The practice of using metaphysical methods and rituals to shift energy, effect change, create spells, or connect with a higher power—commonly known as witchcraft—has existed since long before many organized religions. Yet, many people’s perception of witches is based on media portrayals and how witchcraft is addressed within their own religious or spiritual practices. And, there continues to be a widespread mix of fear, fascination, curiosity, and condemnation surrounding those who choose to practice witchcraft in modern-day America.
What, exactly, does it mean to be a witch and practice witchcraft in 2019? Nerdist spoke to six witches to gain a deeper understanding about their beliefs, practices, and hopes for the future of witches in entertainment.
The Definition of “a Witch”
“I was always told that a witch is a person who holds a lot of knowledge, wisdom, or ethereal information,” says writer and tarot reader Frankie. “And then the practice of witchcraft is using that knowledge to alter the reality around you. Magic is the manipulation of energy and you are the tool that manipulates the energy.” Frankie, who is Black and Puerto Rican, grew up in an open-minded Catholic home, and ultimately found out that some of his family members practiced Santería and worshipped Orishas. He recognized his identity as a witch at age six and encountered Nyx, his goddess of worship.
“In 1996, my aunt was babysitting me and she got The Craft,” Frankie continues. “When I watched that damn movie and I saw Sarah and them doing witchcraft and spells, I knew I was a witch. I knew it. And my whole life I stuck to it…I used to see these little shadow people watching me when I was sleep. I would have night terrors but then I would see a woman shrouded in black, like a shadow woman. She would make them disappear and let me go to sleep. As I got older, I discovered that she was actually goddess Nyx—the goddess of night and darkness.”
Illustrator and neuroscientist Quinn Interstellar says witches have many different beliefs, rituals, and guiding principals, so it is impossible to give a one-size-fits-all definition. They grew up in a spiritual Afro-Trinidadian household where they were free to explore different religions and practices. “A witch is a person who does use spiritual practices, whether it be ancestral, or possibly like modern-day, Western forms of spirituality,” Quinn says. “I could say that anyone who practices in this way would be a witch.”
California teacher Tayci left organized religion, specifically Christianity, because of oppressive rules stemming from patriarchal standards. She affirms that witchcraft is actually very individualized and, for her, is a way to connect with her predecessors. “To me, being a witch is connecting with stuff that my ancestors would have done and the people or gods that they would have talked to,” she says. “Also, connecting with nature and connecting with being a woman and what that means.”
Odochi*, a storyteller and “magical crystal goddess,” also comes from a very religious upbringing. She was baptized in the Catholic church and attended Lutheran and born-again Christian grade schools. Odochi still believes in one god and offers a different perspective on the “witch” label.
“Being a witch is understanding the fact that you are magic and that there’s magic in you, in the universe, and in all of us,” she proudly states. “You are God [because] they created you in their image. And so that means you have everything inside of you to create the life that you want for yourself…being a witch means that you are connected to the world and the universe in such a way that you are not going to harm it.”
Witchcraft in Motion
These definitions of witch challenge typical myths about witches and by extension what they do. Many people believe that hexes, concoctions, and “worshiping the devil” within coven circles are typical tenets of witchcraft. This may be true for some subsets but many practitioners work alone as they focus on affirmations, intentions, healing, directing energy, and other positive things.
Witchcraft’s origins stem from many African and Caribbean countries. These practices were often interwoven into Abrahamic faiths like Christianity and Islam. So, for some, witchcraft is a way to claim a deeper connection with their ancestors. “What tends to tie into a lot of different aspects of witchcraft is ancestor veneration,” says creator and artist Tora Shae. “Reaching back and feeling the energy of your ancestral spirit flowing through you is something you can hold onto. There’s a vast amount of respect and homage that has to be paid within our community, which is why you don’t hear as much talking outside of them.”
Tora Shae followed her mother’s rituals as a child, many of which she confirms are connected with Southern Black culture. Her practice also focuses heavily on affirmations, healing and health through natural substances, and warding off negative energy.
Quinn Interstellar doesn’t follow a specific system or god(s), but they also believe in revering ancestors. They refer to their practices as solitary and “very loose.” “Being Black and a witch is really important because I believe in venerating my ancestors. I do have an altar where I have my tarot cards, sage, and crystals. I’m very big into astrology and tarot cards. That’s my daily thing I do, I always draw a card. I also do tarot readings to decide how my day will go.”
The practice of witchcraft and religions like Christianity are often perceived as polar opposites. However, Odochi still identifies as a Christian and blends her monotheistic beliefs with other practices. “I do ancestor worship,” she reveals. “I have an altar and I pray and talk to my grandparents and all the ancestors…[I say] good morning, thank you for making me. I do a lot of spiritual baths and candle magic. I use full and new moon intentions, practice mindfulness, and keep a hold on my ego and how I’m moving through the world.”
