From the accused to the empowered: a cultural model of identity and witchcraft in New Orleans

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Historically, being accused of witchcraft meant death (Baker, 2015; Demos, 2008; Ehrenreich & English, 2010). More recently, identifying as a witch means living with a stigmatized and often concealed identity (Reece, 2016; Tejeda, 2015). Despite the injurious effects of stigmatization, such as discrimination in the workplace, isolation from one’s family, and increased subjective anxiety (Reece, 2016; Tejeda, 2015), individuals are increasingly identifying as witches in the United States. The most current estimate is that upwards of 1.5 million North Americans identify as such— though there is no official census to know for sure (Bosker, 2020; Fearnow, 2018). The motivations driving the increase remain unclear due to the narrower inquiry of extant research in which witches are often styled as white, suburbanite, middle-class, college-educated, “nature-worshipping” individuals who are predominately female. This description stems from feminist and religious studies which explore the sociopolitical underpinnings of “witch” as a politically oriented identity, the psychosocial benefits of witchcraft as a “feminist spirituality,” and on more bounded, ethnographic accounts of European-rooted “Neopagan” sects, such as Gardnerian Wicca. However, while partly true, this portrait of identity, beliefs, and practices does not accurately represent the majority, nor the diversity, of currently practicing witches as it largely excludes the specific perspectives of witches of color, male, and gender-fluid witches. In the summer of 2020, I interviewed a diverse group of witches in New Orleans, Louisiana to explore what motivates individuals to adopt the identifier “witch” as part of their identity. In this thesis, I apply a cultural model approach to both explore the question of motivation and provide a more temporally appropriate, finer-grained understanding of witches as a diverse group.

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Cultural anthropology, American studies