By Deena Yellin
October 28, 2021 Updated October 31, 2021
Source: USA Today
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Wicca along with other non-traditional pagan religions often down play their true beliefs and activities as benevolent in nature. Indeed, Wicca is on the rise and they are interested in those who may not attend a traditional religious activities particularly on a regular basis, such as Sunday service, and those who may have had a bad experience with traditional religions. Wicca is often presented, particularly to the young and disenfranchised as fun and harmless while they invite them to explore the non-traditional pagan religion - positioning themselves as carefree and cool.
On Halloween night, Charlene Dzielak will light candles and incense in front of an altar and invite her departed loved ones to join her in a "dumb supper," a feast eaten in silence out of reverence for the dead who can't speak.
After a yearlong hiatus because of COVID-19, Dzielak is reuniting with her coven – or congregation of witches – in Old Bridge, New Jersey, to celebrate Samhain, an ancient Celtic festival marking the end of the harvest season and beginning of winter. Pronounced "sow-in," Samhain, which is believed to have been the precursor to Halloween, literally means "summer's end" in Gaelic. Witches ring in the daylong holiday at night on Oct. 31 with fire ceremonies, feasts and building an altar to honor the dead.
Samhain has become increasingly popular in recent years as more Americans embrace astrology, the supernatural and pagan sects such as Wicca. The rise has been fueled largely by young people who have abandoned organized religion in favor of their own spiritual path.
One in four Americans identify as 'Nones.' Why are millions leaving organized religion? This year, in the shadow of the pandemic, Samhain carries extra poignance, with more socially distant observances and references to COVID-19. Witches around the nation will honor those who died during the pandemic and many will perform rites aimed at making the disease disappear.
"We will call out the names of those who died of COVID this year and light a candle in their honor," said Dzielak, adding that the event will be smaller than usual because of the pandemic. "We will ask the deities to watch over those of us who are still here and keep us all safe. We will remember those who died and ask the deities to make their afterlife as enjoyable as it can be. We find that comforting."
A few miles away in Mount Holly, New Jersey, Melanie Wilbur will join other witches at a small, socially distanced bonfire where they will recite prayers and spells to honor the dead. "As it is our new year, we will incorporate our intentions for healing for the world, our communities and our country," said Wilbur, a witch and owner of Cerridwen's Hearth, a New Jersey witch shop that specializes in tarot readings, energy healing and ingredients for spells. No longer considered wicked, witches are hip. Wicca is among the largest pagan groups and its followers often practice witchcraft. The modern Wicca movement was established in the 1950s as a religion emphasizing magic, nature and environmental responsibility.
Witches have historically gotten a bad rap as sinister outliers associated with flying brooms, pointy hats and evil spells. For centuries, innocent women were punished or put to death because they were accused of practicing witchcraft. In more recent times, those who have publicly identified as being witches said they faced discrimination and harassment.
But now, on the heels of the wildly successful Harry Potter series and Twilight films, and with an array of witches showing up on social media, witchcraft isn't considered spooky anymore. It's gone mainstream.
The numbers of Americans who identify with Wicca or paganism has risen from 134,000 in 2001 to nearly 2 million today, according to Helen Berger, a resident scholar at Brandeis University's Women's Studies Research Center, who has conducted extensive research and authored four books about witches and pagans. The witch community in America has been growing steadily since the 1960s, she said, and "much of the recent growth is coming from young women."
Manny Tejeda-Moreno, editor of The Wild Hunt, a news agency focused on the pagan and witch community, said subscriptions have climbed to 80,000 in the past five years, representing a 25% increase. While there are few data-driven statistics documenting the growth of the witch population in America, the rise of witchcraft on social media suggests an "observable difference in the number of people practicing witchcraft and the number of people willing to discuss that practice openly," he said, adding that "witchcraft and witches have become more commonplace."
