In the mid-15th century, Europe was a panicking, volatile witch-hunt hotspot. Thousands of supposed witches (mostly women, of course), thought to have been practicing magic or making pacts with Satan, were being persecuted, trialed, tortured — many times into false confessions — and some were even executed. Of course, witch hunting has less to do with fear around the craft itself and more to do with power, oppression and scapegoating. AKA the patriarchy’s little obsession since, well, forever.
Since those days, and from the time the infamous Salem witch trials took place, times have mostly changed (although witchcraft is still considered a real danger in some countries, like Nigeria, to sometimes disastrous consequences). Over time, witchcraft has spawned many groups, incarnations, beliefs and half-beliefs, but it’s really the symbol of the witch herself — a woman othered, yet immortal, rebellious, in tune with the natural world and ever-powerful — that resonates. And that’s what we, especially women, hold to — she gives us the power to assert ourselves, take back our autonomy and focus our energy into rituals of change and healing in times of chaos.
Modern-day interest in witchcraft is no new trend. In the ‘90s, the lore blossomed in a big way. Just about every teen girl I knew devoured Silver Ravenwolf’s controversial books, especially Teen Witch: Wicca for a New Generation (which I literally bought at a Mandee’s clothing store), and shows and movies like Charmed and The Craft (it opened at number 1, pulling more than $6 million dollars) were not considered weird at all. And just look at the money the town of Salem has brought in thanks to tourism.
Sure, it was all distilled and simplified for mass consumption, but it was still intriguing and powerful; in fact, it was this very liminality that was so alluring. Simultaneously sitting at the crossroads of alt and mainstream, the witch caught on — even for people who’d never considered her magic before. And it’s led us to where we are today.
Witchcraft may not be totally understood by the masses — and, in fact, its popularity hasn’t always taken shape in ways real, practicing witches approve of — but it’s gotten the positive facelift it deserves (albeit a bit watered-down and misunderstood when it comes to details, like, you know, witches generally aren’t Satanic). In fact, all things witchy seem to have been rebranded: No longer the domain of the goth kids who got mocked in high school (raise your hand if you sat at my lunch table!), witchcraft is now seen a tool for self-care, especially when times are difficult — which, in a way, is what it was meant to be all along.
But why now?
According to Haleigh Schiafo, who co-founded Babe Coven and teaches makeup witchcraft (yes, you read that correctly) at Catland Books, Fashion and Esoterica in Brooklyn, “Magic and witchcraft are first and foremost about honoring your own power, divinity, and strength. Women turn to it because we live in a world where there are so many forces at work telling us we're not enough and not worthy, but when we sit down at our altar we can worship ourselves and practice in whatever way feels most powerful to us, whether that's setting an intention with a certain shade of lipstick, drawing a daily tarot card for guidance, or carrying out self care rituals for each full moon,” Schiafo says.” Those who turn to witchcraft are tired of a patriarchal system, and in magic they find a place that welcomes self love, female empowerment, support, and growth."
And it can be found pretty much anywhere, even Urban Outfitters stores — where shoppers can indulge in goodies like Species By The Thousands’ White Sage Spray or Aquarian Soul’s Incense Kit. According to author David Nash, this makes total sense. In his book Witches and Witchcraft, he writes, “Alternatives to systems of Western medicine have made the herbalists and their work — often associated with witchcraft — of greater importance in the contemporary world.”
People are hungry for something that provides a sense of goodness when times are hard, something that ritualizes “me time,” especially if effective self-care tools, like expensive mental health care or a supportive community, are hard to come by.
Kristen Sollee, who teaches a course at The New School in New York City on the intersections between witches and feminism (yes, please), and who is the editor at Slutist, agrees. “The alternative practices [Urban Outfitters] capitalize on might once have gotten you killed were you caught observing them openly, and might still be cause for ostracism, losing a job, or losing custody of your children in certain communities today,” she tells me via email. “I think the trend of witchy herbs and potions being sold at corporate retailers is in part an answer to this primal need to reconnect with our wild natures and heal ourselves,” Solee says. And it’s true: Not everything that was once “alternative” and is now “trendy” should be chalked up to a sense of buyable rebellion. Put simply, sometimes a little ritual, nature and intention goes a long way.
Maybe witchcraft culture really does shine light through the bleak, oppressive, lonely challenges we deal with on the day to day.
So do you need to be a “real witch” to buy, say, Etsy seller BethKaya’s Spa Smudge Set? Not at all. BethKaya says she herself doesn’t identify as a witch, but that her products naturally make a space for it. Regardless of beliefs, her products are all about self-care. Because they require you to “reaffirm your intentions….once you do something like this, you realize ‘Wow, this ritual calmed me and centered me.’ It's a natural progression to want to do more of it. That's what self care is all about,” she says.
Of course, a criticism about the idea of witchcraft as self-care is that it can come off as commodifying, culturally appropriative, and just plain reductive. This can’t be denied, especially considering that thousands of people are labeling their outfits as “witchy” on Instagram while people who see witchcraft as their religion are left feeling disrespected. Hopefully, with more and more witch-focused perspectives being disseminated into the masses, people who are attracted to the witch aesthetic (but who fail to really understand that it is more than a trend) will become more informed. At the end of the day, there’s no denying that the incorporation of witchy practices is helping people find peace and comfort. Which, in a way, is a step in the right direction — because people are happier, and the witch (along with all that she symbolizes) is not seen as a wart on the face of society.
So, maybe it’s not just the pretty packaging (although that’s a definite selling point) or rebellion-as-commodity. Maybe witchcraft culture really does shine light through the bleak, oppressive, lonely challenges we deal with on the day to day. And it takes plenty of forms — it’s not just product-based.
For some, it’s protection against dark forces, like President Elect Donald Trump. Last Halloween, Vermont’s Feminists Against Trump held a “witch-in,” where a mass hex was cast against “The Great Orange One [Trump] and the racism, xenophobia and sexism he feeds on.” The idea, the group’s organized Laurie Essig said, wasn’t just to cast a spell on Trump, but to “make some good feminist magic to surround ourselves with.” And on February 24, witches across the globe came together to cast a spell to prevent Trump from doing harm.
This sort of act is so necessary, especially for women (who are literally being shown that an alleged sexual assailant can and should be president). But for other groups, like the LGBTQIA community, it may be more literal — in the face of daily discrimination, casting a sacred circle at the end of a shitty day can be a soothing thing.
“Being so divested from nature in a capitalist, patriarchal society that relies upon self-subjugation makes nature-based practices like witchcraft a vital avenue for self-care,” Sollee says. “You don't need money, you don't need years of expensive schooling, and you don't need anyone's permission to tap into the variety of witchcraft practices at our disposal.”
It all comes down to the use of ritual and the attention to nature. Using the tenets of witchcraft provides a framework with which to work on the self. There’s a sense that you are literally gaining energy and strength from the earth, whether it’s associated directly with witchcraft or not — like women in this psychiatric hospital in Rwanda who turn to gardening for rehabilitation or this woman who says magic helped her through trauma, ableism and chronic pain. It’s that you have something you can draw from anytime — for free, if you’d like.