There is an episode of Sex And The City where, in desperation, Charlotte goes to a “bad part of town” to ask a non-descript voodoo-witch-psychic when she’ll meet her future husband, and is promptly ripped off. She runs away into the night literally clutching her pearls. In popular culture at least, the mystic with a crystal ball and headscarf has long been the preserve of bullshitters and charlatans.
In the last five years, however, folk religion and its many incarnations are undergoing a curious image overhaul, as we embrace an amalgamation of new age spirituality, witchcraft and astrology. Practices that have previously been dismissed as the pursuit of 'silly' women — taking horoscopes seriously, tarot readings, sage burning, your insistence that full moons drive you crazy — is no longer met with snarky ridicule. So what has changed?
Over half of the UK population state they have no religion, with Christianity seeing the most significant decline in recent years, and the Church of England’s nosedive sharper still. In another US study, the largest growing group was the “spiritual but not religious”, which points to a generational desire for faith but without the conservatism of organised religion. It’s also easy to see why young women especially are seeking out approaches to spirituality more reflective of the stuff they care about in the here and now. No matter how broad the definition of folk religion and all things witchy, common themes across cultures see women and their bodies exalted rather than a subject for debate, as well as a focus on nature, health and self-exploration.
Emilia Ortiz, a Bruja and spiritual advisor is — in the flurry of voices that have sprung up — one of the most compelling. Her Instagram, in between videos where she explains her spirituality through the lens of how it intersects with everything from sexuality to race, is a mixture of organic skin and hair care tips, explanations of different crystals, as well as reminders to eat fruit and drink more water. After an hour-long conversation and feeling like I’ve had an injection of spiritual healing myself, I can see how she has built such a devoted following. But when asked why now, Ortiz is pragmatic:
“Humans will always be in some state of religious reformation. Our parents' generation needed the discipline of organised religion more than we do. But we’re the generation of new shit: we’re always grappling with new technology, new ways of working, we see every fucked up thing that is happening in the news around the world. So we’re gravitating to and going back to these forms of spirituality because they’re more fluid and work with us.”
“Of course, there are those [spiritual practitioners] who will just tell people what they want to hear. But I think a lot of what is misunderstood is that the point of all of this - magic, spells, rituals and readings - is not to override free will, but it’s a way of regaining control and encouraging people to explore themselves. Like, you wouldn't be looking for ‘love potions’ or asking questions, like ‘hey, is this guy for me?’ or ‘why does this keep happening?’ if you weren’t more sure of yourself. It’s about how we interpret our feelings through spirituality.”
A Brooklyn native and proud Puerto Rican, Ortiz is also refreshingly blunt when she points out that on top of it being distinctly feminine, renewed interest in folk religion has collided with an era of acute identity politics. So it feels like a natural progression that practices so deeply tied to ethnicity which were once flattened by organised religion have flourished now. A form of decolonising your worship if you like.
Ortiz continues: “I got tired of only seeing white women talk about paganism or Wicca, there are so many other strands and incarnations across so many cultures. So although I feel like it would’ve happened anyway, social media has given other voices a worldwide audience in a very, very short space of time and why shouldn’t people explore their history and their culture. There is nothing wrong with following, say, Christianity or Catholicism, but it should be acknowledged that these religions were brought over by European colonisers and forced upon indigenous people. Nowadays I can say I’m just identifying with the other part of my culture. But, like with practising Santería, there is still that taboo and negative connotations around folk belief systems, that you’re doing something for evil.”
Though attitudes have softened, Santería has been the prime example of how folk religions have long battled with being labelled as taboo, or treated with suspicion and fear. Even though it was formed as a compromise between folk beliefs and the Catholicism of the Spanish empire, links to the occult and black magic have endured.
Perhaps the updated incarnation of this is the increasing fear-mongering around Santa Muerte or Our Lady of Holy Death, a folk saint that has long been a part of Mexican folk Catholicism. But today it’s now one of the “fastest growing new religious movements in the world with 10 to 12 million followers worldwide”, closely associated with cartel violence and energetically condemned by the Catholic church, having made appearances in everything from Breaking Bad to the harrowing documentary, Cartel Land. But while Santa Muerte’s association with narcos is well reported, less is said about her soaring popularity with society’s most systemically maligned – with poor women, trans women and sex workers all turning to her when the church hasn’t been there to catch them when they fall.
Ultimately, it looks like we’re at a crossroads where we know faith can provide an anchor in a world that is moving so fast we often feel lost. But why should young women follow formal religions that are, at once, so profoundly out of step with our social conscience and, secondly, treat us as second-class citizens? Is it any wonder we’re turning to magic, spells and deities of death for guidance?