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(This post first appeared on Substack: Writing Magick with Maggie Sunseri. Click to subscribe.)

Introduction and Definitions

First thing’s first: What the hell even is witchcraft? Is it the same thing as magick? Is it what Wiccans, New Agers, and Neopagans do? Is it religious? Is it spiritual? Or is it neither, perhaps a creative hobby? Is it just a phase that alt and/or queer teenagers go through as a rite of passage?

A lot of this is going to be from my own perspective, and there’s a fair chance that my own thoughts and beliefs will not be generalizable to everyone. Actually, it’s guaranteed. That’s life!

I see the terms witchcraft and magick as completely interchangeable in terms of their raw meanings and aims. Depending on who is wielding the terms, often the difference between them comes down to aesthetics. The first to add a ‘K’ to the word magic was Aleister Crowley, an English occultist, novelist, artist, and ceremonial magician who lived in the early twentieth century. The addition was intended to distinguish between the stage acts that magicians perform, like pulling a rabbit out of a hat, versus the magick that occultists perform, such as performing a ritual. Crowley famously said that “all intentional acts are acts of magick.” He said that magick was “the Science of understanding one’s self and one’s own situation. It is the art of applying this knowledge in action.” To Crowley, magick was at its core a psychological system meant to direct human will toward living in alignment with the Universe’s flow. It was only through true self-knowledge that one could practice magick effectively. Rituals, deities, spirits, and beliefs were thus merely tools to direct one’s will outward into the world.

Magickal thinking, shamanism, and witchcraft have been around since humans first developed the capacity for religious and artistic thought. However, often times witchcraft in particular has been considered only negatively, and in many places today, that has not changed. A classic example of witchcraft beliefs in the anthropology discipline is the Azande tribe of Central Africa. To the Azande, witches only use witchcraft on people they hate. Death, misfortune, and disease are often attributed to witchcraft, and oracles and witchdoctors are crucial in deciding whether witchcraft was performed and by whom. More witchcraft is then executed in order to avenge the injured party. The famous Evans-Pritchard example is illustrative of how they believe witchcraft to function in their society:

If a person is killed by the collapse of the granary, the Azande call it witchcraft. This does not mean they deny that the poles on which the granary rested were destroyed by termites. And the Azande know very well that many persons rest under a granary to avoid the heat in summer. However, that the granary collapsed in exactly the moment in which this specific human being sat under it, and not a moment before or after, is supposed to be the result of witchcraft.

In other words, the Azande do not reject logical, reasonable explanations for why events occur. Magick is the thing that slips through the cracks of materiality; it is what would be considered luck or fortune, the reason for which something bad happened at the exact moment a particular person was there for it to happen to.

Witchcraft and magick, of course, does not spell only evil for other cultures and peoples, and that is becoming increasingly true for modern Western society. Witchcraft bears a very heavy weight indeed to be carrying the thousands of different definitions and examples attributed to the term. When I myself dig through the cross-cultural and varied mess of religion, spirituality, politics, history, and pop culture, I find myself with a rather simple definition of witchcraft:

Witchcraft is will directed toward change.

This definition is dauntingly big and spacious, but it’s the room the word needs in order to be a container for so much difference.

Because the truth of the matter is, one of the main reasons for why magick is so popular today is because it can mean so many different things to so many different people.

There is religious witchcraft and there is psychological, secular witchcraft. From Appalachian folk magick infused with Bible verses to Wiccan hexes against Donald Trump, magick finds space to grow in the most unlikely of environments. My definition of witchcraft is broad, but to the individual person witchcraft can have vastly different explanatory models. Someone who views witchcraft as something to hate or fear might claim that magick is the calling upon demons or evils spirits to do one’s dirty work. Another person might view magick as the calling upon ancestors and spiritual guides, beings who exist outside of this material realm, perhaps somewhere we might return to one day.

One common explanation for how witchcraft works lends itself from the fact that everything is made up of energy. Many practitioners believe there is a way to engage with this unseen web of energy in ways that are meaningful to us psychologically and materially. Instead of seeing the forces of the Universe as just a mess of meaningless particles, witches see a certain order to the madness, a breadth of correspondences between the observed world and the occult. In The Hunted, Book 4 in The Lost Witches of Aradia series, a character says, “Magick is supposed to be a complex interaction between witches, nature, and the Divine. It’s a mix of art, science, religion, and philosophy. A perfect blend. A perfect balance.”

This is how many witches today practice magick, and it’s personally how I like to view the practice too. Through this lens, witchcraft is will directed toward change through the channeling and redirecting of energy. That energy comes from ourselves and our own actions and goals, from tools and practices that traditionally correspond with our specific aims, and of course, from the raw power of nature and whatever beings one believes to inhabit the spirit/etheric realm.

For example, maybe if I’m in need of money I could light a green candle for abundance and stick crystals and herbs that are associated with money in a spell bottle with a piece of paper detailing my current needs. Then the next day I could apply to better jobs or ask for a promotion. The spell bottle isn’t a replacement for action; it’s a spiritual commitment to seeing a goal through and asking for a little luck and help along the way. From one point of view, the crystals and herbs aren’t necessary; they work because we believe in them, and it’s the belief itself that creates a powerful force. From another, the way I performed the spell was a means to honor a specific deity, ancestor, or force of nature, and the action is more like a prayer with more props. There is a wealth of meaning behind a witch’s actions that will be different for every witch.

In the end, witchcraft is about honoring where we come from. Our ancestors, our land, our broader environment and all the other life forms we share the earth with. Witch and pagan holidays take us back to a time where we were all more in touch with the cycles of the seasons, of seeding and harvest, of the moon and the stars. This is one reason I believe that witchcraft has gained such immense popularity; it allows a new generation the opportunity to connect with tradition, land, and ritual outside the scope of organized religion. These things give our life meaning. They allow us to feel connected to the past, to each other, and to the earth beneath our feet.

