With the popularity of mainstream media like “Wizards of Waverly Place,” “Harry Potter” and “Hocus Pocus,” it’s safe to say that almost everyone can recognize witchcraft. In the twenty-first century, there are entire websites and communities on social media platforms dedicated to the practice of witchcraft, but this wasn’t always the case. Recently, witchcraft has become more prominent in day-to-day life, and its presence has a lot of people, including us here at Distraction, curious about where it came from and what it’s all about.
In A Nutshell
If you’ve never encountered witchcraft in the real world, we know exactly what you’re thinking: what exactly is witchcraft?
Listen, trying to explain witchcraft in short-form style is like trying to summarize quantum physics in two sentences. It is extremely complex, and there isn’t just one way to define it. Its expansive nature makes trying to boil it down difficult.
But we’re not Confusion, we’re Distraction, so we are going to walk you through the basics, the history, and the mystical complexity of the practice.
First, witchcraft is a magical and often spiritual practice, making use of rituals to connect to the spirit world or the divine. Rituals can vary from person to person, but they are always designed to help connect with this higher energy or to manifest a desired outcome. In witchcraft, the desired outcome is either a spiritual connection or a greater understanding of the art or science of magic.
Witchcraft is also heavily rooted in nature and natural cycles. Much of its practice involves the seasons, phases of the moon, the four elements and other natural phenomena.
Again, we’re not speaking for everybody. There are many different branches of witchcraft rooted in different cultures, and there is no one central authority that dictates exactly how everybody needs to practice. Witchcraft in the US. is very individualized, and it’s impossible to speak for everyone when boiling it down to the essentials.
Where It Came From
Believe it or not, the practice of magic and spirituality can be traced all the way back to Mesopotamia. But the modern witchcraft we know is most closely related to the Wicca religion. The “Witches of the Past and Present” issue of History magazine states that Wicca is “a form of neo-paganism, part of a larger attempt to return to pre-Christian rituals and beliefs.”
Wicca can be linked to retired British civil servant, Gerald Gardner, who developed the most widely known version of Wicca in the early twentieth century. Until this point, witchcraft was rarely openly practiced, but the Fraudulent Mediums Act of 1951 made the open practice of witchcraft harder to persecute in Britain, opening the door for Wicca to flourish and spread.
In 2022, witchcraft takes on many different forms, and not all people who practice witchcraft identify as Wiccan. Many witches draw from other forms of witchcraft besides Wicca. So, while most people who practice draw on some Wiccan practices and ideas, the two are not synonymous.
The Recent Boom and Individuality
Witchcraft is self-empowering, and its eclectic and solitary nature allows for someone to practice in however they feel connected.
“These beliefs resonate with people because this is a religion that allows a lot of individual expression,” said Dr. Helen Berger, an affiliated scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center of Brandeis University and author of four books about contemporary paganism. “They’re things that you could do in a group or alone, and most witches or Wiccans are solitary and only join with others sometimes. I think this has been particularly appealing during COVID: here you have a spirituality that you can connect to the universe and to the Otherworld and to nature while being alone.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, everyone spent a lot of time alone. Around this time, most people also spent more time on the internet, and communities like Witchtok on TikTok took off.
WitchTok created a community for practicing witches to share content and allowed for people who are not as familiar with witchcraft to discover new ideas and become curious about the craft.
However, the lockdown, alone-time and social media were not the only causes for the recent boom of witchcraft. COVID-19 and TikTok did not exist when witchcraft in the U.S. first increased in popularity in the 1990s, so what else contributed to this movement?
Dr. Berger described that the answer can be found in mainstream media.
“One of the factors was all of the positive TV shows about witches;” said Dr. Berger, “It didn’t cause people to become witches, that would be wrong. But what it did do is it got people googling.”
In the 1990s, shows like “Charmed” and “The Craft” got people researching the practice. As technology advanced, more and more people did their own research on the internet. Not everyone who became curious about witchcraft began to practice, but the influence of media got enough people interested to cause a boom.
The influence of media today continues to play a vital role as social media platforms and the revitalization of positive portrayals of witchcraft in media continue to get people curious about the craft.
