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Why paganism and witchcraft are making a comeback


Two weeks ago, as Halloween approached, I visited Salem, Massachusetts, for the first time since the pandemic began. Renewing my annual Halloween pilgrimage, I was bowled over by what I found in the town of witches: larger crowds, longer queues, and a wider and welcome array of merchandise suited to many different religious traditions and ethnic identities.

Amid curious crowds in black capes and conical hats, bags overflowing with DIY spell kits and prosperity-enhancing candles, I heard the same question: does magic really real?

Witchcraft, which includes Wicca, paganism, folk magic, and other New Age traditions, is one of the fastest growing spiritual paths in America.

For me, the answer is yes.

I am one of more than a million Americans who — whether proudly, secretly, or indulging in the power of consumption — practice some form of witchcraft. Witchcraft, which includes Wicca, paganism, folk magic, and other New Age traditions, is one of the fastest growing spiritual paths in America.

In 1990, Trinity College in Connecticut estimated that there were 8,000 adherents of Wicca. In 2008, the US Census Bureau figure was 342,000. A 2014 Pew Research Center study multiplied that projection several times by estimating that 0.4% of Americans identified as Pagan, Wiccan or New Age. (Most modern pagan cults, of which Wicca is a type, draw on pre-Christian traditions in reverence for nature.) By 2050, he says, the number of Americans practicing “other religions” – religions outside of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism – would triple “largely due to shifting to other religions (such as Wicca and pagan religions)”.

The precise number of witches in America is difficult to determine because many practitioners are loners and, by choice or circumstance, do not openly identify as such. But the growth is evident, especially for those who have made it their mission to study the community.

“It’s definitely on the rise,” said Helen A. Berger, who spoke to me on the phone last week. Berger is one of the foremost academic experts on contemporary witchcraft and paganism in America and derives her knowledge of her appeal from surveys she has co-conducted of the pagan community.

Wicca began to be practiced in America in the 1960s by feminists, environmentalists and those seeking an unstructured spirituality, according to Berger. It was a largely underground movement, but trade books on witchcraft published in the 1980s and 1990s, productions like “Charmed” and “The Job” created a renewed interest among young people. With the ability to find communities online and the decline of affiliation with traditional religions, witchcraft began to enter the mainstream.

“Religion is individualistic in many ways,” Berger told me. “You can do your own thing. It is not adhering to an institutional religion. It is not about adhering to a set of actions or beliefs that you must adhere to. »

I myself grew up with Italian folk magic passed down through generations of practitioners who fused pagan customs with Roman Catholicism. This type of syncretism is not uncommon in witchcraft today.

Asking for protection from the Archangel Michael, for example, I will recite a prayer but also make offerings of wine, bay leaves and cloves. In addition to venerating Catholic saints, I light Goddess Diana candles every full moon and place small bouquets of rosmarino, or rosemary, on my altar to honor the dead. This mixing of religions has been an ongoing process for me and other folk magick practitioners despite what traditional religious authorities might say.

Sometimes my magic is as simple as reciting an old Neapolitan incantation over a glass of wine to strengthen the love between two people. Sometimes it requires more serious action, like piercing a clove of garlic with a sewing needle and spitting three times to break a wave of bad luck caused by malocchiothe evil eye.” Whether it was learned from a local healer or from my grandmother as she blessed me by putting salt in my pockets on the way out, I carry on these old-world rituals.

At the heart of these practices is the fact that witchcraft allows me to see the world through a more balanced lens. I have felt the reassuring presence of the other world in the midst of difficult circumstances, and I know that magic happens when I invoke the strength to draw boundaries or chase away the guilt that arises if I choose to care for me rather than sacrifice myself.

I am not alone in this experience. Online platforms like TikTok and Instagram offer tutorials on all aspects of magickal practice. The witchcraft hashtag has over 7 million posts on Instagram and over 11 billion views on TikTok or as it is known in the community, WitchTok. Witchcraft podcasts enchant the airwaves. In addition to crosses and Stars of David, major retailers like Walmart and Amazon sell the witchcraft symbol of the pentacle, pendulum divining tools, and dried herbs for spells and rituals. The use of tarot cards proliferates in lux magazines.

It’s understandable that some followers have criticized the commercialization, arguing that Halloween witch costumes perpetuate negative stereotypes and that selling DIY spell kits trivializes sacred practices.

But this trend has created space for recognition and representation. The proliferation of witchcraft reflects two timeless and universal drives: the need to derive meaning from chaos and the desire to control the circumstances around us. With the terrible disasters wrought by climate change, wars and the loss of rights, it is no surprise that witchcraft attracts those who seek to mend what is broken within us and around the world.

The mixing of religions has been an ongoing process for me and other folk magick practitioners despite what traditional religious authorities might say.

There are also critics outside the community – those who despise witchcraft in all its forms. A former colleague often aired her contempt for my gibberish. But after several weeks of bad luck, she came to my office one day, closed the door silently and asked for my help. Did I know of any spells, solutions that would reverse the curse she thought she suffered from?

Witches have long touted the connection between energy, objects, and people, so I understood her fear and desire to make things right. I’m not sure she’ll ever admit it, but the help I gave her and the theory behind it echoes in science and health practices today.

Look at quantum entanglement, at the heart of this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics, which says objects can influence each other invisibly, even at great distances. Or consider the hugely popular mindfulness movement. Deep breathing exercises, positive affirmations, and guided meditations to reduce stress and the effects of trauma—like spells—use the mind-body connection to support self-care and improve circumstances.

On Monday, as millions celebrate Halloween (known to witches as Samhain, the pagan holiday honoring the dead), countless pumpkins will decorate doorways across America. I will be especially reassured to know that these glowing pumpkins, an enduring pagan custom, are embraced by so many of us. It’s a reminder that magic can be both a beacon in the dark and a source of hope and healing when we need it most.

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