Magic and Women

On the 1st of June, I attended the Magickal Women conference in London, organised by Sue Terry and Erzebet Barthold. The mission of the conference was to highlight the contributions of women, past and present, to the spheres of mysticism, esotericism and the occult. Only people who identified as women were invited to speak, although those of all genders were welcome to attend and indeed the audience was encouragingly diverse. The speakers came from a range of backgrounds; independent researchers, practitioners of alchemy, ceremonial magic and neo-pagan traditions, artists, musicians and dancers.

Dolores Ashcroft-Nowicki opened the event with an amusing and community-focused discussion on the survival of magical beliefs. Christina Oakley-Harrington of Treadwells gave a keynote speech on the role women have played in regards to owning, leasing or controlling the space in which ritual orders have practised over the past two centuries. I was impressed by her sensitivity to the challenges young people face now in acquiring spaces of their own in which to practise, an issue that is changing the shape of magic in this century.

I enjoyed many of the papers, particularly those on female surrealists and lesser known 19th century figures. Inevitably, I found others frustrating in their historical inaccuracy and adherence to narratives (eg. ‘the burning times’, Frazerian comparative religion, the ‘dark ages’) that have been thoroughly debunked for decades. However, the most inspiring and encouraging feature of the conference was hearing from women in fields that are publicly dominated by men, including ceremonial magic and alchemy.

High magic requires a great clarity of thought, you see, and women’s talents do not lie in that direction. Their brains tend to overheat.

Equal Rites, Terry Pratchett

What is the reason behind the gender divide in magic and occultism? The common perception is that, since at least the middle ages, men have practised learned, ceremonial, ‘high’ magic – geomancy, traditional astrology, grimoire magic, image magic etc. Meanwhile, women have instead focused on intuitive, folk or ‘low’ magic involving herbs, charms, amulets and ‘fortune telling.’ The simplistic explanation usually given for this is women’s lack of education and general illiteracy until the late modern period and the persecution of so-called ‘women’s magic.’

However, the sources we have on magical practice show a far more varied and complex picture of gendered magic. In the personal account of a medieval monk, that of John of Morigny, we find that, not only did he teach his sister Gurgeta to read, but that she learned via the Ars Notoria, the most popular magical text of the middle ages (an unusual case perhaps, but one that highlights that women could get access to these books). Cunning folk were as likely to be male as female. Even educated male physicians compiled books full of charms, palm reading and remedies involving dead birds and frogs. After the arrival of print, access to grimoires broadened not only to the working classes, but to women, who were increasingly literate. In the early modern period, women were occasionally persecuted for owning and reading the same texts as their male counterparts. Meanwhile, male priests were persecuted for practising love magic with hair and menstrual blood.

The Golden Dawn, the most influential British magical organisation of the 19th century, featured female magicians in key roles as leaders, temple owners, artists, teachers and creators of a ritual corpus. The Golden Dawn in particular, stressed the equality of the sexes in their order and in the study of the occult arts. In the 20th century, Dion Fortune wrote some of the most influential and intellectual texts of occult philosophy that had an equal, if not greater influence, than those of her male contemporary, Aleister Crowley.

If not from historical precedent, where does the gender divide in magic come from? Why is it still apparent in a world where women are doctors and astro-physicists? Where are the books on alchemy, solomonic, goetic and astral magic written by women? Why are our prominent occult women in this century, frequently Wiccan priestesses and witches, tarot readers and herbalists? There is an unaccountable divide that seems to mirror that found in universities, with men dominating the STEM subjects and women filling classrooms in the Humanities.

My suspicion is that this is partially the result of viewing the wider history of magic through the narrow lens of the witch trials. I also suspect the feminist witchcraft of the late 20th century played its part in this divide. With its focus on goddesses and priestesses, it took the narrative of the witch trials as a key point in the history of misogyny. In that sense, it is correct, far more women then men were persecuted for “witchcraft”. Yet these women weren’t witches, they were victims of a paranoia about an imagined cult. By reclaiming the witch archetype for feminism, we seem to have lost sight of both male witches and female magicians. While I applaud the intention behind this movement, I think that is perhaps time to accept that there is more than one archetype of the ‘magical woman.’

I value the tarot as highly as geomancy, but I want to see women doing both. I want to live in a world where women can be not only witches and priestesses, but also ceremonial magicians, traditional astrologers, lab alchemists and hermeticists. There are plenty of women in academia studying and publishing on the history of these arts, yet female practitioners are not represented nearly so well in the occult press, podcasts or conference circuit. I recognise that I too am at fault here – and will make an effort to better represent my gender in these fields. I encourage other women reading this to do the same, to take up one of these arts that interest them so that the next generation will have role models and mentors in the fields currently dominated by men. I look forward to the next Magickal Women event and hope to see an even broader scope of occult traditions represented.

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