The little-known worlds of witchcraft and woo are places most people would not consider to step foot into, unless maybe foolishly dabbling with a Ouija board in the run up to Halloween. Aside from the stereotypes of contacting spirits or casting spells, there is a lot more to modern witchcraft and spirituality than meets the eye.
Here lies an investigation into the world of woo, heavily guided by conversations with four charming individuals, who were kind enough to give me their time and share with me their witchy wisdom.
Today we ask: Who is a witch? What does it all entail? How does one dip their toe into the magical realm? And, of course — what on earth is woo?
Witches in popular culture
Most people are aware of the traditional concept of a witch. Any country which celebrates Halloween, at least in the American sense, can attest to seeing the cackling, green-skinned, hook-nosed icon portrayed in popular media — broomstick, hat and cat most likely in tow.
The Wizard of Oz popularised this trope for witches, with the green-skinned Wicked Witch of the West making an appearance in Technicolor in 1939. Supposedly, this green-skinned trope is due to connotations of historical witches having gangrene, and this set the precedent for ‘ugly’, evil witches ever since.
Nevertheless, as you’re probably well aware, not every portrayal of witches in pop culture involves warts and evil spells. Witches have evolved from Oz and The Crucible-style condemnation of women, to eventually become a more empowering type of character, centring young women and femmes in supernatural stories. Take Sabrina the Teenage Witch, for example, and the epitomic (albeit unnecessarily gendered) witches/wizards of Harry Potter.
There are all these associations we have with witches. But none of these sorts of things seem to exist in our everyday lives, right? So where does one find a modern-day witch?
Who is a modern-day witch?
In the last UK census, around 96,000 people identified as Pagan or Spiritualist in 2011. This is a figure which might be somewhat surprising, given sightings of folks riding broomsticks is probably quite low in 2020. Nor does it seem there are many covens living in large, hex-casting groups, American Horror Story-style (that we know of).
One caveat that needs to be made, is that when I say ‘witchcraft’, this does not necessarily mean that all these people identify as witches. More so, they practice and believe in things that could be placed under the ‘witchcraft’, ‘mystical’, or ‘spiritual’ categories. These categories themselves often also come with misconceptions, particularly the word ‘spiritual’.
Amaani, who also identifies mostly as spiritual, described the concept of ‘witchcraft’ as an umbrella term for all sorts of spiritual practices. Many practices can fall into multiple traditions, such as spell casting and fortune telling, and ‘witchcraft’ is simply a catch-all term to ease the understanding of the uninitiated.
Indeed, much of the appeal of spirituality and witchcraft is how free and unrestrictive it tends to be. Sophie, founder of Lua Divine spiritual coaching, expressed a similar position to Amaani. “I wouldn’t say I identify properly with a belief system as such,” she told me, “I just have my beliefs, and they fit into wherever they fit.”
“What I like about spirituality is the ability to do it your own way,” Ben, a self-titled ‘queer witch’, had a comparable view. “The focus is on taking control of your own life and changing the aspects you want to change to be the best version of yourself.”
Spirituality, however, evokes a stereotype, usually labelled the “love ‘n’ light crew”, which tends to be a huge generalisation of the community. “There is more to spirituality than just love and light,” Sophie confirmed.
Mana, spirit portraitist and host of The Real Witches of The End Times podcast, completely agreed.
Spirituality can be accused of being used to ignore the problems of the world to focus on what’s greater, the “love n light”. “Some people call it spiritual bypassing,” they explained. “Of course, that’s the case, but there are so many more layers to it at the same time. Some people really like the bright lightness of things in spirituality, and some people don’t gravitate towards that naturally.”
What counts as ‘woo’?
There are more things that fit into magical categories than meets the eye. Mana, a self-professed dabbler in many magical traditions, describes multiple disciplines within the category of ‘woo’.
Woo – what those who aren’t part of the witch community may call unconventional beliefs, especially those relating to spirituality, mysticism, or alternative medicine. A term which can be seen as derogatory to the community, but many are reclaiming it as a catch-all term for all spiritual disciplines.
“The spiritual community, once you get it in, you realise how vast it is,” they remarked, “there are the fae people, there are the crystal people, there’s the witches, there’s the magicians, the chaos magicians. All this stuff is all its own thing.”
There are so many facets to the spiritual community, once the door is opened you can get involved in a variety of traditions and specialisations. Many “typical” spiritual folks involve tarot readings, crystal work, and meditation in their practices. Energy work is also a common one, often tied up into all the different elements of practice.
It is interesting to see the intersection between certain ‘witchy’ practices and what many might consider to be standard practice for a lifestyle blogger. Manifestation is one such spiritual practice, which is common to a few magical traditions and also not uncommon amongst influencers. They tell their followers that cultivating the experience of what they want to feel, and believing in that experience, will make it happen. This, believe it or not, is magical practice. Many people have magical tendencies without even really realising, even if they don’t always appreciate the significance of what they are doing.
Another great example of this, something which Mana discussed, is how Catholicism involves many practices which, when taken out of their Christian context, can be interpreted as witchcraft. Shock horror: this isn’t news to anyone. Many people have noted the hypocrisy of the Church lambasting and even persecuting pagan and spiritual practices, when they too conduct rituals of spiritual intent. These often involve similar things, such as burning incense, carrying medallions, communicating with other worldly figures and intercessors… the list goes on.
Anything can be magical, depending on how you interpret it, basically.
How do I involve myself in the world of woo?
A big fat question. How does one go about dipping a toe into the world of magic, ‘woo’, and witchcraft?
A common place to start is with tarot. It seems easy enough to access, and does not heavily rely on a belief in the otherworldly (if someone else is doing the reading for you). It can be an eye-opening experience, not necessarily due to the insights from the reading itself but from a better understanding of the process and reasoning behind tarot. It’s less of a fortune-telling activity, like you might expect, and more of an introspective examination of what your life has been like and how that might affect your future goals.
Amaani gave me my first tarot reading. Honestly? I’d recommend it, even if it’s just for fun.
There are many other ways to dabble, be it through crystals, tarot, manifesting, or contacting spirits. “It’s your own interpretation of what you want to believe and what you feel,” Amaani mentioned, “because spirituality can be so many different things.” Sometimes it’s simply just down to how you interpret the little things in life. Mana champions this, suggesting that the more open you are to the “weirder” things in life, the more you might notice and experience them. “I’ll find that the more that I lean into just letting go and letting what happens happen, I start to experience more and more synchronicities.”
Amaani, Sophie and Ben began their spiritual journeys through an introduction by a family member, and almost everyone I spoke to experienced a period of doubt after a brief encounter with the spiritual world. As with any strong belief, perhaps it is inevitable that there is a period of questioning after the profound realisation that there is something greater than just the world that we see before us.
Whatever small start you might make, be it picking up crystals in your garden, like Mana, or having a particularly enlightening meditation, like Sophie, there are so many channels to explore in the realm of witchcraft. It’s not quite like what the media might have you believe. Practicing witchcraft can be as strict or as loose as you make it, and it can be done by anybody with a feeling that the world isn’t just as it initially seems.
Thanks to Claudia Peach for helping to transcribe the interviews, and Ruth Stewart for her lovely witch illustration.