Spellbound

Mesmerizing photos of Poland’s contemporary witches and healers

These women are moving away from organized religion and embracing alternative paths to spirituality

Twenty years ago, the Catholic Church played a significant role in the fall of communism in Poland, and it remains a formidable source of cultural and social identity there. As some Polish women embrace unconventional spiritual paths in lieu of organized religion, one photographer is documenting their journeys. While the concept of “witchcraft” has long held our fascination, and even given rise to mass hysteria and gendered violence, Polish photographer Katarzyna Majak’s project  “Women of Power” provides a rare and contemporary look at “neopaganism” in its many forms. Majak discussed the project, which combines portraits with in-depth interviews and will eventually be published as a book, with Women in the World.

Women in the World: What was your experience growing up in Poland as a Catholic? What was the “personal void” that you describe in your writing?

Katarzyna Majak: The experience of growing up in Poland, which was communist at the time, was certainly an interesting one, although as a child I did not fully comprehend or grasp all the political nuances. The power of the Catholic Church, especially at the time of communism, was immense. It created an enclave of freedom for many people. I grew up in a Catholic family in a relatively small city, and barely knew other options existed. My friends were Catholic, my grandmother was a firm believer. As a teenager, I was forced to learn religion, namely Catholic, at school. I really disliked that … I certainly felt limited on some levels.

WITW: Growing up, what was your impression of women who were “witches,” and healers? Were you aware they existed in Poland?

KM: The term “witch” was not really used in the “wise woman” sense. Every now and then I would hear of a healer, but this seemed remote. Nevertheless when I think of it now, I realize how much my  grandmother knew — of herbs, nature. She would take me to the woods and we spent hours there. She would never call herself a witch, especially being a devout Catholic, but had a lot of female traditional wisdom she wanted to share.

WITW: Why do you think women have been identifying with alternative paths of spirituality in Poland?

KM: I believe women identifying with alternative paths of spirituality have felt that institutionalized religion, with its set of a mechanic rituals, leaves little space for spontaneous, intuitive, and individualized behavior. On top of that, the role of women in Catholicism has been marginalized, and their sensuality has been suppressed. Poles have always put an emphasis on community rather than individuality. Institutionalized religion gave people what they yearned for at the time — the feeling of belonging during Poland’s long struggle for independence. Participation might have been a declaration of their hope for freedom. Regaining independence opened space to more individual attitudes and enabled more access to the diversity of spiritual paths existing in the world. Paradoxically, conservative Catholicism, which had immensely supported the Poles in their struggle with Communism, became one of the obstacles in making use of the newly regained freedom.

WITW: What do you think these other forms of spirituality can offer women that Catholicism doesn’t?

KM: Women who decide to follow their own paths may not be able to find what they need within an institutionalized religion. As the Polish Catholic Church, also due to its history, presents itself as one of the most conservative in the world today, it simply is not attractive to women who search for individuality, the freedom of choice and less mechanical practices. This spiritual hunger in Polish women has evoked the need in some to learn from outer traditions, leaving them with no other choice than to travel abroad — to North America, Peru, or New Zealand — to learn, come back and mix this knowledge with local traditions such as old Slavic ceremonies or demonology.

WITW: You’ve named this project “Women of Power.” Can you explain the use of the word “power,” and what it means to your project?

KM: Power here refers to the inner power — beyond politics, governments, religions, media and pop culture pressures. It is an individual feminine power that blossoms in those who have direct access to the wisdom inside them. I bring to light the “wise woman” present in every woman, who has been persecuted and whose role has been marginalized. “Women of Power” aims at women’s empowerment. I would like to show women whose power is to proudly stand in the truth of who they are.

WITW: How are younger generations of women approaching their spirituality in Poland today?

KM: They grew up under different circumstances. It is now much easier to find spiritual leaders coming to Poland, as well as local ones. There are more and more workshops, gatherings, ritual practices and women’s circles to choose from. Poland is now a part of European Union, travel possibilities are unlimited, and the Internet offers access to spiritual searchers all over the world. Enenna, a heroine of the “Women of Power” project, fell in love with Wicca in the mid-nineties, but there was no traditional Wicca in Poland. In 2004, she followed a wave of Polish people to Great Britain (once it opened its border to Polish people). She met her teachers there and in 2005 was initiated by them into Alexandrian Wicca. Currently in Poland, she leads a coven in this tradition.

WITW: How are local communities in Poland responding to the women in your photographs?

KM: The project had its premiere at New York-based Porter Contemporary Gallery three years ago. The more interest and coverage in foreign media, the more Polish people react to the project. They express gratitude for bringing these women to light and ask about the forthcoming book.

WITW: Is there any stigma or prejudice surrounding women who practice witchcraft, paganism, or are healers?

KM: Witches have always existed here. They mostly did healing and performed functions that were socially useful. Each woman, taking care of her home, was involved in herbalism, medical and paramedical matters. Throughout history they experienced prejudice similar to other witches in the world. Barbara Zdunk, who was ethnically Polish, is considered by many to have been the last woman executed for witchcraft in Europe ( in 1811). Today Hanna, a “szeptucha” — which mixes religion with primeval superstitions to heal and remove spells using prayers; this tradition survived on the Belarusian border — whom I photographed for the project, experiences verbal oppression from Orthodox priests. For the heroines of the project, showing their face was in many ways an act of maturity and courage. I still remember Maria Ela, the first woman who agreed to have her photograph taken, say, “it’s time we come out.”

WITW: What do you think these women can offer their communities?

KM: Their scope of activity is broad — herbs, midwifery (doulas) and healing to art, social activism, and the initiation of new religions. Women of Power can create spaces, communities, awareness and spirituality. They are healers, advisors, circle leaders, and spiritual helpers. This is a direction towards which a contemporary witch evolves.

WITW: What are your hopes for the project? Where are you taking the project next?

KM: I am now in the process of finishing the book, which will include the portraits, interviews with the “Women of Power” and additional texts on the topic. The draft version was created almost 3 years ago – I now have more people involved in the project, who will help me work on the interviews, new graphic design, text writing. It will be published in Polish this year by means of crowdfunding and soon after that in English. I then hope to travel all over the world meeting other “Women of Power” and promoting the book.

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