The Magic Touch: How Paganism Has Become The Breakout Religion Of The Decade
Every month at Mama Moon HQ, east London, people of all age groups, from teens to octogenerians, gather for what its owner Semra Haksever describes as ‘a kind of coven’. To attend, you need to bring an aromatic mix of ingredients: ‘Cinnamon, dried basil, cloves, a bayleaf, essential oils, a flower, hot charcoal, a handful of soil, and a dish to burn some paper in.’ It might seem niche, but she says this is a way for women who crave spirituality in their lives to ‘dip their toe’ into the world of paganism by connecting with the moon’s energy and casting a simple spell. Haksever self-identifies as an eclectic witch, meaning she doesn’t follow a single tradition and instead incorporates different cultures and practices into her witchcraft. ‘It’s a very inviting and accessible space for everybody,’ she says, describing it in terms of a new wellness trend. ‘Witchcraft isa contemporary way for women who want to be empowered to connect with some kind of energy.’
Haksever’s casual coven meet-ups are among a wave happening in the UK, from the east-London shop She’s LostControl to the Bermondsey arts spaceUgly Duck and Brighton’s sprawling Coven of the Horse and Moon. And it’s all set against a backdrop of New Age witches trending online and beyond. From the billions of views on TikTok’s Witchtok community – where you can break money curses through chants or learn how to charge your crystals – to last year’sHocus Pocus revival starring Sarah Jessica Parker and Bette Midler, it seems that Wiccans are everywhere right now. In the 2021 Census for England and Wales, 74,000 people referred to themselves as Pagans (up from 57,000 in 2011), while 13,000 people listed their religion as Wicca. In UK publishing, ‘witch fiction’ is taking over book lists with several releases this year, including the big Harper Collins debut Weyward by Emilia Hart and the second instalment of Juno Dawson’s bestselling Her Majesty’s Royal Coven series.
When they’re not discussing spells online, modern witches are joining forces to hex Putin every Saturday night, chanting, ‘You are cursed, you are bound’. Before that, thousands of witches across the US rose up against the Trump administration, using the hashtag #WitchTheVote for a ‘collective intersectional effort to direct our magic towards electing candidates who will push our country and our planet forward’ into a ‘witch utopia’.
The practice of witchcraft or magic has been deeply rooted in many cultures and communities throughout history.Witches – real or imagined – were subject to persecution by the Christian church in Europe, leading to waves of witch-hunts, peaking in the 17th century, and mass executions on the basis of accusations and the merest suspicion of participating in pagan religions. Many spiritual practices in Africa were also denounced as witchcraft and heathenism during colonisation. Because of this, the current mainstream infatuation with witchcraft feels significant to a wide range of marginalised groups. For Haksever, it is about embracing your intuition. ‘Women and queer people generally are the ones who walk through the world with one eye over their shoulder,’ she says.
Lexx Miller, an Austin, Texas-based rootworker (someone who practises Hoodoo, the folk magic of the AmericanSouth), says that spirituality seems to trend ‘during revolutionary times’, whether it’s the New Age movement of the Seventies or today’s digital era. Despite modern technological advances, she says resources are ‘still so limited’ because of who has access to publishing. ‘Some of the best sources are elders and family members, but I think with the rise of WitchTok, we can start to support more marginalised spiritualists who can teach people about their own cultures and practices,’ she says. Miller also wants to remind people that witches ‘aren’t a monolith’, noting instead that all witches practise differently according to their ancestry and personal beliefs. ‘It could be your grandmother making a herbal bath to heal your ailments or a friend who carries a rabbit foot for good luck.’
Porsche Little, a full-time diviner (or spiritual worker) based in Los Angeles, is a devotee of the Lukumí and Ifá faiths. ‘I was marked a child of Orisha Obatala [a spirit central to the creation story in the Yoruba mythology of WestAfrica], making me an Aborisha [devotee] of the tradition,’ she says. A Black American with ancestors from Benin, Little is just one of the many diviners who have embraced ancient religions of the African diaspora as a means of liberation. ‘It’s important that Black people find reparations outside of – and alongside – the money that is owed to them,’ she says. ‘Our names, our original traditions, our magical tools and the awareness of our destinies... Fortunately for us, traditional African religions can bring you all four.’
Since she was young, Little remembers having a deep connection to the astral plane, a place believed by some to be where a person’s soul goes between dying and entering the spirit world. ‘The veil has always been very thin for me; I’ve experienced intense dreams and so many moments that didn’t make sense for years,’ she says. Little’s mother, whois also spiritual, was the first person to teach her about spirit guides (ancestors who pass on knowledge and help people on their spiritual journeys). ‘She told me,“If you close your eyes and ask for your guide’s name, they will answer.” “Charlie,”I replied.’ Fifteen years later, Little says, she connected with her great-great-great-grandfather Charlie through astral projection, an intentional out-of-body experience where one is said to travel through the astral plane, and her ‘wonder towards the afterlife brightened’.
Little is one of the many people online offering tarot-reading and other mystical services appealing to the growing number of those who describe themselves as spiritual but non-religious. The 2018 British Social Attitudes survey found 52% of respondents described themselves as non-religious, but a fifth of those said they ‘definitely or probably’ believed in life after death. Little attributes the rise in alternative spirituality that she has witnessed in the past decade to spiritual timing itself – or how astro-logical influences are affecting younger people. ‘For Generation Z, Pluto is found in Sagittarius, a zodiac sign that longs for deeper knowledge, philosophy and higher education,’ she says. While this may provide some astrological insight into why Gen Z is drawn to New Age spirituality, the embrace of witchcraft is, for many, also a political act.
