On the Aries full moon, October 13, Emma Westbrook, an Aries, orders iced coffee. Her sharp, neon space babe acrylic nails toy with her disintegrating compostable straw. A nostalgic smile tugs at her lips as she recalls her first spell, one she cast on her high school boyfriend. She sat at the counter in her family’s Long Island kitchen with some cinnamon (to “quicken things”), some basil (a “love herb”) and two unscented tea-lights because her parents “hate scents.”
For her first spell, she wanted to improve their communication. And as her phone screen lit up with a new text, tea lights flickering, her first work of witchcraft was complete.
Westbrook started reading tarot when she was 16. For her 18th birthday, she went to Salem where she got her first classic Rider-Wait deck. Now, she does readings at different events and parties and on Wiccan holidays like Samhain (Halloween) she pulls cards via Instagram story. She runs Weaving Witch, a business where she makes products in her bedroom like the popular “Scorpio Spray,” a blend of cedar, frankincense and patchouli—she even has an Etsy store. She writes monthly “tarot-scopes” for Blush, the student-run magazine at F.I.T, where she studies fabric styling. At school, one of her favorite professors likes to ask her not to hex him if he hands out a less-than-perfect grade.
In September she started a night market, Witch World, in her backyard. On February 22, she’ll host her fourth at Catland—a popular witch shop in Bushwick.
But today, Westbrook’s practice is more about connecting with herself and the universe. And she’s not running around in a witch hat or riding a broom—although she does have a black cat named Eevie.
Witches are everywhere. And I hope to join their ranks.
I’ve never been a spiritual person. When it came time for “grace” at the dinner table and people closed their eyes, I kept mine open.Now, books like Becoming Dangerous, The Witchery, and The Modern Guide to Witchcraft sit in piles onmy window sill. I pull a tarot card for myself each morning and I slip a rose quartz in my backpack as I leave home. (Go ahead, judge.)
We’re drawn to that “forbidden fruit,” Westbrook says. But while the brain flashes to Macbeth, cauldrons, and witch hunts, being a witch today is different.
“You don’t need to be barefoot in the woods to be called a witch.” That’s Shawn Engel, a witch and mentor living in New York.
Witchcraft can mean everything from meditating each morning with a rose quartz in hand, to reading tarot, to building an altar to a matron goddess. And there are countless types of witches. There are kitchen witches, who make magic out of everyday chores. And there are eclectic witches who work with gods and rituals from a multitude of different religions and practices—like Westbrook and Engel.
Engel offers consulting services to witch-run businesses, reads tarot professionally at Witch Baby Soap in New Jersey, and hosts a slew of different discussion videos on her blog and Instagram @witchywisdoms, including her self-care series “Sacred Saturdays.” Engel is all about helping her more than 20,000 followers find their magic.
For Engel, being a witch means living with clear intent. “It means everything in your life has intention, has meaning, has a purpose.” And the biggest misconception about it all? That witches are evil and out to hex everyone. Engel thinks it’s ridiculous: “You’re not important enough for me to hex.”
But why are so many people turning to magic? Engel says people want to “reclaim” power. A lot of baby boomers, Engel notes, settled into making a family, getting the house with a white picket fence, and landing a career, only to wake up feeling stuck. Millennials like herself, and gen z-ers too, have seen this happen to their parents. They’ve seen relationships, governments, and institutions fail. This is the environment that makes us want to turn away from conventional systems and look for something within for a fix. Look for magic.
Westbrook, like Engel, always wanted something more. She grew up Lutheran. At age 13, following her communion, Westbrook thought, “I’m supposed to believe in this?” She was an atheist for about a month before becoming agnostic.
Westbrook was always “witchy.” She never liked princesses—she preferred The Wizard of Oz. Instead of gathering Barbie dolls, she hunted for rocks and crystals and built fairy houses. She has thick, taunting eyebrows which she used to hate. She called them “witch eyebrows.” In high school, she stumbled across the Wiccan religion, a pagan tradition that centers around magic and worship of the “God” and the “Goddess,” while binge watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Westbrook’s first spell lasted about two weeks before her high school boyfriend went back to his old ways. They broke up. Now, she doesn’t think you should cast a spell on someone without their consent. Plus, she wouldn’t date someone if she had to cast to get them to communicate.
