Pam Grossman and Waking the Witch

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Pam Grossman is,“a writer, curator, and teacher of magical practice and history.”

In addition to maintaining her arts and culture blog, Phantasmaphile, Grossman created the iMessage sticker pack WitchEmoji, and created and hosts the Witch Wave podcast.

Her writing has been featured in numerous publications, both in print and online.

Most recently, Grossman’s book, “Waking the Witch: Reflections on Women, Magic, and Power,” was published in June of 2019.

In the book, Grossman chronicles interactions between witches and our greater society throughout history with unflinching clarity and candor, covers the portrayals of witches in popular culture, and proposes ways that today’s witches can fight back against increasing intolerance toward non-Judeo-Christian faiths and outright hostility toward women and women’s rights in our current political climate, and she does it with prose that is sharp, insightful, serious, and, often, wickedly funny.

The Wild Hunt’s Jake Leibowitz sat down with Pam Grossman for a wide-ranging interview and discussion about her new book.

Jake Leibowitz: Early on in the book you describe and partially transcribe a conversation between Margaret Hamilton – the woman who portrayed arguably the most iconic witch in American pop culture history, the Wicked Witch of the West – and Fred Rogers in an episode of his television program.

I was struck by the way that both of them made a point of humanizing the character on a number of levels. So much of the material in the rest of the book grows organically from
this scene. Is this one of the reasons you chose to present it right at the beginning of the book?

Pam Grossman: Absolutely. I wanted this book to be both for people who might identify as witches already, and for those who may not, but who have an interest in the
witch as a symbol via which ideas about gender and power can be explored.

I thought the best way for me to help a reader get their footing was to start
with the most iconic witch duo in pop occulture: Glinda the Good Witch and the Wicked Witch of the West. L. Frank Baum gave us a great gift in putting forth the notion of good witches in the first place, which was an idea he got from his mother-in-law, the suffragist and abolitionist Matilda Joslyn Gage. It’s thanks to him that we later got Samantha from “Bewitched” and Sabrina and Hermione and all of the more positive witch depictions to follow.

But in creating these two witch figures, he also reaffirmed this polarity that women still have to contend with: are you good or wicked? Are you a virgin or a whore? Are you beautiful or hideous? In reality, people are far more complex than this – I certainly am.

Yet I find that in both my identity as a witch and as a woman, I’m constantly doing this dance of trying to be my whole, complicated self, while at the same time trying to make others feel comfortable by reassuring them that I’m not a threat. It’s exhausting, and I hope to eventually get to the point where I simply stop caring what others might think or what misconceptions they may have about me. But I’m not quite there yet.

And so, I was very moved by this meeting between Margaret Hamilton and Fred Rogers, because she seems to be doing that same dance. She revels in her role as the Wicked Witch, and speaks about it with so much nuance, empathy, and joy. But she is also trying to let children know that, in her case, it’s pretend, it’s fun, and she won’t actually bring anyone harm. And that makes my heart ache in a way. Because I can absolutely relate to finding deep and pleasurable meaning in embodying something that so many people
fear – even if I think they’re misguided in fearing it.

JL: Another early takeaway from the book is the idea that anyone can be a witch. Do you see this as a strength or a weakness, or can it be both?

PG: I think it’s almost always a strength, because when a person chooses describe themselves as a witch, it is often very empowering for them. Whether it’s said in a satirical way or a sincere one, it tends to be an act of pride and self-claiming. I don’t have a lot of patience for gatekeepers about who is a “real” witch and who isn’t, when it comes to one’s spiritual practice or identity. People get to define themselves in whatever ways feel right for them.

That said, as I write in the book, there can be negative byproduct of this. There is a lot of cultural appropriation that happens with modern witchcraft, especially by white people, and that needs to be discussed and understood more widely.

And you also have some people who are very quick to start selling witchcraft, whether with their own witchly services such as healing or divination or spell-casting, or via products that they claim are magical, but in fact are just phony or exploitative.And both of these things need to change, so that we can ensure our witchcraft is compassionate, respectful, and responsible.

JL: It feels like you draw a distinction between practicing witchcraft and identifying as a witch. Would you expand on that idea?

PG: I don’t know that there’s a distinction exactly – I think it’s more of a square/rhombus kind of a thing.

In other words, yes, if you practice some form of witchcraft, you are most likely a witch. But there are so many way that people are using the word witch to define themselves.

Some people are using it to mean “feminist” or “activist” or that they are subverting the white cis heteronormative patriarchy in intentional ways. It might be tongue-in-cheek in some cases, but humor and irreverence are important aspects of the witch archetype. So, I think all of that is valid and needed, too.

