The California Historical Society has just processed and cataloged a recent donation of sixty-six photographs of self-described witches of Northern California from the late 1990s, taken by Peter Hughes (1948-2008). Hughes, who lived and worked on the Monterey Peninsula from 1994 to 2006, wrote that in these photographs he wanted “to create a myth, reflect a personal ideal, and in the process, show my subjects as goddesses and gods, far removed from the mundane world in which they ordinarily live.” Hughes set out to portray the images that the participants had of themselves, showing what the author and activist Starhawk said of these photos -- “what magic feels like from the inside.”
Witchcraft (or “Craft,” as it’s commonly referred to by its members) is practiced by men as well as women, men also calling themselves witches. The Craft community is goddess-centered and its spirituality is nature-based. Its practitioners see the Earth as alive and feminine. The Craft celebrates the seasons and life’s passages, centering on cycles of birth, growth, death, decay and regeneration. Cycles are symbolically represented by spirals, circles, pentacles and mandalas, many of these shapes appearing within the photographs.
A revival of interest in witchcraft occurred in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a time that embraced alternative modes of perception and the search for meaning and spirit in an increasingly materialistic culture. This, along with a growing women’s movement and a renewed respect for folk traditions created an environment much more conducive to the philosophies of the Craft. M. Macha Nightmare, who appears in several of Hughes’ photos, wrote: “We began to call ourselves Witches. Long associated with social outcasts and misfits, the term Witch also enabled us to identify with our foremothers and our women’s heritage. We identified with the Witches who were persecuted and martyred in Europe during the fourteenth century through the sixteenth centuries. For many, taking the name Witch signifies a new realization of their personal ‘power from within’ rather than ‘power over.’”
These witches see the goddess in everything and they invoke a goddess presence in their rituals. Many witches have a specific pantheon, such as Greek, Celtic or Egyptian. The presence of a male deity is often a part of their rituals, the more common forms being the cloven-hooved, antlered or horned gods (one particular image in the collection shows a male witch holding a pair of antlers to his head).
Traditionally, witches perform rites in their homes, backyards, beaches, and groves of trees, and the majority of these photographs were taken near the beach or in forested areas. Most of the photographs are portraits of the witches in the nude. Some witches work wearing robes, but more often they work in the nude, or, as they call it, Skyclad. To be Skyclad symbolizes freedom and enables an unrestricted flow of energy. Costumes, props and masks are often used in Craft work and many of these are on display in these photographs. Most witches use tools, each associated with a cardinal point (e.g., North), and element (e.g., Fire) and a season. Some of the most common tools used are the athamé (a double-sided dagger), sword, cup or chalice, and pentangle. Natural objects such as feathers, bones and shells can also serve as tools, all of which are featured prominently in these images.
M. Macha Nightmare has said that Peter Hughes used his camera as his magical tool, reshaping the world. Hughes’ widow, Denise Sallee (the subject of two portraits), said Peter considered himself a magician, a practitioner and believer in a magical universe. She also noted, “When we finished this project he felt he had documented, as an anthropologist might, this ‘tribe of people.’”
The California Historical Society thanks Denise Sallee for her generous donation of this collection, Photographs of Witches of Northern California by Peter Hughes, 1997-1999 (PC 15)
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