of eight current philosophers and the central concepts that inspire and animate their work. Needless to say, The Examined Life was the best fit and gave us endless hours of discussions and debates over a plate of french fries at the twenty-four hour IHOP next door.
Judith Butler, who is one of those eight philosophers interviewed, has been at times both an intellectual crush and an unhealthy obsession. Her work challenges the essentialized notions of gender and sexuality, as well as gesturing toward a methodology for the interrogation of cultural signs and symbols that are taken as innate reality when unquestioned.
As a witch, rootworker, priest, and diviner my world is the semiotic, the study and uses of signs and symbols, and their interpretation. Magic as a practice and discipline is, at its most fundamental, a vehicle through which semiosis occurs. It offers a multitude of tangible, elegant possibilities that unfold through the subtle construction of relationships between interdependent entities and energies – signs and symbols that when aligned become a new manifested reality.
On screen, Butler paraphrases another philosopher, Deleuze, who has asked “what can a body do?”[ii]. This concept has been an ongoing theme in my own work and practice over the last decade. It throws into question not only what is a body, in terms of the intersectional and multidimensional nature of identity, identity politics, and the physical boundaries between the self and “others,” but also how these numerous bodies, which we have within our singular selves, enact their existence in the worlds we inhabit.
Since the election and its after math, the question of “what can a body do?” has been at the forefront of my thoughts; not only in terms of accessibility and privilege within the current political climate, but also in what roles our magical bodies play in resisting the normative discourse of who we are as American peoples. The roots of earth-based spirituality and specifically Pagan and Neo-Pagan teachings center themselves in the practices of our individual and collective ancestors, and how they engaged these worlds within their lifetimes.
After looking at historical ethnographies and interviews within Hoodoo and Rootworking communities of the South, It becomes apparent that these forms of magic were tied to the power dynamics inherently at play within the practioners lives. The magical workings necessitated not only addressing and remedying the specific issue at hand but also contextualizing the problem within the larger systems of power, privilege, and oppression.
An example of these multivalent approaches comes from Harry Middleton Hyatt’s Hoodoo, Conjuration, Witchcraft, & Rootwork [iii]. In this text, he Hyatt is interviewing an informant, who speaks of a working used to stop police interference and brutality in New Orleans:
As we stand at the threshold of a presidency that seeks to “make America great again” by reverting society and our liberties to a McCarthy era world view in which narcissistic nationalism and unchecked power was used to subvert, silence, and destroy difference, it is time to reawaken and remember the voices of our transgressive ancestors. Our magical bodies and our political bodies are inexorable linked in as much as every magical act grants us an inherent opportunity for the transformation of ourselves and our environments in its most poignant form.
“Yo’ walk in de woods an’ find yo’ a poplar tree an’ yo’ don’t want it tuh be – well, it couldn’t be all de way no larger den [a] chair post [leg], an’ de end would have to be smaller de time de day yo’ cut it down, three feet long. Turn de big end down an’ yo’d walk along wit it as ’twas a walkin’ stick. Yo’ git home an’ yo’ bo’ yo’ a hole in de ground up unto dat knot dere [demonstrates]. —- (Up to the big bone in the wrist.) • nat dere.
Yo’ apply dat stick in dat hole an’ yo’ name dat stick whatevah laws [policemen] dat dere wus in de city, “Dis is Mr. So,-an’-So, an’-So.” An’ yo’ drive it an’, “Dis is Mr. So,-an’-So, an’-So.” An’ drive it. Call de names of de city, ah mean de laws, until yo’ drive dat stick down in de ground, clear down in de ground. An’ aftah yo’ git dat stick down in de ground, den yo’ would read de 35th Psalms of David, “Plead mah cause, 0 God, to dem dat’s drivin’ me. Please fight against dem dat fight against me.”
An’ jes ‘ plant it out whare no one could tell whare it wus, but chew want it tuh be on de outside of de gate, not de inside. Let ’em go downtown and 24 hours aftah it is in de ground – let ’em go downtown or wherevah dey wanta, an’ put de laws behin’ ’em. De law will come to yore gate an’ call yo’, if yo’ not standin’ out dere, an’ ast yo’ did yo’ sell any whiskey. ”No suh.”
Magical action requires us to first recognize the world as it truly is without illusion, artifice, or self-deception and then to call into existence a new vision, or way of being which is divorced from restriction and all forms of domination. Political engagement becomes the form through which magical action manifests to not only resist the imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchy, but to also become liberated from it. It becomes our duty as medicine holders and Witches to interrogate the government-employed signs and symbols that seek to normalize oppressions and to work our spirits and magics in order to enact new visions and possibilities for our world and the worlds that are yet to be birthed.
[i] The Examined Life. Dir. Astra Taylor. Sphynx Productions: 2008.
[ii] Deleuze, Gilles “What Can a Body Do?” Expressionism in Philosophy: Spinoza. Zone Books: New York, 1990. pp. 217-235.
[iii] Hyatt, Harry. Hoodoo, Conjuration, Witchcraft, & Rootwork. First Edition. Self-published, 1935. pp.1253-1254.
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The views and opinions expressed by our diverse panel of columnists and guest writers represent the many diverging perspectives held within the global Pagan, Heathen and polytheist communities, but do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wild Hunt Inc. or its management.