Read: Black Millennials leave church for African witchcraft
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.