How Modern Pagans Are Reclaiming The Halloween Witch Costume As An Act Of Power

Which Witch Is Which? The Blurred Lines Of Halloween Reappropriation

A black cape, a pointed hat and a broom. There is perhaps no Halloween costume more iconic than a witch. But does it cross a cultural sensitivity line?

The Rev. Selena Fox, senior minister of the Circle Sanctuary, a Wiccan church and nature preserve in Wisconsin, told The Huffington Post that it all depends on "the context and the message."

"As someone who has been politically active for many years, I see that there's some power in taking images and repurposing them," said Fox. "Some in our community have chosen to have some fun with witch costumes."

Fox gives public education talks about Samhain, paganism and witch traditions throughout the month of October.

This time of year, costumes depicting all manner of supernatural identities abound -- even within pagan communities. During Samhain, a pagan holiday closely associated with Halloween that also takes place on October 31, the Circle Sanctuary will host a Witches' Ball for which many will dress up.

"Some of the people that get in costumes will wear pointed witch hats, a broom and a cape," said Fox. "We are having fun with witch costumes because of the context."

Sam Webster, who is studying contemporary paganism for his Ph.D. and is himself initiated as a witch in multiple pagan traditions, agreed that context is key when it comes to people dressing up in spiritual garb.

"It highly depends on who's doing it," Webster told HuffPost. "If it's a pagan or a witch, they're usually doing it with a bunch of self-referential irony."

In addition to the costume, the word "witch" itself has long carried negative connotations, Webster said. Nonetheless, many pagan groups -- like the Reclaiming tradition founded by the author and activist Starhawk -- embrace the term.

"In the West we've started taking that word and using it as a word of power," Webster said. "We've taken on an insult and reclaimed it."

Webster said it would take a lot for a Halloween witch costume to offend him. On the contrary, he sees America's embrace of Halloween as a sign of paganism's enduring significance in Western culture.

"There is a national holiday that showcases our religion every year!" he said.

But cultural sensitivity can get confusing. In 2004, a Washington state school district banned Halloween celebrations partly out of respect for practitioners of Wicca who might find the symbols offensive. In a Yahoo forum responding to the incident, one user asked Wiccans whether witch costumes and Halloween paraphernalia actually offended them. The overwhelming response was: not really.

"Most Wiccans and witches I know love Halloween and literally revel in it," one person wrote.

Another responded: "What irritates me is the fact that non-witches/Wiccans seem to determine what offends us witch/Wiccans. I think they should ask us whether or not witch costumes offend us or not. Personally I like witch costumes. I wear one every Halloween."

Fox noted that although costumes can perpetuate stereotypes about witches, they might also offer an opportunity for discussion.

"Stereotyping can be hurtful to people who are involved in pagan religion," Fox said. "Some of the stereotyping in the past was used to torture and execute people. It was horrific propaganda."

But depictions of the "evil witch," with her hat and broom, can offer an opportunity to talk about the true nature of Wiccan spirituality, Fox said. "It can be a teaching moment."

Take the "Salem witch costume" offered by Party City -- a Pilgrim-style dress with "Salem 1692" written in fake blood on the apron. The costume comes with a vinyl noose for "maximum morbid fun," according to the Party City website, which describes the getup as "the only costume you'll need to hang onto." The costume, of course, is a reference to the 1692 witchcraft trials in Salem, Massachusetts, where 19 people were executed by hanging.

The Halloween season could be an opportunity to spread awareness of the persecution of alleged witches throughout history, most virulently between the 15th and 18th centuries -- a period many now refer to as "the burning times."

During this era, in campaigns exacerbated by social, political and religious unrest, an estimated 60,000 people in Europe and the American colonies were tortured and executed because they were suspected of having ties to witchcraft. Many of those put to death probably did not identify as witches or engage in supernatural practices, as a 2009 BBC report notes. And they certainly weren't all women.

The witches, of course, were nothing like the stereotype of the carbuncled hags shrieking incantations around a cauldron full of devilish potions. They were ordinary people who were often the convenient scapegoats for anything from a death in the village to the failure of crops. Individuals would often have been branded a witch after falling out with a neighbor.

There was no average witch. Although most would be poor and elderly, this would vary from region to region. The accused were not even all women. Around a quarter of those executed were men.

This is where depicting witches gets tricky, Fox said, as it is unclear where the imagery of the cape and hat costume originally comes from.

"Some say the pointed hat is symbolic of raising the cone of power in a ceremony," said Fox. "And some say the broom was an image of meditative or shamanic traveling."

Fox teaches an online workshop on broom lore and rites.

