Video produced by Stacy Jackman for Yahoo Life.
The world’s fascination with witchcraft is a tale as old as time. From legends and folklore to newer incarnations in film and television like Bewitched, Charmed, Hocus Pocus, The Craft, Practical Magic, Harry Potter and more, audiences never seem to tire of the evolving landscape of modern witchcraft. And in this case, life seems to be mirroring art.
The number of people who practice Wiccan or pagan religious rituals has increased dramatically over the last few decades. According to the U.S. Census Bureau's American Religious Identification Survey, between 2001 and 2008, the number of Wiccans increased from 134,000 to 342,000, while the number of pagans increased from 140,000 to 340,000.
A 2014 Pew Research Center report suggested that 0.3 percent of the U.S. adult population identified as either Wiccan or pagan. A similar 2017 survey from the Pew Research Center examining New Age beliefs also found that 60 percent of adult Americans believe in one or more of the following: psychics, astrology, the presence of spiritual energy in inanimate objects (like mountains or trees) or reincarnation.
Though newer research on the growing interest in witchcraft is limited, its online presence cannot be ignored. More millennials and Gen Z-ers are embracing the practice, thanks to hashtags like #WitchesOfInstagram and #WitchTok, all of which have created new opportunities for practitioners to educate and empower each other as authors, podcasters and influencers.
But what most people fail to see is that outside of the portrayals in film, TV and social media, there is a bustling community of real-life witches who don’t need to watch actors or influencers cast spells to heal the world’s pain. They’re doing it themselves.
The growing interest in witchcraft
“I think it's going to keep getting bigger, particular with the younger generation, because of the ecological crisis we’re facing,” Amanda Yates Garcia (interviewed above), a popular witch known as the Oracle of Los Angeles, tells Yahoo Life. She says that at its core, witchcraft is a “religion of nature,” which is appealing to those searching for the meaning and connectivity of all things.
Garcia was raised in the religion by her witch mother but had stopped practicing witchcraft as a late teen, until she found it again as a young adult. She now credits the growing popularity of the craft to social media.
“A lot of people are exposed to it that wouldn’t have been exposed before,” she says. “I think witches get to speak for themselves a lot more whereas, maybe in the '80s and '90s, it was this sort of dominant media structure that maybe would do a one-off article on them — but always from the perspective of ‘these women think they're witches’ or whatever. It's nice to see that witches can say what they're really about now. It's hard to say that witches are evil or stupid when you go to their page and she's got a PhD, talking about ecology and science, and telling people to get the vaccine. You can't really maintain the same level of misinformation [than prior decades].”
Aliza Kelly, bestselling author, producer and thought leader on witchcraft, credits a “witchcraft revival” in the 1990s for helping her find her voice. Movies like Hocus Pocus and The Craft, she says, spawned a wave of pop-up stores in her hometown where she discovered that magic “was something I had innately.”
“I have this very intuitive connection,” Kelly tells Yahoo Life. “So when I saw that mirrored in pop culture, it felt very affirming. I felt like the things I felt were really possible and really there. Knowing that I am magic, feeling and identifying as a witch from such a young age, it all felt like a true expression of my spirit.”
Kelly’s passion to help others “tap into their own magic” inspired her to write her latest book, This Is Your Destiny: Using Astrology to Manifest Your Best Life, which she hopes will make magic “accessible” to those with limited resources.
“A lot of my own magic came out of difficult circumstances, not being happy in my conditions and being able to connect with magic or being able to light a candle or do a little spell and, basically, make a wish for the situation to be better or for there to be some release or for there to be some solution,” says Kelly. “It was a way for me to cope when I couldn't change my external circumstances. But I could change my internal ones. And slowly through time, you start to see that your internal realities become reflected in your external circumstances.”
“When you go back far enough, there's going to be some kind of magic in the religion or native land you come from,” says Cary Chandler, a Salem, Mass.-based witch and celebrity astrologer, adding that even for people who didn’t “grow up” with a "deep cultural background," witchcraft “is a way to incorporate culture and ritual into your life.”