Like the others, Frankie is not a part of a coven. He has a few fellow witch friends for support and community, but his practices are solo activities. “I do candle magic, where I dress my candles with oils and herbs,” he says. “I pray and put my intention into the element of the fire of the candle…as long as that candle is lit, it is pouring those intentions out into the universe. I do a lot of crystal work where I hold onto my crystals and then I channel energy into them. I use it for spells and all kinds of things like dream work.”
The exception is his tarot readings, which he does for himself and clients. “I read tarot and know how to do spells with tarot. I light incense to cleanse the space of my room and pour intentions into my coffee every morning.” Frankie’s rituals are pretty consistent, but the true beauty of witchcraft is there’s no organization or structure with rules to follow.
Writer Black Witch is Pagan, polytheistic, and doesn’t have any specific rituals. She had to be secretive about practicing witchcraft in her parent’s Christian home and that minimalism has carried over into her current life. “I’m pretty solitary in my practices,” states Black Witch. “I pretty much blend my practices into my life instead of having set-in-stone rituals. I don’t have an altar. My “witchcraft box” is a little smaller than a shoe box.”
Tayci began practicing witchcraft in junior high school after reading a book with teen witches and spells. She wasn’t fulfilled at her church and stopped going at around 11 before getting tarot cards, gemstones, and candles. Tayci became more intentional with her practices in her late 20s and says her goddess Oshun chose her and guided her through a painful divorce. But she doesn’t feel the pressure to do certain rituals on a regular basis.
“I’m not a daily person,” Tayci shares. “I did start where every full moon I would go out and say thank you and light candles and stuff. But even then, I would forget sometimes. I think maybe releasing those anxieties that I had before about things in my life and then having the freedom to be like ‘It’s been a month [since I have done anything]’ and not feeling like I’m going to be set on fire because of that is freeing.”
Tayci’s Main Altar
The Complexities of Being a Witch
Many witches relish in freedom of not having to follow litany of rules or hide their authentic selves to avoid eternal damnation. This freedom is exceptionally important for LBGTQ+ witches like Quinn Interstellar, who is a lesbian, because many religious structures condemn their truth.
“Witchcraft grants a lot of people a form of independence. If you are practicing any spirituality correctly it comes full circle to you figuring yourself out, being more independent, and critically thinking about yourself and others and we don’t live in a world that promotes nor fosters that. So, I’m not surprised that a lot of people are like “Oh you worship the devil.”
However, Tora Shae points out that non-White witches have limits on their liberation because of societal weights stemming from systemic oppression and bigotry. “I still feel the weight of the universe,” laments Tora Shae. “I still feel there are people out there with closely negative intentions. And, I think that morality is a gray thing that a lot of people choose not to explore on their own. People will choose to either subscribe to ideas of just bad or good and spend their lives beating themselves up and lashing out at others. And, that scares me because they refuse to take responsibility for their own behaviors. I guess I have like an existential dread about the universe.”
Odochi charges her tarot cards with rose quartz
Subscribing to belief systems that fall outside of societal norms comes with its set of issues. Witchcraft is a practice that mostly liberates marginalized people so a ton of falsehoods and stigmas were attached to witches were fabricated to dis-empower and harm them. And, the more intersections that a person falls under (ex. Black, queer, and poor), the greater the need to force them into submission.
“Commonly in Western culture, witches were painted as “bad” because they did things that Christian culture (which is the relatively dominant culture in the West) deemed “bad”. Practice with a different god? That’s a devil-worshipper, because there is theoretically supposed to be “no other god” in existence. And that person, who is “Not-One-Of-Us” because “devil worshipper”, should not be trusted. And if they are not to be trusted, because they are Not-One-Of-Us, then they must be wicked!”
Quinn Interstellar reaffirms this sentiment about how witches are othered in places where their practices aren’t the majority. They experienced this othering as a Black child growing up around people who mostly followed the same faiths. “I feel that since religion is an institution that is very cishetero, White, male, and patriarchal, the idea of something else deviating from that is just unfathomable for them,” they declare. “If we look at the Salem Witch Trials and how that transpired, I would say misogyny plays a big part. It’s almost as if a witch and a person who identifies as a woman is free of their own mind and volition and the word “devil” are all the same thing.”
Tora Shae points out the Salem Witch Trials are like most historical accounts of witchcraft: biased and exclusionary. “I’m often incensed when we talk about the Salem Witch Trials because there’s never enough talk about what happened to the Black witches,” she says. “A lot of things were blamed on them.”
