Last year was not a good year. A man I loved had shattered my heart after an odd, yearlong courtship—delicate, circling, awkward. I wasn’t surprised when he pulled the rug out from under me and started immediately dating his ex-girlfriend, but I was broken. Meanwhile, my thesis advisor had been accused of assaulting some of his students, and people I knew and trusted were lining up on opposite sides of the debate. By the time New Year’s Eve rolled around, I felt completely splintered. So I decided to make a witch’s ladder.
The first recorded witch’s ladder was found in a rotting house in Somerset, England, in 1878. The “rope with feathers” stoked great debate in regards to its uses—some thought it was a type of scarecrow, used to scare off deer, while others were convinced it was an actual ladder that witches used to cross roofs. Either way, the author of the first article describing the object deemed it “a witches’ ladder,” and the term stuck. These details, in the end, are beside the point: despite cord magic’s tenuous beginnings, modern-day witches have embraced it wholeheartedly.
To make a witch’s ladder, you take a piece of string or cord and knot it over and over again, often weaving in charms like feathers or stones or beads; as you tie, you’re meant to speak a spell out loud, imbuing your talisman with the energy you desire. When you’re done, that energy is stored in the knots until you choose to untie them.
I learned about the witch’s ladder from Ami McKay’s The Witches of New York, in which a character relies on cord magic to keep her grounded and protected. The idea of something as practical and earthly as twine becoming powerful through such simple actions appealed to me. I ordered crow feathers, quartz and agate from Etsy, Google provided a plethora of variations on the spell I was supposed to say, and on YouTube, a slight woman with a Southern accent who goes by the handle the Witchy Mommy guided me through the process of tying.
On New Year’s Eve, as 2016 turned into 2017, I sat silently in my dark apartment, knotted three wishes into a length of butcher’s twine, and began to say the spell out loud:
By knot of one, the spell’s begun.
By knot of two, the magic comes true.
I’m not alone in this experiment. Many young women are eschewing French manicures for black stiletto nails, opting for black dresses over summer pastels, seeking out black lipstick alongside the usual reds and pinks and nudes. And though it’s nothing new—look to Morticia Addams’s glamour, Stevie Nicks’s leather and lace, David Bowie’s mystic costumes, The Craft’s much-emulated outfits—in the past few years, witch-wear has exploded in popularity. A June 2016 Vogue piece, titled “Go Ahead, Be a Witch This Summer,” outlined looks to develop readers’ “chicly dark side[s],” and in August 2016, the Guardian explained the power of the witchy aesthetic in contrast “to the unfussy silhouettes of athleisure” as retaining “a certain otherworldly mystique.”
Critics of the witchcraft aesthetic raise a similar point, one that could be seen as the flipside of fashion spreads: this is a superficial fad. A BuzzFeed piece from this year on the brand of witchcraft said that the witch craze “has led to problems of cultural appropriation, where incentives are created for mainstream vendors to market products with little respect for their deeper significance.” But maybe it’s not a coincidence that this aesthetic is gaining popularity in angry, ruptured times, when male political leaders are making decisions about female bodies, when male executives and professors and directors are being exposed for their assaults on people lower in the power hierarchy. Maybe changing outwardly isn’t shallow. Maybe, sometimes, it’s the only way to change inside.
My witchy inclinations started early. As a child, I was told I could pick out a book during a family shopping trip, and I chose a slender hardcover called Spells (its tagline: “Spellcraft to bring magic to your life and reality to your desires”). The book was glamorous, with slick silver writing on the cover, but the spells inside scared me. It seemed wrong to be able to manipulate love, sex and money. As a preteen, I spent a chunk of allowance on my first deck of tarot cards, something that felt more palatable than spellwork: the idea of divining was exciting for a girl on the cusp of womanhood. I bought my copy of Practical Magic, by Alice Hoffman, during a teenage summer, rereading until the pages became smudged and dog-eared.
But fully embracing the witch wasn’t something I necessarily wanted or even understood. I didn’t want to be scary. I wanted, instead, to be colourful and fresh, soft and malleable, vibrant and feminine. And then I got older and saw more of the world. I had partners who were disrespectful, emotionally abusive and violent. My thesis advisor, the same one accused of assault, made me doubt my every action and edit. I grew tired of the acts of aggression, small and large, that women experience at men’s hands on a day-to-day basis.
And then, a couple of years ago, a long-haired whirlwind of a man I was seeing at the time said something, over dinner, that struck me: “All women are witches. It just depends on how much you’re in touch with it.” Suddenly, it all made sense. I didn’t have to live in a hut on chicken feet like Baba Yaga, didn’t have to turn men into swine like Circe, didn’t have to plot against a king like Morgan le Fay. Women—a group persecuted throughout history—know in our blood and our bones how to be iconoclastic, true to ourselves, frightening and powerful. I just needed to give in to it.
Katie Karpetz, who runs an online, Alberta-based store called The Witchery, says the concept of the witch has a lot to do with publicly upending norms. “I think it’s appealing to women who can’t as effectively gain power within current social constructs,” she says. “Rather than trying to beat the game that’s in play, it changes the game altogether.” Karpetz, whose store sells everything from fortune-telling teacups to ritual knives, says she’s seen an uptick in business from “people who would not normally seek me out.”
