They were hunted for centuries, burned at the stake, and prosecuted for standing out. Now the witch is back, but not like we knew her.
Text by Natasha Jahanshahi, photos by Ramon Mebrahtu and Ingrid Godager
Kim Heemskerk (28) sits at her kitchen table in Boskoop, Holland, and shuffles a deck of intricately decorated cards in her hands. She carefully draws a card and places it on the wooden table, raising her eyebrows slightly as she notices the symbol, “king of wands”. She draws another. Candles and crystals are scattered all around the apartment and plants are taking up much of the living space. Kim Heemskerk is a witch. Not the kind you might think of, with warts on her nose, a pointed black hat and an evil laugh, but she’s a regular millennial.
It’s been six years since Kim “came out of the broom closet”, as she jokingly says. But even though it wasn’t until 2013 that she started defining herself as a witch, she has always felt a connection to magic. “I was one of those kids who would wait for my Hogwarts letter year after year”, says Kim who has also always been some kind of spiritual. Not in a religious way, but always believed in a divine energy, as she explains. When a colleague asked her to join a witch coven, “it felt like coming home”, she recalls.
It’s estimated that between 40.000 to 100.000 people in Europe were given the death penalty for witchcraft.
Kim proudly identifies as a witch, although for a long period of time, a witch was not something you wished to be labelled as. It’s estimated that between 40.000 to 100.000 people in Europe were given the death penalty for witchcraft between the year 1400 and the end of the 1600s. Especially women were prosecuted for performing magic, although a lot of them were just women, who somehow broke with the norm.
Then, in the 20th century, the witch became a symbol of female empowerment, used as a political figure in the feminist movements especially in the 60’s and 70’s. If you do a quick search on the hashtag #witchesofinstagram on Instagram, 3.7 million posts appear. In recent years, the witch has sparked an interest amongst especially younger women. Tarot cards and crystals are readily available in shops like Urban Outfitters and Anthropologie and Facebook pages like “Witches nest” and “WITCHES” has hundreds of thousands of likes. Today, witches in the western part of the world no longer risk being burned at the stake, instead especially younger women are turning to witchcraft for spirituality, community and as an act of feminism.
Kim Heemskerk always refer to herself as “a hard-core” feminist.
Mille Breyen Hauschildt has studied feminist theory and taught witchcraft and feminism at the Danish folk high school, Krogerup Højskole. With feminism having a comeback within the last couple of years, it’s not so strange, that witchcraft has caught the interest of a lot of younger people in the western part of the world these years, she states, “the witch is a good representation of everything that has been marginalised. She was often the one the others pointed fingers at, often a woman who didn’t fit into the traditional role of a woman”.
Kim Heemskerk always refer to herself as “a hard-core” feminist. For her, feminism is a fundamental part of being a witch. And being a witch is all about female empowerment. “Calling myself a witch is reclaiming something that was taken from us by a patriarchal society,”she says.
Kim is not the type of witch who casts a love spell or breaks a curse. For her witchcraft is all about being in contact with the universe, with nature and about looking inwards.
“The main thing we do everyday as witches is looking inwards and try to find lessons in everything, being aware of how we react to things and how we sometimes sabotage ourselves”, Kim Heemskerk explains. This is often done by meditation and rituals. “Before I became a witch I would always ask ‘why is this happening to me.’ Now I focus more on ‘why is this happening’.”
Magic and rituals are a big part of a modern day witch’s life, but can be rather abstract concepts. Kim Heemskerk breaks it down: “It all starts with having a desire. During a ritual, you create a symbolic gesture for this desire to make it more tangible. So we make a physical object, an earthy anchor, like a scrub with a certain herb – every time I use that scrub, I am reminded of the desire”.
Witchcraft has a bigger focus on community.
For a lot of people, witchcraft offers an alternative to the individuation of society today, says Mille Breyen Hauschildt. “Young people have been trained to be individualists, which puts a lot of pressure on them to perform. Because if you fail, you can only blame yourself. ” Witchcraft has a bigger focus on community, she explains.
Kim Heemskerk agrees. “Being a witch can be lonely, because you don’t generally have a lot of people around you, who are into it as well”, she says. That’s why a lot of witches meet in covens. Once a month, ten witches meet in Kim Heemskerk’s living room. Sitting in a circle on the wooden floor, the coven of witches perform rituals together. “It’s so much more magical when you are in a group,” says Kim.
Glass jars with mixtures of herbs, chamomile and rosewater take up the space of the windowsill in Kim Heemskerk’s apartment. For most witches, nature is essential. “It’s basically our school, our church and our bible. I don’t really think you can be a witch and be disconnected from nature”, says Kim.
The witch is an entrance to a bigger connection to nature and other living beings and organisms.
Along with feminism and community, nature is quite possibly the reason why witchcraft is catching young people’s attention these days, Mille Breyen Hauschildt believes. “The witch is an entrance to a bigger connection to nature and other living beings and organisms. The interest in witches usually blossoms in a time of tumult. With a climate crisis knocking on our door, the witch is becoming interesting to people trying to understand nature and ecosystems better.”
Kim Heemskerk lays the final tarot card on the wooden table in front of her. She writes down the message of today’s reading in her journal: “Show up every day in a way that feels authentic and true to yourself and don’t be misled by what society thinks you should do.”