The fable of the “village witch” is immensely appealing to many Witches and Pagans. Whether it’s historically accurate or not, we relish the idea of the lone magick worker whose gifts are supported by their local community. Yet the popularity of alternative spirituality has led to a classic supply-and-demand problem, in which spiritual services are oversupplied and undervalued. It’s time to drag the village witch out of her cottage, and introduce her to the modern marketplace.
The myth of the village witch
The story goes something like this: In the distant (or not-so-distant) past, each village had its witch. (Or shaman or cunningman or rune-singer or herbwife.) The witch lived at the edge of town in a little shack, probably alone except for a familiar animal or two. While the townspeople sometimes looked askance at the strange old woman, they were quick to turn to her in times of need. She was skilled in herbal medicine and earth lore. She interpreted dreams and omens, issued predictions for babies and crops. She cast love charms (and reversed them when things went wrong). She was universally feared and respected.
The village witch did the jobs that no one else in the village was willing or able to take on: Predict the future, talk to the dead, and counsel the desperate. In return, the townspeople treated her with cautious acclaim. They kept a roof over her head and protected her from people who might want to ridicule or harm her.
Throughout history, magick workers have been integrated into some societies, ostracized in others, and persecuted in many. It’s hard to say if the village witch story is generally true or generally false. Even so, the trope has captured the hearts of Pagan leaders, many of whom see themselves as modern-day wisewomen, shamans, and seers. That’s fine, of course. But when we extend the analogy to Pagan businesses, the whole concept falls apart.
For roughly a generation, occult shops did fulfill the role of the village witch for modern cities and suburbs. (Their heyday came after the occult revival of the 1960s, but before the “mainstreaming” of Wicca and other earth-based religions in the 1990s.) At this time, occult books could not be found in regular bookstores. Covens could not easily find a safe place for rituals and gatherings. Newspapers and bulletins would not post Pagan events. Facing widespread oppression and discrimination, Pagan communities needed a figurehead—someone to do the job of being the public weirdo. The local store owner often filled this role, speaking to the media every Halloween and representing witchcraft positively to a skeptical public.
The rosy “village witch” tale sometimes seeps over into old-timers’ recollections of bygone stores. Our Pagan shops took care of us—by hosting classes, sharing knowledge, and just being there—and we like to imagine that we took care of them. We remember favorite stores as thriving centers of their communities—glossing over the harsh realities of running a metaphysical business.
Like hobby shops, independent bookstores and galleries, occult shops usually have a marginal existence. They often cater to a small coterie of dirt-broke and fickle customers. They’re targeted by religious fundamentalists and nutjobs. They have a tough time getting credit and insurance. They’re the first to be put out by landlords when rents rise or a more “reputable” business comes along. Occult shop owners may not be risking a burning at the stake—but show me one whose accounting books aren’t on fire.
The end of an era
I came to my magickal path in the late 1990s. This was the era of The Craft, Silver Ravenwolf, and tarot decks at Barnes and Noble. While I don’t credit these things specifically for my interest in Paganism, I can’t deny that this was a watershed moment for alternative religions. By some accounts, Wicca was the fastest-growing religion in the world. My generation wanted spirituality that incorporated the eco-conscious, female-positive and mystical leanings of our parents without all the aimless hedonism. Pretty soon, we’d have the Internet to connect us with our tribe worldwide.
As young men and women who studied the Mysteries, we learned that we were qualified to act as our own priests and priestesses. That direct communication with the Gods was our birthright. We learned that religious authorities—even within Pagan communities—were fraught with control issues and couldn’t always be trusted. We heard over and over again that the most powerful spell was one that we cast ourselves. And, even if we didn’t fully believe it, we likely internalized some Pagan exceptionalism: We were a chosen few, the sons and daughters of Aradia, the walkers between the worlds. As fantasy author Marion Zimmer Bradley so evocatively put it, “the moon tides ran in our blood.” We had a sacred obligation to keep the Old Ways alive, and to share our newfound gifts with the world.
Now this huge wave of Pagan babies is hitting their thirties and forties, at a time when economic growth is slow and wages are stagnant. As you might guess, I have tons of Pagan friends, many of whom also have a magickal business of some sort. Card readers, Reiki healers, shop owners, ministers, priestesses, authors, candlemakers, herbalists, teachers. There are also, depending on how you count them, at least nine or ten Pagan-oriented shops in the Dallas Metroplex area. I can’t throw a rune stone without hitting someone who’s qualified to cleanse my house or bless my cat. Maybe we used to have a village witch, but now we definitely have a village of witches.
This reality hit me hardest recently at a local Pagan festival. The organizers were holding a charity auction, and up on the block was a besom donated by one of the vendors. A waist-high willow broom, decorated with ribbons and silk flowers and blessed by a real witch. The bidding started at $35. No takers. The starting bid crept lower and lower, finally reaching $5. “C’mon people!” the auctioneer pleaded. “For charity?” The thoughts of the crowd were almost audible: We’re all real witches here. And we all know how to tie a bow and bless a damn broom. The witches then retreated back to our booths, where we proceeded to sell candles and jewelry to each other.
In a way, the joke’s on us: We chose this path because we didn’t respect spiritual authorities, preferring to act as our own. And yet, we wanted to be spiritual authorities when we grew up. (And naturally, get the respect that goes along with it.) We thought that because we were answering a true calling, our witchy skills weren’t subject to the law of supply and demand. Those same witchy skills are now oversupplied.
I believe that there is room for all of us to succeed in our best endeavors. But we have to be creative and adaptive and responsive to real market needs. As Pagan business owners, stamping our feet and saying, "But villages used to support their witches!" won't get us very far.
Real quick: I’m not complaining because more and more people are taking their spiritual life into their own hands (and homes and altars). I’m not implying that anyone who sells spiritual goods and services is necessarily unqualified to do so. And I’m no less sincere in my beliefs and practices because I share them with so many other people.
But let’s face facts: The paradigm has changed. It is changing. It will continue to change. The village witch is no longer a role model for our Pagan practice and businesses. She is a myth—or at most, a relic of the past.
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Image: At the Fortune Teller's by Alma Erdmann (1900).