Webster said the iconic "Wicked Witch of the West" costume draws from Victorian women's mourning clothes -- which would fit nicely with the death theme of both Samhain and Halloween.

Whatever its origins, the costume does not reflect how modern, self-identified witches actually look. To illustrate that point, Fox once bought a witch doll at a Halloween store and brought it to a lecture she was giving.

"I had a picture of myself holding up a witch doll," Fox said, "and I asked, 'Which witch is which?' There are two witches in this picture. One is a fairy tale, and the other you may not recognize as a witch walking down the street."

It may be confusing when some witches themselves don the iconic cape and hat on Halloween as an act of agency. But Halloween costumes allow modern witches to play with the caricature in order to make sense of a complicated history, Fox said.

Part of this involves today's witches being able to change the narrative and find new ways to represent themselves. Some scholars and modern-day witches believe, for instance, that healers and midwives were among those targeted during the witch trials. Painter Anne Sherwood Pundyk, co-editor of the magazine Girls Against God, whose most recent issue explores witches and feminism, said the modern witch costume may need a design change to reflect this history.

"We could encourage Trick-or-Treaters to create a new witch's costume that represents the herbalists, healers and gardeners once labeled witches," Pundyk told HuffPost in an email. "The new design could incorporate imagery from nature, celebrate the five senses and embody the mystery of the cycle of life."

Pundyk also suggested that the witch costume could serve as an unlikely model of feminine power for girls.

"It's fun to be free to take on a different persona," Pundyk wrote. "Wearing a [witch] costume allows you to be 'bad' or even 'bad ass.' Perhaps by embodying witches, girls can be comfortable continuing to challenge negative patriarchal forces in their lives even after they take off their costumes."

Pundyk may have a point. Some of the most prominent pagan and Wiccan groups and leaders are deeply invested in promoting social change, often through environmental activism as an extension of nature spirituality.

Halloween is an opportunity to discuss this important aspect of pagan spirituality, as well as other faiths and cultures that are often caricatured, Fox suggested. It can be a time to celebrate diversity, without reducing others' identities to stereotypes.

"Halloween and Samhain are a good opportunity to try to build a greater public awareness of humankind's problems with each other and the ways we can create a society where there is more embracing of diversity," said Fox. "A witch image in the right context can help progress that conversation."

