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Modern-day urban witches and neopagans use magic, spellwork and occult traditions as tools for self-empowerment.
Stacy Rapp has been the owner of Enchantments for 15 years, and has worked there for nearly 30. The little witch shop on 9th Street, nestled between 1st and Avenue A, is a New York City staple. Until a few years ago, it stayed largely out of the limelight. Unassuming, eclectic and open for all, the store has become a haven for people looking for magical guidance.
Before magic paraphernalia became a commodity you could pick up at Urban Outfitters, or even talk about openly without feeling a bit different, the narrow, wood-clad shop carried a variety of witchy products, ranging from magical oils and herbs for spellwork to occult books and custom-carved candles.
Stacy has received some wild requests from customers in her time, including people asking for spells with malicious intent or even begging her to perform a spell on their behalf for money. But she has always turned those customers away. “I don’t believe in paying for spellwork,” Stacy says. “We don’t do spells for people, we give people the tools. We’ll give you a spell kit, we’ll give you a spell candle, we’ll give you a spell book. But, ultimately, the power of a spell comes from the energy of the person doing it.”
It’s not that Stacy can’t do the spells (she’s trained in myriad occult traditions), but her philosophy boils down to a simple analogy: “It’s like me looking at you and saying ‘I’m going to eat this food and you’re going to feel full.’ It doesn’t work like that,” she says. “People come in and say ‘Which one is the most powerful?’ But it’s not about what’s the most powerful, it’s about what’s going to resonate with your energy, and every person is different.”
Magic for her is ultimately about helping others to channel their energy and take ownership over their lives. But that’s not always an easy thing to do. Taking control over your life is a big responsibility.
Even in a diverse city such as New York, the word ‘witch’ can be problematic. It can make some feel a bit uneasy, conjuring up images of a green-faced, bloodthirsty, devil-worshipping hag or, at best, a malevolent enchantress. The devolution of the village healer or the wise spiritual woman has served a significant, historical purpose: to control and suppress women’s power. Even today, the frequent labeling of any powerful woman in corporate America as ‘controlling’ or as a ‘bitch’ is an example of the lingering remnants of the old male fear of women asserting themselves. For some, there’s a need to take back the word ‘witch’ for all intuitive women, to retrieve it from the claws of patriarchal oppression, to reclaim misappropriated language and imagery.
What we call witchcraft is, at its core, about taking ownership and control of our lives and using our spiritual gifts to become self-reliant. The spiritual path is a vulnerable one, but it opens you up to the world around you, forces you to listen to your inner voice, follow your own internal compass and engage with the powerful energies all around us. And it’s within the scope of vulnerability and empowerment, within that raw and truthful confrontation with the self, that magic happens.
But what about magical appropriation? Has an open reclaiming of the Old Religions, in fact, commodified it? For Stacy, and many other spiritually inclined women, the ‘witch trend’ is a good thing. “We’ve been able to help people in a lot of places where maybe we couldn’t before,” Stacy says. “Even people outside of New York City are finding us, and [all that business] has allowed us to turn away the negative, because now we’re flooded with positive requests.”
As we chat in Enchantments’s back room, one of Stacy’s staff members, Coleman Drew, comes in to ask a question about a candle order: “Which incense should I use for the Metamorphosis candle?” After responding, Stacy turns back to me, smiling: “That’s a candle for help with a gender transition.”
Coleman is a Gardnerian Wiccan – a follower of the neopagan witchcraft tradition brought over from England by Gerald Gardner in the 1950s. An Enchantments employee for about a year, he tells me about the candle request: “We have a candle called Crystal Healing, which is for deep emotional healing. It’s for self-love and self-esteem, for people who’ve gone through traumatic experiences either recently or during childhood. Sometimes it’s a severe breakup. For the Metamorphosis candle, we paired it with the High Priest for divine masculine energy. This is for a person going through sexual confirmation surgery. It’s for someone who’s transitioning.”
