In the ongoing media coverage of the Trump presidency, an unusual story has made headlines. It concerns the actions of witches across America and beyond who performed a collective spell to stop the 45th POTUS from doing harm. At midnight on Friday 24th February, witches enacted “A Spell to Bind Donald Trump”.
The spell, available on the website of “magical thinker” and Tarot reader Michael M Hughes, bears the hallmarks of traditional witchcraft spanning thousands of years. It sets out the necessary “ingredients” to be gathered; describes the steps required to prepare the components; includes both the ceremonial actions and words to activate it; and advises on the closure of the procedure. It is also a “binding spell”, which references ancient occult rituals designed to affect change through “binding” someone or something to another’s will.
The originator of the spell is said to be a member of a private magical order who wants to remain anonymous. Those who participated were not only witches but:
people of various spiritual and religious affiliations, or even none. Many are regular practitioners of magic, but an enormous number have never performed a magical ritual.
Warnings about the Trump spell from both supporters and detractors flew around the Internet. Some experienced witches warned about the potential repercussions of amateurs participating without knowing what they were doing. Witch Queen Leslie McQuade for instance, opposed the event, and helped organise a “Magickal resistance to this evil nonsense”.
Not surprisingly, Christians attacked the event, regarding it as playing with Satan. But those involved in the spell reassured the public:
It is not a hex or curse and it’s not meant to physically harm anyone – it’s to keep them from doing harm.
Ancient witchcraft versus modern witchcraftMarie-Lan Nguyen/Wikimedia Commons
Magic practitioners from ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt once cast spells with little if any regard for the corporeal, mental, emotional or spiritual safety of their targets. Spells were meant to harm. There were no caveats or apologies. These real, historical practitioners cursed those who had thwarted or harmed them or those close to them. Practitioners were also paid to enact curses for clients. The “curse tablet” pictured here, for example, is a binding spell from ancient Rome designed to conjure a gruesome curse on a victim.Wikimedia Commons
Traversing thousands of years to 20th Century Australia, Kings Cross witch Rosaleen Norton (1917-1979) had no qualms about cursing or hexing people. Norton practised old-fashioned Mediterranean and European witchcraft, free of a sense of right and wrong, or good and bad. She operated in an amoral space in which intended outcomes were the primary objective.
English occultist Aleister Crowley (1875-1947), whose work also paid no heed to moral binaries, was an inspiration for Norton’s magical system. Labelled “The Wickedest Man in the World” and “The Great Beast 666”, Crowley cursed numerous individuals, including his one-time magical partner, Victor Neuburg. There were also allegations that he cursed the entire town of Hastings (in addition to starting the first world war, sacrificing 75 million people to the Devil, and sinking the Titanic).
A crisis in contemporary witchcraft?
The disconnection between the cursing of Trump with its caveats, and the historical employment of spells designed to harm, may suggest a crisis of purpose and identity in contemporary witchcraft.
In short, the anxiety of identifying oneself as a witch appears to be a burden for some. While those involved in the Trump spell did not claim they were anxious about the burden of such an act, their attempts to sanitise the ritual certainly suggests concern.
This begs the questions: Why adhere to a belief system that causes one to worry? Why participate in rituals for which there is a compulsion to apologise?
Adding to this moral confusion, some practitioners of the various forms of occult arts have added other religious beliefs into the cauldron as a means of defence. For example, the spell comes with reassurance from Hughes:
It is understood, in this context, that binding does not generate the potential negative blowback from cursing/hexing/crossing, nor does it harm the caster’s karma.
Admittedly, the nature of some contemporary Western witchcraft practices incorporates elements of Asian religions, and so the reference to karma is not surprising. But is it indicative of the moral and ethical uncertainties associated with modern witchcraft? Does it suggest fuzzy thinking? Does it imply recourse to cultural imperialism – adding karma to the mix – to ensure the public recognises a moral basis for casting a spell?Ycco, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY
Witchcraft today is very broad, with numerous variations of beliefs and identities. Types of witchcraft range from Wicca, Neo-paganism and Chaos Magick (among many more). As scholar Michael York has stated in relation to the New Age Movement that gave rise to contemporary witchcraft:
[it is] a disparate and loosely co-ordinated confederation of contrasting beliefs, techniques and practices.
Because of many different beliefs, contemporary practitioners sometimes struggle for a unifying identity and sense of purpose. This struggle is evident in the responses to the Trump spell, marked by the absence of a unified, authoritative voice to represent the witchcraft community. It is also evident in the mixing of other religious beliefs.
Witchcraft a recognised religion
Of course, there is no such thing as an uncontaminated religion that has not taken elements of other belief systems. And witchcraft is now a recognised religion in many countries, sometimes under the broad title “paganism”. The 2011 Australian census recorded approximately 40,000 people who identified their religious beliefs as “pagan”, “Wicca” or “witchcraft”.
At a somewhat unexpected extreme end of spiritual eclecticism is modern witchcraft’s borrowings from Christianity. While most of the well-known witches of the last century, like Norton, actively distanced themselves from Christianity, the appeal of Christian values underlines some contemporary witchcraft.
For example, the spell to bind Trump also invited participants to “say a prayer for protection” and read Psalm 23. Arizona participant MaryPat Azevedo, regarded the spell as “a unity prayer”. She also explained to the BBC:
A true witch would never cast a spell on anyone without their permission. This prayer is for wellbeing and peace for all beings.
The fact that Christians reacted against the event with prayer services of their own serves to illustrate the complications and blurriness of the actual core belief systems underpinning contemporary witchcraft.
Peace-loving witches who do not seek to harm and who often follow the Wiccan Rede of “An Ye Harm None, Do What Ye Will” are sometimes called “fluffy bunnies” or “McWiccans” by followers of the Left-Hand Path tradition who endorse a more amoral and power-focused magic. (The Left-Hand Path may be said to have characterised the workings of both Rosaleen Norton and Aleister Crowley).
Other practitioners opposed the Trump spell on grounds that inadvertently defer to a decidedly Christian value system, promoting themes of love and forgiveness. Even the term “binding spell” caused angst among some of the witches who initiated the project. Binding spells are about power and control.
While this event is an example of the continuing divisions within the USA, it also highlights divisions among global religious communities, not only between witches and Christians, but witches and witches. Still, A Spell to Bind Donald Trump has proven to be a significant political event, with over 10,000 followers on its original Facebook account. More spells are planned – on 26 March, 24 April and 23 May.
Authors: Marguerite Johnson, Associate Professor of Ancient History and Classical Languages, University of Newcastle