Go To Homepage

Before You Go

Wikimedia Commons
Like many religions, pagans employs certain symbols both as representations of their faith and as images and objects that contain power in and of themselves. The pentacle is probably the most common in paganism, often depicted in art and jewelry. Some say its five points represent the four directions plus the sacred spirit.
Wikimedia Commons
As Harvard's Pluralism Project notes, it is difficult to determine the number of pagan adherents around the world as estimates vary widely. The number may be anywhere between 200,000 and 1 million, or possibly more.Most pagans don't exhibit their religious identity outside of the ritual space (unless they wear clothing or jewelry depicting pagan symbols such as the pentacle.) According to The Pagan Census, modern pagans are distributed fairly even throughout the U.S., with a slight majority on either coast. Men and women of all ages, races and backgrounds practice paganism, though the census said the community tends to skew toward white, middle class women.
Getty Images
Contemporary paganism is widespread and somewhat scattered, hence the difficulty counting adherents. Modern paganism does not descend from a singular ancient religion but rather many ancient indigenous and folkloric traditions, and there is no central text to refer to that can shed light on doctrine. There are, however, subtle distinctions that delineate Celtic and northern European sects, Baltic and Slavic sects, Greek and southern European sects, American neopaganism, and other groupings around the world. Some covens (organized groups of pagans) worship specific deities, such as Diana or Odin. Others practice ancient Druidism, such John Rothwell ("Arthur Pendragon") pictured, while some focus on activism, such as the Reclaiming tradition.
Getty Images
In general, pagan worship centers around earth and spirit, as opposed to specific structures imbued with sacredness (ie. a church, Mecca, the Vatican, etc.) Forests, hilltops, urban warehouses and individual's homes can operate as ritual sites, especially because many pagans take measures to "create sacred space" for rituals regardless of where they are. That said, some natural or ancient sites, such as Stonehenge or Machu Picchu, may hold particular importance for some pagans.
Triple Goddess
Wikimedia Commons
The triple goddess in modern paganism embodies the maiden, the mother and the crone. These three aspects are meant to encompass the full power of the goddess, reflected in the moon's cycles. The waxing moon represents the maiden; the full moon represents the mother; and the waning moon represents the crone. Pagans will often hold gatherings or do personal meditation to observe these moon phases.In addition to the goddess, some pagans worship a masculine divinity, occasionally in the form of the Horned God or the Green Man. Many also revere the natural world as divine, as well.
Sabbats - Quarter Days
Wikimedia Commons
There are eight sabbats that make up the pagan "wheel of the year," though not all pagans observe all eight. Each sabbat corresponds with different seasonal events of the year. Pagans celebrate the winter solstice, spring equinox, summer solstice and autumn equinox (or "quarter days") to mark the deepest part of the season and the lengthening or shortening of daylight.
Sabbats - Cross Quarter Days
Getty Images
The other four sabbats, or "cross quarter days," are Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasadh and Samhain. Imbolc falls in early February and celebrates the onset of springtime, encouraging the sprouting of seeds and new life. Beltane is an early summer celebration in May, often seen as a fertility festival. Lughnasadh falls in August and is the first of several harvest festivals. Samhain coincides with the western Halloween and is a holiday for paying tribute to the deceased. It is often seen as a time when the veil between this world and the afterlife is thinnest.
Wikimedia Commons
Pagans often construct altars for rituals and to keep in their homes, and these may act as offerings to specific deities or to 'the goddess' more generally. Each object holds certain meaning, such as rocks to symbolize earth, seeds to symbolize intentions and new life, bread to symbolize bounty, and so on.
Wikimedia Commons
Pagans occasionally employ tools in rituals and personal practice that may either function in ritual procedures (such as an athame, pictured), aid in divination (such as a pendulum), assist in cleansing (such as water or incense) or pay respects to a specific deity (such as a statuette). Other tools may include drums, candles, ribbons, cauldrons and more, depending on the specific ritual or practice for which they will be used.
Wikimedia Commons
Fire plays a prominent role in many pagan rituals and in personal practice (through candles and incense.) During some rituals pagans circle around a large fire, which is seen to hold transformative power. Fire may also be used in cleansing, divination, trance and ecstatic dancing.
Wikimedia Commons
The anatomy of any pagan ritual will vary from group to group, but Reclaiming -- one of the best-known American pagan groups -- identifies several key components. Typically rituals begin with grounding and cleansing, then move to the 'casting' of a circle. Leaders and/or participants will often invoke deities, then guide one another into trance or magic work. At the end, participants often share food and drink before closing the ritual by devoking and opening the space once again.
Magic in paganism and witchcraft is primarily about change and transformation. By some accounts, magic allows practitioners to remove the barriers of what they think is possible so that they can manipulate the physical or spiritual world. Most groups shun what is sometimes referred to as "black magic" and instead employ magic crafts that encourages practitioners to draw health and fortune into their lives and the lives of others. Some magical activities include chanting, trance, craft work and more elaborate manipulations of objects.
Invoking Deities
Getty Images
One of the key elements of pagan rituals and personal practice is the invocation of specific deities. The chosen deity may correspond to a certain sabbat (such as Brigid for Imbolc). The invocation is intended to invite the god or goddess to assist the ritual or so the participant may come to know the divine through embodiment.
Pagan Leaders
Wikimedia Commons
Modern pagan leaders are often hard to identify due to the dispersed nature of the faith. Individuals may be trained and ordained by specific seminaries or by independent groups (such as Reclaiming). In general, pagan sects are non- or semi-hierarchical, but certain individuals may hold sway in the community due to their large followings (Such as Starhawk, pictured) or their influence through authorship.
Wikimedia Commons
Along with legal marriage and domestic partnership, some pagans practice handfasting, a ritualistic but not legal form of marriage. According to BBC, handfasting rituals are believed to predate Christianity and was certainly present by medieval times. During the ceremony, the couple will tie their wrists together with ribbons or twine to represent their union.
Getty Images
Though not a rule for pagan communities, some groups make activism and community work central to their practice. Some of the causes promoted by pagan groups include environmental protection, gender and racial equality, LGBT rights and the preservation of sacred indigenous sites.
Wikimedia Commons

Paganism is by no means an adults-only tradition. The 1999 Pagan Census found that just over 40% of participants reported that they had children. The growing number of children in the pagan community has lead some groups to open their rituals to families and youth, adjusting some practices that may not have been appropriate or accessible for young people.

Personal Practice
Wikimedia Commons

The Pagan Census found in 2003 that just over 50% of respondents said they were solitary practitioners. This means they do not belong to a coven and may not have been 'trained' by a larger spiritual organization. Solitary practitioners observe rituals and practice magic on their own, or perhaps occasionally in small groups. Even for those involved in covens, personal practice is seen as key for developing magic skills and deepening spiritual connection.

Popular in the Community