During a Saturday Zoom ritual for “World Healing” run by The Temple of Hecate Inc., the ancient Greek goddess spoke through High Priestess Laurie Bizzarro’s lips: “Use this time in quarantine to dig deep within yourself! Wait for the spring, the eternal spring that will come!” Laurie’s head dipped down, her sleek ash-blonde hair shot off her shoulders, her black bell sleeves slid down in waterfalls at her elbows. She took a deep breath before adding: “I will bring you through and have faith!” The ritual-goers murmured, mouthed, and shouted, “Hail to the Hecate!” in echoing rounds.
Bizzarro sat before her at-home altar filled with pink candles, bowls of salt and water, a flower vase, an iron effigy of the goddess, and her athame—a type of blade that many witches use as a wand.
In the other Zoom video feeds people raised their arms skyward. Some lay in bed, others sat down and closed their eyes. One woman sat before a black tapestry with two kissing skeletons while lighting incense. As the group’s energy escalated, approaching the climax of their collective magic, Bizzarro instructed everyone to raise their athames and wands in preparation for the final rite. Bizzarro’s voice trembled and shook in near-breaking passion. She held her hands high above her head and shouted: “May these people be healed now!” A flurry of gasps sputtered forth in delayed intervals, crackling through the unstable audio connection. People dropped their heads and their wands in visible exhaustion.
Silence lingered for a handful of breaths before the group transitioned into the “lighter” part of the evening, offering time. Most poured wine for the goddess. Educational Director and Temple of Hecate Secretary Arlene Fried offered up fried chicken. (She said she didn’t have anything else in her fridge since quarantine isn’t conducive to regular grocery shopping.) Everyone drooled.
“I love all of you guys,” Bizzarro told the group of nearly 50 people. The high priestess has been practicing paganism since 2003, when a dog walker she had hired turned out to be the witch in charge of the Brooklyn-based coven, The Crossroads Tradition. In 2014, after getting initiated as a third-degree high priestess and daughter of Hecate in 2009, Bizzarro founded the Temple.
Before closing out the ritual, sealing off the circle in the air, and bidding Hecate a “Hail and farewell,” she had everyone lean in close to their webcams for a quick ritual selfie. Once everyone was sufficiently in frame she counted down from three, shouting: “Smile and say Hecate!”
The spiritual world, like everything else, has retreated to the internet during quarantine. Famous Instagram witches like Bri Luna (@yungkundalini), who boasts over 30,000 followers, post witchy photos with a COVID-19 bent. (On March 22 she posted a picture of herself standing over the sink in a sweater and underwear, with the caption “Wash your hands.”) Others, like witch and tarot reader Emma Westbrook, whose Zoom tarot class I’ve been taking, offer sound baths for healing on Instagram Live on @weaving.witch. Famous astrologers like Rebecca Gordon—founder of the Rebecca Gordon Astrology school—offer free virtual webinars like one in mid-April called “Social Distancing Through the Zodiac.” In non-COVID times, her classes cost about $1,200 per student, according to her website. Since the onset of the pandemic, psychics, astrologers, and mediums have seen a major spike in business, too. According to the New York Post, New York and London-based psychic Laura Day says that anywhere from 1,200 to 1,300 people sign up for her Zoom workshops.
While it seems like witchcraft and fringe religious practices are suddenly on the rise, this has happened before. Spiritualism had a revival, or a newfound following, during the 1918 spanish flu pandemic. Countless people turned to mediums, ouija boards, and other new age practices as a way to find comfort and security.
“Historically there has always been an uptick in occult methods during times of war or some kind of mass displacement or appending of ordinary life, like a pandemic,” said Mitch Horowitz, an occult historian, lecturer, and author of the 2009 book Occult America. Horowitz said that uncertainty, and a lack of individualism in traditional organized religions, can lead people into the arms of new age spiritual practices. Especially in times of crisis. “It’s a wish that there is some unseen intelligence that can point the way for them,” Horowitz said.
But Horowitz added that the digital presence of the occult and other alternative spiritual practices existed even before the pandemic. The pandemic has only hastened that transition.
That digital shift feels strange in the case of the Temple of Hecate’s rituals. An ancient and ritualistic tradition like paganism, and many other new age practices like witchcraft and energy healing, is rooted in the physical and natural world.
