The spiritual shortcut (Spells, my grandmother, and politics)

Clovis Maillet

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  • Annuaire de l’Essonne, p.341


Casting a spell on art history

A queer trans activist colleague of mine had been severely criticized by a cisgender heterosexual art historian at a symposium. They told me: “That very same night, I cast a spell on him...” A student of mine at the Angers School of Fine-Arts wanted to cure art history. In one of his performances, he threw flowers up in the air while chanting in English: “In the name of Ana Mendieta, I spell against the heteropatriarchy.”[1]

Initially, I wanted to write a piece containing many examples of queer and feminist incantations. I have heard many of them from my students, and read many more in the Starhawk books that they passed on to each other.[2] However, as I was writing these spells down, I realized that my own bias led me to exaggerate how much they are used as LGBTQI+ slogans. After all, I am a medieval historian teaching gender and trans studies in an art school, where I often have to answer questions about LGBTQI+ history over the centuries. For instance, I often have to debunk the myth that the word “faggots” comes from the homosexuals who were used as firewood when witches were burnt at the stake.[3] My students ask more questions about the Queer Pagan Camp[4] than about Dominican Order inquisitors or about Jeanne Favret-Saada's seminal study on sorcery in the woodlands of the west of France.[5] I am used to reading texts in Latin, old French, and Tuscan—texts that express radically different worldviews, as yet unmarked by the great divide between nature and culture. In these worldviews, people didn’t ask whether the extraordinary events they encountered were real or not. Instead, they tried to figure out whether these events came from God or from the devil. I am also well aware that both men and women were accused of sorcery in the 15th century, and that this crime became feminized only at a later date. Consequently, students interested in knights, Byzantine eunuchs, carnivals, and 16th-century witches gravitate to me. In turn, they tell me that these questions greatly matter to their generation. My friends have even told me that I am creating the very research object I am studying.[6]

I was reflecting on this matter while shopping for groceries at the local store. As I browsed through the flour shelf, I heard a voice with a delicate Spanish accent on the store radio. The voice argued that states should get rid of categorizations of gender identity on identity papers— most urgently, but not exclusively, for intersex children. I silently agreed and started to listen more closely. The speaker moved on to the connections between queer theory and shamanism, recounting the revelations made to him by a Bolivian shaman. I recognized the voice as that of Paul B. Preciado. When I made it back home, I looked up the broadcast online. The search engine suggested a training program in shamanism, at the very reasonable price of €87 (“10 Sessions + 12 Hours of Content + 1 Personalized Support. You Will be Able to Perform Rituals to Communicate with Spirits”). 

The devils of Loudun

Individuals suffering from oppression—particularly from cis-hetero-patriarchal forms of oppression—may appeal to “spiritual shortcuts” for help. Forms of spirituality may help them to keep fighting in contexts where they are in a position of material weakness. Today, it is easy to learn about many composite spiritual practices that merge different traditions.

However, both my grandmother and sociologists of religion had told me that the supernatural was dead. Sociologists would use the word “secularization,” while my grandmother would say: “Oh, it's true, it's been a long while since I've gone to mass.” In the small rural Poitou town where I grew up, there were still some children who took religious education classes. For children like me who didn't enroll, these classes were intriguing and mysterious. My grandmother wasn't even upset when my parents decided not to baptize me. Some healers still practiced their craft, but I was told that there were fewer and fewer of them. Everyone in my town had heard a few things about demonology, however. In the 17th century, Loudun, the small town where I grew up, was the location of the most famous trial for demonic possession in France—the French Salem. Cardinal Richelieu used the trial to suppress local political opponents, and drove home the point by building a fortified town named after himself only a few miles away.[7] But all of that was buried deep in the past. There is no memorial to the trial of Urbain Grandier, the dissident married priest who supposedly bewitched the nuns of his convent. There is only a heart-shaped stone to mark the spot where Grandier was burned at the stake. It was all a very long time ago, and no one believed in sorcery anymore. My neighbor Monique once tried to heal a wart on my finger by blowing on it through a needle-pierced cork while whispering prayers; she also recommended that I bury beans in a ditch until they rotted. Even Monique didn't really believe in what she was doing anymore. Even though she claimed that she didn't believe in it, and certainly had never read Octave Mannoni's theory of cognitive dissonance, she said she practiced “anyway.”