“You write this article, students in the University of Miami read it, and they get curious and at this point in life, everybody Googles,” said Dr. Berger. “The media is part of it.”
While the practice of witchcraft can vary slightly from person to person, one thing is certain: witchcraft is deeply rooted in spirituality.
“With me, it’s a very spiritual practice,” said Gwendolyn Pohlmann, a junior at UM who identifies as someone who practices modern witchcraft without official association to Wicca. “The practice of witchcraft is all about your intention, and to have a good intention you really do want to have some spiritual connection to what you’re doing — that’s the point of it.”
Spirituality in witchcraft manifests itself in rituals which are used to connect with the divine. The word “divine” is loosely used here — not all people who practice witchcraft believe in a higher power. Instead, they believe in a spirit or energy connected with the earth or cosmos. This spirit world is generally referred to as the Otherworld.
“The most important parts of witchcraft and Wicca are having a direct experience of the divine or the Otherworld,” said Dr. Berger. “Some witches are atheist. There is no god, but there is a spirit world or power or matrix or something that they’re feeding into or connecting with.”
A Bit About Practice
“To create the sacred space, I have offerings that represent each of the four elements and an offering to the divine masculine and divine feminine,” said Pohlmann. “There are a lot of different ways that the elements are noted in modern witchcraft. Most herbs are associated with some type of element and some crystals are associated with elements.”
Witchcraft is very connected to the earth and the elements. The four elements — water, earth, fire and air — all have their own attributes, and these properties help give insight into the different objects associated with a given element.
Cleansing, an essential ritual in witchcraft, is the action of removing negative or stale energy from an object. One way is by using one of the elements. The elements themselves have the ability to cleanse objects. Once cleansing has taken place, a separate ritual called “charging” gives back positive energy to the object or space.
The moon is also very important to witchcraft, and its phases determine the timing of rituals. For example, the new moon is a time for new beginnings, gathering thoughts, setting intentions and personal planning.
Additionally, people who practice witchcraft also use other tools to seek guidance, including Tarot cards. While not all witches use Tarot cards, many do and feel that they become connected to the otherworld while reading.
Noelle Grant, a junior at UM who practices witchcraft and works with Tarot, states that there are two kinds of experiences for the Tarot reader during readings.
“One, you’re a channel from the metaphysical to the physical, taking information that is not present on this physical plain from the ‘other,’” said Grant. “That one is very innate, very effortless. You are very detached from your own bias and emotions, completely enveloped in everything that belongs to somebody else as if you were that person.”
“Two, the channel is clogged. At this time, it’s not the time to give away energy. It’s the time to heal, recharge or give it back to yourself.”
Tarot cards are a form of divination, which in essence means that they are a tool used to connect with the divine or Otherworld. A Tarot card deck is made up of 72 cards and includes 22 major arcana cards and 56 minor arcana cards. There are 22 major arcana cards, representing a journey to from inexperience to wisdom. The remaining cards are minor arcana divided into four suits: wands, cups, swords and pentacles. In that order, the minor arcana cards represent the path of creation and manifestation.
This is not by any stretch all of what goes into witchcraft. It is complex and requires a lot of research and study by those who practice. Entire books have been written on the subject, and it would be impossible to summarize everything that goes into it here.
If you feel a strong connection to anything you’ve heard here, or even if you’re just curious, you can always choose to explore and learn more about this practice. The door is wide open. Just make sure you’re getting your information from credible sources and respecting the craft as you research.
While we didn’t touch on it, we feel that it’s important to bring attention to the persecution of witchcraft that resulted in mass loss of life around the world. The reality of the Scottish, Salem, German and other Witch Trials is dark, and the men and women lost during these events aren’t just faces in a textbook. They were real people. While witchcraft is more openly accepted in some countries, there are other countries where witchcraft is still persecuted. It’s important to acknowledge this and to pay respect to people who have lost their lives.
words&illustrations_nicole facchina. design_jennifer vega.
This article was published in Distraction’s Fall 2022 print issue.
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