Coleman, who identifies as queer and worked as a full-time drag queen, tells me that magic has helped him, too. Two months after finding Enchantments, he entered into a program of recovery for sexually obsessive compulsive behavior, and he found that magic allowed him to strip away the hetero-normative beliefs and ideologies that essentially roadblocked his spiritual path. “It was all about transformation for me. It was kind of looking at things about myself, and accepting the duality of this feminine side that I was kind of shunning,” he says. Coleman likes the idea of there being a god and a goddess, and through the Wiccan framework, has been able to accept and balance his own masculine and feminine energies.
Another Enchantments staff member, Carmen, has been working at the shop for nearly three years, and identifies as an empath and psychic. She’s been hearing spirits since she was a little girl, and for a long time actually thought she was schizophrenic. Growing up in a Catholic household meant that she couldn’t really openly acknowledge her witchier side, and she didn’t have the language or information to understand what she was experiencing. While she felt connected to the Christian church, particularly the teachings of love and acceptance in the Gospel, its dogmas clashed with Carmen’s beliefs. Finding and practicing magic, particularly psychic self-defense, has allowed her to control her psychic side more effectively, and to sweep away the cobwebs of other people’s negative emotions and energies.
“People are rarely responsible for their own energy, and I was really sensitive to that,” Carmen says. “Now I can choose who comes into my space and who doesn’t, whose energy I let into my aura and whose I don’t.” She says even her relationship with her mother has improved. For Carmen, magic is about manipulating energy, and “not relying on the invisible person in the sky” to do things for you. “At the end of the day, your happiness, your sadness, your being bogged down with work or being tired… it’s all a product of yourself and your energy. And we put out there what we bring onto ourselves.” Knowing that the answer is actually within, and that we’re responsible for our own energy, is, perhaps, the ultimate empowerment.
Learning witchcraft is a process of “remembering” for Carmen and recognizing that God exists in everything. “God has many faces and names, and the goddess has many faces and names. They work together within us in whatever form they show up. I don’t need a church – everything around us is God.”
Cat Cabral, an initiated Wiccan Priestess, worked at Enchantments for over a decade and considers herself a “witch enthusiast.” Over the years, she’s become a well-known witch in New York City, and currently teaches classes on the occult, while writing a monthly column called ‘Witch Please.’ I speak to her in hopes that she, too, can shed light on the question of magic and its recent rise among the millennial, Gen Z and wellness-conscious crowds.
“With the ’70s and ’80s, authors like Starhawk [an American theorist of feminist Neopaganism] brought more of the women’s movement into witchcraft, whereas traditional Wicca honored the god and goddess, the nature of polarity, worshipping the seasons, the wheel of the year,” Cat says. She emphasizes that while Wicca is still a “mystery” religion, in which most rituals and rites are kept secret, it’s really a “nature religion.”
“We’re in the Aquarian Age now, so most young people that are 29 and under think acupuncture, tarot readings and alternative self-care rituals are totally normal,” Cat adds. “I do think about the teenager who’s in a small town and goes to a mall and sees a book on witchcraft or a sage stick or something even remotely witchy, and maybe that sparks their interest and causes them to reach out, do more research and find what works for them. So that’s the positive side.”
For years Cat was a solitary witch who occasionally attended informal groups, but she eventually came into a coven through one of her friends. She found her spiritual community through the internet, on sites such as WitchVox, which is still around today. But even a mere 15 years ago, the world of magic, Wicca and Neopaganism still existed in the underground and wasn’t openly accepted in the mainstream.
While Cat is pleased that more people are taking interest in Neopaganism, she admits that there is a downside. “I’ve met people who are upset that it’s been quite commodified,” she says.
Perhaps one reason for witchcraft’s rise in popularity is the kitschy mainstream co-opting of female empowerment in the wake of the ‘girl power’ movement in the ’90s – think The Craft, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Teen Witch, and other TV shows and movies. While that trend led to the commodification of magical objects and practices, it also made many younger women aware of original pagan values, which allows people to express themselves without the attached taboos.
What was once deeply buried in the back of the broom closet is now emerging as part of a larger mass movement, with more women owning their pagan identities, embracing their wild, witchy selves and redefining the negative stereotypes entrenched in our cultural consciousness.
