These Modern Witches Want to Cast a Spell on You
Modern witchcraft combines feminism, self-help, and wellness. But is there more to it than pretty crystals, stunning Instagram pictures, and lucrative business opportunities?
Gala Darling reveals that her spiritual awakening was like the moment in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy wakes up, miraculously transported from the sepia world of rural Kansas to the technicolor land of Oz.
Darling is standing beside her altar—a round, pink table laid with energy-charged crystals and magic candles—at The Wing, an all-women social club in Manhattan where 60 members and guests have signed up for her “Radical Self-Love Workshop.”
A 33-year-old writer and self-help guru, she explains how her years-long fog of depression lifted when she discovered “tapping,” an ancient Eastern healing technique that she describes as “a combination of acupuncture and cosmic psychology.”
The audience is rapt because Darling isn’t just a self-help guru but a stylish, sassy witch who swears often and radiates cool-girl vibes. She used to be “really goth and cynical” and thought tapping was “bullshit”—until, she says, it worked. Now she casts spells on Donald Trump.
Darling is tall and striking, with alabaster skin and kohl-rimmed green eyes. She wears a rainbow sherbet-colored maxi skirt, a grey tee knotted above her navel, and a silver pentagon ring. Her black hair is dip-dyed a raspberry, purpley pink shade that almost matches her lipstick. All of this makes for a punk rock-meets-My Little Pony aesthetic, complete with bicep sleeve tattoos and glittering fingernails.
Darling looks every bit the Instagram-famous modern witch, with nearly 60,000 followers. Being a professional witch and self-love priestess is her full-time job. (She declined to tell me me how much she earns through her practice.)
At a time when millennial women are embracing wellness fads and are hell-bent on toppling the patriarchy, the contemporary witch is their enlightened, rebellious role model.
She has seen a resurgence in pop culture over the last few years, from the campy and wildly popular 2013 TV series American Horror Story: Coven to Robert Eggers’ 2015 film The Witch. Gwyneth Paltrow’s website Goop sells tools for female-oriented practical magic like jade and rose quartz “yoni” eggs that purport to do more than just exercise your kegels.
Celebrities like Katy Perry, Victoria Beckham, Cara Delevingne, and Lena Dunham are hooked on crystals’ alleged healing powers and positive vibes (it doesn’t hurt that they’re also pretty). Adele chalked up her lackluster Grammy’s performance last year to misplacing hers.
The ’90s were another heyday of witchiness—of the benign, Hollywood variety—that saw films like Hocus Pocus and The Craft become cult classics, Charmed become a TV smash, while J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone and Gregory Maguire’s Wicked were instant bestsellers (Rowling’s Potter books went on to become the second-highest-grossing film franchise of all time, and a musical adaptation of Wicked was named one of Broadway’s top-grossing shows ever last year).
Today’s witchy sweet spot lies somewhere between the mind-body wellness movement and intersectional feminism. Embracing all things witchy and “magical”—believing that visualization rituals can help you manifest your dreams; that tarot cards can tell you something about your life which your logical brain might otherwise ignore; that wearing a crystal pendant necklace will protect you from negative energy—has become a way for women to feel empowered and trust their instincts.
The Wing is an appropriate setting for a witchy workshop on self-love and empowerment. The club describes itself as a “coven not a sorority,” and many of its 650 members—a politically progressive group of women, most of them in their twenties and thirties—work in creative industries.
Darling kicks off the “Radical Self-Love Workshop” with an exercise in “connecting to our intuitive selves” that requires dabbing her coveted “gratitude oil” on our wrists (“it has tiny crystals inside and smells am-a-zing”) and telling each other what we’re thankful for.
Next she hands out “Witchling Oracle Cards”—a whimsical take on tarot cards—and encourages us to decipher some personal message from cutesie illustrations of Witchlings like “Dreams” and “Abundance.”
Later, we write down what “spirituality” means to us (I’m tempted by Darling’s reassurance that “it’s OK to draw three big fucking question marks!”).
We whip up “happiness recipes,” or lists of feel-good rituals that fall under “mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual” categories. “I’d like everyone to write ‘orgasm’ under the physical category, because sex magic is the best magic,” Darling says to whoops and cheers.
We also make note of things we want to “leave behind,” in the metaphysical sense, post-Summer Solstice—which, per Darling’s instructions, we must “ceremoniously burn” when we get home.
Finally, we break off in groups to create “wishing circles,” an exhausting exercise that involves blowing a wish into your hands, vigorously rubbing them together for several agonizing minutes (the witch’s equivalent of Tracy Anderson’s arm workout), then joining scalding palms with your circle neighbors and, per Darling, blowing your wish “up to the sky like a little baby birdie.”
