On Halloween night, Charlene Dzielak will light candles and incense in front of an altar and invite her deceased loved ones to join her in a “dumb supper”, a feast eaten in silence out of respect for the dead who cannot speak.
After a year-long hiatus due to COVID-19, Dzielak meets with his coven – or congregation of witches – in Old Bridge, New Jersey, to celebrate Samhain, an ancient Celtic holiday marking the end of harvest season and the start of winter. Pronounced “sow”, Samhain, which would have been the precursor of Halloween, literally means “end of summer” in Gaelic.
Witches ring the bell during the holiday day on the night of October 31 with fire ceremonies, parties, and the building of an altar to honor the dead.
Samhain has become increasingly popular in recent years as more Americans embrace astrology, supernatural and pagan sects such as Wicca. The rise was fueled in large part by young people who abandoned organized religion in favor of their own spiritual path.
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This year, in the shadow of the pandemic, Samhain carries additional emotion, with more socially distant observances and references to COVID-19. Witches across the country will honor those who died during the pandemic, and many will perform rites aimed at making the disease go away.
“We will call the names of those who died from COVID this year and light a candle in their honor,” Dzielak said, adding that the event will be smaller than usual due to the pandemic. âWe will ask the gods to watch over those of us who are still here and to protect us all. We will remember those who have died and ask the gods to make their afterlife as pleasant as possible. We find this heartwarming. . “
A few miles away in Mount Holly, New Jersey, Melanie Wilbur will join other witches at a socially distant little bonfire where they will recite prayers and spells to honor the dead. âAs it is our New Year, we will be incorporating our healing intentions for the world, our communities and our country,â said Wilbur, a witch and owner of Cerridwen’s Hearth, a New Jersey witch shop specializing in readings from tarot, energy healing. and ingredients for spells.
No longer seen as wicked, witches are hooked.
Wicca is one of the largest pagan groups and its followers often practice witchcraft. The modern Wicca movement was established in the 1950s as a religion emphasizing magic, nature, and environmental responsibility.
Witches have always had a bad reputation as the sinister outliers associated with flying brooms, pointy hats, and evil spells. For centuries innocent women have been punished or put to death for being accused of practicing witchcraft. More recently, those who have publicly identified as witches have reported experiencing discrimination and harassment.
But now, in the wake of the hit Harry Potter series and the Twilight movies, and with an array of witches appearing on social media, witchcraft is no longer considered scary. It has become common.
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The number of Americans who identify with Wicca or paganism has grown from 134,000 in 2001 to nearly 2 million today, according to Helen Berger, resident researcher at the University’s Center for Research on Women’s Studies Brandeis, who has conducted extensive research and written four books on witches and pagans. The witching community in America has grown steadily since the 1960s, she said, and “much of the recent growth has come from young women.”
Manny Tejeda-Moreno, editor of The Wild Hunt, a news agency focused on the pagan and wizarding community, said subscriptions had risen to 80,000 in the past five years, a 25% increase. Although there are few statistics based on data documenting the growth of the witch population in America, the rise of witchcraft on social media suggests an “observable difference between the number of people practicing witchcraft and the number of people practicing witchcraft. willing to discuss this practice openly “. he said, adding that “witchcraft and witches have become more common.”
From Salem to Sabrina, witches have long captured the human imagination. Today’s versions include social media influencer witches and a comedic superhero called Wiccan. TikTokers who share their witchcraft tutorials and other magical content under the hashtag #witchtok have racked up over 20 billion views. There are now podcasts, museum exhibits, and a range of witchcraft-focused books and courses.
Major retailers, including Sephora and Urban Outfitters, are responding to the growing witch population by selling healing crystals, spell books and other tools of the witch trade. Witch-themed shops are popping up all over the country, and a search for witch products on Amazon and Etsy generates thousands of entries.
âRight now we’re in the middle of a witchcraft moment,â said Jason Mankey, a Silicon Valley witch who has written seven books on witchcraft. “Witchcraft is popular now and the number of witches in America is increasing rapidly.”
About ten years ago, “no one would have published their spells online. Now it has become popular to see what people do magically on Instagram. Today many witches get information about them. social networks, âMankey said, making witchcraft more accessible to a wider section of society.
Deprived of organized religion
Witch experts attribute the resurgence to a variety of factors. For starters, there are few regulations. In fact, Wicca does not have a universally accepted Bible or a regulated mode of practice, and the only principle that has been widely adopted by Wiccans is “Don’t hurt anyone and do whatever you like.”
âIf someone identifies as a witch, then they are. It is not as well defined as other religions,â Mankey said, adding that witches come from all walks of life and can relate to each other. as male, female or non-binary.
Berger agreed that a great attraction for young people who have felt disenfranchised from organized religion is that they can find healing and fellowship in the witch community, where everyone can “do what he wants and it is accepted “.
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Turbulent economic and political climates often provide fertile ground for alternative spiritual movements. The pandemic has amplified this trend and many people looking for meaning and order amid the frightening plague have found it in witchcraft.
A growing share of Americans – over a quarter of adults – say they are “spiritual but not religious,” and a 2017 Pew Research Center survey also found that about 62% of Americans report having “New Age” beliefs , including a belief in astrology, mediums, and the presence of spiritual energy in inanimate objects.
Unlike traditional religions which prohibit homosexuality and limit leadership positions to straight men, witchcraft allows those who feel marginalized by organized religion to find acceptance and community, experts say.
While many witches say they shun publicity for fear of discrimination or harassment, many say they have become more comfortable coming out “of the broom closet” to publicly reveal their beliefs.
This, in turn, has drawn newcomers into the fold.
But the sudden popularity has a downside, said Wilbur, who discovered witchcraft at the age of 9 by reading witchcraft books and practiced it in secret for years.
As she rejoices that being a witch no longer carries the stigma it once carried, Wilbur fears that witchcraft has become “too crazy.”
âInstagram tends to make it trendy and easy,â Wilbur said. “But you have to read and put some work into it. You have to become knowledgeable. You can’t just cast a spell because you’ve seen it on TikTok.”
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“Powerful and personal”
Dzielak was raised Presbyterian and always believed in spirituality, but disliked the way Christianity described humans as separate from the rest of nature. She was also disillusioned, she said, by the insistence of the mainstream religions that “theirs is the only way to access the divine and if you don’t do it right you will not be saved. or you will burn in hell “.
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After experiencing various religions, she was drawn to Wicca and 22 years ago became a witch. âThis is an experiential religion where you connect directly with gods without the help of an intermediary. It makes it very powerful and personal.â
âWe have to get the word witch back,â Dzielak said. “Witches are not bad and we do not worship the devil. We are working to manipulate energy for a beneficial end.”
Now a mother of 3 and a grandmother of four, she said that every time she wears her pentagram necklace (a five-pointed star symbolizing Wicca) she attracts attention in a positive way. âPeople see it and tell me they’re Wiccans too,â she said.
Follow reporter Deena Yellin on Twitter: @deenayellin
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