“Better to deal with women than to deal with the Apocalypse”[8]

Danièle Hervieu-Léger wrote that despite the dramatic loss of influence of organized “strong religions” in the 1960s, religion didn't vanish altogether. The 1970s saw the development of what Hervieu-Léger called “a desire for utopia,” leading people to the “theological minimalism” of “light religions” and individualized composite practices.[9] These practices borrowed from sources as diverse as tarot, astrology, wicca, Christianism, Buddhism, and yoga. Nevertheless, many people who turned to these practices didn't entirely renounce the services provided by organized religions like Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, notably for marriages and at the beginning and end of life.   

Had my neighbor Monique been a feminist, she could have become a powerful witch in the 1970s. She could have taught me new age spells and revolutionary incantations. But none of this happened in Loudun. It happened in New York, where, on the evening of Halloween in 1968, a collective of socialist feminists founded W.I.T.C.H (Women's International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell). It also happened in Italy, where Leopoldina Fortunati, Silvia Federici, and pro-choice activists shouted: “Tremble, tremble, the witches have come back!”[10] Working between the US and Italy, Fortunati and Federici investigated 16th-century witch hunts and the contemporaneous exclusion of women from artisanal work.[11] In Paris, the feminist activist Françoise d'Eaubonne, who co-founded the FHAR (Homosexual Revolutionary Action Front) with Guy Hocquenghem, championed what she called “ecofeminism.” She collected information about witch hunts, which she would later describe as “sexocides.”[12] In 1975, Xavière Gauthier founded the journal Sorcières (Witches), Les femmes vivent. While ecofeminism originated as a philosophical and political school of thought, it also started to be practiced by rural women working on “women's lands” who didn't necessarily have an intellectual activist background.[13]

I wanted to research those feminist witches to understand why they never met the healers of my childhood. I wanted to understand why historians don't read Silvia Federici. I was aware of the criticisms made by my fellow medievalists. They scorned the resurgence of interest in witches and sought to write a history of sorcery that included male sorcerers in the complex history of heresy. I also understood the reservations expressed by fellow trans activists. They were often troubled by ecofeminism's essentialist descriptions of goddess spirituality and Mother Earth. I attempted to address these concerns by saying that these spiritual movements can take many forms, and that they spark interest in new areas of research. I added that knowing who believed in what didn't matter as much as those beliefs' political effectiveness.

“A Queer History that doesn't appear in history books”

Spiritual conversion has never been exclusively spiritual. Conversion experiences are especially meaningful and emotional when they occur in the face of the absurdity of death. In the 1980s, mass death ravaged a marginalized group, creating a link in the eyes of many between homosexuals, AIDS, and death.[14] Communing with the dead could be a revolutionary act performed against a cisheteronormative social order. AA Bronson, member of the collective General Idea—a trio of artists and lovers—observed:

“From the time I was a boy, I took a big interest in all forms of esoterica—magic and shamanism, and other kinds of practices. My father was in the air force, so we would move to a new city every three years. I would basically clean out the library of that city, read every book I could find on Buddhism, Hinduism, the occult, shamanism, mythologies, and of course art and architecture. I have always identified with these subjects and always felt I had a special relationship to nature. [...] When Felix and Jorge were dying, and there were a lot of people dying, I began to take healing courses in California and realised that what I needed to do was to listen to my intuition.”[15]

