Juliet Diaz said she was having trouble not listening to my thoughts. “Sorry, I kind of read into your head a little bit,” she told me when, for the third time that August afternoon, she answered one of my (admittedly not unpredictable) questions about her witchcraft seconds before I’d had a chance to ask it. She was drinking a homemade “grounding” tea in her apartment in a converted Victorian home in Jersey City, New Jersey, under a dream catcher and within sight of what appeared to be a human skull. We were surrounded by nearly 400 houseplants, the earthy smell of incense, and, according to Diaz, several of my ancestral spirit guides, who had followed me in. “You actually have a nun,” Diaz informed me. “I don’t know where she comes from, and I’m not going to ask her.”
Diaz describes herself as a seer capable of reading auras and connecting with “the other side”; a plant whisperer who can communicate with her succulents; and one in a long line of healers in her family, which traces its roots to Cuba and the indigenous Taíno people, who settled in parts of the Caribbean. She is also a professional witch: Diaz sells anointing oils and “intention infused” body products in her online store, instructs more than 8,900 witches enrolled in her online school, and leads witchy workshops that promise to leave attendees “feeling magical af!” In 2018, Diaz, the author of the best-selling book Witchery: Embrace the Witch Within, earned more than half a million dollars from her magic work and was named Best Witch—yes, there are rankings—by Spirit Guides Magazine.
Now 38 years old, Diaz remembers that when she was growing up, her family’s spellwork felt taboo. But over the past few years, witchcraft, long viewed with suspicion and even hostility, has transmuted into a mainstream phenomenon. The coven is the new squad: There are sea witches, city witches, cottage witches, kitchen witches, and influencer witches, who share recipes for moon water or dreamy photos of altars bathed in candlelight. There are witches living in Winnipeg and Indiana, San Francisco and Dubai; hosting moon rituals in Manhattan’s public parks and selling $11.99 hangover cures that “adjust the vibration of alcohol so that it doesn’t add extra density and energetic ‘weight’ to your aura.” A 2014 Pew Research Center report suggested that the United States’ adult population of pagans and Wiccans was about 730,000—on par with the number of Unitarians. But Wicca represents just one among many approaches to witchery, and not all witches consider themselves pagan or Wiccan. These days, Diaz told me, “everyone calls themselves witches.”
What exactly they mean by that can vary from witch to witch. According to the anthropologist Rodney Needham’s 1978 book, Primordial Characters, scholars’ working definition of a witch was, at that time, “someone who causes harm to others by mystical means.” To Diaz, a witch is “an embodiment of her truth in all its power”; among other magic practitioners, witch might embody a religious affiliation, political act, wellness regimen, “hot new lewk,” or some combination of the above. “I’m doing magic when I march in the streets for causes I believe in,” Pam Grossman, a witch and an author, wrote in a New York Times op-ed.
Casting spells and assembling altars have become quite lucrative. You can attend a fall-equinox ritual organized by Airbnb, sign up for subscription witch boxes offering the equivalent of Blue Apron for magic-making, and buy aura cleanses on Etsy. Instagram’s reigning witch influencer, Bri Luna, has more than 450,000 followers and has collaborated with Coach, Refinery29, and Smashbox, for which she recently introduced a line of cosmetics “inspired by the transformative quality of crystals.”
Many professional witches, including Diaz, can also be hired to do magic on your behalf. Diaz’s most popular offering is her Ancestral Candle Service, a $45 ritual for manifesting intentions that I’d come to her apartment to try. (“Last month we had 4 pregnancies, 33 job promotions, 12 business startups, 12 wedding proposals! and 4 court wins,” claimed a promotional email.) Diaz—who grew up on food stamps, was homeless for parts of college, and, as an adult, sometimes skipped lunch to save up for rent—said she has “manifested an entirely new life” from her candle work. Features of that new life include her book deal, its best-seller status, her store, and a stronger relationship with her husband. She performs up to 100 candle services each month, and said she usually sells out within a day.
