By Michelle Rowe-Jardine
Inside the Likely General, a small general store and event space on Roncesvalles Avenue in downtown Toronto, a workshop is well underway. The facilitator, 28-year-old Sabrina Scott, passionately imbues the message of self-care upon the youthful faces that are seated around them at a kitschy, candlelit table. Looking through the large, dimly lit storefront window, it might seem like someone is leading an ordinary class — but from inside, it’s clear: this is much more magical.
Scott, a self-identified life-long witch and illustration lecturer at OCAD University in Toronto, is leading a workshop called, “The Magic of Self-Care”. It teaches people how to protect themselves with magic by channelling their own energies.
The workshop involves deep periods of silence as Scott instructs the students to focus inwards on how their own bodies are feeling, and concentrate their intentions on letting go of any stress or bad energy they feel during this period of introspection.
This isn’t the “magic” of pop culture and stereotype, this is magic that involves being attuned to oneself and one’s surroundings in order to manipulate energies and manifest things the user desires, such as love and protection.
“When there are no other options, I feel magic can resonate with people to regain a sense of efficacy and regain a sense of control over the impact they have on their surroundings,” Scott says.
When there are no other options, I feel people can resonate with magic to regain a sense of efficacy and regain a sense of control over the impact they have on their surroundings.
Scott’s lineage is deeply intertwined with witchcraft and they are a seventh generation witch. They hold a master’s degree in environmentalism and Scott says it was witchcraft that led them towards an earth-focused education.
“I really feel like that is what taught me a particular environmental consciousness that I really didn’t have before. It was through practising magic that I started to be like, ‘oh right, the earth – kind of important,’” they say.
But the magic is not limited to the inside of the Likely General. In fact, within the GTA, witchcraft is becoming more ubiquitous as more venues pop up that provide spaces where anyone can explore their inner-witch. Witchcraft is so present that Monica Bodirsky, a practising witch of over 40 years, founded Witchfest North last October. The month-long and GTA-wide festival features dozens of venues hosting events that include tarot card readings, art exhibits and witchy pop-up markets.
Bodirsky says she was surprised at the amount of feedback and press she received and says that the opening ceremony, held at WonderWorks in Kensington Market, had about 150 to 200 attendees coming and going throughout the night.
“It was a very casual meet-and-greet for the community … and we had such an incredibly diverse turn-out – the LGBTQ community, witches of colour. The whole point of Witchfest is to show our diversity and make sure we’re reaching out to every community and being inclusive,” Bodirsky says.
And in the current social and political climate, with issues like climate change and the #MeToo movement at the forefront, it seems more people are flocking to these venues in search of a spirituality based on self-empowerment, environmentalism and feminism.
“For many younger practitioners it’s an act of defiance, it’s an act of rebellion. The very word ‘witch’ if you’ve got the guts to say that to people, it’s kind of in-your-face, it’s reclaiming a word that means an old or ugly hag and feminists say, ‘yeah, you know what? Fine, we’re all old, ugly hags then’,” Bodirsky says.
… it’s reclaiming a word that means an old or ugly hag and feminists are saying, ‘yeah, you know what? Fine, we’re all old, ugly hags then.
But what is witchcraft and is it the same as Wicca? It depends who you ask. Wicca is a recognized religion that spread in the ’50s and was made popular by an Englishman named Gerald Gardner. Wicca has many different sects and is practised with many variations, including Toronto’s own Odyssean Wicca. Wicca also tends to be more structured, with the worship of a god and goddess and the observation of eight sabbats, or seasonal festivals where witches can connect to their relationships with the earth. While both Wicca and witchcraft include ritual and magic, witchcraft is seen by many as more of an individual practice than as part of an organized religion and it, too, can be practised in a multitude of ways.
In her article, “Resisting Rhetorics of Violence: Women, Witches and Wicca”, published in the Feminist Theology journal in 2011, Jo Pearson, who has a Ph.D. in religious studies, keeps the two terms separate.
“Feminist witchcraft is usually referred to as ‘witchcraft’ rather than ‘Wicca’,” she says. “The term ‘witchcraft’ is used to describe a religious practice based upon the female witch becoming empowered through interaction with the Goddess as divine counterpart of the witch, an empowerment which is sought in order to provide personal liberation for the individual woman and thus sustain women in their struggle against patriarchy,” she says.
Dr. Shelley Rabinovitch, a professor at the University of Ottawa who teaches a course called “Magic, Witchcraft and the Occult Phenomenon” and is the author of two books pertaining to magic morality and modern witchcraft, says witchcraft has changed over the past 10 to 15 years.
