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Rhythm of the Witch

National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of an anonymous donor, 1967

Suspended between Strength and Death is the Hanged Man. He doesn’t look particularly concerned. The illustrator of the emblematic Smith-Waite tarot deck, Pamela “Pixie” Coleman Smith, portrayed him as seemingly unsurprised and unbothered by his situation.

His hair dangles down, and blood begins to pool in his head, which is encircled by a halo of yellow light. He swings gently in the breeze from one elegant leg, the other bent down behind it as a sort of physical and visual counterbalance. His hands are—clasped? tied?—behind his back.

For more than one hundred years, tarot readers have wondered at Pixie’s illustration, turning its meaning over in their minds and deciding how it might reflect a truth personal to them alone. And the numbers of those handling cards are growing: the early pandemic years saw a boom in the number of tarot cards sold in the United States, causing some game companies to double their printing in 2020 and 2021 to keep up with demand.

In this month’s featured text, The Mythic Dimension: Selected Essays, 1959–1987, Joseph Campbell reflects on the cycle of humanity’s love of the occult in the essay “The Occult in Myth and Literature” (302):

The Old Bronze Age realization of a micro-macrocosmic unity is returning, and everywhere all the old arts that once were banned are coming back. I have myself been traveling about quite a bit these years, from one college campus to another, and everywhere the first question asked me is, ‘Under what sign were you born?’ The mysteries of the Tarot pack, the I Ching, and Transcendental Meditation … Well, all this is just the beginning, the first signaling of a dawning realization of the immanence of the occult, and of this as something important for our living.

When Campbell published this line in 1977, the curtain had just gone up on the Broadway revival of Hair, the “American tribal love-rock musical” of 1967. The show had been regaling audiences with its representation of hippie subculture for ten years, enthralling and alarming viewers in equal measure with nudity, drug use, and occult references alongside a vehement rejection of the country’s puritanical Christian philosophy. The musical is called Hair, for gods’ sakes, the ultimate symbol of liberation and power across cultures for millennia from the Indigenous peoples of the Americas to ancient Greek gods and heroes. “My hair is holy,” Dionysus says in Euripides’s tragedy The Bacchae. “I grow it long for the god.”  Hair is packed with references to Christianity as both allegory and foil to the tribe’s aims and antics. Alongside these are vibrant celebrations of the natural world, especially the stars, a mainstay of the occult. Even though British astrologer Neil Spencer referred to “Aquarius,” the show’s anthem, as “astrological gibberish,” it had no bearing on its wild and sustained success.


The Civil Rights movement, the sexual revolution, antiwar fury, and women’s liberation made it imperative for Western seekers to find beliefs that better suited their ideals of love, freedom, and connection with all things. Christianity fell extraordinarily short in all areas, leading to a surge of Eastern practices in the US and England, as well as a rebirth of many esoteric practices, including tarot and astrology. The “ancient” feeling of these disciplines resonated with people looking to escape the confines of their tight-laced post–World War II upbringing, even though many of these practices had been refined at the beginning of the twentieth century, but it was music that offered the direct pathway to the ineffable.


Campbell was given the opportunity to see the Grateful Dead in concert near the end of his life. He told his audience in a lecture after the show that “this is Dionysus talking through these kids.” He further describes the experience in The Mythic Dimension

Rock music had always seemed a bore to me, but I can tell you, at that concert, I found eight thousand people standing in mild rapture for five hours. The place was just a mansion of dance. And I thought, ‘Holy God! Everyone has just lost themselves in everybody else here!’ (260-261)


“[Music] is the oldest form of religious worship,” writes Peter Bebergal in his 2015 book The Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll: 


when magic and religion were inseparable, where myth was communicated through a colorful and often wild blending of costume, song, and dance. This type of yearning for freedom and self-expression is our first and earliest glimmer of the spirit of rock and roll, a primeval and communal method to transmit a truth, to celebrate, to mourn, to sacrifice something to the gods. And to do it together. (18)


Occultism isn’t one set belief, making the figure of the witch the perfect symbol of counterculture, outcasts, and weirdness: too loud, unpredictable, otherworldly, and, most terrifying of all, sexually liberated. An accusation of witchcraft is still mortally dangerous in many parts of the world; far from a kitschy symbol of rebellion, the witch is a declaration of freedom in spite of legitimate deadly risks. It’s little wonder that witches were invoked in the face of life-or-death causes like Civil Rights and the Vietnam War, or by groups like WITCH (Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell) founded by radical feminists to fight for women’s liberation. One of the leaflets WITCH dispersed at their protests in the late 1960s read:


If you are a woman and dare to look within yourself, you are a Witch. You make your own rules. You are free and beautiful. You can be invisible or evident in how you choose to make your witch-self known. You can form your own Coven of sister Witches (thirteen is a cozy number for a group) and do your own actions ... You are a Witch by saying aloud, "I am a Witch" three times, and thinking about that. You are a Witch by being female, untamed, angry, joyous, and immortal. (Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshipers, and Other Pagans in America. Margot Adler, 1979)


Witchcraft, this vector of fascination as well as fear, was criminalized in Britain until 1951 when the old law was repealed and replaced with the Fraudulent Mediums Act. Hair itself wasn’t permitted to be performed in London’s West End until 1968, when the Labour government repealed a 1737 law that prevented the show on the grounds of nudity and drug use, itself a revolutionary act for free speech that boosted the show’s popularity in the UK. Once the curtain was up, reviews began flowing in. Most were positive, if overwhelmingly English; Philip Hope-Wallace wrote for the Guardian, “It is all a good deal less awful than it sounds but will probably find its own proper audience, if that is the right adjective.”


The renewed celebration of the witch, and the discomfort and alarm that follows, is not so different from the journey of the Hanged Man himself: someone unfamiliar with the tarot will often take the card as a bad omen based on the name and imagery, but spending time with the card, turning it over and examining the details with an open mind, might lead them to some surprising revelations.


A.E. Waite of the Smith-Waite deck wrote The Pictorial Key to the Tarot in 1910, which includes descriptions and interpretations of Smith’s illustrations. He wrote of the Hanged Man that “it has been called falsely a card of martyrdom, a card of prudence … a card of duty.” A rope ties you in place where you hang, uncomfortable and unable to release yourself. What it does mean, Waite writes, is enlightenment: expansiveness, perspective, intuition, circumspection, prophecy. One interpretation of the card even says the Hanged Man put himself up there, tying himself deliberately to the Tree of Life to gain knowledge from experiencing a new perspective.


As long as there are cultural norms, there will be the drive to rebel against them, and the witch will be there. As the Hanged Man alarms passersby in his personal quest to achieve enlightenment, the witch strives for truth and empathy with the full knowledge of disruption and fury it will inevitably provoke.


The old arts that were once banned are back. A “micro-macrocosmic unity” is what makes the occult appealing, and is why it will always, in some form, return. We need this connection: tying ourselves upside down to the Tree of Life, a radical rejection of convention, a tug-of-war between duty and spiritual expansion—and a responsibility and connection to one another.


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