Witchy Woman: The Appropriated Archetype

Art and writing by Sophie Bailey

"This is a song about a Welsh witch," Stevie Nicks prefaced her now-iconic ballad "Rhiannon" during the Midnight Special in 1976. "Rhiannon" and its performance ignited the most iconic elements of Nicks' professional persona: twirling in draping chiffon and bundles of flowers twined around mic stands. Thus emerged the perception of Stevie Nicks as "witchy," largely due to "Rhiannon" and the persona she crafted through black velvet and her spectral stage presence. While Stevie is far from the only artist to construct such a persona for herself, her re-emergence as a pop culture icon has accompanied a larger revival of seventies trends. This seventies nostalgia has also brought about the return of the "witchy woman" in all her bell-bottomed, silver-jewelry-adorned, and block-print-fabric-wearing glory. However, it's important to critically examine the sources of these styles and trends beyond simply a "70's aesthetic" because this reduction erases much of the stylistic and religious appropriation that characterized the era.

Now, this article isn't meant to cast shade on Stevie Nicks. I love Stevie Nicks. We all love Stevie Nicks. However, when white girls on Twitter think they're just emulating their seventies idols, they should know they're also contributing to a historical appropriation and commodification of the spiritual practices and styles of colonized communities. For example, at the Grammy's in 1978, Stevie wore a silver ring inlaid with a large turquoise stone, a style of jewelry crafted by the Navajo, Zuni, and Hopi tribes of the Southwestern United States.[1] This isn’t necessarily problematic in itself, but the problem arises when this jewelry is imitated with cheap materials and dyed howlite and sold for a fraction of the price. These kinds of knockoffs directly harm Indigenous artists by taking from their potential revenue while imitating traditional styles of jewelry and art from their communities. Even mass-produced clothing featuring Indian block-print or Patagonia pullovers covered in bastardized approximations of Indigenous patterns take from these styles for the aesthetic without any benefit or control given to the culture this art belongs to. While appropriation is an issue on a much greater scale, I’ve focused specifically on retro fashion because often the historical context of the time is lost in reviving the styles. These trends come from a time that also included George Harrison’s OM flag and other instances in which Hinduism and other religions were exploited and not afforded the respect given to Judeo-Christian religions.

This spiritual appropriation is certainly part of a larger issue that includes New Age Spiritualism literally stealing the female deities of Indigenous, African, and Indian religions and placing them in some kind of amalgamation of female divinity used to empower white women to "seek out their roots." White women often claim to be rediscovering the practices of pre-Christian paganism in Europe, while in reality, they are actively taking from the polytheistic and spiritual religions of modern communities of color. The urgency of the impact of this appropriation is most clear in Adrienne Keene's essay titled "Sephora's Starter ‘Witch Kit’ and Spiritual Theft."[2] Here, Keene addresses the practice of white sage smudging by Indigenous communities of North America. She describes how the smell of the white sage "reminds [her] of Native spaces" and "makes [her] feel safe." Thus, the inclusion of white sage in Sephora’s "witch starter kit" not only disgustingly commodifies a practice that is deeply spiritual and personal, but also directly contributes to a demand that makes white sage inaccessible to the very Native communities for whom the practice is sacred. In fact, the trend has contributed to not only making white sage more expensive but has also created a black market for illegal harvesting of the plant that, in addition to changing conditions due to drought and climate change, has contributed to the plant’s endangerment.[3] Furthermore, Keene illustrates the historical oppression of Indigenous religions accused of “witchcraft” or of “satanic” practices by the Christian colonizing government. Native people in the United States were prohibited from and even imprisoned for cultural and religious practices such as traditional dance and medicine up until 1978 when the American Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed.[4] Thus, smudging and other spiritual practices are made even more sacred for the pain and violence endured to preserve them, and to see non-Natives engage in smudging is violating and harmful.

Hindu spiritual concepts like chakras, auras, and even the practice of yoga itself are also appropriated and commodified as trends to be included in jokes written across cheap t-shirts and trivialized through slang usage. Some of my favorite childhood memories with my grandfather involve him telling me stories taken from the Ramayana, a major ancient Hindu epic written in Sanskrit.[5] Once, he explained to me that the true meaning of the greeting namaste was “the divinity in me acknowledges the divinity in you.” When yoga classes end with white instructors steepling their hands and whispering namaste, I always cringe inside. While there is a way in which this practice could be seen as respectful of the origins of the religious practice of yoga, it still feels just like another layer of appropriation. Mehendi, a traditional form of South Asian body art often applied before a wedding, decorates the limbs with a special stain in beautiful and intricate patterns. This practice is so commonly commodified that henna kits are on store shelves next to beading kits as though both are silly activities for small children to play with. The recent fashion of talking about auras and chakras and other elements of Hindu belief so flippantly in conversation is also something to consider. When one says that people need to balance their chakras after a bad day or cleanse their aura after a breakup, the fact that these words mean real religious things is completely forgotten and disrespected.

The purpose of this article isn't to gatekeep, but to draw attention to the ways in which the dominating culture has demonized colonized communities through their religious practices, only to bastardize them through secular commodification. Both Native American and East Indian communities were demonized and forced under British colonialism to adopt “civil” European behaviors, only for the practices they fought so hard to keep alive to become disrespected through trends. So, the next time you consider buying chakra body mist, "smudge sticks," or even turquoise jewelry, you should strongly consider whether this is something that violates the sanctity of religious beliefs and cultural practices that do not belong to you for the sake of an aesthetic.





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[1] Margery Bedinger, Indian Silver: Navajo and Pueblo Jewelers, (University of New Mexico Press: 1974).

[2] Adrienne Keene, “Sephora’s Stater Witch Kit and Spiritual Theft.” (Native Appropriations: 2018), https://nativeappropriations.com/2018/09/sephoras-starter-witch-kit-and-spiritual-theft.html.

[3] Susan Leopold, “What is going on with White Sage?”, (United Plant Savers: 2019), https://unitedplantsavers.org/what-is-going-on-with-white-sage/.

[4] American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 (AIRFA) (42 U.S.C. § 1996.)

[5] "Ramayana, n.". OED Online. December 2021. Oxford University Press.