It’s not uncommon to turn to witchcraft when you’re a teenager. Especially when I was a teenager. Reruns of Bewitched on Sunday mornings, Sabrina the Teenage Witch after school, plonking down in front of Charmed and Buffy and almost definitely ruining your eyes just your dad said would happen.
The early ‘00s were a fecund time in the lifespan of a teenage witch. You grew up in the era of Girl Power, where feminism was punchy sloganeering and gratification was instant. The economy was good. There was more money. Accessibility to tangible things but also ideas; chatrooms, texting, gaming. A solid belief in magic cemented by the Spice Girls, the books of Roald Dahl and the endless possibilities and ideologies of developing technology.
Now, magic has become symbolic of a particular kind of White Feminism. Unsurprisingly, the environment described was one very particular to Irish children. The Irish population, as of the 2011 census, was 94.3% white. The 2016 census is still being tallied, but I suspect the result will be much the same. When I was 13, in 2001, the figure was even higher.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. More on that in a minute.
I was fourteen when I got my first pack of tarot cards. They were a mass-produced pack that came with a slim hardcover. I found a velvet pouch in Oxfam and slid the card in it, after several; vigorous reshuffling. Each card fascinated me; the ambiguity of the Hanged Man, dangling from one ankle – dead or alive, smiling or grimacing; the calm, powerful fecundity of the Empress; the terrifying cleansing fire of the Tower, where your worst fears are confirmed and everything comes crashing down. They buzzed.
At that stage, my best friend Collette and I were casting spells with the help of our handbook – Teen Witch: Wicca for a New Generation. We chanted to get boys to ring us (they never did) and to get rid of spots (if Clearasil wasn’t going to work, then a spell definitely wasn’t). I started looking at the cards; really looking. Making up stories and creating narratives, weaving real lives and wish fulfilment together. It was a gestational period that any writer would be glad for, though I didn’t realise it at the time.
I look back on it now and see it fondly as a grab for control in a time when women were starting to realise not only their strengths but their unavoidable vulnerabilities. As a teenager you enter the world proper; slowly realising that how people see you is based on a template. More specifically, it’s a template made to keep you nice and more than a little bit acquiescent. Be nice, always, when hormones have a junta of your behaviour. Take your anger, squash it down down down. But embers burn, and pressure builds.
When most of the world’s great templates – the head of the family, the head of the church, the head of the state – are reserved for men, it’s no wonder that young women look a bit closer at the occult. Here is a realm for you, the dreaminess and incorporeality custom-made for teenagers. It’s a rich history of women misunderstood and unfairly punished, of commanding the terror of grown men and the power of nature. Mother Nature. It’s about victimhood. It’s about power. It’s complicated.
Eventually, many teen witches put the spell books away. Beliefs solidify or dissolve, and all of mine did the latter. I still looked at the cards, did the occasional reading for friends. Over the years, it became less about the concept of predicting the future and more about predicting the present. Instead of answering questions, I posed them. Is this how you feel? Do you see yourself as you really are? Do you see your power, your control?
When I write this down I think, “GOD(DESS, sorry), no wonder this is peak White Feminism.” Actualise your power! Spank your inner moppet, whatever! When you’re marginalised, taking your power back is about more than a pack of cards. It’s real activity, it’s work, it’s activism and effort and education and prejudice and it’s exhausting, much more exhausting than I would know.
The tarot can be made more inclusive, easily. The trick is to root it in real interior life, namely through psychology. For almost a century, the cards have been a handy trick of the trade for some Jungian psychologists, the dense symbolism ripe for interpretations. Over the past thirty years, the psychological aspects of tarot readings have been richly theorised upon. The mind, our impulses, conditioning, prejudices, fears, hope… these are all reflected back at you through a slightly different mirror. No magic needed.
When I set up The Coven last year, it was with the hope that there would be another space for women of all sexualities, identities, nationalities to write great big essays about whatever they wanted. But by picking the most powerful metaphor for a woman I could think of – the witch – I fear I may have shot myself in the foot. Almost every writer we’ve ever had has been white. I haven’t published a single piece about race because, believe it or not, very few white writers pitch good, coherent articles about the subject.
And – oh yes – there’s the issue of not getting paid. Everything we do is voluntary, and as The Coven expands ever slowly, that needs to change.
Because we are expanding, believe it of not. Soon, there will be a print issue, called Coven. And we have something else in development, which I frustratingly can’t really talk about and no I’m not trying to dangle a carrot.
In the spirit of expansion, there are two different things.
- I would love to read more pitches from women of colour about anything and everything. Seriously. Pitch me. I will read and answer every single one. I want this to be a platform for as many people as possible.
- I have started to do tarot readings over email. It’s very simple. Ten euro paid via PayPal will get you a three card spread and a three paragraph reading. If you have questions about how I read, my attitudes towards it, what clients think and whether I think psychic powers are real or not (spoiler: it’s the latter), please look at my Twitter timeline here or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. A large chunk of the money will go towards keeping The Coven ticking over – looking at printing costs and – hey! – paying writers. For the next three weeks, that chunk will be donated towards the Abortion Rights Campaign in Ireland instead. Please note: I do not work with ARC – this is a way of reaching outwards as well as in. If this isn’t your thing, please consider donating anyway. Abortion is still illegal in Ireland and good people are working to make sure that women are given a choice.
Sarah Waldron is the founder and editor of The Coven