Everything's a witch hunt these days. Drunkenly toss a beer can during a baseball game and subsequently lose your job? Witch hunt. Draw outrage for publicly joking about a cultural appropriation prize? Witch hunt. Get investigated for allegedly colluding with Russia to win a general election? Witch. Hunt. (Full disclosure: I used the expression to describe the attacks on former Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef over her birthplace.)
It got me thinking, not only is the term "witch hunt" being tossed around willy nilly, but often the ones crying foul are men getting called out for shitty behaviour. The irony of course is that actual witch hunts, such as those that took place in Salem in the late 17th century and Europe before that, primarily targeted women and girls who were accused of using powers gifted to them by the devil. Thousands were executed for their so-called crimes.
Witches aren't relics from the past, though. Being a witch today can mean anything from practising the Wiccan religion to being a feminist, a healer, and a person aligned with nature. VICE asked several people who identify as witches for a historical refresher on the term and how they feel about it being hijacked.
Monica Bodirsky, program director Witchfest North
VICE: What does it mean to you to be a contemporary witch?
Monica Bodirsky: It means to carry on wisdom from ancestry about herbalism and energy and it also means to be very close to the earth, it's an earth-based spirituality and one with nature. So in a contemporary urban context in particular, the right use of power and feminism.
What comes to mind when you hear the term "witch hunt"?
Being a witch practitioner, I think of the historical implications of that and women who are being accused of being in league with the devil and Satanism and some pretty horrific acts. I think of people being persecuted for things they haven't done. But I always think of in context of women historically and actual witches. I don't tend to think of it as a contemporary thing, I know people use the expression a fair bit and I'm of two minds on this. I get distressed because I think people don't understand the history. It is appropriation clearly and by a person in a position of authority to appropriate that term, it was not a term ever used by people in positions of authority. So I can see the irony of somebody like Donald Trump using that term and he's using it very inappropriately because he is in a position of authority. People are making genuine comments about him and have a right to dissent or disagree with what he's doing—that does not constitute a witch hunt.
Is it ironic that Trump is appropriating that term whilst creating policies that are targeting minorities?
Absolutely, absolutely. It's what makes it upsetting that when a person in a position of authority who is making horrific decisions in my opinion, decisions that impact people who are not in any kind of position of strength, he's affecting their lives horribly and then he's turning around and basically claiming that he's a persecuted minority. It's very frustrating and upsetting to hear people throw those terms around lightly when you know they don't understand the history and when they are also affecting minorities' lives and folks on the fringe of society, people who are not certainly as empowered as the president of the United States.
It's funny cause I feel like in the colloquial use of "witch hunt," you do hear it a lot coming from men who feel like they're being attacked. What do you make of that?
I think that's interesting, I don't know particularly men would be using that term except perhaps they are the ones who created witch hunts and so they're using their own terminology. It's quite possible they relate to it because they were creating the entire situation, quite frankly. I know during the McCarthy era in the 50s in the United States that that term was in vogue also. So it may have already found a political home then and people have been using it since then and I do hear it a lot in political circles from corporate heads and white heteronormative people in positions of power and authority.
Do you think it gets used as a cop out?
Oh yeah. I think we've seen that in other terminology. I've seen white people in positions of authority say, 'This is slavery' when you know they have absolutely no understanding or idea about slavery. Or when people claim this bizarre thing called 'reverse racism' when they have issues with their own fragility. With the term 'witch hunt' it's exactly the same thing. People throw that up as their cloaking device for whatever they've done wrong and they're trying to garner sympathy for so they want to position themselves as victims and certainly there's a lot of sympathy in some circles for witches and the witch hunt. And it's also safe because somebody like Donald Trump probably can't stand up and claim "This is like the Holocaust." But it's almost like there's nobody to stand up and speak out for the use of (witch hunt) so it gets thrown around, it's like a safe space.
What do you think is the correct use of "witch hunt"?
I have never used that term unless I thought somebody was after me.
Babette Burrell, midwife and owner of The Witches Brew kombucha shop
VICE: How do you identify?
Babette Burrell: I do have my own herbal and spiritual practice that I wouldn't associate with the word "witch" in the form that it's been taken on and commercialized as it has been currently. I use all my of my spiritual practice from my ancestors, and the matriarchal lineage of passing down different remedies and treatments.
What are your thoughts on the term "witch hunt"?
I called the shop The Witches Brew is because I'm a midwife and midwives back in the time of the witch hunt those are the people they were hunting down, they were actual midwives. They were considered to be sorcerers or witches because it was a way to take over power in terms of caring for families, so when midwives cared for women and families in childbirth they found that the morbidity and mortality rate was a lot less than when male doctors or obstetricians cared for women and families. The reason being was doctors went autopsies to internal surgery to birth without washing or sterilizing their instruments. That increased the risk of infection which caused a lot of people to die. And midwives they boiled their instruments, they washed their hands, and the risk of infection was a lot lower. So they thought they were using different tactics. That's why this space is called the Witches Brew.
Do you find that frustrating that it's being appropriated by people like Donald Trump?
I think it continues to speak to their ignorance around that around everything else. In the grand scheme of things you can call it whatever you want to call it but his actions are impacting individuals and communities in the most despicable ways so, so the use of the term "witch hunt" just speaks to the fact that they have no idea what they're talking about and no concern over facts.
Genevieve Kay, witch, psychic healer
VICE: What does "witch hunt" mean to you?
Genevieve Kay: I think that because of whatever patriarchal religion took over, we don't understand what witches actually are. And "witch hunt," I mean everybody's intimidated by a magical woman, everybody's intimidated by a woman who's confident, who doesn't take any shit. I think misogyny is the inherent problem in society.
What do you think about powerful men like Donald Trump using that expression?
I think Donald Trump, I think what he did to win the election, obviously it was dirty, I think he bullied Mrs. Clinton all the way throughout it and I think if we go all the way back to witches being burned at the stake it's kind of the same idea.
So you feel like if anything there was a witch hunt against Hillary Clinton?
Absolutely. Her husband got a blowjob in the White House, she put up with the motherfucker, she forgave him, she is more qualified, she has an education, she worked as Secretary of State, so why the hell did this motherfucker with no experience get elected? It truly completely baffles me. Witch is a very female-centred, very feminine-oriented idea. A witch is traditionally a healing woman. So a lot of these negative forces, (Trump) would be threatened by somebody that he would have no control over, he's got a lot of money and he's an asshole. You understand? It is a witch hunt but not towards him.
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