Emily Dickinson and Jess Salgueiro, the founders of bitchesbewitches, an online community for witch-curious women, say that witches have draw because of how they are seen and feared. “The witch is historically an image of a ‘bad woman,’” Dickinson says. “Witches were literally burnt at the stake for using their ‘powers.’” Salgueiro agrees: “Witches are a symbol of women who refuse to conform to the status quo.”
In their book, Basic Witches, authors Jaya Saxena and Jess Zimmerman take it a step further. “If you speak when you’re told to be quiet, take pride when you’re told to feel shame, love what and who you love whether or not others approve,” they write, “you’re practicing witchcraft.”
After that dinner conversation, I packed away my colourful dresses and replaced them with black ones. I expanded my tarot collection. I started to listen to the space inside of me where the fierceness lives. Donning my black clothes, I noticed something. When I loomed on a subway platform, men walked past me instead of stopping to leer. When I strode down a street with my skirt billowing behind me, teenagers darted out of my way. People recoiled from my long black nails, my dark lipstick. Dressing the part of the witch made me less prey and more predator.
Something changed inwardly, too. Parts of me became harder. I was able to hone my words and use them as weapons. I became blunter, less worried about pandering to people. I wasn’t as frightened of walking alone at night. I’m not fearful, I thought, striding down Yonge Street, if I am feared.
Eventually, I began to want to feel the same way even when I was alone. I’m not Wiccan—I’m areligious—but I began to borrow, sincerely, from Wicca and witchcraft. I shuffled a deck of tarot cards when I had writer’s block to see if I could draw a card or two to move the situation forward. I wore amethyst rings and evil eye necklaces for protection. When I had nightmares, I put a drop of honey on my bedposts to see if I could sweeten my dreams.
And, throughout this year, the witch’s ladder I made has hung from my curtain rod. I see it every morning when I open my blinds and every night when I draw them. It sits above me as I write, the pink and black stones catching the light. Its feathers turn slightly, which reassures me. Whenever I feel dull, panicky, helpless, I turn to the touchstone I’ve created and collect myself.
By knot of three, so it shall be.
By knot of four, this power is stored.
By knot of five, my will shall drive.
By knot of six, the spell I fix.
By knot of seven, the future I leaven.
By knot of eight, my will be fate.
By knot of nine, what is done is mine.
There’s nothing dogmatic about the way I adopt elements of the witch. I don’t follow a code or own a grimoire, and would likely be identified, by a more serious or experienced witch, as a faddish follower. But it’s entirely human to pick and choose from tradition in search of what is meaningful, and in a year of thrashing and helplessness, of dark moments and heartbreak, a small leap of faith to the magical—and a pivot to the witch in my inner life as well my outer life—focussed and galvanized me.
Are we turning into a generation of witches, or are we just pretending? Does it even matter? A friend from my undergrad days, Devon Murphy, has lately been filling her social media with witchy pictures; on her thirtieth birthday, her friends threw her a magical picnic in the forest with candles, crystals and a thorny, flowery crown. Social norms, she tells me, are broken, and being a witch is a refusal to acquiesce to a system that causes you pain. “It’s a rejection of sexism, racism, classism,” she says. “It doesn’t matter if the spell works or not—the spell itself is the power.”
Of course, it’s easier now to stake a claim to witchiness than in the days when women were killed for it. But witches’ power is still felt. It’s no coincidence that at the 2017 Women’s March, when people descended on Washington to advocate for women’s rights, more than a few signs bore variations of the phrase, “We are the granddaughters of the witches you weren’t able to burn.” Centuries after Salem, memories still linger of the prickly, outspoken, difficult women who came before us, and how much fear they inspired.
And, ironically, witches continue to be invoked by men who feel they’ve been wronged. They are there when Woody Allen, an alleged abuser, says the sexual-assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein could lead to “a witch hunt atmosphere, a Salem atmosphere, where every guy in an office who winks at a woman is suddenly having to call a lawyer to defend himself.” They are there when my thesis advisor, newly resurfaced on Twitter, having disappeared after the allegations against him came to light, made his profile picture a book cover of The Crucible, Arthur Miller’s play about the hysteria of the Salem witch trials. But, post-Salem, the term has been warped: now it’s the witches—women who speak up about harassment and assault—who are doing the hunting, and they are still in the wrong.
Writer Lindy West recently tackled this seeming reversal in the New York Times in a piece titled “Yes, This Is a Witch Hunt. I’m a Witch and I’m Hunting You.” Maybe flipping the original idea of the witch hunt is exactly right, she wrote. “You can call me a hysteric,” she writes, but “[w]e don’t have the justice system on our side; we don’t have institutional power; we don’t have millions of dollars or the presidency; but we have our stories, and we’re going to keep telling them.”
I understand this improvising—using whatever power you have—because I do it in my own way. Wearing all black makes me feel strong enough to scythe through crowds during rush hour. Flipping my tarot cards helps me feel creative. The simple act of tying knots and saying words aloud on a dark winter night was enough to bolster me and give me hope. My witch’s ladder empowered me after a year where I felt my lowest and least capable.
New Year’s, in fact, marked a new start. I signed with a publisher and inked my first book deal. My thesis advisor was removed from his job and his supporters went fairly silent. Though I’m still working through my heartache, I’ve stopped communicating with toxic men I relied on for support or comfort in the past.
I made a witch’s ladder, but maybe I’m not a witch. Maybe the simple act of breaking the silence, tying our knots, licking our honey-covered fingers and biding our time until the hunt is officially on—maybe that’s enough.