Quinn Interstellar’s altar
This erasure from narratives becomes even more frustrating when real-life White witches use practices and terminology that is specifically rooted in Black, Asian, and/or Latinx culture. There have also been countless websites, brands, and other major platforms that primarily explore modern witchcraft through the lens of White practitioners, particularly women.
Sacred practices have been turned into trends and catchphrases without respect for its origins. “The only problem of White women claiming to be witches is when they blatantly hijack things from cultures not their own, like smudging, henna, feng shui, yoga, voodoun, the word ‘brujería/bruja,’ the list goes on and on,” says Black Witch. “Especially when White women try to profit off it and create gatekeeping/barriers to isolate the taken thing so that the original group either cannot participate or are rarely seen as experts in the practice.”
She gives two examples: Sephora’s “witch kit” debacle and tea maker Blackthorn’s Hoodoo Blends. Black Witch rightfully points out how these brands are profiting from cultures they do not participate in.
The Future of Witches in Media
Portrayals of witches in U.S. entertainment have also been overwhelmingly White. Quinn Interstellar grew up having to identify with White witches’ stories, so they were happy to see Angela Bassett as Marie Laveau on American Horror Story: Coven. “It was truly the only show that I could find that represented what I would perceive my ancestors to be like. It’s the only one, which speaks volumes about the representation of Black folks being spiritual, which is so bizarre because Black people pretty much fostered and cultivated this practice. White women do have their history but now they have taken hold.”
Tora Shae is enjoying new narratives with witches of color, but she’s ready for more representation in TV and film. “I do love a good fantasy show,” she says. “I love to see tales of strong women wielding their powers but I’d like to see more Black people in these stories…I have gotten sucked into the new Charmed reboot. I like that healthy balance of being a normal person who is trying to get their life together and keep evil away.”
Black Witch shares Tora Shae’s sentiments about Charmed having witches with normal lives and really loves the show’s use of science. “I definitely like how the show marries science and magick instead of the usual ‘science vs. magick.’ I cast spells and build robots from scratch, I even planned out CADs for 3D printed runes in wood filament. It is extremely possible to have both.”
Witches of color still have a long way to go in terms of being centered as authentic and complex primary characters who are treated with respect.
Frankie’s tarot cards
What Our Witch Interviewees Would Like to See in the Future
“I think witches of color, especially Black women, were often overlooked but now it’s going to become a new standard to have them in more mainstream media. I want to know more about the Black witches who helped free the nation during [times] of rebellion.”
“It is nice that things are starting to get a little diverse but there can always be more. To be honest, I have never met an actual witch that acted as if they popped out of American Horror Story…I’d rather see witches portrayed as normal, not sexed up or jazzed up, as if being a witch is a performance.”
“There are lots of different aspects of witchcraft because there’s people who are kitchen witches. Some do their magic with cooking and there are garden witches who they do their magic with plants. And there’s art witches and even those witches who use Pokémon cards. It’s whatever people are connected to that they use in their practice. Showing a lot more of those sorts of things is of course, very helpful and just makes it more normalized…it would be fun to have a TV show about witch roommates who are all different types of witches. Or even having a someone in a TV show that does things like grab their rose quartz before they leave home for protection or good luck and make it a normal thing.”
“I would like to see more Black women in the writers room…I can definitely tell when it’s not something that a Black person living within a Black person’s America would say or do. People can tell when something is written without having to think about Blackness. I want to see more women of color living their normal lives but also trying to deal with whatever they are doing spiritually. And, if there are elements of fantasy because people love fantasy, that’s great. But, less portraying magic and spirituality as inherently evil.”
“What’s important is context – how it’s written and if it is written well. That’s the main thing. I don’t watch a whole lot of TV but I’m an illustrator by trade. One of the important things [in my work] is Black deities and witches. I like to portray those types of people because I didn’t get to see a lot of that as a kid.”
“As far as representation in shows, that’s like someone asking me to speak for other gay men when I have had my own experiences. I can’t speak for a collective group because I don’t know their vision. I do feel like people should do their research. And, [people] can’t be mad if it’s rooted in reality and has a historical approach to it.”
This is what witches and witchcraft looks like in real-life. It’s Frankie pulling a tarot card to guide his day, Tora Shae thanking her ancestors for their journeys, and Odochi honoring her internal magic. It is Quinn Interstellar allowing astrology to guide them, Black Witch taking out her box for a quiet practice, and Tayci spending time at her carefully crafted altar. Witchcraft is filled with diversity and a rich history that runs deeper than what’s typically explored on television. For those who ascribe to it, it’s spiritual, sacred, liberating, enlightening, and a path towards being a better human. And, one day there will be more media explorations of everyday people who happen to also identify as witches.
Featured Image: Odochi
*This is a correction to this interviewee’s previous name listing