Pam Grossman is a writer, curator, and teacher of magical practice and history. She is the host of The Witch Wave podcast and the author of Waking the Witch (Gallery Books, 2019) and the illuminated manifesto, What Is A Witch (Tin Can Forest Press). You might also be familiar with Pam from her many group art shows and projects, including Language of the Birds: Occult and Art at NYU’s 80WSE Gallery. She has maintained Phantasmaphile, a blog that specializes in art with an esoteric or fantastical bent, since 2005, and in 2017, she launched WitchEmoji, a witch-themed sticker pack for iMessage that became the #1 seller in the App Store. She is also the co-organizer of the biennial Occult Humanities Conference at NYU. Her projects have been featured by such outlets as The New York Times, The New Yorker, Artforum, Art in America, New York Magazine, and Teen Vogue. Grimoire Magazine recently caught up with Pam to discuss what makes the figure of the witch so potent at this moment in history, why academia needs to open up to the occult, and which drag queens are her favorites, among other topics.
Thank you so much for agreeing to speak with us! To start off, we would love to know: what first led you to your interest in witchcraft and the occult? What influences or experiences took you down this path?
Thank you for asking me!
Ever since I was a child, I’ve loved anything to do with magic. I used to do my own intuitive rituals in the woods behind my house when I was little, and I always gravitated towards stories and toys that had anything to do with mythology and fantastical creatures. From that foundational point, my interests evolved and deepened. I starting doing spells as a teen using books I found at new age shops and mall book stores, and then my own spiritual path as a witch grew from there. Eventually I discovered the writings of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, and came to realize that no matter our outward differences, the human longing for transformation, ritual, and consciousness expansion is universal.
I studied anthropology, religion, and art history at NYU where I encountered a whole host of thinkers and creators who helped me contextualize my own lifelong search for the divine feminine, for Spirit, and for finding meaning as an energetic being in a female body. Throughout this, my own practice continued in a solitary manner. But after I graduated, I began studying with a green witch named Robin Rose Bennett for several years, and that led me to more of a community, and furthered my journey down the path in a more public way. Meeting a great teacher and having that coven experience enriched and emboldened me.
I've also always loved art made by powerful, imaginative women: from painters like Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington, to musicians like Tori Amos and Bjork, to writers like Diane di Prima and Monica Furlong. I consider a lot of these creators to be witches, too, and part of my spiritual lineage. Magic is creative process, and the witch is a creator of metamorphic experiences. These artists helped shape my identity as a witch as much as anything.
A huge surge of interest in witches has been permeating our culture as of late, and the figure of the witch has proven to be particularly meaningful as a symbol of resistance in the Trump era. What do you think it is about the witch that makes her such a powerful feminist icon, and why do you think we are drawn back to her now? Where do you see witchcraft going in the future?
Right now, we're seeing an uptick in the embrace of the dark feminine overall. As with the phrase "nasty woman" being reclaimed and resignified by feminists of all stripes, the word "witch" is now being worn as a badge of pride. Witches are change-makers. They're transgressive beings who dwell on the fringes of society, and so they're the perfect icon for rebels, outsiders, and rabble-rousers, especially those of the female persuasion.
Women are tired of being told we have to be bright, happy, pretty, and pleasing all the time, while still being paid less and given less autonomy over our bodies and lives. By embracing our dark aspects, we are rejecting the paradigm of "perfection" and oppression that centuries of history have calcified in our collective psyche.
Most significantly, the witch is the antithesis of patriarchal structures. She represents an alternative way of being across so many systems. She is comfortable being solitary, but she also works beautifully in community via a coven or other democratic gathering. She honors the Earth and cycles of nature. She has direct access to the divine, and she doesn’t need a mediator or to follow any one book or dogma. She is intuitive, imaginative, and independent. She is a figure of freedom. And so she is who we need right now, and who we need to be.
I think this movement is only going to grow and deepen. Whether metaphorically or literally speaking, I sincerely believe that witches are the future.
A lot of your work — from your excellent witchy website Phantasmaphile [which we saw just celebrated its 12th anniversary — congratulations!] to your new podcast Witch Wave and the magical Witch Emojis you produced — has taken advantage of new digital mediums to explore very old traditions. What are your thoughts about the intersections of witchcraft and technology/online life happening at this moment? What draws you to digital mediums?
I love that the witch community is thriving and expanding digitally. We all know the Internet’s drawbacks — of which there are many. But at its best, it helps us find kindred spirits, some of whom we can actually meet and collaborate with, both on- and offline. It helps people learn and share information, and in the witchcraft community at least, it helps people feel sparked to be more themselves.
Being interested in alternative spiritual practices, especially witchcraft, can be a really isolating experience in lots of places around the world, and the Internet really helps people feel less alone and less fearful about being themselves. And that is such a beautiful and important thing.
