Witchcraft is the perfect religion for liberal millennials

Paganism is the new meditation.
Paganism is the new meditation.
Image: Reuters/Morteza Nikoubazl
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

What ties together crystals, feminism, polyamory, lapsed Catholicism, and tarot cards?

Besides being increasingly of the moment, they are all related to modern witchcraft, a movement that is being propelled out of the forest and into the mainstream. The hook-nosed, broom-riding, pointy-hat-wearing, cackling witches of yore have transfigured into hip, feminist, millennial women with slick websites and soothing advice on manifesting your dreams. Instead of a bubbling cauldron filled with eye of the newt, they’re slinging essential oils seeped with wild herbs.

Search Meetup and you’ll find dozens of spell-casting covens in your area. The hashtag #witchesofinstagram brings up more than 360,000 posts from practitioners like @TheHoodWitch, who posts pictures of her long, lacquered nails hovering over tarot cards; @witcheryway, a Canadian witch who sells spell kits and incense burners out of her shop, and @light_witch, a self-described feminist in New England who spends her time swanning through outdoor landscapes in capes.

The witching web world carries over into mortal life, too. Stores are popping up across the country, selling crystals, spell kits, and tarot cards. And K-Hole, the trend-forecasting firm responsible for inserting “normcore” into the pop culture lexicon, has anointed “mysticore” the zietgeistiest of current zeitgeists.

And its popularity isn’t just growing: It’s basically levitating. Alex Mar, author of the 2015 book Witches of America, estimates there are up to one million practitioners of witchcraft today around the US in big cities, tiny towns, and in the countryside. In other words: Witches are everywhere. “I started to feel that you could toss a pebble in this country and hit a witch,” she says.

Who are witches?

Anyone can be a witch—it’s an inclusive movement—but it tends to appeal to a certain type of demographic. Back in the 1600s, witches were persecuted for being financially independent, single, and essentially good with herbs—all things that are regarded admirably by today’s young, liberal women. The typical witch nowadays (and it’s mostly she, though more men are starting to join in) examines her dreams for clues about her unconscious and fills her life with rituals. She probably attends new-moon gatherings or has an altar in her home. She might casts spells using crystals or herbs for manifestation of wealth and love. And she likely believes in polyamory, too.

Most witches just dabble in the spell side of things, pulling a tarot card every morning and showing up for major pagan holidays (such as Samhain, which is around Halloween). “And then there are people who are very serious practitioners, who train for years before initiation, and start their own covens,” Mar says. “And that is a whole other level.”

Some witches practice wicca, which is a narrow subset of witchcraft with more specific gods, goddesses, symbols, and holidays. But many more practice a broader, indefinable brand of witchcraft based on intuition. The edges of this group also bleed into other more mainstream arenas such as yoga and meditation, mindfulness, new-age spirituality, and even sex positivity.

“I don’t think it’s a mere passing trend,” says Carolyn Grace Elliot, whose magazine Witch ( has 10,000 regular readers. “We are in the midst of a beautiful, occult, witch renaissance.”

A brief history of modern witchcraft

In essence, witchcraft is the practice of paganism, which is a collection of eclectic indigenous beliefs with a hazy history dating back to medieval Europe. In many ways, paganism functions a lot like other major world religions, including Christianity. Both of these religions encompass many different traditions, practices, and beliefs. Both have long histories stretching back thousands of years. Both involve magical thinking (though Christians may take offense at that characterization) and the belief that there is something out there greater than humankind that can be invoked through ritual.

However, while some Christian denominations shame “deviant” sexuality, expect deference from female adherents, and gives men permission to subdue and rule over the earth, witches believe that all types of sexuality should be cultivated and celebrated, that women can also be spiritual leaders, and that nature is sacred. Witchcraft is especially interesting for lapsed Catholics who might miss the mysterious rituals of the church—the incense burning in a brass censer, the invocation of Christ’s body during communion—but can’t abide by its patriarchal structure, homophobia, and control and shaming of women’s bodies.

“When thinking about what it means to me, a witch is a woman who worships herself as her own god. She is the creator of her own life, the healer of herself,” says Maura from Chicago, who brings meditation practice into schools. She had a tarot-card reading four years ago and fell hard for the powerful message of the occult. “We live in this time where social structures, institutions, and organized religion is failing us massively. That’s why I was drawn to it initially, because I didn’t feel like I was drawn to any of those mainstream ideologies.”

Witches today are essentially picking up where the Baby Boomers left off. The resurgence of witchcraft began in the late 1960s and 1970s, on the eve of second-wave feminism and sexual liberation. It has ebbed and flowed since then, but now that feminism has become mainstream again, sexual identities and relationship structures are becoming more fluid, and social media is providing an easy way to find covens and spells. “Finding healers was so much harder before!” says Juliana Sabinson, a self described artist and healer who comes from a line of witches. “Now people find me through my Instagram or Facebook. I don’t have to post an ad in the paper—you text me, and then we have a session.” The internet is certainly a driving force behind the re-popularization of the craft, which has helped it cast its spell over the millennial generation.

A hexed name

The moniker “witch” remains a loaded term that many women are trying to circumvent. “It’s so trendy to call yourself a witch,” Sabinson says. “I don’t identify with that word. It’s what people call me because I do something they don’t understand. It stings a little bit, because it makes me scary.”

Other woman are proud to adopt the label, however. Like the words slut and queer, some women are taking back the term witch from the patriarchy and reshaping it to be a compliment. “I choose to call myself a witch in part because it’s a confrontational term,” Elliot says. ”The word witch has been so demonized in our culture, and there literally was a vast genocide of witches.” She’s talking about the infamous “burning times” era of the 16th and 17th centuries, when thousands of women and men were accused of witchcraft and burned (in Europe) and hanged (in North America). “There was a mass extinction of the highly developed, sensitive people, especially women. That is the root of so much misogyny and suffering in our present culture,” she says.

In contemporary times, we have heard Hillary Clinton called a witch and accused of practicing the dark arts by the right wing media. “What’s ironic about extreme right wingers calling Hillary Clinton a witch in a derogatory way is that they don’t understand that it’s associated with being a powerful, independent, spiritual woman,” Mar says.

Everyone has a little witch in them (even if they don’t know it yet) so being able to tell who’s an everyday witch isn’t always as obvious. “There’s an idea that somehow you can see a witch from across the street,” Mar says. “Just like you can’t tell the religious beliefs of the average person you meet in the grocery store, it’s the same with a witch.”

She or he could be any ethnicity, any gender, have any sexual identity, and any career. (And they most likely won’t be wearing a cape and pointed hat.) Instead, keep a look out for that friend who collects crystals and talks about “manifesting” their goals. They might not even know it yet—but they’re probably a witch.