Good luck tracing the history of witches. While the idea of witches is exceptionally old—Horace’s Satires, already embracing the negative stereotype circa 35 b.c., describes witches with wigs and false teeth howling over dead animals—the day-to-day business of being a witch has continuously evolved, which complicates attempts to reconstruct a tidy family tree. The history of witchcraft has also long suffered from unreliable narrators. The Salem witch trials loom outsize in the American imagination, yet no official court records exist, and the accounts of the trials that did survive are, per the historian Stacy Schiff, “maddeningly inconsistent.”
More recent historians haven’t fared much better: The Wicca faith grew out of the writings of Gerald Gardner, a former customs officer whose 1954 book, Witchcraft Today, recounted his experience in a coven whose tenets were allegedly passed down from the Middle Ages. But scholars later concluded that they were at least in part Gardner’s invention.
And then, no culture can claim a monopoly on witches. “There is little doubt that in every inhabited continent of the world, the majority of recorded human societies have believed in, and feared, an ability by some individuals to cause misfortune and injury to others by non-physical and uncanny (‘magical’) means,” writes the historian Ronald Hutton, who has studied attitudes toward witches in more than 300 communities, in places such as sub-Saharan Africa and Greenland. The belief in witchcraft is so widespread and so enduring that one historian speculates it’s innate to being human.
In the U.S., mainstream interest in witches has occasionally waned but mostly waxed, usually in tandem with the rise of feminism and the plummeting of trust in establishment ideas. In the 19th century, as transcendentalism and the women’s-suffrage movement took hold, witches enjoyed the beginnings of a rebranding—from wicked devil-worshippers to intuitive wisewomen. Woodstock and second-wave feminism were a boon for witches, whose popularity spiked again following the Anita Hill hearings in the ’90s, and again after Donald Trump’s election and alongside the #MeToo movement.
The latest witch renaissance coincides with a growing fascination with astrology, crystals, and tarot, which, like magic, practitioners consider ways to tap into unseen, unconventional sources of power—and which can be especially appealing for people who feel disenfranchised or who have grown weary of trying to enact change by working within the system. (Modern witchcraft has drawn more women than men, as well as many people of color and queer or transgender individuals; a “witch” can be any gender.) “The more frustrated people get, they do often turn to witchcraft, because they’re like, ‘Well, the usual channels are just not working, so let’s see what else is out there,’ ” Grossman told me. “Whenever there are events that really shake the foundations of society”—the American Civil War, turmoil in prerevolutionary Russia, the rise of Weimar Germany, England’s postwar reconstruction—“people absolutely turn towards the occult.” Trump must contend not only with the #Resistance but with the #MagicResistance, which shares guides to hexing corporations, spells to protect reproductive rights, and opportunities to join the 4,900 members of the #BindTrump Facebook group in casting spells to curb the president’s power.
Throughout history, attempts to control women have masqueraded as crackdowns on witchcraft, and for some people, simply self-identifying as a witch—a symbol of strong female power, especially in the face of the violent, misogynistic backlash that can greet it—is a form of activism. “Witchcraft is feminism, it’s inherently political,” Gabriela Herstik, a witch and an author, told Sabat magazine. “It’s always been about the outsider, about the woman who doesn’t do what the church or patriarchy wants.”
Diaz’s own history of witchcraft long predates the 2016 election. She said that she had her first vision at age 5, was taught by her mother to make potions to cure her nightmares in elementary school, and quietly used her gifts as a seer while working in crime-scene forensics after college. Ten years ago, following what she says was guidance from her ancestors’ spirits, she quit her job, divorced her first husband, and threw herself full-time into working as a witch.
Diaz, a self-described “plant witch,” draws extensively on Taíno traditions and herbs, jars of which occupy almost an entire room of her apartment. But the fact that there are no set criteria for being a witch is, for many, precisely the appeal. Witchcraft beckons with the promise of a spirituality that is self-determined, antipatriarchal, and flexible enough to incorporate varied cultural traditions.