“There has been a culture-shift within North American witchcraft that is akin to a lot of the culture-shifts in mainstream North American culture, as well,” she says. “There’s been a shift where it’s less … ‘Pagans and witches do good things’, to ‘Pagans and witches make their own ethical decisions based on their own personal internal compass.’”
A prime example of this would be the act of witches coming together via social media to organize worldwide hexing. One target of this hexing was registered sex offender Brock Turner, the Stanford student charged with raping a woman in 2015.
According to multiple media outlets, a Facebook event was made following Turner’s sentence to six months in jail, a sentence many found to be too lenient. The event administrator encouraged witches to light black candles, tie black strings around pictures of Turner and burn them. Many hexed Turner hoping he would become impotent.
Within Wicca there is something called ‘the Wiccan Rede.’ It’s a statement of key moral principles within the religion and it says, “An’ it harm none, do what ye will.” It’s a call for non-violence.
Non-Wiccan witches, however, are not beholden to this set of rules and some younger witches today feel that maintaining a stance of non-violence in the current political and social climate is not practical.
Scott holds no punches. “We are all living in this system that is inherently violent for a lot of different reasons. Capitalism is fu*king awful. So, the idea of ‘harm none’ … who are you even counting in that ‘none?’” they ask.
Kitty Rode, a practising witch for nearly five years, says, “Witchcraft is a tool and historically witchcraft has been used to inflict violence on people who are oppressing a group of people.”
Rode says their first forays into witchcraft were focused on Wicca and European lore. “I lost touch with that until I think I graduated university. That’s where I learned a lot about racism and oppression and through my activism I sort of had a re-connection with my own background, and through that I found spirituality and started having a relationship with witchcraft,” Rode says.
Rode is also an administrator in the Facebook group for Black, Indigenous and Person of Colour (BIPOC) Witches in Toronto.
They say the group consists mainly of members who want to discuss their spirituality, organize meet-ups and advertise their own spiritual services and products, such as energy work and the selling of essential oils.
Rode says they created the group for Toronto BIPOC witches after finding many other online groups would shut down discussions regarding appropriation and many weren’t willing to have those conversations.
“A lot of white people who practise witchcraft will say … ‘it’s OK for me to tap into cultures of people that I have systemic power over because it’s spirituality, because I am doing an act of worship,’” Rode says.
Academic and self-identified witch Kathryn Gottlieb addresses this issue in her thesis paper, “Cultural appropriation in Contemporary Neopaganism and Witchcraft” published in 2017.
“Cultural appropriation is less about picking cultures that ‘aren’t yours’ and is more about taking things without permission and utilizing it for your own means simply because you can,” Gottlieb says.
“Many integrate elements of Native American spirituality: the medicine wheel, spirit animals, and cleansing with white sage or Palo Santo,” she says. “Ancient deities from pantheons all over the world find a new home in the household altars of modern witches.”
Rode says the group is a place for BIPOC witches to be themselves while building community and protecting themselves from those outside pressures.
I think that magic can be for everyone, I really believe that. I don’t think it’s an exclusive thing.
And protection is a large part of witchcraft.
During the workshop, Scott has everyone envision a protective bubble, whatever shape and colour they please. Scott’s long, electric blue fingernails trace an invisible bubble outside their own body and they encourage others to do the same. While the gestures aren’t mandatory, Scott says it’s useful for beginners to have the actions to help them focus.
The purpose of this is to help them use their own energy to protect themselves from negative and potentially harmful things.
Scott adds that users of this technique can eventually learn to add protective barriers to their homes.
When it comes to protecting yourself, Scott says, sometimes magic is the only option left.
“I’ve done an interview about witchcraft and sexual assault … Basically what I said is, in terms of rape and sexual assault, the fu*king justice system is a piece of s*it. So, when the justice system fails, the courts fail, the police are s*it, what else is there to do, but turn to magic?”
And it seems more people are.
As the candles are blown out and each person files out of the shop with a notebook full of hand-scribbled knowledge from the workshop, Scott gently reminds everyone that it’s a process and, like learning a language, it requires practice.
“I think that magic can be for everyone, I really believe that. I don’t think it’s an exclusive thing,” Scott says. “I think everyone can access these skills.”
This map illustrates the ubiquity of witchcraft in the GTA by pointing to some of the most popular businesses that sell specific witchcraft paraphernalia.