Drawn to the occult: Spirituality is evolving

Photo by Erin Edgerton

Georgia Geen
Managing Editor

The deepest fear of everyone’s conservative grandparents might have been realized — witchcraft and other non-traditional spiritual practices are becoming more common among young people.

While the term itself encompasses a diverse range of practices, witchcraft falls under the umbrella of paganism, a label ancient Romans granted to “country-dwellers” who practiced Earth-based religions. But most modern witches consider their practices spiritual, not religious. Witchcraft is different from Wicca — which was founded in 1954 with similar pre-Christian roots — but, for some, has a very different connotation.

“Traditional witchcraft is more raw,” said Garrett Piersa, a practicing witch and VCU graduate. “We should be able to say, ‘I’m a witch. I practice witchcraft, it’s not evil.’’

Despite the negative connotation, witchcraft is inherently neutral, Piersa said. It depends on the intention of the person conducting the rituals, which range from “the full theatrics” of a thoroughly-planned ritual to the mundane.

“Witchcraft can be something as simple as literally praying over your coffee every day,” Piersa said. “It just really depends on how involved you want to be.”

That involvement often encompasses practices such as meditation, prayer and trance work, in addition to more involved measures like binding or hexing when the occasion calls for it. Piersa, with about 3,600 others, is a member of the “Bind Trump (Official)” Facebook group. Its purpose is evident in its nomenclature: to limit President Donald Trump’s harm through binding ceremonies conducted on the new moon. The process involves burning a candle, reading an incantation and setting a picture of the president on fire.

“You can do [the binding] with a group, but you also have that wider network through social media, so you know all these other people are doing this with you around the world,” Piersa said. “You might be alone in your own space, but you’re not spiritually alone.”

Photo by Erin Edgerton

Through collective work, Piersa said he and other witches draw upon a larger source of power. A sigil — a deconstructed word or phrase turned into a symbol — designed by Baltimore-based writer and member of the Facebook group Michael Hughes has been distributed across social media channels. Doing so, according to a post by Hughes in the group, increases its power.

A number of witches, including Piersa, feel empowered by using their craft for political purposes.

“I feel like it’s very easy in the current climate to feel powerless,” Piersa said. “So having folk magic — especially if you have an ancestral connection to it — can make you feel like you have some power to change things, or to at least protect your own.”

Following the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, Piersa hexed the National Rifle Association. The process, which involved writing “NRA Blood Money” on a one dollar bill and mailing it to the group, culminated in burying a black candle and sowing a flowering plant on top. While Piersa doesn’t believe in the “rule of three” — which dictates whatever one does will come back to them three times — he said touches like that help establish intention.

“I know in my heart what my intention is. I think it would be different if I was just an evil person that was doing bad things to hurt people,” Piersa said. “This might hurt someone, but it’s hurting someone who is hurting a lot of other people.”

For Piersa, witchcraft is a way to take power back from politically-oppressive systems, including the Trump presidency, which might have — directly or indirectly — drummed up interest in the practice.

According to Google Trends data, interest in witchcraft goes through seasonal shifts, increasing sharply in September and plummeting after Halloween as the winter holidays approach. While the entire arc started to shift slightly upward in 2013, a celebrity event coincided with a dramatic, uncharacteristic spike in February 2017. Singer Lana Del Rey, in a now-removed tweet, subtly encouraged her followers to participate in the aforementioned monthly binding ritual.

Photo by Erin Edgerton

Owner of Aquarian Bookshop in Carytown John Oliver has seen similar responses to the media broadcasting of other spiritual and metaphysical practices. He said the 2009 film “2012,” which inaccurately recounted what some thought was the end of the Mayan calendar, resulted in an increased interest in Mayan shamanism. The recent mindfulness trend means the shop — which specializes in products, learning materials and classes for a range of spiritual and metaphysical topics — has seen an increased interest in meditation.

The shop’s most popular products, which are featured widely on social media, are used by a diverse range of groups. Crystals and gems are used by all magical traditions around the world, Oliver said.

“They speak to the people that use them for magic, from the root workers, to those who identify as witches, to shamans,” Oliver said. “The stones also appeal to people who just like to wear them, who think, ‘Oh my God, that’s a really pretty stone, I wanna wear that.’ Many little kids are attracted to shiny things, so the stones appeal to the children, too.”

But not all magical practices are as widely-accepted, despite the fact that rituals — like saying vows at a wedding — are commonplace in all cultures.

“Because it’s called a ‘wedding,’ no one looks and sees, ‘Oh my gosh, this has all the components of magic,’” Oliver said. “But the moment you call it that, it freaks certain people out.”

Witches are stigmatized even within the metaphysical community, Oliver said. Once, when a witch traveled to conduct readings — similar to those of a psychic — a client decided against the appointment after learning how the practitioner identified.

“There’s a lot more people that do magical practices who don’t necessarily talk about it because there’s a big prejudice against it,” Oliver said. “Even within the community of metaphysics, there is still a prejudice against those who practice as witches.”

Putting magical and spiritual value into objects isn’t that atypical — Oliver said most people do the same thing by surrounding themselves with photos of loved ones that spurr positive emotions.

Photo by Michel Maulding

Khadija Green, a junior psychology student, uses crystals and wearable beaded items in a similar way.

“I wear them around my neck. I use sage — you can use it to cleanse your home [and] you cleanse your crystals with it if other people are handling them,” Green said. “It makes me feel invigorated. I feel like I’m waking up on the inside.”

Though she doesn’t assign a label to herself, the spiritual practices — which also include tarot card readings — make her feel like she’s “waking up on the inside.” Green said. She learned much of what she knows from the internet, starting with Tumblr in high school.

Green recently began making African waist beads, a West-African celebratory tradition dating back to the 15th century. As part of her process, it was important to educate people on the tradition’s origins, something she considers an important part of adopting another culture’s religious or spiritual practice.

“If you’re going to use it, be educated about it and you can appreciate it,” Green said. “I feel like people can definitely pull from different stuff, but be educated about what you’re doing and be aware of the people that started it.”

Some people, Green said, participate in spiritual practices that are sacred to others, even if they don’t believe in them, to participate in a trend.

“We’re all constantly learning from each other and teaching each other, so why not just educate the next person and still be educated,” Green said. “We’re all supposed to be able to come together in harmony. Even though that can sound very idealistic, it’s realistic in a way because [spirituality] is supposed to be something that brings us together.”

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