I Thought I Knew What To Expect At A Witchcraft Convention. I Was Wrong.

Illustration: Olivia Santner
“Remember that light becomes light,” explains Alexandra, wearing a hard stare and a gold cardigan, “and when you are doing magic, make sure you ask specific questions, otherwise you confuse the universe.”
“You must only do magic when you have exhausted all other possibilities,” interrupts her husband, rising up from the opposite side of the table. I scribble their words in my notebook: ask specific questions; DON’T confuse universe.
Around the table are about 15 other people, all straining to hear Alexandra above the drunken chatter in the room and furiously scrawling in the notebooks we’d been handed at the start of the evening.
I am at a Wicca meeting in the upstairs of a pub in central London. Wicca is the British strain of witchcraft, just as Hula is unique to Hawaii and Shinto to Japan. It seeks to engage the ‘old ways’ of pagan pre-Roman Britain, and its practices date back thousands of years.
I found the event (Spring Equinox: Introduction to Wicca) on an app called MeetUp, having thought about dabbling in witchcraft for months but never knowing how or where to start. At one point I booked a tarot reading but got scared and decided not to show up at the last minute, then spent hours worrying what effect my abrupt cancellation would have on my spiritual currency.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from my first Wicca meeting, or why I’d been feeling so anxious about it all day. I imagined a group of young women, armed with crystals and tarot cards, sitting on the floor of a dimly lit room, doing a seance. I imagined me, standing on the periphery, not knowing what was going on but pretending I did.
What I’d actually signed up for was a couple of tables pushed together at the top of a Greene King pub, and a group of mostly elderly men. I was surprised and sceptical. This didn’t fulfil my stereotyped version of witchcraft, informed by social media and Sabrina the Teenage Witch. And to be honest, I had always associated witchcraft with women – in my ignorance, I hadn’t considered that it was something men were interested in, too.

You can use the witch as a symbol of feminist resistance

Over the last few years, witchcraft has quickly risen in popularity. From magazines like Sabat to Instagram accounts like The Hoodwitch and events like Coven and Cuntemporary, witchcraft is definitely having a moment. But it’s difficult to differentiate between aesthetic witchcraft, inspired by '90s films like The Craft, and practising witchcraft – like the witches who meet each month to perform a hex on Donald Trump.
For Sabat founder and editor, Elisabeth Kohn, both have their place and can be empowering. “You can use the witch as I do really, as a symbol of feminist resistance,” she tells me, “but it can also be a very serious spiritual pathway that can take a lot of time and effort, and is something you need to really invest in.”
For young people around the world, the appeal of witchcraft is greater than ever. According to a study published on MarketWatch at the end of last year, the 18-30 demographic is turning to witchcraft and astrology in these tumultuous political times. Apparently, it's a way of attaching substance to our lives, which are increasingly "hyper-mediated and rational" but without any semblance of meaning.
Michelle Goldberg reasoned in a piece recently published in The New York Times that occultism often gains currency during times of social crisis: “Often when traditional institutions and beliefs collapse and people are caught between cultural despair and cosmic hopes, they turn to magic.” On the other hand, Kohn thinks the rise of the witch coincides with a heightened engagement in feminism.
I think I agree with both of them. Witchcraft is, in many ways, anarchic. It’s a way of removing yourself from societal constraints and restrictive institutions. At its crux, it encourages you to listen to your own needs and desires, which makes it comforting and empowering.

The witch is this outsider, alternative span and this very potent feminine archetype.

“The witch is this very versatile figure,” Kohn tells me. “She is this outsider, alternative figure and this very potent feminine archetype. I don’t think that means she necessarily has to fight for feminism or female independence. She also appeals to a lot of queer people, trans people, environmentalists – a lot of groups of people are using the witch with or without her ‘femininity’ as an attribute.”
The group sitting around this particular table seems to be seeking both spiritual guidance and a sense of community, which unites them with the witchcraft movement playing out on social media and beyond. Listening to Alexandra, I learn that Wicca draws on ancient beliefs, but also welcomes new interpretations. The main thing that sets it apart from traditional religious practices is that it resists hierarchy and encourages people to take control of their lives by channelling the magic that is deeply rooted within us all.
The history of witchcraft, as much as its beliefs, relates to our current social climate. Its negative connotations come from Roman propaganda; Satan was once an ancient pagan god, who was seen as evil. The pure fact that witchcraft has continued to endure throughout centuries of persecution means that this group of us sitting at a Wicca meeting is magical in itself.
Witchcraft and its history are a testament to human faith and endurance, which is what makes it so popular in times of personal or societal strife. It is an antidote for a generation that is questioning the meaning of everything they have been taught.
By the end of the evening, I’m feeling less anxious and more certain that witchcraft is something I could get into. My final question for Alexandra and her husband is whether the popularised witchcraft phenomenon is here to stay. They don’t seem to think so. “It’s a fad,” they tell me bluntly. “Every decade or so, it becomes very in vogue, but we’re lifers.”
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