On the Taurus Full Moon, November 12, Lee Wilson leans back on a bar stool at Ka-Va Kava Bar in Williamsburg. His blonde-brown hair curls upwards, brown eyes lined in black. It’s a Tuesday, Mars day. Wilson wears a silver pendant engraved with the second and sixth sigil of Mars, symbols honoring the planet.
He’s midway through a tarot reading class with his student Adie Moody, who’s leaning forward on her stool, flipping through notes on the different types of tarot cards. Wilson stops her. He looks over at me where I’m sitting at the corner of the bar. I squirm awkwardly on my stool. He wants Moody to practice a tarot spread.
“For this,” he glances up from under thick lashes, “we’re going to read Alex.”
The two cut their decks, shuffle, and arrange them in a traditional Celtic Cross spread. The spread will show things I’ve overcome in my past, my current hopes and fears, and what will happen in my future. Wilson asks me if I have a specific question and I ask him to tell me about my life since moving to New York. When Wilson pulls the Two of Pentacles reversed, he grits his teeth, inhales, and says to me, “I’m sorry.”
Apparently, I’m entering a period of instability.
Wilson’s been teaching tarot lessons for the past two years. But there’s a lot more to his self-proclaimed “occultism.” And his practice is darker than Westbrook’s.
As a kid, his parents said there was no such thing as “monsters in the dark.” But he felt differently. When he was five or six he shared a dream with his mother in which a hoard of Salem witches, eyeless and dripping in blood, descended upon them in what appeared to be the hallway of their Lower East Side home. “It was terrifying.”
Wilson grew up Catholic, but he always felt that there was a gap between religion and spirituality. He wasn’t sure how to fill it, until he started studying magic. “It just made more sense to me.” He started out with Wicca, like Westbrook. But Wicca deals in the light and, to him, “the idea of light work just didn’t work.”
Recently, Wilson initiated himself as a black magic practitioner with an offering to the deity Baphomet, depicted in occult iconography as a man with the head of a goat.
He created his altar, setting out two black candle sticks, a replica of a human skull in honor of death (a friend and mortician upstate supplied him with real human ash from a relative—which Wilson added in), and a coyote skull for protection. On the table two golden crescent moons framed a pentagram. He set down a curved blade and a crystal ball for scrying, a cauldron for elixirs, and a chalice to drink his offering: an infusion of red wine and his own blood. He shared an image of his dark altar on Instagram.
At the end of Moody’s lesson, Wilson shakes his head and scoffs—one arm resting on his thigh, the other clutching his deck. Jokingly, he dolls out a “B+.” Moody flares up in shy defense. He laughs, admonishing her lack of confidence — she needs to trust herself. Recently, I had bought a tarot deck for myself. Out of curiosity, I asked him how much he charged for lessons. He looked at me knowingly, responding that he was “donation based.”
As Moody packs up and I put my notes away, I stare down at the Two of Pentacles reversed, feeling uneasy. I look up to find Wilson gone. He’s slipped away, ready to give a reading to a friend sitting farther down the bar. Candlelight blurs his edges.
On a different (non-full moon) Tuesday in November Anna G thumbs through her journal to an entry on December 11, 2018: the night she cast her first spell. Her chin-length brown hair falls forward in a curtain, refracting candlelight. Her first spell was for strength. “I’m realizing I need something more in my life,” she wrote, “I need the strength to change my old ways and begin new habits. I’m excited for what the future holds and I plan to be active and curious forever.”
She shares a photo of her first altar, which she set up on a shoe storage trunk in her Queens apartment. On top of the trunk sat a red candle, a piece of paper with a sigil for “Strength,” a mushroom figurine from a family trip to Iceland, and a spread of tarot cards: Death, Temperance, The Hierophant, The High Priestess, The Wheel of Fortune, and The Nine of Wands, the card for strength.
G is a Wiccan, like Westbrook. She is gentle. She’d never start a fight. She’s a vegetarian. She loves Toy Story. In fact, she has a little figurine of Lenny (the wind-up binocular character) that sits on her altar as a reminder to “open her eyes.”