Today, being a ‘modern witch’ can mean anything from sharing potions on TikTok to reclaiming Indigenous spirituality to aligning with the identity of a witch without actually casting spells. ‘There is no one or “right” way to be a witch, because you get to define what that means for you,’ says 39-year-old Edgar Fabián Frías, an Indigenous Mexican artist and brujx (a gender-nonconforming reworking of theSpanish term for witch or sorcerer) who launched Our Sacred Web, their tarot and energy practice, over a decade ago. Frías grew up in a conservative Jehovah’s Witness community but was raised by parents who came to the United States from Mexico, where many of their relatives ‘offered healings with plants, had other practices that were deemed “witchy”.’ Frías became more intimately aware of witchcraft through queer and trans communities. They have now officiated at weddings and hosted energy workshops in galleries, museums and at music festivals.
When considering that the campaigns to stamp out witchcraft throughout history were also attempts to stripIndigenous people of their culture, halt women’s liberation and erase queer identities, today’s modern witch craft revival can be seen as a protest. To align with witchcraft is inherently anti-capitalist – perhaps another reason why WitchTok appeals to Gen Z’s political beliefs. ‘People are feeling disenfranchised and disappointed with traditional religions, and many have seen the ways that these religions continue to uphold patriarchal, colonialist and white-supremacist ideologies and worldviews,’says Frías. ‘The witch points so clearly and directly to the imbalances in power and equity that exist in our world.’
If modern witchcraft showcases a collective longing for life before colonialism and capitalism, it comes as little surprise that today’s witches are often in the headlines using their powers to fight against fascism. This, says Diane Purkiss, a professor at the University ofOxford who specialises in women’s literature and witchcraft, comes as a huge part of fourth-wave feminism. ‘The point here is the rejection of organised religion, because many people under 30 associate it with misogyny, homophobia, negative right-wing politics and racism,’ she says. Naturally, this has been met with a backlash. ‘People sometimes act as if the witch-persecution era is over, and I wish that were true,’ says Purkiss. ‘In the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton was widely said to be a witch possessed by a demon.’
In the midst of rising political and gender divides, Purkiss says witchcraft has become increasingly about the embodiment of queer and female power. ‘WitchTok has pretty much disposed of the old idea that witches are people who worship Satan,’ she says. ‘Modern pagan-ism has gone by the board, as people aren’t so sold on the idea of tradition anymore – they’ve reassembled the idea of being a witch from bits and pieces of cultural leftovers, such as tarot cards and astrology.’ This ties in with other New Age spiritual practices that have found a home on TikTok and are growing in popularity, including manifestation.
The recent reclamation of the witch has also brought to light conversations around spiritual and cultural appropriation. While Frías believes that the archetype of the witch ‘belongs to all of humanity’, there are certain ancestral and traditional practices that are a part of particular lineages and communities. For instance, the practice of ancient religions from the African diaspora should be limited to people of that descent; others are instead invited to learn about their own ancestors and align themselves with those traditions and practices. ‘If you hear native folks telling you not to burn white sage, take that as an invitation to discover what kinds of plants or other techniques your ancestors used for smudging, cleansing and opening up sacred spaces,’ advises Frías.
Alongside conversations around cultural appropriation, the commodification of witchcraft has also been an ongoing debate in the spiritual community. White crystal vendors have been rightly called out for selling objects related to Indigenous ritual traditions, and brands like Sephora and Urban Outfitters are among those that have faced a backlash for appropriating magic. As interest in witch-craft continues to grow, more people and brands may come to view it (like any other trend) as a money-making opportunity. This can destroy the livelihoods of spiritual workers who rely on these sales, and clashes with the anti-capitalist origins of witchcraft. The Italian-American scholar Silvia Federici has said that the revival of magic is only possible today because it ‘no longer represents a social threat’. ‘Astrology, too, can be allowed to return, with the certainty that even the most devoted consumer of astral charts will automatically consult the watch before going to work,’ she wrote, suggest-ing the message behind witchcraft has been watered down under capitalism.
With spiritual creators fighting for views online, many can turn to offering shock-value spells, such as ‘how to get your ex back’. This chase for virality is some-thing that Lexx Miller intends to avoid by finding the balance between content creation and sitting at her altar to continue her studies. ‘My biggest fear is of becoming someone who experience success but loses themselves in the process, so enjoying this journey as a humbled student will remain at the foundation of everything that I do,’ she says. ‘Even though spirituality is about having faith in the intangible, we’re also here to have a human experience. Respecting each other’s cultures should be at the core of our practice, and the best way to do this is to research everything that you’re interested in.’
While it’s clear that, today, ‘witch’ isa broad term encompassing multiple practices and beliefs, the interest in witchcraft points to a moving away from the perceived ills of modern society. This is in line with the anti-work movements that have taken place online over the past couple of years, including ‘quiet quitting’ and the downfall of ‘girlboss’ culture. It’s also where, Purkiss says, modern witchcraft strikes the right balance for the emerging anti-capitalist, anti-establishment and culturally diverse generation. ‘Spirituality is something that ordinary people can access, because we’re revolting against traditional religions but we’re not necessarily wanting to base our lives on the material world either,’ she says. ‘Witchcraft is a way for people to find a spiritual tradition that will sustain rather than threaten them.’ In other words, modern witchcraft isa means for people today to apply ancient beliefs to contemporary issues. It’s about undoing the wrongs of the past and rethinking the world we live in today.
You Might Also Like