Social media is also one of the few places where women’s voices have equal weight — if not more weight — than men’s. Most media companies are still owned and driven by hetero white dudes. But stats show that more women than men use the image-based social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook and Tumblr. And that means we can actually talk about and celebrate things we care about without any constraints. So I think it’s no surprise that the interest in witches is thriving online, because even though people of all genders can be witches, this archetype is directly tied to feminine power. And now we finally have a place to share these predilections and beliefs without apology.
As to its importance to me personally, it probably goes without saying, but so many of the projects I’ve done have been created with, and consumed by, people I’m connected to online. The Internet has allowed me to find amazing collaborators and a joyfully devoted audience. And for that I’m immensely grateful.
As people with academic backgrounds ourselves, we are also very interested in (and sad we missed out on this year’s!) Occult Humanities Conference you hosted with the NYU Steinhardt Department of Art and Art Professions. It’s great to see research and scholarship on the occult being promoted. Could you speak to the development of this conference and your goals for it?
This is a conference I’ve been doing with my friend, Jesse Bransford, since 2013, on a roughly biennial schedule. Jesse is an incredible occult artist, scholar, and the chair of NYU’s undergrad fine art department, so I’m very lucky that he has been as excited about doing this conference as I have.
Though it’s starting to change a bit, traditionally speaking, academia has not been kind to occult interests. I remember learning about the abstract art movement in school, for example, and there being no mention of magic, mysticism, Theosophy, nothing! And that’s just factually inaccurate, as so many of the canonical abstract artists we think of, from Kandinsky to Pollack to Rothko and onward, were explicitly trying to give the viewer an occult, transformational experience with their work.
It’s astonishing, really, that so many institutions feel at best embarrassed, or at worst threatened, by this content, because the history of the world is steeped in magical ideas. Whether or not you ascribe to them yourself, it still has to be acknowledged that many people have had beliefs in or about magic for thousands of years, and this has shaped our politics, our culture, and our society at every strata. So Jesse and I wanted to create a space where we got leading scholars and artists to explore the relationship between magic and the humanities within an academic context. It’s an eclectic and diverse lineup of speakers each year, but there always manages to be surprising and illuminating links that form between the various lectures and artworks.
So the conference is both a celebration and a reclamation of these principals. Not to mention, it becomes a wonderful Temporary Autonomous Zone where some of the most curious, lovely, likeminded people can come together for three days. A lot of people say that even though they adore the lectures, meeting each other is their favorite part of the whole thing. Getting to commune out in the open, and in an academic setting, is validating and healing in many respects. It helps dissolve the shame around this material and turn it into a vehicle of love and genuine connection. And that’s the most important thing of all.
We have heard you are writing a new full-length book, and we are really excited about it! Can you tell us a bit about it, and any other future projects you’re working on right now?
My book is called Waking the Witch, and it’s a work of creative non-fiction, wherein I explore different aspects of the witch archetype. It’s part historical, and part analytical about why witches are on the rise right now. But it’s also very personal, as I weave in what the witch has meant to me throughout my life and why she matters.
It’s coming out next year from Simon and Schuster’s Gallery Books imprint. I’m very excited about it, but also very much in the weeds of writing it right now, which is inevitably a challenge. So I gratefully welcome any and all good vibes!
I’ve got lots of other projects cooking in the cauldron, too, including writing the text for a new major arcana tarot set from Sabat Magazine, doing other writing for various mediums, making more episodes of my podcast, The Witch Wave, and a few other things I can’t mention quite yet.
If you were going to compile a list of Essential Texts for a Budding Witch in the Trump Era, what books/sites/films/art/etc. would be on the list, and why?
Goodness gracious, that’s something I could probably write 50 pages on alone! There are so many amazing works out there. I’ll stick to a couple very recent ones for now.
Finally, just for fun — we noticed that you are a big fan of RuPaul’s Drag Race, as are we! Who are your favorite queens?
I love drag so much. It’s its own sort of witchcraft: it uses glamour as a spell, and it plays with illusion to reveal higher truth. Seriously, there are so many parallels between drag queens and witches as shape-shifters, transformers, and freedom fighters who make magic in the margins…I could talk about this all day!
In fact, my very favorite queen is actually someone who will be my next guest on The Witch Wave: Louisianna Purchase. She’s a witch queen based in Austin, and her approach to drag is magical, artful, and sophisticated, while still having a wicked sense of humor.
In terms of Drag Race queens, there are so many I adore. But my favorites include Sasha Velour, Sharon Needles, Raja, Kim Chi, Katya, BenDeLaCreme, and of course, Ru herself. RuPaul is seriously a transcendent being, and as far as I’m concerned, she’s the ultimate witch!