When I was thirteen, I discovered witchcraft. More accurately, I started paying attention to it. It had always been around me, in the silk-wrapped tarot deck on my mother’s dresser, and the sage she burned every time we moved into a new apartment. But when I was thirteen, I dove in and studied with a hunger and dedication I had never applied to anything before, and one that I never quite matched again; not even when I went to graduate school ten years later.
I color-coded index cards—green for the magical uses of herbs, yellow for the meanings of stones, orange for numerology and color magic, pink for mythology and deities, purple for the meaning and uses of tools—and studied them after school every day instead of studying math. Each week I took my allowance to Borders and bought one more book, reading through and indexing all of the tangible information I could find. I devoured folklore and myths, learning the stories behind the Pagan holidays and the parts that had been stolen and repackaged into Christmas and Halloween. I read histories of witchcraft and modern theological texts.
I started collecting tools and building my altar: chalices, a dagger, little clay bowls for salt and water, candles of various colors, little glass jars of herbs that I labeled with masking tape and Sharpie. I collected leaves and rocks and feathers and statuettes of ancient goddesses. I’d always collected small natural objects of fascination, but now that I knew the symbolism and the sympathetic magic of each one, I wasn’t just collecting, I was building. Building myself, and building a bridge from myself to the world around me.
My father had just died, and my mother had dragged me to an unfamiliar California suburb where I didn’t know anyone, or care to. I was isolated and alone, but then suddenly I wasn’t. It didn’t matter if nobody at school knew my name, because the moon knew it. I practiced calling the elements into my circle until it felt like they listened. I didn’t talk to anyone at school, but there, locked in my bedroom, lighting candles and sprinkling powdered herbs in a circle around me, I was cultivating a voice.
And I fully embrace the aesthetic. I dyed my long curly hair purple, painted my long nails black, and started wearing a silver pentagram necklace every day. I hung a giant purple and black pentagram tapestry over my bedroom window, which faced the street. I loudly proclaimed myself a witch, both verbally and visually, because as much as my exploration was genuine and profound, I was still an adolescent girl, and the urge to shock was innate and irresistible.
Kids at school asked if I was going to turn them into toads. They asked if I drank babies’ blood and if I had sex with the Devil. They asked if I was going to bring a gun to school. It was clear they weren’t totally sure what a witch was.
Now, a decade and a half later, witches are having a cultural moment. Witches as a symbol for female power. A manifestation of seething female anger and quiet female strength. Women ready to hex the patriarchy. Women creating the world. Women burning this shit down and conjuring our own futures. I love it.
But what I don’t love is the trendy, witch-kitsch that’s come with it: “Witchiness.” Everything that’s made for women and is even a little dark is “witchy” now. I find myself muttering “Embrace the Stevie Knicks look all you want, but unless you actually cast spells together, your gal pals are not your ‘coven,’” under my breath as I scroll through Instagram, and I feel like I understand a little better now how people who had devoted their lives to the study of Kabbalah must have felt when Madonna made their red thread bracelets the must-have accessory of 1997; or how Native people must feel when white women refer to their book club friends as their “tribe.”
I’m guilty of the same fetishization, the same fascination with how cool and different my interest in witchcraft made me. But I was thirteen at the time, so I give myself a little more leeway to do it wrong.
Eventually, we moved away from that suburban nightmare and back home to New York City, and on the first day of high school I asked a girl in my homeroom named Raiona if she was named after the Celtic goddess Rhiannon, one of my favorites. She wasn’t, but she was intrigued. I told her what I knew about Rhiannon, the moon goddess, representative of fertility and travel. Our friendship started in that moment, built on myths. I read her tarot cards in the schoolyard, and before long we’d decided I would teach her what I knew about magic.
My lifelong desire for a sister was satisfied with this coven of two—two crescent-moon children calling down the full moon together like women. But my desire for a sister had always specifically been a desire for a younger sister, someone I could instruct and lead. So I gave Raiona assigned readings. A list of tools she was to collect. I bought her a beautiful silver pentagram necklace with a moonstone in the center, similar to the one I wore every day. She was to keep it with her tools to absorb their magic, I explained solemnly, but she couldn’t wear it until we completed her teaching and held an initiation ceremony.
