I had the privilege of speaking with occult scholar and author Pam Grossman recently about art and the mystery of magick. Needless to say it was a damn good time. Check out her work!
Benton Rooks: In your personal life are you fairly upfront with strangers about how you would spiritually identify as a witch? What are some of the reactions like for those who might be meeting you for the first time or new to your work?
Pam Grossman: It varies. It’s not something I hide, but it’s also not something I bring up with everyone I meet. Spirituality and self-identity in general are highly personal subjects, so it depends on the context and the overall vibe. When I first meet someone I’m more likely to talk about my interests in magick and mythology and my projects that relate to those topics, than I am to talk about my own practices or beliefs. But I think that’s the same for most people – it takes a bit of trust before opening up about that stuff.
And the reactions vary, too. Some people think it’s cool, some people are really into it themselves and want to know more, some people just say “huh, interesting,” and then move the conversation along. But I haven’t encountered anyone who seemed scared of me or hugely uncomfortable. Not for those reasons anyway!
The mysterious illuminated mini-comic What Is A Witch was recently released. What inspired you to create this?
I’ve been writing about the archetype of the witch for several years now, and have done several other projects about her including a presentation I give called “Witch Pictures: Female Magic and Transgression in Western Art.” I’m fascinated by the ways in which we’ve projected all of our anxieties and aspirations about female power onto this figure for centuries. At any given moment, a witch can be depicted as scary, old, ugly, seductive, youthful, healing, harmful, heroic. And I love that about her. I love her complexity and allure.
We also have entered this new 4th wave of feminism where a lot of de-taboo-ification has been occurring around the female experience. So it’s no surprise that the witch, arguably the most taboo female character of all time, is now getting a lot of attention. It seems like her time has come.
On a personal note, I’ve always been attracted to those who dwell on the margins. People who have powers and gifts that are misunderstood or ignored entirely – especially if they are female. The witch is such meaningful and important example of this. So I wanted to honor her, and to celebrate all of her aspects and complications. She’s been such a source of sustenance for me for most of my life, so I felt called to write an ode to her and her many facets, and to show why she matters and what she means to me.
Finally I’ll say that I’ve been a big comics fan since I was a kid, so it’s a medium I’ve always wanted to work in. And I adore the artwork of Tin Can Forest in particular, so the idea of collaborating with them on something was deeply exciting for me. I’m still pinching myself that it happened. The way they so beautifully and brilliantly illustrated my words was beyond my wildest hopes.
In sum: a lot of stars aligned to make this happen when it did, and I’m honored and thrilled that it has all unfolded the way it has.
In your seminal essay “The Year of the Witch,” which appeared at Huffington Post in 2013 you said:
“Witches…have power on their own terms. They have agency. They create. They praise. They commune with nature/Spirit/God/dess/Choose-your-own-semantics, freely, and free of any mediator. But most importantly: they make things happen. The best definition of magic I’ve been able to come up with is ‘symbolic action with intent’ — ‘action’ being the operative word. Witches are midwives to metamorphosis. They are magical women, and they, quite literally, change the world.”
Has your general philosophy stayed the same or evolved since then?
Absolutely stayed the same in spirit, though I’ve been more careful lately to emphasize that men, or people of any gender, can be witches, too. I do state that later in the essay, but I’m even more mindful of it now. I do still think the archetype is inherently feminine. But I want to be sure that everyone feels that they are included by her and that they can access her energy. Witches are for all of us.
You mention Jeremy Narby’s awesome book The Cosmic Serpent in this article. Do you have any experience at the forbidden innerspace junction of entheogens and magick? What do you see as some of the strengths and weaknesses of entheogenic work in comparison to the more common ‘natural’ methods of altering consciousness like meditation/yoga?
I am a super sensitive person both emotionally and physiologically, so my entheogenic experiences are relatively limited as the few I’ve had were deeply overwhelming in a way that I know was not OK for me to keep exploring. That said, as long as people are being healthy and relatively safe and respectful of their own boundaries, I’m in no place to judge them, and I have a lot of respect for those who have gone much further on that path than I have.
As for other methods, there are so many ways to reach ecstasy, peace, deeper truth. Movement and meditation are great. Ritual and art-making are my own primary methods. Whatever gets you there, you know?
Your excellent video essay “The Witching Hour” explores the image of magic and witches in pop-culture and the history of film. The religious history scholar Jeffrey Kripal has posited that one of the few ways we can connect to mysticism these days is ironically through a kind of pop-culture gnosis.
In the post Harry Potter timeline, why do you think so many people globally seem to be maintain interest in magick or the pagan-occult-archaic revival? Generally speaking, why do you think it is such a popular and initially confusing subject?
I’ve been a staunch defender of pop-culture as a gateway to magick. Most of the “serious” practitioners I know got into it themselves early on because of a band they loved or a book they picked up in the New Age section of a bookstore. I find occult snobbishness to be in poor taste and, more often than not, hypocritical.
And sure, some people will engage with this subject matter it in a shallow way before moving onto the next trend. They’ll buy the T-shirt or join the circle for a couple months before tossing it aside. But for others it will set them on a trail of deeper inquiry, like it did with me.
I think it’s popular right now because people are seeking meaning in their lives. We’re in a time of great unrest and mistrust of the material world and its man-made systems at the same time that we’re all experiencing a rapid digital evolution and unprecedented access to knowledge and to each other. We’re letting go of the idea that we need a mediator between ourselves and the divine. And the occult is all about self-directed study, inner exploration, and direct connection to a greater force.
But you’re right – that can be deeply confusing, too. There is no single book or predetermined course for this, which is why there are often conflicting or fragmented ideas about what magick is. Not to mention the right wing religious insistence that alternative paths to Spirit are inherently evil. So there’s a lot of static that happens, and a lot of weird projections that people put onto magick. But some might suggest that this only adds to its mystery and potency. You have to do it to know it.
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