From Salem to Sabrina, witches have long captured the human imagination. Today's versions include influencer witches on social media and a comic superhero called Wiccan. TikTokers who share their witchcraft tutorials and other magical content under the hashtag #witchtok have amassed more than 20 billion views. There are now podcasts, museum exhibits and an array of books and classes focused on witchcraft.
Major retailers – including Sephora and Urban Outfitters – are responding to the surging witch population by hawking healing crystals, spell books and other tools of the witch trade. Witch-themed shops are cropping up around the country, and a search for witch merchandise on Amazon and Etsy yields thousands of entries.
"Right now, we're in the middle of a witch moment," said Jason Mankey, a Silicon Valley witch who has authored seven books about witchcraft. "Witchcraft is popular now and the number of witches in America is growing fast."
A decade or so ago, "nobody would have posted their spells online. Now it's become popular to see what people are doing magically on Instagram. A lot of witches today get information from social media," said Mankey, making witchcraft more accessible to a broader swath of society. Disenfranchised from organized religion Witch experts attribute the resurgence to a variety of factors. For starters, there are few regulations. In fact, Wicca has no universally accepted Bible or regimented mode of practice, and the only tenet that's been broadly adopted by Wiccans is "Harm none and do as you will." "If someone self-identifies as a witch, then they are one. It's not as well defined as other religions," said Mankey, adding that witches come from all backgrounds and can identify as male, female or non-binary.
Berger agreed that a big draw for young people who have felt disenfranchised from organized religion is that they can find healing and camaraderie in the witch community, where everyone can "do their own thing and it's accepted."
Church in a pub, politics at temple:Religious leaders are trying to win back the 'Nones' Turbulent economic and political climates often provide a fertile breeding ground for alternative spiritual movements. The pandemic amplified that trend and many people searching for meaning and order amid the frightening plague found it in witchcraft.
A growing share of Americans – over a quarter of adults – call themselves "spiritual but not religious," and a 2017 Pew Research Center Survey also found that about 62% of Americans say they hold "New Age" beliefs, including a belief in astrology, psychics and the presence of spiritual energy in inanimate objects.
In contrast to traditional religions that prohibit homosexuality and restrict leadership positions to straight men, witchcraft allows those who felt marginalized by organized religion to find acceptance and community, experts say.
While many witches say they used to avoid publicity for fear of discrimination or harassment, many say they've grown more comfortable about coming "out of the broom closet" to publicly revealing their beliefs.
That, in turn, has drawn newcomers to the fold. But the sudden popularity has a downside, said Wilbur, who discovered witchcraft at age 9 by reading witchcraft books and practiced it in secret for years.
While she's gratified that being a witch no longer carries the stigma it once did, Wilbur worries that witchcraft has become "too faddish."
"Instagram tends to make it look trendy and easy," Wilbur said. "But you do have to read and put the work into it. You have to become knowledgeable. You can't just do a spell because you saw it on TikTok." 'Powerful and personal' Dzielak was raised Presbyterian and always believed in spirituality but didn't like the way Christianity portrayed humans as separate from the rest of nature. She was also disillusioned, she said, by the insistence by mainstream religions that "theirs is the only way to access the divine and if you don't do it right, you won't be saved or you will burn in hell."
Fact check:Witches weren't burned at the stake in American colonies, historians say After experimenting with a variety of religions, she was drawn to Wicca and, 22 years ago, she became a witch. "This is an experiential religion where you connect directly with the deities without the help of an intermediary. That makes it very powerful and personal."
"We need to reclaim the word witch," Dzielak said. "Witches are not evil and we don't worship the devil. We work on manipulating energy toward a beneficial end."
Now a mother of 3 and grandmother of four, she said that whenever she wears her pentagram necklace (a five pointed star symbolizing Wicca) she draws positive attention. "People see it and tell me they are Wiccan too," she said.
Did you know the number of witches or people who identify themselves as Wiccan are on the rise? If your doctor is a Wiccan or pagan would you want to know? How could this impact your health?
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