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Walpurgis Night

What the hex? The queer appeal of witchcraft and magic

Why are so many queers turning to cards, stars and crystals for answers? Are we inherently drawn to the occult? Joey Hansom hunted down some witches, earthy dykes and pagan fags in Berlin to ask them what the hocus pocus is all about

Zola Zakiya interprets soul cards, an open-ended variation of tarot reading. Photo by Jan Durina

Apr. 25, 2017 – If you spot a fire on the night of April 30, good chance it's a cop car that's been torched by a radical leftist. The night before International Workers' Day is annual anarchy in Berlin, beckoning riots in the streets – as well as apolitical hedonism in the clubs (“Tanz in den Mai”), but the date has a much longer history of nocturnal infernos. The global Tag der Arbeit has been observed since the 19th century, but in some Northern European regions at least, building fires has been a tradition since at least the early 18th century.

Like its calendarial counterpart Halloween, Walpurgis Night is a pagan holiday falling on the eve of a Christian feast day. “Valborgsmässoafton is celebrated every year with bonfires in many of the public parks,” says Cleo Kempe Towers of their native Sweden. They are an artist, crystal healer and the titular host of Emotional Labor Queen on Berlin Community Radio. “Christian history tells us it's when the witches went cray-cray and did the devil's work, when it's actually a night to proclaim that spring has sprung. With witches, this is important, because it means new herbs can grow.”

Lusi Anjonjoli also has a strong connection with nature. “My grandma practiced curanderismo, often consulting plants and saints, primarily for healing and protection.” Curanderxs are healers from the Americas who emphasize their indigenous spirituality, typically combined with elements of Catholicism. Here in Berlin, Lusi continues the legacy as a burgeoning biotechnologist interested in “soil alchemy”, working in community composting projects. To her, science is compatible with magic and spirituality, which she views as “tools for transformation”.

Zola Zakiya is into astrology and cartomancy. “My mom was always trying to find ways to understand me and my brother. She had us take personality tests, and after that, even though it was a Christian household, she introduced us to astrology. It was just a way to get to know people. Later on, I started to feel like it was something spiritual.” After learning how to do charts on her own, she met a group from the School of Metaphysics in New York that taught her how to apply her astrology in a work setting as a therapist. “In some ways it helped me connect with my clients. Even if I didn't use it as a part of therapy, I sometimes would check out their birthdate and find tools to better work with them.” In 2007, Zola bought her own tarot deck. “I used it as a tool to share with friends. Now I am at the point where I can offer support even to people I don't know. I don't give them the answers – I allow them to see what they get from the cards themselves.”

RM Vaughan is a self-described occultist, although “witch is also a nice shorthand.” He grew up in rural Canada where “everyone believed in ghosts” and held superstitions, and although his first two novels have a supernatural element, he says speaking to SIEGESSÄULE “feels like a second coming out. I make my money as a journalist, covering the arts. You're supposed to be a certain type of person – very serious. When you start talking about your interest in mysticism, it can create this aura around you that you're a bit wacky.” His interests include tarot and remote viewing. “Occult practices offer a model for order in the world, a way to feel more in touch with what is happening around you, and I think that's incredibly seductive for queer people.”

Ansgar Martins has a detached perspective on esotericism, studying for his PhD in Philosophy of Religion at Goethe University in Frankfurt. “I wouldn't suggest that LGBTI people are more attracted to occultism than 'average', but they will have their own reasons. 'Queers' and occultists have at least one thing in common: individuals suffering from the internal limitations of Western culture forming groups with an avant-garde atmosphere. These movements are products of late modern history, some of them linked to women's lib, and some promoting individualistic values, so they may be more open to LGBTI people than some other religions,” he explains. “Still, there's an impressive variety of them promoting a supernatural version of gender stereotypes: emotional females and rational males, yin and yang. You can draw homophobic and misogynistic conclusions.”

The Berliner “witches” surveyed here indeed seem to value individualism. “You can take courses, you can join a coven, you can learn from other people, but the majority of work within occultist practices is self-driven,” says RM. Zola makes a similar claim: “It's different from a religion. There's no sense that you have to do something a certain way. It's more about what you are getting from this practice, this situation, this tool, and evolving based on that.” She likens her belief system to her queer identity: “It's about being who you are personally, not based on other people.” As for essentialist notions like “feminine energy”, a mindful queer will rightfully oppose them, but opposing witches in general of course has its own ugly history. “Witches have always been extremely kind and helpful, healing people throughout generations and as a reward gotten tortured by patriarchy,” states Cleo. “The fear of witchcraft is nothing but sexism.”

Adrienne of performance duo Hyenaz explains her intrigue: “I come from a critical theory background, but some things haven't been explained by rationalism and science,” About three years ago, Hyenaz were commissioned to do a cleansing ritual at the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Seoul. As they developed the piece, someone left behind a book at her flat: “Prime Chaos by Phil Hine, about a kind of postmodern, eclectic magic.” Her partner Kate continues: “She proposed using the book for our artistic process. Some of the things we read were already inherent to our performance: how we engage with people, how we focus our energy, concentrating on wanting something to happen. We found a formula for a heightened state of energy – to reach a climax that creates an opening point.” Hyenaz offer a ritualistic, interactive spectacle. “I use an element of glamour just to channel attention and focus,” explains Adrienne. “It's not that I have more magic than anyone else there. I just want to be an instrument that helps people engage with magic.” Kate says she wouldn't dare call herself a witch or a magician or a shaman – she simply believes there is divine power inside each of us. “I hope we can go toward a place where we see each other as powerful, important beings, beyond our bodies. This is also how I think about queerness. We can relate to each other in a different way, not based on how our bodies look.”

Meanwhile, back here in corporeal Berlin, what does a witchy queer do on Walpurgis Night? “It's a great night for me to charge my crystals, as it is a night filled with so much adrenaline and expectation,” says Cleo. “It's something about the seasonal transition, and also remembering the many witches who fought before me.” Zola, on the other hand, doesn't prescribe to any group celebration, spiritually. “I take holiday when I need to!” 

Joey Hansom



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