With the rise in popularity, especially in popular culture, that witchcraft has gained throughout the last few years, but especially within the last year, there has been much discussion of the co-opting of traditions and magickal work from people of color by white witches and white magick workers. Cultural appropriation of traditionally African and/or Black spiritual practices has been the subject of most of these discussions, but for many, people prefer to sweep this issue under the rug under the guise of “witchcraft is witchcraft” and that all magick should be open to all people. While I somewhat agree, there is an inherent power structure at work here that makes it impossible for that to be true without ignoring the historic oppression of the peoples who created these magickal traditions. Why is that, you ask? Well it starts with the way we talk about “white” witchcraft vs “ethnic” witchcraft. There is a “white light” idea of witchcraft that pervades much of discourse on magickal practices.
When it comes to explaining my relationship to Spirit or presenting my magickal practice to other people, both within the Pagan community and outside of it, I struggle to come up with an easy characterization of my beliefs. I tend to simply call myself an eclectic Witch or Pagan and leave it at that. Or, if people wonder further, I explain that my spiritual beliefs pull from Ancient Egyptian religion and African diasporic religions, specifically Brazilian Candomblé and Espiritismo.
Candomblé arose from the African diaspora, from African slaves who were brought to Brazil and had Catholicism forced upon them. Candomblé is the result of the mixture of Roman Catholicism, African Yoruba tradition, and indigenous American traditions. It is similar, in many ways, to Santería and Voodoo. In addition to Santería and Voodoo, which have become more visible do to the popular culture versions of these traditions in movies and in American media, there are several other traditions derived from Yoruba religion, which you can find out more about through a quick Google search. 😉
Voodoo traditions and the like are often called “rootwork”, while many European-derived magickal practices have been called “high magic”. While it makes sense to call Voodoo, Candomblé, and Santería “rootwork” because they place hard emphasis on working with natural materials and with fostering a connection between the Earth and oneself, this distinction between “rootwork” and “high magic” creates a hierarchy due to the definitions of the words “root” and “high”. Rootwork can easily, in this case, be seen as “low magic”.
The dichotomy between “black magic” and “white magic” is very similar. The idea that one is dark and another light, dark usually being equated with evil and white equated with goodness, allows people to conclude that one is better, good, and moral while the other is immoral, dirty, and wrong.
Due to the fact that these rootwork traditions are the result of the African slave trade and were practiced by slaves, these religions emphasize a lot of protection magic due to the situations slaves were in. This sometimes includes binding, hexing, and cursing. It is important to note that most, if not all, of these traditions do not themselves include a good and evil duality. The issue with the conflation of “black magic” with evil, and then the conflation of “black magic” with historically and traditionally African and/or Black magickal practices is that these traditions are then seen as inherently bad and less than the “white magic” associated with Wicca and many European magickal traditions. The entire idea of there being “white magic” and “black magic” or good and bad magic is a way of taking these religious practices and degrading them. And it has been easy to do that because a majority of the people who practice these rootwork religions are Black.
This is systemic racism and White supremacy at work in our own Pagan communities. When people think of Voodoo or Santería, many may think of dark, grimy shops, mainly in New Orleans or the American South, where Black women are plotting against a poor, white woman. This is the version of Voodoo that Hollywood has sold us. My first introduction to Voodoo was one of these films on television where a black couple who were originally slaves had been living for hundreds of years by stealing the lives of “innocent” white women who they lured into their home. This fantasy that popular culture has created around Voodoo and Santería have contributed to the stigmatization of these magickal traditions. In fact, Voodoo is not a universal term. There are many variations that are distinct from one another, including New Orleans Voodoo, Haitian Vodou, and Hoodoo.
I’ve been happy to see that this conversation is happening in more places now. I recently listened to a podcast by The Fat Feminist Witch where she broke down why it’s racist to call these African disaporic magickal traditions black magic. However, this is a conversation that needs to be had even more. It’s time that the Pagan community step up and interrogate the ways in which it upholds White supremacist values.
Magick is a living, breathing energy. In my opinion, it does not confine to any of our understandings of morality. There is no good or bad, black or white magick. There is just magick. What is good or bad are human beings. Magick is a tool that one wields, and how you use that tool is defined by you.
A great example of the neutrality of magick is the Dark Mother, known by the names Hekate, Kali, Sekhmet, and so on. These personifications of Spirit are highly revered as powerful deities who provide judgement and rule with force. Hekate and Kali are both seen as wards to the underworld, they bridge our world to the world of Spirits. Hekate is known as a provider of visions, and in earlier times many seers, mystics, and artists revered her for their gifts. However, she was also believed to send dreams of madness, which may simply have been prophetic dreams of turmoil, but most likely assisted in Hekate’s demonization during the rise of Christianity.
Kali is known to many as the great Goddess of death and destruction. And she is. However, she is the destroyer of the ego. A Goddess of death, Kali brings destruction to the self-centered view of reality. Those who fear her fear the demise of their ego (and basically a wake up call to reality). Kali, like Hekate, guards the underworld and provides safe travels to the spirit realm.
Sekhmet, known as the “Powerful One”, was commonly worshiped in Ancient Egyptian cults as the destroyer alongside her friendlier counterpart Hathor. A fearsome deity, Sekhmet was believed to be able to send plagues and cause the demise of those who angered her. However, she was also the patron of physicians and healers who believed she could cure disease and protect her followers. Sometimes called the “Lady of Terror”, she was just as often called the “Lady of Light/Life”.
This is all to say that these Dark Mother or Crone deities are powerful in the use of their force for both justice and mercy. Those who work with these goddesses know that they are as fierce in their judgement as they are in protecting their friends. Sekhmet’s destruction of Egypt was, according to myth, due to people failing to follow Ra’s laws and to preserve Ma’at (balance). With destruction, Sekhmet brought justice and a rebirth of balance.
Working in “darkness”, also known as “shadow work”, can be just as rewarding and important as working in with “light”. To ignore one for favor of the other can sometimes curb spiritual growth. To understand ourselves, human nature, and the world of Spirit, it may be important that we actively work in both the shadows and in light. Sekhmet, Kali, and Hekate are all personifications of both. For there to be light there must be darkness, and for there to be darkness there must be light, and there is no perfect line defining sides.
Understanding the power structures that uphold the definitions of white magick and black magick and that declare one morally better than the other can better assist us in the discourse around sharing culture. The key to understanding cultural appropriation is understanding why one is or isn’t welcome in another culture’s practices. You cannot lay claim to a culture that simply isn’t yours. You can visit and learn, but it does not belong to you. And to try to make it yours is to ignore the historical circumstances and sociological structures that shaped it in the first place.