As modern-day witchcraft soars, those who do it explain why
“I always say, magic is like making love … ”
That’s what Skye Alexander, a real-life witch and author of 45 books on the metaphysical, tells me.
“… the environment you set for yourself is an integral part of how successful and fulfilling the experience will be,” she explains.
Skye has explored witchcraft and Wicca (they’re different!) for over 20 years, and is one of many witches I got to know this week.
I went in search of them because they’re taking over popular culture now more than ever. Take a walk through any Urban Outfitters and you’ll see the trendy store stocking crystals and spell books while hundreds of witchy Tumblr blogs, Instagram accounts and Etsy shops proliferate online. It’s clear the practice is on the rise, especially amongst young adults.
Question is: why?
“Frankly, it’s a shit time for a lot of young people,” says Jaya Saxena, co-author of the popular book “Basic Witches.” “Many are realizing that the traditional places they’re supposed to find power and validation are just not working for them.”
Ana Campos, a Shamanic witch, Reiki Master and artist, expresses sympathy for young people too. She blames the rigors of life becoming so burdensome, many simply just want an escape and to find purpose.
“Younger generations are now saddled with crippling debt and unaffordable educations,” she says. “There is a growing sense of disillusionment. Young adults are looking for meaning outside of the dissatisfaction of the daily grind.”
Witchcraft, Wicca and Paganism provide that, and are far more accessible now than in decades past — resources and communities surrounding each flourishing online. In fact, Skye explains to me that Wicca is now formalized enough as a religion for the military to allow it on your dog tag (witchcraft, while still comparatively prolific, is more of a general methodology). And while some may trivialize the crystals and spell books and cheeky accoutrements lining the bedroom shelves as simply an aesthetic phase, for many today, the draw to magic is about more than a consumerist trend.
This latest cultural phenomenon is all the more remarkable when considering the history of it all, one of intolerance, fear and violence. The eruption of witch trials in the Western world can be traced far back into 14th century Europe. Simply put for brevity’s sake, the development and proliferation of modern Christianity included the belief that the devil is evil and capable of making humans serve him.
The church associated the idea of witchcraft as consorting with Satan, and declared witches as the worst kind of heretics. (“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,” reads Exodus 22:18.)
And along with The Bible’s condemnation of witches way back when, two friars fueled the hysteria by writing a massively popular book in the mid-1480s. It was called “Malleus Maleficarum” — “Hammer of Witches” — and called upon Christians with an obligation: hunt and kill. To make things easier for people in doing so, it also included a handy guide on how to spot these dangerous beings (including a vivid description of how they could and would steal your penis).
Significantly, it blamed witchcraft on women. Rarely men. Because why not?
It was a disastrous affair. According to numerous reports, between 1580 and 1630 (the peak of the movement), some 40,000 to 60,000 people were executed. Those accused of witchcraft met awful ends by being stoned, drowned, hanged, burned, lacerated or pressed to death with rocks.
But that was over 400 years ago. What defines the lifestyle in present day is far different than that of the Salem Witch Trials in 1692 (which unsurprisingly enough, were much later found to be in error — much of the infamous strange behavior is believed to have stemmed from ergot-contaminated foods, a fungus that causes muscle spasms, vomiting, delusions and hallucinations.)
“I think it gives most of us a sense of self-confidence and control over our lives,” Emrys, a young woman who advertises her craft on Tumblr, says about the appeal to the practices. “It helps us to feel as if you have some influence in not only our own lives, but in the universe as a whole.”
Belinus, a High Priest of the Aphrodite Urania coven in Toronto, Canada, emphasizes that today’s “magic” is about much more than just getting a spice rack with funny names and wearing pointy hats though.
“Magic is a tool to get somewhere … divination, astrology, magic, all of it are tools to help you realize yourself,” he tells me.
However, other than starting his day with a water offering to the universe, performing a banishing pentagram ritual, and perhaps casting a magical circle, he says his day is pretty normal.
“It’s basically the same as everyone else’s, but through the practices I’ve been involved with over the years, I’ve trained myself to be mindful, essentially,” he says. “But, I still have to change the kitty litter and get the groceries!”
Belinus says he also does a healing meditation with his coven (a group of witches) every full and new moon. There they send healing energy to those in need. It’s a long-held tradition of good fortune to those who may benefit from it — and not necessarily to only those involved in Wicca themselves.
“I will not guarantee it will heal your cancer,” Belinus says. “But I do know of some instances where it was believed to have happened.” He recalls one time a woman was told she would be unable to conceive. After months of the type of meditations practiced, she became pregnant.
