The season of the witch returns: Why witchcraft has gone mainstream — again
It’s a Friday night and I’m watching my best friend – a fully sane and high-achieving young professional – rhythmically parade around my apartment to a non-existent beat. She vigorously waves what looks like a massive joint in all directions, filling my entire condo with an earthy aroma.
No, my friend hasn’t had too many glasses of pinot grigio. She’s performing a smudging ritual to cleanse the aura of my new home and clear it of negative energy.
It’d be easy to write her off as a kooky eccentric, except many of my female friends have jumped aboard the same mystical bandwagon. It’s common to see altars in their apartments, not populated with crucifixes or wee Jesus statuettes, but with healing crystals, significant personal items, incense cones, candles and fresh flowers. They don’t use it to pray, but rather to “set their intentions.”
Smudging rituals and crystal altars aren’t the only witchcraft-inspired practices to go mainstream over the last year. Rituals and beliefs that would’ve gotten a woman burned at the stake or hanged in 16th-century Salem and Britain are increasingly the norm.
Tarot cards are as cool as Pokémon trading cards were in the early aughts, and the demand for essential oils to cure everything from jet lag to hormonal imbalances has catapulted natural wellness companies like Canada’s Saje Natural Wellness and Abundance Naturally into mega success stories. Mainstream beauty brands no longer just sell creams and serums; they trade in emulsions, potions and elixirs. Traditional Saturday salon outings for manicures are now treks to places like Toronto-based The Rock Store for reiki treatments followed by kombucha at the fittingly named Witches’ Brew in Kensington Market.
You can even buy sacred crystal sex toys on Etsy.
Depending on which source you believe, the number of women killed during the “witch craze” that occurred between the 15th and 18th centuries is anywhere from 50,000 to 9 million. Until as recently as 1951, you could be fined or imprisoned in Great Britain for practicing astrology, magic or spiritualism. But this isn’t just a travesty from our distant past.
In September of 2009, the UN identified witch-hunting as “a form of persecution and violence that is spreading around the globe.” The horrific practice of witch hunting is still particularly alive and well in Africa. An academic paper from University of Johannesburg philosophy professor Silvia Federici looks at incidents from the early 1990s (when 300 alleged witches were burned to death in Kenya) to 2005 (in Ghana, where 1,000 suspected sorcerers were at threat of being burned at the stake).
Despite – or perhaps because of the misogyny-plagued history of witchcraft – magick is suddenly everywhere. The guilty pleasure of reading one’s monthly horoscope has transformed into a serious belief in astrology, dictating who one should date and instilling a deep-seeded fear of Mercury retrograde. Life coach Gabrielle Bernstein, author of Spirit Junkie: A Radical Road to Discovering Self-Love and Miracles and May Cause Miracles: A 6-Week Kick-Start to Unlimited Happines, apparently “manifested” her books onto the New York Times’ bestseller list and is something of the de facto shaman for millennial women everywhere.
This embrace of witchery isn’t just the result of watching too many reruns of Charmed or a lingering obsession with the 1990s cult classic The Craft. While many millennial women were raised in religious households, most no longer describe themselves as traditional churchgoers or religious at all. However, the instinct to find solace and enlightenment in powerful rituals and otherworldly beliefs remains deeply ingrained.
Unlike many traditional religions that invest power in all-powerful leaders (usually men), the traditions of magick and witchcraft trade in personal power and are both accessible and highly individualized. A witch creates her own life, controls her future and heals herself. It’s a belief system that perfectly complements the rise of fourth-wave feminism.
Historically, women were called witches for being powerful in ways that society deemed unacceptable and threatening. Resurrecting witchcraft today falls in line with women reclaiming their right to personal power in women’s marches and campaigns against rape culture and unequal pay. Like the terms “slut” and “queer,” women are changing the connotation of witchcraft from a scary, negative one to something filled with positivity. Witchcraft ultimately celebrates the power of one’s own intuition and judgments, something women have historically been called crazy for doing.
The unstable political, economic and social climate has also increased people’s need for ritualistic practices and self-control. When so much of the greater picture seems to be wildly careening into the absurd, we naturally turn to things that make us feel safe, empowered and positive. The more marginalized and powerless we feel in the grand scheme of things, the more appeal there is in practices like witchcraft – especially for women who are still greatly underrepresented in positions with the authority to elicit social and political change.
In this new era of magick, it’s never been harder to spot a witch. She’s not some lonely old hag slaving away over a cauldron in the woods; she’s your perpetually perky neighbour who’s a partner at a downtown law firm and lives at Lululemon on weekends. Chances are she may not even associate her crystal collection, weekly meditation sessions and penchant for home-brewed kombucha with the ancient art of witchcraft.
All she knows is she feels more empowered than ever, and she has herself to thank for it.