When the Puritans landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620 the English Protestants separatists cast a dark shadow on the pristine land, their arrival foreboding horrors to come. By 1692, their extremist ideology reached a fevered pitch as mass hysteria gripped the town of Salem, MA and beyond. Charges of witchcraft spread like wildfire, with more than 200 men and women accused of conspiring with the devil. With no separation between church and state, the colonizers used the courts to incarcerate, try, and execute the innocent for crimes they did not commit. In total, 30 were found guilty, 19 were hung, and at least five died in jail during the ordeal. It was far from the last time the government would be on the wrong side of history.
In 2012, American photographer Frances F. Denny made a startling discovery: not only was she the direct descendant of Chief Justice Samuel Sewall, who presided over the infamous Salem Witch Trials — but Denny also had another relative, Mary Bliss Parsons, who had been accused and found not guilty of witchcraft in 1674.
“Thank goodness I wasn’t born 400 years ago because I absolutely would have been burned at the stake,” says Denny, who has just published Major Arcana: Portraits of Witches in America (Andrews McMeel), a captivating collection of portraits and first person accounts of witches living and practicing across the nation today. “The discovery of being a descendant of both oppressor and oppressed is a hard thing to reconcile, but it feels very appropriate because I come from a long line of privileged white people. That coincidence felt like an honest way to dig into something uncomfortable.”
A Panoramic Portrait of Witches Today
“It was very liberating to think about the witch as a mysterious, thorny archetype that is hard to pin down, who has scared people for a long time and instills fear in people because of her ineffable power,” Denny says. With the understanding her conception of “witch” was informed by pop culture, superstition, and lore rather than truth, Denny set forth on a four-year odyssey across the United States to examine and explore the complexities of witchcraft from those who know it best.
Though traditionally a woman, a witch may also be male, trans, or non-binary; theirs is a history long connected to the subjugation of the feminine and the earth itself, evoking a primordial fear of the power of the natural world by those who have mistakenly considered themselves “civilized.” Through her travels, Denny spent time with Wiccan High Priestesses, Voodoos and Santeria practitioners, Neo-Pagans, green witch herbalists, occultists, mystics, spiritualists, artists, activists, tarot readers, and astrologers, among many other people who identified as witches. Like Whitney Houston, who famously sang, “I’m Every Woman,” the witch contains multitudes.
“There’s no one way to be a witch,” Denny says. “However, the thing many have in common is a near universal connection to the earth. As modern people we don’t experience earthly things in the way our ancestors did. We’re so disconnected from the natural world: we’re often trying to control it or it’s an inconvenience. Witchcraft practices often are about being in tune with it and the cycle of our own bodies in order to find healing and respite through connections with the natural world.”
Picturing the Invisible
Recognizing it would be transgressive to photograph witches at work, Denny chose to create a series of environmental portraits that cast her subjects in a humane light. Set amid the landscape, the witches possess an otherworldly beauty that transcends the flesh. Bringing together people of all ages, genders, races, and ethnicities, Major Arcana is truly American in its scope, reveling in the First Amendment right to the freedom of religion, speech, press, protest, and assembly.
Sallie Ann Glassman, an initiated priestess of Vodou, perhaps the most maligned and feared of all witchcraft practices in the West, says, “There are themes of resistance and redistribution of power inherent in the act of accessing and inviting invisible sources of power out into the physical. It was so for enslaved people: in spite of their bodies being in hell, the life force itself could reach out to them, for those who had eyes to see the Invisible.”
In her portrait, Ms. Glassman is dressed all in white, wearing a simple headscarf and flowing down that evokes an otherworldly essence. She stands in a garden of flowers in bloom, gazing directly at the camera unafraid, peacefully resisting the projections of the ignorant. She possesses a sense of inner power, of a knowing that is understood beyond the realm of words, a state of being that appears in portraits throughout the book.
“I wanted to show their humanity and dignity while also instilling a sense of the ineffable power that you can’t quite put your finger on,” Denny says. “I’m interested in how something can resonate even if it remained undefined. How do I capture that without revealing too much, without explaining something away, without filling in or erasing that grey area that’s so important to retain?”
Rediscovering an Ancient Source of Power and Healing
“I never considered myself a witch,” says Karen Rose, a herbalist who matches plants and people to create remedies and is part of the series of portraits. “I consider myself the descendant of healers. The granddaughter of medicine people. My grandfather and my grandmother knew spirit, plants, and how to heal, and they passed this on to me. They never called themselves anything. I realize now that many would call me a witch because of my knowledge of things that are intangible and not always seen. I am cool with it. The witches of Africa are powerful and influence change in great ways. I’m about that.”
Throughout Major Arcana, a thread weaves back to ancient indigenous ways, before imperialists overran the earth with promises of “progress” that have driven us to the edge of environmental collapse. “I hope this book inspires people to find a sense of power at a time when we feel incredibly powerless,” Denny says. “We have this virus that’s descended upon the world, that’s kept us inside and feeling hopeless so we need sources of power. I think witchcraft is about sourcing that in yourself. There’s no one way to be a witch. That’s the draw.”
By Miss Rosen
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, and websites including Time, Vogue, Artsy, Aperture, Dazed, and Vice, among others.
Major Arcana: Portraits of Witches in America
By Frances F. Denny
Foreword by Pam Grossman
Published by Andrews McMeel