Which is not to say anything goes. Although Diaz has emerged as a leading voice for an inclusive, no-wrong-answers form of witchery, she and others prickle at the creeping tendency to claim the witch label without actually practicing magic. “A lot of girls, young girls, they post pictures of their house with their room with upside-down crosses, Goth clothes, with their potions. They don’t even practice witchcraft, and they’re like, ‘Oh, I’m a witch,’ ” Diaz told me. “It takes away from the sacredness of the word.” Diaz also says she’s troubled by what she sees as the commodification of witchcraft—though, of course, she’s benefited from its commercial appeal—and the cultural appropriation that’s come with it, such as white witches borrowing from indigenous or African-diasporic traditions. Palo Santo, a wood that is traditionally burned by shamans and is now a staple of yoga studios everywhere, can be purchased from Urban Outfitters, Bloomingdale’s, Madewell, Anthropologie, the Whitney Museum of American Art, Crate and Barrel’s CB2, and, once it’s back in stock there, Goop. (In her own store, Diaz aims to source from indigenous people and sell only products she develops herself.)
Despite all this, calling oneself a witch can still be risky. Grossman told me she’s received letters from numerous people who fear that if they openly embraced magic, they “would be either fired from their jobs, or have their kids taken away, or be kicked out of their families.” The stakes are even higher in other parts of the world, where, per a 2009 United Nations report, being labeled a witch remains “tantamount to receiving a death sentence.” Amid a rise in witchcraft-related abuse—including the case of an 8-year-old who was tortured to death in 2000—London established a police team dedicated to reducing violence targeting accused witches; by contrast, officials in Saudi Arabia established an antiwitchery unit that trains police to “scientifically battle witchcraft,” which is punishable by beheading.
On a brocaded ottoman beside her couch, Diaz set out a tray containing the ingredients necessary for her candle ritual, which included a vial of straw-thin mouse bones (“for speed”), a snake carcass suspended in milky liquid (“for protection”), and frankincense oil (for “opening up a portal for the candle and sending a message into the roots of the wax”). She lit a stick of Palo Santo wood and wafted its smoke over each item, carefully encircling a tall candle that she said she would “fix” with my intention, then burn later in the sacred area she maintains in her basement.
Diaz told me my intention should be specific, one I hadn’t already made in the past 30 days, and couldn’t be to make someone fall in love with me. I settled on a classic intention: money. Specifically, I was hoping to get paid for an outstanding invoice and get a friend to return money I’d lent her a year before.
“No. 1, don’t loan money out,” Diaz told me as she dripped frankincense oil onto the candle. “Two, always get paid up front for work that you do.” She is a plant witch, but also a practical witch. When a woman messaged the community board of Diaz’s online school asking for a banishment spell to expel a vet tech she thought was rough with the cats, Diaz replied, “I would personally call inspectors and or health department.” As Diaz sees it, magic is inseparable from the mundane. “I’m trying to bring awareness to [the idea] that what we think is normal is actually magical,” she said. “Being on a planet that’s revolving around, floating in the universe, is magical. But we’re so used to these fantasies that we see on TV—you flick a wand and something just apparently happens. [People] start thinking that’s what magic is, and they forget that they, themselves, are the magical beings.”
Diaz finished fixing my candle and, after promising to light it soon, sent me off with instructions to complete her 13-page candle-magic workbook. I followed its directions to burn sage, express gratitude, and meditate for at least five minutes daily. Not much seemed to be happening. I tried to help the magic along by emailing, again, about the invoice and, again, about the loan.
Two weeks after my visit, Diaz emailed me out of the blue: “Your candle by the way is done, it burned really well!” I was surprised to hear from her, and by her timing. Twenty minutes before, I’d found two undeposited checks misfiled among the papers on my desk, each worth more than the money I was still owed. It was a coincidence, I’m (almost) sure. But I felt, in that moment, like a disorganized, but magical, being.
This article appears in the March 2020 print edition with the headline “The Witching Hour.”