The Temple isn’t a complete internet novice. It caught some attention last spring after a guerilla-style ritual at The Met in the Hecate Mosaic Room. The group had to time their rites with the comings and goings of the guards. The video is now on the Temple’s Facebook page for the online world’s viewing pleasure. But, of course, their days of public rituals are on pause.
Bizzarro has been in quarantine in Staten Island since mid-March with only her pit bull (and familiar) Tallulah for company, she told me over Zoom in April. When she isn’t busy serving as High Priestess, she’s working from home as a civil litigator. Since quarantine began, her ex-boyfriend’s father, her uncle, and her cousin’s grandmother have all died from coronavirus, she said. Bizzarro said that the rituals are a critical source of comfort not only for herself, but for her broader community. And surprisingly, she said the virtual rituals have been even more “powerful” than the in-person practices they hold at her Bay Ridge law office.
“It’s like a focus of energy,” she said. “I feel like with the virtual, everyone is honed in on their own space. There’s no distraction of other human beings; we can combine that energy, I can actually see everyone and I can see the concentration that they have.”
And they’re trying to hone that energy to fight the virus.
“I think tonight we’ll concentrate on honoring those who have passed away and concentrate on flattening the curve,” Bizzarro said at the start of a Saturday ritual in April—taking requests in the Zoom chat from people who wanted to honor ill or struggling loved ones. Bizzarro raised her hands, drawing the circle in the air with her fingertips. She called upon the great Guardians of the East, South, West, and North. Upon reaching the guardians of the South—the guardians of the element of fire—she asked that they “wipe out this virus, burn it away, and eradicate it from this Earth!”
Bizzarro and her ritual-goers don’t deny the importance of taking practical precautions amid COVID-19. “When we go outside we need to wear a mask and gloves to honor the society we live in,” Bizzarro said during the ritual. The group even ranted against the series of small, right-wing protests against stay-at-home orders throughout the US last month. But even so, Bizzarro maintains that witches, herself included, do believe that their magic can cure people of the virus, like those they honored in their ritual. “There is no limit to magick,” Bizzarro wrote in an email, “However, we cannot force someone to heal if they have no wish to do so or if they sabotage their own health.”
This begs the question: How are spiritualists striking a balance between practice and practicality, particularly when their online presences can influence thousands?
Business witch and Instagram influencer Shawn Engel, who’s been working from home and running her blog Witchy Wisdoms since 2016, believes that magic does have limits. She knows that regardless of any greater “energy” that people are feeling right now, coronavirus cannot be cured with magic. And she wants to make sure people are being safe.
In a TikTok PSA on March 28, Engel railed: “Witchcraft cannot cure coronavirus!” while zooming in and out on her face for emphasis. She got over 800 likes.
Engel, who lives in New Jersey, works with spiritually-inclined business owners to help them grow their brands. She has an undergrad degree in business from Cal State Dominguez Hills and she grew up under the influence of both her father and her grandfather, who are both business owners. She mentors four clients at a time and offers additional online courses that range from $222 to $1,111, according to her website. As of now, she has 20 students.
But as her Instagram follower count has risen to over 24,000, she’s become an authority figure on all things witch. And she feels a sense of responsibility to guide people.
On March 16, she posted a detailed “Quarantine Survival Guide” on Witchy Wisdoms. In it, she laid out business tips and advice for “self care” during quarantine, like meditation and “tapping,” or the “Emotional Freedom Technique,” which combines accupressure and mental affirmations to relieve stress and anxiety. Being stuck at home—and being stuck alone—can be a major challenge. “If you’re not your best friend right now, shit’s going to get real,” Engel told me in a Zoom interview. As someone who’s struggled with anxiety and depression and has been working from home alone for several years, Engel feels she has the capability to help people improve their mindsets.
But she doesn’t want to flood her followers’ feeds with talk of the coronavirus. “I don’t want to beat my audience over the head with it,” Engel explained. “So you do kind of have to straddle that line where it’s like: this is here for you if you need it, but also you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do right now, because this sucks.”
Engel believes that finding a sort of “grounding” practice for yourself is key to getting through this. But as she said in her TikTok PSA, magic, while “wonderful,” is not a fix for COVID-19. “If you are ill, consult your doctor and stay home.”