JL: Is there still power in identifying as a witch?

PG: Of course. Calling oneself a witch is a rebellious, liberating act. And engaging in change-making, whether via literal witchcraft or any other shape-shifting work one might be doing, is so necessary – now more than ever. The witch is a free agent who transforms herself and the world, and because of that she continues to be both dangerous and divine.

JL: You devote an entire chapter to the character trope of the teen witch. While the idea of the teenage witch- with all the horrors and joys inherent in those pubescent times- stands on its own, do you see the trope as a kind of metaphor for transformation and rebirth in later stages of life?

PG: It certainly can be, which is why adults like me still love teen witch stories. I relate to the new iteration of Sabrina, for example, because I remember what it was like to be a teen girl coming into my power – my magic, my sexuality, my intellect, my creativity – and having to contend with how confusing it was to have all of this potential blooming at a time when I didn’t have full control over my own life due to familial, social, and school constraints.

But I also can identify with her now, as someone who is trying to fight against oppression and use my skills and gifts to forge my own unique- and let’s face it- rather unusual path in the world, as a witch, a writer, a feminist, and all of the other identities I hold. The teen witch trope is timeless.

Pam Grossman – Image credit: Sylvie Rosokoff

 

JL: Waking the Witch was written before this most recent series of attempts by some state legislatures to place severe restrictions to access to, if not de-facto bans on, abortions. What do you think is motivating these efforts and how can witches resist?

PG: I do talk about some of it in the “Body Monsters” chapter of the book, as when I was writing it there had already been some vile anti-choice policies being enacted by this administration already, not to mention some truly idiotic rhetoric from by some politicians and pundits which belie a true misunderstanding of how women’s reproductive systems even work.

But yes, things have gotten far worse in recent months, and it’s chilling to see the clocks get turned back, and this basic human right of choosing how to use one’s body being dismantled state by state.

What’s behind it is the same thing that has linked notions of “unruly” women with “evil” witches in the first place: misogyny and fear of female autonomy.

On a more hopeful note, there are lots of things witches can do to resist.

We can:

  • Draw strength and sustenance from our spiritual practices so we have renewable energy to keep fighting and protesting.
  • Start or join a coven, by which I mean a circle of kindred spirits with shared values. It can have a political mission or a magical mission – and both is even better.
  • Learn about natural approaches to pregnancy prevention and abortion. There are herbal methods of birth control that people have been utilizing for many hundreds of years. They may not always be as effective, but it’s certainly better than nothing.
  • Donate our time and/or money to causes we believe in. Spell casting is fantastic, but it will only take us so far. We still have to show up in the material world too. Raise your voice. Call Congress. Volunteer. Vote.

Witches know how it feels to be outcasts and outsiders, so we have a responsibility to use our powers to lift up the vulnerable and fight for freedom for all. We need to cast literal and metaphorical circles of protection around those who are in need, in any way we are able to.

JL: I made a note to myself to ask if you were familiar with Michael Hughes and his Bind Trump group workings about a quarter of the way into your book. Then I got to the chapter in which he makes an appearance.

What can we, as witches, personally do to add our strength and power
to – and draw energy from – this specific effort from afar?

PG: Well, Michael does them monthly, and he says that if you can’t be part of this working in person with him or a local group, you can still participate remotely.

Best bet is to follow his Facebook page where he posts the timing of that month’s binding, so you can at least join in from wherever you are at the same time.

Just being able to visualize other kindred spirits putting forth the same intention in unison is extremely fortifying. That said, I would recommend you come up with your own version of the spell that feels the most resonant for you.

I have the utmost respect for Michael, but some of the wording and ingredients that he uses don’t quite resonate with me, which is part of the reason I came up with my own Ritual for the Rebirth of a Republic.

JL: Throughout the book, but most notably in your chapter about those Shady Ladies, you use humor to really drive a point home.

Is ridiculing the stereotypes and assumptions surrounding witches a conscious tactic you use to invalidate them and show them for what they really are?

PG: There is an energy I try to carry with me in all aspects of my life which I call “reverent irreverence.” It’s a means of honoring the sacred while making sure to not take any of it too seriously. It may seem like a paradox, but for me it’s the best way to approach life. Because while I believe very much in facts and science, I think when it comes to storytelling, – which is what spirituality is rooted in –  that literalism and fundamentalism can be truly poisonous.

When it comes to writing about witch stereotypes, especially the negative ones, I often use humor to reveal how misguided, misogynistic, and foolish a lot of those ideas are. In this way I hope to detoxify the archetype of the witch, and to have fun while doing it. Laughter is one of the most potent, transformational spells there is.

For more information about, “Waking the Witch” check out her website.