Admittedly, I expected something called a “Radical Self-Love Workshop” to be ripe for parody: a hipster witch rhapsodizing about the healing powers of crystals to a group of spellbound, modern-day Stevie Nicks impersonators. But Darling’s tactics for cultivating self-love are relatively practical, as these things go, and dispensed with casual humor. (On reliable ways to achieve an orgasm: “While you’re working up to that moment—you know, the moment—visualize yourself beaming it out into the universe because that shit works! Try it this week and then tag me on Instagram. Don’t make me a video, but tell me what happened because I want to know.”)
She’s not excessively moony or self-serious about the spiritual stuff (“I define spirituality as whatever makes me feel alive, thankful, and connected”). And the witchcraft-lite she weaves into her teachings—feminine power, sexuality, creative enrichment, astrology—is broadly appealing to many young women.
My introduction to the occult scene in New York City was in 2015, when I attended a “goddess circle for curating extraordinary confidence” organized by three women in Brooklyn who called themselves the BABE Collective; “BABE” being an acronym for “Badass Beauties Elevating Society.”
It was a workshoppy event similar to Darling’s at The Wing: a description advertised “bringing a heightened awareness to what being confident means in the spiritual, practical and personal sense.”
It was part coven and part 12-step program: Roughly a dozen women gathered in a teepee in Williamsburg and meditated while eating expensive, organic dark chocolate—an “offering to ourselves” and an exercise in “taking time to savor something.” We prayed to Kali, the Hindu goddess who is worshipped as the Mother of the Universe.
“I haven’t focused exclusively on creating a community of witches, though that’s kind of happened indirectly,” said Robin Lee, 28, who has grown the BABE Collective into a global community with $47-a-month membership rates. “Tons of women from all over the world are just awake and curious about understanding themselves on a deeper level. When you get down to the route of witchcraft, magic, alchemy—all these things are about the Wild Feminine and using your own energy and power to change your consciousness at will.”
In a moment when feminism has escaped the academy and captivated the popular imagination, it’s fitting that the witch—a radical and dangerous figure who can’t be controlled by stuffy and uptight men—has been recast as a symbol of resistance.
“The timing makes perfect sense: Spiritual hunger, environmental concerns, and gender politics all combine here,” Stacy Schiff, author of The Witches: Salem, 1692, told The Daily Beast of the witch’s trendy resurgence. “Plus witches are subversive, something which our political times demand. We’ve little vocabulary for female power, or at least few words of which we can be proud. It’s all the more enticing to reclaim imagery and nomenclature that has been used against you for hundreds of years.”
The witch's taboo appeal is a double-edged sword, and Schiff suggested it could be more empowering for women to identify with real women, or at least a mythological figure who didn't have such a fraught history.
“In a perfect world it would be lovely if women could reach to more nonfictional role models, as boys are able to. If we’re in the world of myth, why witches rather than Athena? I suppose she's part of the establishment, and she doesn’t come down to us with a long list of martyred forebears. Plus, we know that Athena is wholly mythical. It seems at least some men are still concerned there might be sorcerers among us.”
Indeed, the witch remains a threatening figure, particularly to the Alex Jones’ and Rush Limbaugh’s of the world. Days before the 2016 election, Jones ran a story on his alt-right website, Infowars, claiming Hillary Clinton “‘regularly’ attended witch’s church,” and citing a “Clinton insider” as his source. After the first presidential debate, Limbaugh called Clinton a “witch with a capital B.”
Right-wingers wielded rhetorical pitchforks at rapper Azealia Banks when she came out of the broom closet in January 2015 (“The truth is I’m a witch”) in one of her infamous Twitter rants.
“The most magical people are the ones who have to deal with oppression, because the non-magical are jealous,” Banks wrote. “That’s why Jews and Blacks have been persecuted over and over again throughout history... all I’m trying to say is that black people are naturally born SEERS, DIVINERS, WITCHES AND WIZARDS.”
Last February, Lana Del Rey took to Twitter to promote dates for a series of online “binding spells” to prevent President Trump and his administration from doing harm. Gala Darling was among the self-identifying witches who orchestrated an anti-Trump binding spell on Facebook live, though hers wished harm on the president.
“120,000 people from around the world signed on with pictures of Trump and wrapped them in string while I said an incantation,” she told me, speaking on the phone the day after the workshop. Most of the online participants were women between the ages of 25 and 34, according to Darling (geographically, California, Texas, England, and New York saw the highest volume of participants).
The hex wasn’t as harmful as participants hoped. Indeed, casting spells can seem hokey and ineffective—even to other patriarchy-defying witches.
“People always assume I do that stuff, but I just help women who want to have their witch awakening, which is just an awakening to their feminine energy and the cause of healing Mother Earth,” said Sarah Wilson, 37, who lives in Martha’s Vineyard and organizes online covens.
But for others, channeling their feminine energy in massive online spells offers a sense of community.
“There was some pushback on Facebook from people saying things like, ‘The most effective thing you can do is vote,’” Darling said of her Trump binding spell. “But why not do both? I believe in marrying the physical and the metaphysical. Obviously the spell didn’t work in the sense that he’s still alive. But have you looked at his life right now?”