Surprisingly, some new age practices lend themselves well to the digital world.
Lauren Mooney, a Reiki master and breathwork guide, has found that the virtual shift during lockdown has helped her business. Reiki, if you don’t know, is a Japanese healing technique which is a practice where students learn how to channel energy into a patient in order to restore physical and emotional balance. Mooney said Reiki is a kind of universal life energy, but “it’s really about getting people feeling more aligned energetically.” Mooney got her first Reiki training certification—there are three—in 2017 and finished her Reiki Master teaching certification this past fall.
Now, Mooney, who’s currently based in Bushwick, is hosting a weekly Wake Up & Ground session on Instagram Live along with friend and breathwork guide Allison Rutberg. On Earth Day, I logged on to observe and potentially receive some “long-distance” Reiki.
Apparently, this isn’t a contradiction. In the second Reiki training, healers learn an alphabet of symbols to work into their practice—some healers draw the symbols in the air to start a session, others draw them in the air to clear a room’s energy. Prior to the invention of Google, the alphabet was secret to healers. In the now-not-secret alphabet, there’s a symbol for sending long-distance Reiki. Mooney has that symbol saved to her desktop. She looks at the symbol and draws it in the air before each of her Zoom and Instagram sessions. She calls this “going into the Reiki realm.”
The physical touch, Mooney explained, is really just a mental hang-up for human beings. It’s a tangible thing that we can feel to tell ourselves that something is happening. But the touch isn’t the Reiki. Even over Zoom, she said, “I honestly feel like I’m with the person.”
On Earth Day, Mooney sat curled up on her couch in a grey sweatshirt and black leggings, cradling a hot mug of coffee in her hands for warmth. She welcomed everyone and reminded her viewers that in order to receive the Reiki they had to be “open” to it. Once Rutberg got into her guided meditation, Mooney bowed her head, preparing to send out her long-distance Reiki. She alternated her hands from resting on her chest, to holding them out in front of her face, to fluttering her fingers towards the camera—transmitting invisible energies to all her virtual clients. I didn’t feel it, but again, I went into it a bit skeptical. I wasn’t feeling very open.
Mooney’s had more success with business since quarantine started in New York. Before, she rented an office space in the Flatiron district a couple times a month and she only did sessions once a week on average where she charges anywhere from $54 to $144, according to her website. Now, since everyone is stuck at home, she can do sessions whenever she wants. She’s gotten eight new clients since quarantine began.
But Mooney, like Engel, is quick to remind me, and her clients, that it’s important to be realistic about the limits of this kind of work. Reiki is in no way a replacement for therapy. Mooney even has a disclaimer on her website. And while Bizzarro and her fellow witches may believe that their magic can serve as a cure, they’re still wearing masks and gloves. Even Bizzarro said that she has an extensive decontamination process every time she comes home.
The pandemic has created a shift for people like Mooney and Bizzarro, who say that the pandemic might have an ongoing impact on the way that they practice. It’s emboldened Mooney to continue to do Zoom healing sessions, and Bizzarro said she’s planning to add a Zoom component to her in-person monthly rituals once people are allowed to convene in public.
For me, Westbrook’s Zoom tarot classes have been a welcome diversion and a balm for the anxieties of COVID-19’s “new normal.” Class is a bit like group therapy. The six other students and I take notes and learn the cards, but we also practice reading each other. We ask questions like: “How should I be spending my time in quarantine?” and “How can I be more grounded?” And, regardless of how vague the cards can be, they act as a helpful mirror. I can use the tarot cards to reflect on my anxieties and pin them to physical objects—it feels a bit like exhaling and lending certainty to uncertainty.
Regardless of your inclination to the spiritual world, there’s something innately human about looking beyond ourselves for answers, for clarity, for comfort, for “unseen intelligence,” as Horowitz said. Especially in times of upheaval. “I think it’s our faith that helps us get through these times. I talk to the gods every day,” Bizzarro said. “During the pandemic I actually make coffee for myself and the gods.”
And for the time being, all of those comforts are going to be virtual. Whether you think the goddess Hecate, or any other spiritual practice, can “bring you through” the coronavirus or not, Bizzarro added that Arlene Fried (the fried chicken offerer) does run an online Facebook “Hecate Study Group.” But remember: magic can’t cure you.