On the solstices and full moons, I carted a red plaid bowling bag full of my own tools on the subway up to her dad’s apartment in the Bronx from my mom’s in the East Village—silver chalices, a small wrought iron cauldron, a clay pentagram dish, little velvet bags full of feathers and stones and candles and bundles of herbs. We dressed up in flowy clothes and embarked deep into Pelham Bay Park—as far out into nature as two New York City teens could get.
I remember one full moon in particular that it really felt like we tapped into something serious. The ritual started as soon as we entered the park, a quiet coming over us as we trudged deeper into the decrepit urban woods. As we followed the twisting path toward the bay, we saw a bundle of sticks and some melted wax on a tree stump and thrilled at the idea that we were not the only ones doing magic there. “It makes sense,” we reasoned. “Where else in the Bronx would you go?”
We finally reached the water, frothy with pollution, and set up our altar on a fallen log. I sat to the east, in the position of air, and she to the west, in the position of water; the elements we were each most cultivating our connections to. We laid everything out, just so: The white candle and the snakeskin-handled dagger in the south corner for fire, the little bronze incense sensor and the feathers in the east for air, quartz and a small potted plant in the north for earth, my flea market chalices in the west for water—we filled them with water from Pelham Bay, which corroded them irreparably.
At first, I was upset about the damaged chalices but later embraced the fact that they now look antique. After all, that was part of the aesthetic—the aesthetic that’s all over Instagram now that witches and witchiness are all the rage.
Of course, not everyone who’s newly-interested in witchcraft is approaching it superficially. I’m seeing lots of women not just calling their new Merlot lip stain “witchy,” but posting about how they burned sage after a breakup, or getting into tarot for the first time, wishing the social media world a happy Beltane. This should make my heart swell. But I noticed that it made me involuntarily sneer instead, and I started to ask myself why.
The best explanation I could think of is that it stems from my understanding that your magical tools and experiences are private. When I came home at fourteen and proudly showed my mother a new wrought-iron mini-cauldron I’d found at the thrift store, I tried to hand it to her so she could feel its satisfying weight.
“It’s beautiful,” she said, declining to take it from me. “Don’t hand your tools to other people, though. They resonate with the energy that flows between you and them. Don’t break that chain with someone else’s touch.” (The exception being other members of your coven.) I took that lesson to heart and started keeping my tools more private, wrapping them up safely to retain the traces of their last rituals.
Posting pictures of your altar on social media feels, to me, similar to handing your tools to a stranger. Like you’re zapping the secret, precious power out of it by exposing it to uninitiated eyes. Posting a photo of your altar between brunch snaps turns it into a mundane object, drags it down into everyday life, out of the higher plane that it’s supposed to be your entrance to. I think of Raiona and me trudging out into Pelham Bay Park to find a little corner that was separate from the world, an entrance point to another level of consciousness. Instagram feels like the opposite of that.
Raiona and I observed the solstices and full moons as faithfully as an observant Catholic goes to mass. We talked about mythology for hours, and about our internal balances of the elements, and the sun and the moon.
But after a few years, when Raiona suggested that it was time for her initiation ceremony, I felt uneasy. It wasn’t something I fully understood or could articulate, but I think a part of me knew that I had accidentally made a game of something that was never meant to be a game. I’d turned Raiona’s own magic into something I could bestow upon her, just because I’d gotten a two-year head start reading books about it and collecting flea market daggers. Without realizing it, I’d taken the experience of building from her, and turned it into one of receiving.
When she asked, I didn’t know how to tell her that I’d messed up, that it wasn’t my place to declare her a witch because only she could do that. Instead, I said, “I don’t think you’re ready yet.” Because teenagers are jerks, and because I didn’t fully understand where my hesitation was coming from.
In my unarticulated shame over how childishly I’d handled someone else’s exploration of magic, and in retrospect, my own—how I’d believed that enough color-coded index cards and the right chalices would somehow equal a deep spiritual connection with nature—I turned away entirely. I packed up my tools in a box and put them on a high shelf in my closet. I stopped wearing my pentagram necklace. I never stopped believing everything I’d learned about the pull of the moon on a woman’s psyche and how the seasonal changes of the earth create a rhythm that we’re naturally inclined to follow in our own lives; I just stopped talking about it or outwardly marking it with ceremony.