“That was a fun one,” he adds. “The child is a boy and is quite well.”
Others lean toward the practice because they believe in special skills others do not. In high school, now 20-year-old Jordan (identified only by first name on request) discovered she’s what people call an empathic — a form of psychic — a trait she shares with her mother even though she’s “super, super Christian,” she says.
Known online via her Tumblr page as “The Knowledge of Aeshryver,” Jordan went on a heavy research binge after the discovery, and now owns over a hundred “witchy books” while being highly active with online communities.
Similar tales to Jordan’s echoed throughout my conversations with close to a dozen practicing witches, women (and men) offering enlightenment and finding answers as to why they do what they do.
“After falling on hard times in my early twenties, I explored spells and magic,” says Leanna Greenaway, author of “Wiccapedia, The Journal, Book of Shadows and Wicca Plain and Simple.” She says she had a spiritual upbringing, and what was found in witchcraft isn’t so far off from that anyway. “These rituals proved to be successful, so much so that it changed my life for the better.”
Emrys moved to Wicca and Paganism from Christianity after she “figured out [her] personal beliefs and moral ideology didn’t really work with that religion.”
Similarly, Ana Campos, the Shamanic witch, became dissatisfied with her Catholic childhood. “As a woman, I was … struggling with what I see as very patriarchal views within Catholicism,” she says. “I craved a framework that wouldn’t tell me I was lesser-than for being a woman.”
Regardless of why people are practicing these once taboo, eons-old religions, the outcome remains a connecting factor. Everyone I spoke with says the mindfulness and positive benefits of meditation actually do work in their lives.
“One thing I like to do, is to stand barefoot in a patch of grass in my yard and just ground myself and take a few minutes to connect with the Earth and my surroundings,” says a 19-year-old, who asked to be identified as “F.”
Jordan likes to visualize dark energy washing off of her while she showers, and casts charms to make herself more charismatic at her customer service job. A charm, she tells me, is akin to a verbal affirmation.
“If you have intention, it will go far,” she assures me.
Jordan gets materials for her practice from Dollarama and Walmart. She tailors her altar at home to the God Apollo — it includes a chalice for offerings, a bottle of sunwater (water charged with the sun’s energy) to add extra power to a ritual, a bottle of cleansing water to get rid of negative energy (“It’s literally just sea salt and water!”), assorted crystals, an empty prescription bottle filled with sea salt and sage ash for cleansing spells. There are also tarot cards and candles of different colors for different spells (she especially likes a lilac one from Bath & Body Works).
Nikki Van De Car, author of “Practical Magic” (a book currently featured on Urban Outfitter’s online store), says visiting Voodoo shops in New Orleans isn’t anything like Hollywood would have you believe witchcraft is.
“If you looked closely … setting aside the glasses of your own preconceptions, you could see that everything was positive,” she says. “There were spells, candles, ointments, dolls, figurines, gris-gris, and the vast majority of them were intended for good. And magic is all about intention.”
The good in these traditions, everyone agrees, was wiped out in historical context. Things like burning people at the stake or the other negative connotations that come with it have been relegated to the past — for the most part. They still encounter intolerance.
“I’ve been told I was stupid, crazy or going to hell by people I have otherwise had a close relationship with,” Emrys explains. “I have had complete strangers tell me I was going to burn in hell because of a necklace with a pentagram on it.”
Similarly, Jordan lives in Arkansas and has to be mindful of the conservative Christian community.
“You do have to be very careful what you say … I have been called a heathen and I’ve been told I’m going to hell,” she says.
Unless social and personal empowerment, especially by women, is a tool of monstrosity, witches are nothing to fear. As Nikki puts it, “Magic is not inherently anything. It is only what we bring to it. We are the magic.”
No one, especially those in witchcraft, is out to get you. No one is cursing your family by boiling frogs’ eyes with clumps of hair they’ve scrounged from your garbage. Those I corresponded with even emphasized the main rule of witchcraft and Wicca: do as you will but harm none.
“I honor whatever practices you want to make as long as we can all do whatever it is that’s important to each of us in terms of spirituality,” Belinus says. “That’s what matters. And that we harm none.”
“You have to practice visualization — it can go any which way. If you aren’t dead set on what you want to happen, you can inadvertently hurt someone or have it bounce back at yourself,” Jordan adds.
So what was the last spell Jordan cast? When asked, she laughs and says, “It’s actually kind of embarrassing … I wouldn’t call it a hex. ”
She explains that, after being treated unfairly at work, she used magic to “set things right.”
“Actually, I got the results I wanted this past week!” she says, happily.