“How do you come to know Magic?”: Pam Grossman and the Witch Archetype

Anchored by myth and lore, the witch archetype is newly entering the limelight on her own prismatic terms, shaking off the dust of the past. Carl Jung reflects, “The ‘witch’ is a collective image.” Pam Grossman’s book, Waking the Witch: Reflections on Women, Magic, and Power, casts a torchlight on the shapeshifting archetype. Grossman herself embodies a wellspring of conjurer wisdom, presenting, in her own words, “an exploration of the archetype of the witch: meditations on her various aspects and associations, questions she’s conjured throughout my life, and lessons I’ve learned from walking the witch’s path.” Grossman’s enchanting constellation of the witch archetype includes prismatic, humorous, and charming personal epiphanies. By reflecting on her own experiences and by focusing on various resonant representations in music, art, films, and historical accounts, she considers how the witch is a nuanced symbol which escapes classification, undeniably ascending in popular culture, based on collective desire: “Our love affair with witches is nothing new...Hers is an identity that unconventional women, and female artists in particular, have voluntarily taken on in earnest, regardless of whether their witchcraft is literal or metaphorical.”  

In Waking the Witch, Grossman dives into the nimble merits of the witch archetype, noting that “she becomes what we need her to be,” whether one peers in her cauldron of story as a curious onlooker or magical practitioner: 

And for those who do not consider themselves witches, but who love to watch her and read about her and hear her supernatural song nonetheless, she still has plenty of messages to share...Hers is also a lesson about adaptation and evolution, for the witch is constantly being rewritten and remade—and she’ll take on many new shapes, no doubt, as time flies on.

The sublimated quality of a witch’s magic allows for a balance between origination myths and self-knowledge.  

Particularly inward, a witch’s power is sometimes aligned with external forces such as deities or divine actors, while retaining a willingness to consider selfhood as a constituent element of magic as a whole. The witch archetype often presents magical power and abilities as innate, but in need of self-realization. Within the witch’s enchanted domain, magical tactics are successful when integrated to align with and enhance one’s selfhood as well as to encourage a radical and sensitive receptivity beyond the self, bringing the outer world into acute focus to spell-cast and enact change.

Max Razdow, Conjurer, 5 x 7″ detail from Mage Taxonomies  ( 22″ x 30″), 22″ x 30″, Pen, pencil and ink on paper, 2018

Grossman tenderly illustrates how the witch archetype presents a pendulum of possibilities, and she is generous in showing us her own path through the thickets of time, from feeling “rootless and lonely” to slowly and surely learning to embrace inherent qualities and find community.  Grossman’s recognition of a selfhood that unapologetically accepts inner magic and accepts being a witch, on whatever metaphorical or sincere level one may choose, encourages cultivating an enchanted identity that is tended to, understood and activated: “There are so many ways to be a witch. Likewise, there are many ways to define what witches are, what they do, and what they do for us...And there are more of us than ever who call ourselves witches, whether figuratively, or literally, poetically or politically.”

Alongside writing, curating, consulting on film productions, and collaboratively teaching, Grossman’s artistic practice includes creating and hosting the podcast, The Witch Wave. By facilitating intimate and episodic diverse conversations, her own mind’s eye is brought to light in a magical enactment of sorts, inviting listeners to share a heightened awareness of enchantress ephemera and conjurer artistic representations in the present day and across time. Her enactment of keenly turning inward while amplifying others’ voices opens a portal to connect and exalt empathy: 

There is a reason that the archetype of the witch resonates with those who feel different or oppressed:  she is an outsider herself, after all...It is said that witches do “sympathetic magic,” which involves a system of linking correspondences...But if we want to move forward as a truly revolutionary community, it’s empathetic magic that we must practice.

Through these amplified enactments, the witch becomes enchanted, existing between human and non-human states, flourishing as an outsider, but Grossman notes that the witch is “usually human” and thereby especially relatable: “The witch is a relative of goddesses and fairies and devils and monsters, yet is wholly her own breed because of one crucial differential: she is usually human. And so we not only relate to her, we can become her.”

The witch archetype’s process of coming to terms with and embracing a magical selfhood entails feeling powerful, and recognizing an inner-magic of sorts. This brings to mind the White Witch, in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, as she scorns a magician for being too vacuous and overly methodological, or devoid of inner-magic: “How do you come to know Magic?...I see...you are a Magician—of a sort...You are a little, peddling Magician who works by rules and books. There is no real Magic in your blood and heart.” The archetype of the witch establishes the wielder’s mind and body—blood and heart—as sources of “real Magic,” and the consistency of this phenomenon allows for a tracing of representations of the witch’s power from historical accounts to contemporary culture. In historical representations, the witch’s qualities often manifest as monstrous or repulsive, while more often in contemporary culture, the witch shamelessly embodies and cultivates magic and self-knowledge, and she owns it systematically and intuitively, shedding the vilified skin of bygone eras.  

Beyond casting a seer’s eye to the future, Grossman adeptly dives into seminal historical texts, including Margaret Murray’s works, The God of the Witches (1933) and The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921), both of which reference the early modern witch trials and folk beliefs.  These texts illuminate the belief that entanglements with enchantment, witchcraft, and magic physically marked or altered the body. The witch trials revealed how any physical mark upon the body could potentially be perceived as an indication of an individual’s initiation to a coven. In historical accounts of the witch trials, the witch mark served as evidence, no matter how flimsy, for the sway of nefarious elements. These witch marks were at times considered to be supernatural food sources for a witch’s imp or familiar, supposedly a dog, cat, rat, mole, toad, or mouse, with the belief that feedings tamed the creature while entwining its spirit with the familiar’s owner. Countless smoldering and fanciful accusations led to persecution.  

The witch now instantiates possible outcomes on her own terms, transforming again and again, as an archetype. Through Grossman’s storied epiphanies and tales, it becomes apparent that the archetype of the witch has undergone considerable changes over time: “That the witch has been reconsidered as a positive figure in the West bit by bit since the nineteenth century shows how far we have come, but also how far we still need to go before women’s power is no longer debased, suppressed, snuffed out.” Grossman is a beacon for the witch archetype at large, and a storyteller of prowess, as she croons that “witches are the future.”

Kari Adelaide Razdow’s writing has appeared on HyperallergicNYLON, Eyes Towards the Dove, Two Coats of Paint, The Huffington Post, the Walker Art Center Blog, BOMB, and elsewhere. She earned an EdD in Interdisciplinary Studies from Teachers College, Columbia University and she curates via The Sphinx Northeast:  http://www.thesphinxnyc.com/.