But practicing witchcraft does not require specific objects or services provided by others, Cat says. “You can do witchcraft with one white candle or no supplies at all – just by sitting out in nature, looking up at the moon and chanting. You don’t need anything other than nature,” the Wiccan Priestess explains.
“What is above us is below us. That is how magic happens. It’s your intention. It’s an act,” Cat continues. “Dancing, sex, chanting, singing, something to raise energy to put your intention out there. It’s divine feminine wisdom, divine masculine wisdom, and everything that falls between that.” In other words, it doesn’t have to be some kind of ‘Hear Ye’ chant. Even a simple song will do, or anything that makes you feel empowered.
Because everyone’s spiritual path is individual, I assumed that Cat would be drawn to deities that resonated with her personally. When I asked her, she named goddesses with strong ties to the moon: Diana, Yemaya, Aradia and Hecate.
One of her favorite goddesses to work with is Yemaya, the powerful Afro-Caribbean goddess of the sea (an Orisha), who is associated with sorcery, magic and nurturing feminine energy. “Yemaya has been a spirit that’s been around me forever,” Cat says. I, too, am connected with Yemaya, and hearing her name in conversation, in the middle of a work day, in an interview, feels exhilarating.
Yemaya is a goddess of the Santería religion that flourished in Cuba and the Caribbean after it was brought over by enslaved Africans in the 16th century. Because Cuba was colonized by the Catholic Spanish, the presence of Santeria in the community was alarming, if not downright unacceptable. This pushback on the ‘Old Religions’ prevailed in Cuba until modern times, especially under the anti-religious communist regime, and it was only recently that Santería could thrive out in the open. As with any religion or spiritual practice that has to be kept under wraps for fear of retribution, many traditions within Santería had to be sublimated or incorporated into Catholic rituals.
Eventually the image of Catholicism’s Mother Mary and Yemaya merged: both are depicted in blue and white gowns and reign as protective, powerful maternal female figures. They both also have the power to give life. I personally encountered Yemaya as an energy, as if she came from inside of me, like someone whom I’ve known since birth or perhaps even before birth. It was like she tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Hey, remember me?” So to hear that Cat also worked with this goddess felt comforting.
Cat recounted a powerful spiritual experience that happened one night in Miami while she was performing a Yemaya ritual on the beach with a small group of friends. After creating a makeshift altar for the goddess using seashells and seven blue candles (seven is Yemaya’s number), she placed a watermelon into the sea as a thank you to the goddess.
“I noticed I had this little white bracelet on, and I thought, ‘I’m just gonna put this in the ocean for her.’ And the second I threw the bracelet, a bolt of white light or lightning struck down into the water. I kid you not, I have two witnesses,” Cat says with a laugh. “And we were, like, ‘Hail Yemaya!’ It was a beautiful, natural moment that just happened. And that was a pure, easy ritual that wasn’t expensive. It’s the meaning – the intention – that’s important.”
Just because a person identifies as a witch doesn’t mean she subscribes solely to a particular tradition or necessarily belongs to a coven. Back at Enchantments, Stacy says that her staff is her coven. And it is non-hierarchical because magic is about the passing down and sharing of knowledge, creating a community for magic.
In a city such as New York, where information is readily available and a general culture of acceptance is prevalent, covens aren’t a necessary part of witchcraft. As Stacy says: “Ultimately, magic is solitary.” But that raises the question: Can anyone become a witch? And is it something you can learn, or is it innate?
Stacy says that magic is actually an exercise in unlearning. “Most people are born with some form of innate energy,” she says. “I do believe some people have more abilities than others, but I think everyone has it. Little children see shit and they don’t question it. People are taught, as they grow up, to not see things, to not tap into their own power. They’ve been told, mostly by organized religion and social constructs, that this is wrong or this is evil, that they can’t do this, or they shouldn’t. A lot of what people need to do, if they want to start at an older age, is unlearn all the bullshit they’ve been taught over the years that ultimately limits their ability.”
“But,” Stacy concludes, “all people have, within them, the ability to do positive magic to help improve their lives.”
This story is part of the Culture Trip collection New York After Dark.