Some witches don’t believe in any divine being, and instead see witchcraft as a way to explore themselves or engage with nature. Many others engage in deeply spiritual or religious practices that intertwine with magickal workings. There are witches who also belong to a major religion. If I were to guess, the majority of modern witches would fall into the spiritual but not religious camp.

Even secular witches will often employ prayer or deity worship as a part of their practice, which might seem strange. The deities witches worship, who often tend to be part of ancient pantheons such as from Greco-Roman mythology, are often seen merely as Campbellian or Jungian archetypes. Worshipping Aphrodite to an atheist witch might mean exploring the role of sex and love in one’s own life, and making a conscious effort to embody those traits or look for them in the world. Pulling tarot cards to a secular witch is akin to the Rorschach inkblot test. It allows a look into the psyche, the subconscious mind that makes most of our day-to-day decisions. Understanding and working with the subconscious has been proven to be of supreme importance in trauma healing and other therapeutic modalities. And in a world that is increasingly traumatizing, it’s no wonder more and more people are seeking to understand themselves and heal.

Why is witchcraft so popular right now?

I could write an entire book on the differences between different witchy philosophies, but for the sake of brevity I’ll be generalizing and speaking from my own perspective for the rest of this article.

To me, witchcraft is about belief over all else. It’s about becoming an active, conscious participant in the wheel of time, finding meaning and purpose in a world that can feel increasingly chaotic and vast. Being a witch gives me the space to bring it all back, to make the world small and manageable again. And I believe that it’s belief itself that’s the most powerful force in the universe.

We already know that belief leads to change in remarkable ways. Like I discussed in my article railing against Western biomedicine, the placebo effect can be powerful enough to heal someone who thought they received a surgery that never happened. We also know that our consciousness not only has a tangible effect on our own bodies, but also others’ bodies. Studies show patients heal better and faster when they are being treated by a doctor they trust and believe in. Patients will also heal when receiving treatment outside the scope of biomedicine, such as from a spiritual or religious figure in their community. This is the power of consciousness at work, or our will directed toward tangible, healing change.

Even stranger is the famous double-slit experiment that has perplexed scientists for over two-hundred years, in which physicists wished to observe whether or not light was a wave or a particle. Turns out, when scientists observed the experiment the atoms of light appeared as particles. When scientists looked away, they were captured as waves. This is only one example of how quantum mechanics seems to carry some sort of deeper spiritual weight, and big disclaimer that scientists and science enthusiasts get Big Mad when you buy into the whole consciousness-affects-the-material-world theory. A witch with a spiritual agenda is a rugged materialist’s worst nightmare.

The point is, our world is weird. We are making discoveries now that only amplify the universe’s weirdness rather than explain it all in a way that can be topped off with a cute little bow. To be honest, I’m a social sciences gal. For me, thinking about quantum mechanics is super cool but totally not necessary to how I move and think in the world.

Witchcraft is so popular today because people need something to believe in. Humans are pattern-seeking creatures, and we don’t like open cognitive loops. We like to feel that we understand enough about our environment to feel safe.

And witchcraft is fun! It’s fun to have community, to go outside and gather materials for a witchy craft or spell. It’s fun to collect pretty crystals and statues and other trinkets, and it’s fun to heal and grow as a person.

Many people in Western society, especially in the younger generation, are moving away from organized religion. This has left an open gap in people’s lives where tradition, belief, ritual, and community used to be. And I believe these elements to be an important part of the human existence, even a necessary one. Often times young people move away from the traditions of old because we don’t see ourselves in them. Queer kids have not so much left the church as they have traditionally been cast out. Others see witchcraft as reclaiming their ancestors’ practices—systems that were vilified and targeted by European colonizers or the church. The nature of spiritual and religious institutions and beliefs is that they change and evolve, and they have through the centuries. Witchcraft is a dance between looking toward the future and looking backward into the past, and ultimately finding ourselves right back here, in the present, in a web of connection that transcends time or place.

Connection is what humans crave most, and witches see it everywhere. We see that how we treat ourselves affects how we treat others, and how we honor our own land has a ripple effect across the earth. With the horrors of climate change picking up speed, with anger and hostility predominating the majority of modern discourse, and with late stage capitalism’s increasingly maddening, alienating, and traumatizing effects on the individual, family, and community units, spirituality can be one of the only ways to stay sane.

Magick meets you where you are. It’s a system that gives permission to feel how you feel, believe what you believe, and give meaning to that which is meaningful to you. Witchcraft is therapeutic in a society with restricted and expensive access to mental healthcare. Witchcraft is inclusive in a society rife with rigid dogma and outdated, moralistic bigotry. Witchcraft brings back childlike wonder and awe in a society that has forced young people to grow up too quickly.

What is the difference between praying with prayer beads and casting a spell with a crystal? Between chanting from a grimoire or from a religious text? Between meditating in a temple or meditating inside a circle of candles?

In the end, nothing. Our tools and words our different, but our striving remains the same. We all want to feel we are a part of something greater than ourselves. That someone or something is watching over us, rooting for us on our trek through mortal existence. We want to experience a release from ego and a return to love. We all want peace, safety, and purpose. These are the elements of any spiritual existence.

If you were looking for an article about my own specific beliefs and witchy practices, stay tuned for Part 2 in the coming weeks. In that post I will explain what chaos magick is and how I use it, as well as how I work with deities, pagan holidays, moon cycles, tarot cards, crystals, and more.

Have any questions or topics you want to see in future posts? Drop a comment or respond to this email!

(This post first appeared on Substack: Writing Magick with Maggie Sunseri. Click to subscribe, like, or leave a comment.)

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