I realized abruptly that in my passion and curiosity I’d reduced something vast and intangible to a collection of trinkets and a list of facts. I’d sucked the mystical out of it by studying too literally, by attempting to claim it and own it. And I think this is a big part of why the aesthetic fetishization happening today bothers me so much, too. I’m seeing people miss the mark in the same way I did: putting too much emphasis on the trappings of magic, on the pleasing layout of their altars and their impressive collection of herbs. Obscuring their own paths to the real, buzzing force at the heart of it all with their own collections of junk.
Raiona and I have laughed together about all of this since, about how we both approached witchcraft like another class we could get As in. She was as eager for the teacher-student dynamic as I was, because it gave her something clear to work toward as if she could complete it and get a gold star and an official Witch Certificate at the end. But really, she was a witch as soon as she started celebrating the full moon, reading tarot cards, and feeling connected to the changing seasons. We’d both been working toward something we had already attained. She told me she kept that pentagram necklace for years, never wearing it, until last year when she had the same realization—that she had “earned it” a long time ago. I was relieved to hear that she started wearing it, and I considered dusting mine off, too, despite my visceral resistance to the idea that it might be perceived as trendy.
After a few years of cooling off after that period of overzealous, objective-driven study, a few of my favorite tools have found their way back out of my closet and onto a shelf in my bedroom. These days, instead of holding elaborate rituals, I usually just look up at the moon and have a silent moment of recognition. I call it “making eye contact with the moon,” and it feels much more powerful than laying all of my tools out just right.
But the more I talk about how magic is something that should be private, the more I hear myself sounding like an old prude who doesn’t think girls should wear revealing clothing because showing off their bodies will somehow make it less special when they get naked for someone they love. In other words, I sound old-fashioned and wrong. The reason secrecy was such a big part of witchcraft to begin with was because of how severely witches were persecuted; because the old Pagan rituals that evolved into witchcraft as we know it today were outlawed. The world is changing, and a lot of things that used to be shamed into secrecy are now out in the open. Why shouldn’t that include witchcraft?
I turned this question over in my mind for months, because even in my instinctual disapproval, I had a suspicion that my reaction to the Insta-witches had more to do with me than with them. Then, in another conversation with Raiona, I realized I was making the same mistake all over again; I was acting as if other people’s relationship with witchcraft was something I had control over, something I had the right to deem incomplete or incorrect just because I’d been at it for longer.
One of the things that drew me to witchcraft in the first place was the fact that there is no one fixed set of rules like with other religions. It’s a deeply personal practice with infinite variations depending on which mythology and symbolism resonate most with each individual practitioner. It’s a connection that you build yourself, with whichever tools you want—including, I finally realized, Instagram. The whole idea of a spell is that you send your intention outward into the universe—what if the Internet is just another way to do that?
My practice happens to be a private and understated one; once in a while I light a candle, or focus on the way I can feel the glow of the moon in my ribcage if I’m quiet enough, or pull one tarot card. This essay is the most publicly I’ve ever talked about my practice, and it took me a long time to feel ok about putting it out in the world. I don’t think I’ll ever post pictures of my modest altar. But that’s just my practice, my preference. Other people take a more maximalist approach, with silks and stones and carefully written-out spells that they follow to the letter. It took me a while to see the obvious, but one isn’t better than the other.
There’s still a part of me that winces at the commodification of something that’s always been so precious to me. But now there’s another part of me, one I’m trying to nurture and grow, that is able to admire and appreciate the little windows into their circles that these Instagram witches are offering, the connection this openness allows. I think about my thirteen-year-old self being taunted at school, and how thrilled I would have been if I knew how many other budding witches there were all around me. So #BlessedBe the Instagram witches.
Lilly Dancyger will be teaching a 4-week online non-fiction bootcamp, Writing Personal Essays With Substance, at Catapult starting June 14th!