Christina Oakley Harrington is founder of Treadwell’s, a renowned bookshop and centre for magical studies, in Bloomsbury, London. She is a former academic and a practising Wiccan.
DG: Christina, is magic a ‘dark art’?
The practice of magic is, at its ceremonial level, dedicated to spiritual self-development and attunement with divine forces. Since the Middle Ages, people have used magical methods to communicate with angels, spirits and even the holy guardian angel.
On another level, people use flowers, herbs, oils as part of folk spells for luck and health. Neither are ‘dark’ in the sense of evil. Both, however, were forbidden by the European establishment forces of Crown and Church. Magic has been seen as a form of transgression – and transgression causes fear. Fear is attributed with darkness. What a cycle!
So as a ‘dark art’, yes – there’s a fear with things hidden. Women aren’t supposed to claim that power. Men, too, faced opprobrium in approaching esoteric things, if they weren’t from upper echelons of society.
DG: So this association with ‘darkness’ is constructed by those who wish to hold onto power…
You have a background influenced by growing up in the East. Does the notion of magic as a ‘dark art’ feel Western, to you?
In Asia, there are also those who practice magic, people on the edges of what is acceptable, what is ‘daytime’.
A danger to society is always perceived when some people look closely into the hidden keys of the universe, or look closely at the structures that hold back individual freedom.
DG: What do you mean by the ‘hidden keys of the universe’?
In Western magic, one learns ‘the doctrine of correspondences’, a language that provides the keys to a network of interconnections through the visible and invisible worlds. The phrase ‘as above, so below’ points to this network, though it’s expressed in vertical terms.
It is by interconnection that a witch works her spells to undo injustice, patriarchy, and those things which constrain. So the items in a spell are chosen carefully, not randomly, based on a handed-down set of understandings of their powers – and this traces back to the Middle Ages and before.
DG: Do you, then, see magical practices as a means of undoing repressive structures?
Certainly my witchcraft tradition of Wicca is an underground religious movement whose express aim is to end patriarchy. We seek the liberation of women – their authority for themselves, their agency to take their place in the world. Patriarchal religion has made female power taboo.
Women are not ‘supposed’ to own the night, women’s feelings are often dismissed, and women in authority threaten the status quo. And then, consider the racism, not just sexism, which permeates society! Witchcraft is about resistance, action, reclaiming. Its spirituality insists upon the beauty of diversity. A friend gave me a tee shirt which says, ‘We are the grand-daughters of the witches you couldn’t burn.’ I think that sums it up.
DG: Yes, that quotation, from Tish Thawar’s 2015 book, ‘The Witches of Blackbrook’ is having a big cultural moment, seen on Women’s and anti-Trump marches and in Feminist exhibitions in the States.
Both men and women study the occult but feminine witchcraft seems to be raging, right now. Elisabeth Krohn, founder of Sabat magazine, says she uses the witch “as a symbol of feminist resistance”. What are the gains, in practising witchcraft, for women today?
What I’m seeing in the past few years is that some young women are adopting the identity of the witch to empower themselves in their activism, or in their resistance to being ‘put in a box’ of conformist ‘Nice Girl’. They may not practice witchcraft. Practising witchcraft acts on a person – it makes you confront yourself, your spirituality, your limitations and your power. Doing it, year in year out, changes you. Even doing it for a few months, with the right tools and guidance, makes a person change – it is wonderful to watch.
DG: What kinds of actions or meditations bring about the transformation you describe? And what would be the “right tools and guidance”?
I’m thinking of the keeping of a home altar to the things a person deems sacred, with all the trinkets and photos we accumulate.
Along with that, I’d include rites honouring the full and dark moon, and meditations attuning to those powerful pagan goddesses whom we know from myth and religion. I’m thinking also of making spells to cement the actions which one undertakes in mundane life. In this way, one brings together unseen and subconscious forces within oneself, in alignment with one’s conscious intentions.
Many of us learnt to do these things as apprentices to older, more experienced witches. I certainly did; but much that’s published in books and the Internet can be used.
DG: You offer tarot readings at Treadwell’s. What’s your response to the notion that tarot and astrology are superstitious and irrational?
Irrational, yes! There is no rational explanation as to why these patterns demonstrate what is going on in someone’s life – but they do, when the reader is skilled and trained. It is truly a mystery.