G met Westbrook at Elliott Berman Textiles in 2017, where they were both working as interns. Westbrook was the first real witch she met. G, who was raised Catholic, was fascinated by Westbrook’s way of life. Eventually, the two started meeting up at the now-closed House of Kava in Brooklyn. Wilson was there too, reading tarot every Sunday.
The first time Wilson did a reading for G, her mind was blown. She consulted him about issues she was having with her mom and an eating disorder she’d been battling for the past seven years where she often subsisted on a mere 500 calories a day.
Repeatedly, Wilson pulled the “Ten of Wands,” the card for Oppression. Wilson’s accuracy fed her curiosity. Slowly, she began to ask Westbrook and Wilson questions about Wicca. She asked about tarot and sigils and crystals. “They’re really powerful,” she says.
Wicca has lent G the power to overcome her eating disorder and to change her relationship with her mother. “I felt like it was all set in stone,” she says, “And now I feel like I have so much control. I never thought I would be as present and able as I am right now.”
Last December, just before G’s first spell, on a family trip to Boston, she asked her parents if they could shift the itinerary and head to Salem instead. “I’m a witch now, can we go?” she asked, feeling confident in her newfound identity. “I want to get supplies for my altar.” They went, and she bought a cauldron and some crystals. She said her parents were happy with the idea. They knew she had been struggling and they saw this as a positive shift.
Later, G asked Wilson to give her a reading at Ka-Va Kava Bar. Yet again, he pulled the Ten of Wands. But this time, it was in her past.
On Thanksgiving morning, I pulled up Co-Star, an app launched in 2017 by Banu Guler that uses a combination of NASA data and professional astrology to give snarky, fortune-cookie-esque prognostications about your day. My half-open eyes watched as the simplistic black-and-white home screen came into focus. November 28, 2019: “You could write yourself a love poem.” Obviously, I inferred, this was a coded message: tonight’s the night for your first spell.
That night, at the dinner table, my uncle led grace. “Dear Lord in Heaven…” he started. I closed my eyes, but I didn’t pray. After dinner, once my family drifted off into a wine-induced haze, I went upstairs.
I ran a bath and lit three white tea lights. I sat cross-legged on the floor. Unfolding a sheet of printer paper, I drew my sigil— a symbol I had designed based off of my intention: “I know I am worthy.” I pulled out my tarot deck and pulled three cards indicative of what I hoped to manifest: The Nine of Cups (for dreams becoming reality), The Queen of Wands (for courage and confidence), and The Magician (for infinite possibility). As the water neared the lip of the tub, I turned it off and sprinkled a handful of dried rose petals in the water.
I unscrewed the cap on my Love Drawing mixture. And— half-eyeing my sigil and awkwardly staring myself down in the mirror— I anointed my temples, my chest, my neck, and my wrists. All the while repeating to myself worthy, worthy, worthy, like a heartbeat.
In the tub I folded up my sigil, placed it in a porcelain dish, and lit a match. I dropped it onto the sigil—the corners singed and black smoke meandered lazily upwards.
Spell casting is not meditation. Meditation is a way to clear your mind. Spell casting involves focusing clearly on an intention with the hopes of making it reality—often with accessories like crystals or cauldrons. But it’s difficult, like meditation can be.
I casted for nearly an hour and a half and all the while I felt like my toes were poised on the lip of some cliff. I was teetering, uncomfortable. In one moment my focus would sweep me up and in the next I’d come back into my body, realize I was sitting in a bathtub littered with rose buds, clenching a rose quartz to my chest, breathing in smoke, and think what the fuck am I doing?
Westbrook has felt that self-doubt too, that maybe the magic is all in her head. But she decided that it doesn’t matter. “If I believe it will be true, then that’s how I’m thinking of things, and that’s how I’m living my life.”
I can’t say that I completely elevated my sense of self-worth that night. But it felt calm, intentional. “What magic and witchcraft brings you, even if you don’t look at it as a religion,” Westbrook says, “is a sense of faith and hope.” So maybe I’ll move beyond bathtub longings or work with a matron goddess like Westbrook does. Or maybe I’ll just keep carrying that crystal. Regardless, witchcraft is up to the individual. And full disclosure: I did take up those tarot lessons.