“It's also appealing right now, especially in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement,” she adds. “I think there's real power attracting people who might be living on the edges of society or who want to reclaim their own power.”
Misconceptions and misogyny
“Some of the more popular misconceptions, for instance, is that witchcraft is about worshiping the devil or something,” quips Garcia. “That is just completely not true because the devil is a Christian creation and witches aren't Christian. So they don't have anything to do with the devil.”
“Witches are interested in mythology," she does note. "And the devil is a really interesting mythological figure. Certainly, plenty of witches like to talk about it or think about it, especially because it appears in tarot.”
Chandler also sets the record straight. “Tarot cards are not evil. They are simply a reflection of the space that you're in right now,” she says, adding that “witchcraft is different depending on who is practicing it. It’s not necessarily voodoo and it’s not necessarily paganism. I would say, though, that it is almost like a modern rebellious feminism approach to living your life.”
Misogyny and patriarchy, Yates adds, are the main reasons why fear and stigma around witchcraft perpetuate. Narratives built and formed by men in power have set the stage for the misinformation we still see today. And that goes all the way back to the Salem witch trials, she explains.
“Historically, if you look at who was referred to as a witch, this is the case in Europe as well as in the United States in America, a lot of the time it was women who lived alone. And women who had to eat, to defend their own homes from intruders,” says Yates. “Women would use concoctions and would use brooms. They would use a lot of the objects that we associate with ‘witch aesthetic’ to protect their home, protect their animals and have and maintain their agency."
"Women were always being threatened," Yates continues. "Women were always on the precipice of having their land taken away from them, or have their rights taken away, or some random male relative coming up from who knows where to be like, ‘Oh, no. I'm entitled to this home.’ That was who were called witches. Women using what tools they had to protect themselves.”
'Witchcraft isn’t a belief system. It’s a practice'
It’s important to note that not all witches are Wiccan (some are pagan), and not all Wiccans or pagans practice witchcraft either. Above all else, explains Garcia, the core of witchcraft is hardly ever tied to ideology or dogma, but rather it is a practice rooted in self-discipline and care.
“The biggest thing that people seem to wonder about is, like, ‘Do you actually, quote-unquote, believe?'” says Garcia. “I think that gets to a major misconception of what witches do and what we think about, what we care about. Witchcraft isn't a belief system, it's a practice. In order to be a witch, you don't have to believe that the goddess is your personal savior. There's nothing you have to believe. It’s really about the things that you do.”
“Another question people wonder about is, ‘Well, do you really believe that if you do certain things that it will have a magical result in your life, or if you cast a spell will have the effect that you want it to have?’” she continues. “To that I would say there are many different reasons why we practice magic and only one of those reasons is ‘Oh, I want to make a change in my life.’ Sometimes it's just to feel more connected or to ground or to center or to carry on your lineage. There's a lot of different reasons why you might do something, but also, yeah, I do think it works. I feel like it has an effect.”
“There's no wrong way to tap into your magic,” adds Kelly. “Everybody’s magic is so unique. Everybody's story is so unique. Everybody's life and circumstances are special. And that uniqueness is found in your individual practice. But just doing it is the most important thing because all of the other details can be fine-tuned and adjusted to fit your circumstances.”
Chandler adds that, for her, the daily practices have, in turn, spawned new rituals of “self-care” that go hand in hand. Even things like “setting an altar,” which creates “a spiritual place physically in my home that reflects a spiritual place in my heart,” is important.
“By creating something physical around an altar and taking the time, I'm also making time for myself in nature and making time for myself in my home,” she explains. “I'm more aware when anxiety is coming up in my life and what I can do to calm myself during that anxiety [episode], especially during COVID times. Spiritual ritual and routine has given me a real peace of mind and it helps me connect to something that isn't just like: wake up, read the news, work from home. There's something else here, and it's witchcraft. I'm more attentive to how I feel and I'm also not afraid to delve into the dark side of my brain.”