The refusal of married life and other heterosexual pressures increased the allure of the spiritual or religious life. Michel Journiac said that he was pushed into attending the seminary because of his sexual orientation. After he left the holy orders, he brought his deep knowledge of ritual practices into his art.[16] Spiritual experiences shared within same-sex communities and the concept of “spiritual friendship” have shaped lesbian and gay histories.[17] Queer genealogies have taken root in institutions from monasteries to the US Marine Corps. AA Bronson suggests that shamanism is a way of communicating with benevolent ancestors: 

“There is a queer history that doesn't appear in history books, the history of all-male societies—explorers, loggers, trappers, the military, the church, even pirates—as well as the history of creative communities and so on...”[18]

The occult and troubled history of gender

Unlike AA Bronson, I never cured anyone. Even though my mother claimed to be a water diviner, I never developed any supernatural gifts. I never had any esoteric experiences. I looked for traces of history by shuffling through the Vatican libraries in search of manuscripts, sometimes with the help of priests. I took part in Quaker assemblies that preached an egalitarian group mysticism. I attended a Candomblé celebration near São Paulo, where I saw spirits possessing participants.

I also worked extensively on rethinking the late 19th-century practice of spiritism by women. Spiritist women were at war. At times they struggled against the rule of men, at times against other social injustices. Possessed by both male and female spirits, these odd divorced or unmarried women gained power and fame from their ability to communicate with spirits and extraterrestrial beings. Hélène Smith/Élise Müller was a prominent medium whose writing skills in Sanskrit and Martian were even studied by linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. She drew Martian landscapes and plants, and painted representations of an imaginary Palestine.[19] These drawings were interpreted by psychologist Théodore Flournoy in 1900.[20] However, Müller condemned Flournoy for describing her gifts as a regular case of somnambulism. A certain Mrs. Jackson, a wealthy American benefactor and enthusiast of spiritism, provided Élise Müller with a lifelong stipend. This income allowed her to pursue her craft independently and dedicate herself fully to her visions, protected from the hostile gaze of science and men like Flournoy.      

A love spell against the end of the world

But how effective is this invisible weapon against those who hold the reins of power? Is establishing spiritual diplomatic relations enough to stop the powerful from slaughtering people, animals, and ecosystems? I am not sure how useful Starhawk's proclamation is: “We must demand that our politics serve our sexuality. Too often, we have asked sexuality to serve our politics instead.”[21]

In the 15th century, inducing love through spells was an instrument of power. While men derided this practice, it was not repressed in an organized manner. I will conclude my thoughts with a love spell that can easily be adapted for the present day:

“Belotte Court Talon said [...] that if a woman places feathers from a capon that has had young chicken is her [beloved's] ear as well as hair from the right leg of [their] dog and from the tip of [their] cat's tail, [they] would never forget [their] love for her.”[22]


Clovis Maillet (2020)

Invitation made on the occasion of the exhibition Sâr Dubnotal

Translated from the French by Michael Angland and Lucas Morin.


[1] Performance by Benoît Le Boulicaut, part of a festival co-organized with artists Grace Ndiritu and Natsuko Uchino at Château de Montsoreau—Musée d'art contemporain, 2019.

[2] Starhawk, Dreaming the Dark. Magic, Sex and Politics (Boston: Beacon Press, 1982, 1988, 1997).

[3] This fictitious etymology was suggested by Silvia Federici in her fascinating yet inaccuracy-ridden book: Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation (Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 2004). According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word faggot meant “heretic” in 16th-century English. It was later used to scold naughty or mischievous children in the 19th century. In the United States, it was first recorded as a derogatory term designating homosexuals in 1913.

[4] Every year since 1998, see

[5] Jeanne Favret-Saada, Deadly Words: Witchcraft in the Bocage, trans. Catherine Cullen (Cambridge University Press, 1981).

[6] I would like to thank Pierre-Olivier Dittmar (EHESS) for our lengthy conversations on the matter, as well as l'École de la Terre at the Goutailloux farm (Tarnac), which organized the program “Désarchiver le passé (Unarchiving the Past)” in the summer of 2019.

[7] For more information about the Loudun trials see Michel Carmona, Les Diables de Loudun (The Devils of Loudun), not translated (Paris: Fayard, 1988).

