Ahead of the midterms, a crowd of witches gathered in New York to place a public hex on Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh. “Foster within us bravery and cloak us in armor as we face an enemy who seems insurmountable,” chanted Dakota Bracciale, co-owner of the Brooklyn “metaphysical boutique” where the event was held.
Even as the president has revived the notion of a “witch hunt” to play down the Russia investigation, witchcraft is raising its profile. There are the Instagram witches with hundreds of thousands of followers, the youthful astrologers with book deals and a profusion of trendy shops in which the slightest awkward movement might knock awry an elaborate display of healing crystals or bundles of palo santo. (Watch out: Those crystals are more expensive than you might expect.)
An interest in the esoteric tends to reassert itself at moments of crisis: Spiritualism was in part a reaction to the Industrial Revolution; the New Age movement reflected the cultural upheaval of the 1960s and ’70s. But I think the growing interest in witches and witchcraft speaks to a uniquely unsettled moment in U.S. history — and an unprecedented loss of hope felt by an entire generation. Absent anything else to hold on to, we’re reaching into the dark.
Today’s witches are an eclectic group, ranging from teens who pull the occasional Urban Outfitters-purchased tarot card to devoted practitioners who have adopted the African spiritualism of their ancestors. There are even Christian witches — a new tradition that seems to have cropped up within the past five years. Most younger habitués are developing their own personal practice as they go along. In her 2015 book, “Witches of America,” Alex Mar estimates that there are up to 1 million practicing witches in the United States — a group about the same size as the Seventh-day Adventists.
Witchcraft’s new appeal can be linked to larger social realignments: In surveys on religion, the religiously unaffiliated are the fastest-growing share of the U.S. population, a trend even more concentrated among young adults. But this disenchantment with aspects of organized religion seen as patriarchal and dogmatic has not ended our human search for meaning and deep longing for community. Add to that a general movement toward the natural, the herbal, to lifestyles and practices that are seen as authentic — more authentic than your parents’ Christianity, at least.