[8] Françoise d’Eaubonne, Écologie et Féminisme, révolution ou mutation ? (Ecology and Feminism: Revolution or Transformation?), not translated (Paris: Libre & Solidaire, 2018 [1978]), 177.

[9] Danièle Léger and Bernard Hervieu, Le Retour à la nature: «Au fond de la forêt... l’État» (Return to Nature: “Deep in the Forest… the State”), not translated (Paris: L’Aube, 2005 [Seuil, 1979]); Danièle Hervieu-Léger, La Religion en miettes ou la question des sectes (Religion in shreds or Cults in questions), not translated (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 2001).

[10]Tremate, tremate, le streghe son tornate!”, as quoted by Silvia Federici in Silvia Federici, “Primitive Accumulation and Witch-Hunts: Past and Present,” in Witches: Hunted, Appropriated, Empowered, Queered, interview by Anna Colin, ed. Anna Colin (Paris/Montreuil: B42/Maison Populaire, 2013), 129.

[11] Federici and Fortunati first published Il Grande Calibano: storia del corpo sociale ribelle nella prima fase del capitale, not translated (Milan: Franco Angeli, 1984), then Federici alone published Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation (Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 2004).

[12] Françoise d'Eaubonne, Le Féminisme ou la mort (Feminism or Death), not translated (Paris: Horay, 1974); Écologie et féminisme; Le Sexocide des sorcières (The Sexocide of Witches), not translated (Paris: L'Esprit frappeur, 1999). 

[13] Marlène Benquet, Geneviève Pruvost, “Pratiques écoféministes : corps, savoirs et mobilisations (Ecofeminist Practices: Body, Knowledge and Activism)”, not translated, Travail, Genre et Sociétés 42, n°2 (2019), 23—28.

[14] According to Élisabeth Lebovici, “death in [the time of] AIDS” constituted a shared experience for both the living and the dead in the 1980s. Élisabeth Lebovici, Ce que le sida m'a fait: art et activisme à la fin du xxe siècle (What AIDS has done to me: art and activism in the late 20th century), not translated (Zurich: JRP-Ringier, 2017), 12.

[15] AA Bronson, “Community of the Living and the Dead,” in Colin, Witches, interview by Vincent Simon, 151.

[16] Michel Journiac, Écrits (Written Works), not translated (Paris, ENSBA, 2013), 24. For more about Journiac's unfinished political projects, see Antoine Idier, Pureté et impureté de l’art. Michel Journiac et le sida (Purity and impurity of art: Michel Journiac and AIDS), not translated (Aurillac: Sombres Torrents, 2019).

[17] Daniel Boquet, “L’amitié comme problème au Moyen Âge (Friendship as Problem in the Middle Ages),” not translated, in Une histoire au présent. Les historiens et Michel Foucault (History in the present tense. Historians and Michel Foucault), ed. Damien Boquet, Blaise Dufal, Pauline Labey (Paris: CNRS éditions, 2013), 59—81.

[18] AA Bronson, “Community of the Living and the Dead,” 155.

[19] Her drawings were included in the exhibition: Esprit es-tu là? Les peintres et les voix de l’au-delà (Spirit, are you here? Painters and Voices from Beyond), Paris/Lille: Culturesespaces, Musée Maillol, LaM, 2020.

[20] Théodore Flournoy, From India to the Planet Mars: A Study of a Case of Somnambulism with Glossolalia, trans. Daniel T. Vermilye (New York and London: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1900).

[21] Starhawk, Dreaming the Dark: Magic, Sex and Politics (Boston: Beacon Press, 1988), 140—41.

[22] I used a gender-neutral alternative to designate the bewitched person. Madeleine Jeay and Kathleen Garay, eds., The Distaff Gospels: A First Modern English Edition of “Les Évangiles des Quenouilles,” trans. Madeleine Jeay and Kathleen Garay (Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2006), 159.