Witches are among us—and far more of them than you think. Today, when people talk about “witches” in this country, they are often talking about members of the pagan movement, a group of perhaps as many as one million Americans whose practices draw from a combination of pre-Christian European religions, Western occult and Masonic societies, and forms of witchcraft.
More and more people are identifying as pagan and/or Wiccan in the United States. (BTW, Wicca is a modern spiritual practice with roots in pagan traditions. As the blog Wicca Living explains, “Wicca is technically classified as a pagan religion, though not all Wiccans would identify as pagans—and plenty who identify as pagans are not Wiccans.”) According to Quartz, one Trinity College study found that 8,000 Americans identified as Wiccan in 1990, which increased to 342,000 in 2008. Additionally, 140,000 identified as pagan in 2001, increasing to 340,000 in 2008. In a survey published in 2019, sociologist Helen Berger found that approximately 800,000 Americans identify as Wiccan.
I spent five years immersed in the American pagan community—first at arm’s length, as a journalist; then as someone personally curious about the rituals I’d observed; and finally, for a couple of years, as an active student and participant. The result is Witches of America, both a snapshot of present-day witchcraft across the United States and a memoir of my own searching and questioning.
But wait, what is paganism, exactly?
As I write in my book, since the 1960s, the term “paganism” or “neo-paganism” has been used to refer to:
“Contemporary practices pieced together from the salvaged scraps of pre-Christian European religions, Western occult and Masonic societies, and forms of witchcraft. Some Pagans subscribe to new religions, belief systems invented out of whole cloth; some practice traditions that claim ‘ancient’ roots but can be traced back only a few decades; some found the Goddess through second-wave feminism, eager to place a Creatix at the center of the universe.”
What does it mean to be a witch?
There are many, many strains of paganism, but most share some core beliefs: They are polytheistic (meaning including multiple gods and goddesses), nature-worshipping, that male and female forces have equal sway in the universe, and that the divine can be found all around us. Some believe in reincarnation or an afterlife realm called Summerland, but there is no heaven or hell. Some might honor specific gods and goddesses like Athena or Isis, while others may honor a non-specific “god” and “goddess.” There isn’t “sin,” but there is an idea of karma: Good and bad things you do will come back around, one way or another.
Although traditions vary, many Wiccans and pagans follow something called the Wheel of the Year: an annual cycle of eight seasonal festivals, called sabbats, that take place on important astrological events like solstices and equinoxes.
Can anyone be a witch?
Yes! Anyone who wants to be a witch can be a witch—either by joining a community or coven, or by beginning a solitary practice. Wicca does not have a formal institutionalized structure. As Berger explains, Wicca “puts more emphasis on ritual and direct spiritual experience than belief. Adherents refer to themselves as practitioners, not believers.”
How do you become a witch?
Some strains of paganism have initiation rites or structures of authority, in which new practitioners will be welcomed and trained by others. But some witches believe you can “initiate” yourself simply by deciding to be a witch.
Here are some facts about witches that may surprise you.
1. Witches are often invisible.
Not literally, of course. But the women and men who consider themselves witches or pagans don’t always announce themselves in goth gear, tattoos, and piercings. They don’t wear pointy black hats or carry magic wands. Many are just as likely to dress in utterly innocuous ways—in the daily uniforms of, say, a single mother driving her kid to track practice, a grade school teacher, a tech entrepreneur, or a cashier at Trader Joe’s. Morpheus, the pagan priestess who served as my personal entrée into the witchcraft community in the Bay Area, was actually working for an environmental protection group when I first met her. She’d drive to work in a pickup, dressed in khakis and a hoodie, her hair in a long red braid. The local ranchers she consulted with had no idea that she regularly hosted rituals under the moonlight out on her property, just a few miles away.
Some witches choose to remain “in the broom closet,” as they call it, because they work for the government or with children, live in a conservative community, or are simply afraid that the word “witchcraft” still carries too much baggage. At the same time, since the ’80s, pagans have been gathering in outdoor festivals and indoor hotel conferences all around the country, sometimes in groups of a few thousand. And with the rise of the internet in the ’90s, vast networks have also spread online, making it that much easier for someone ’craft-curious, in an area without a visible pagan presence, to connect with a mentor in a chat room.
2. While Hollywood horror films have (unfairly) made witchcraft out to be the work of the devil, they’ve gotten plenty of details right.
Pagans are not interested in worshipping the devil—many would say that the Satan of Christianity is a god they don’t even believe in—so that’s a major strike against the Hollywood horror-movie depiction of witchcraft. On the other hand, there is a certain amount of drama and flair to ritual magic that the movies have come close to getting right. Witches do gather in a circle to perform rituals, sometimes outdoors, under the Moon. They use wands and ritual daggers (or athames) to guide magical energy in the right direction; they chant, sometimes in ancient languages. Depending on the specific tradition a person trained in, they may also practice magic while “skyclad,” or in the nude. This isn’t an invitation to sex but instead a way of letting go of the mundane, material world and entering a heightened state that allows for more powerful magic.
Even children’s entertainment, like Hocus Pocus, sometimes gets a few details right—the ’90s Disney classic actually has a decently accurate depiction of glamour magic and reversals, although the exact spells are all made up. And the Charmed reboot even featured a common spellcraft ingredient: baking soda.
3. Most witches follow a strict moral code.
Returning to the sinister devil-worship thing: The horror-movie assumption that anyone who labels herself a witch is out to harm others is false and unfair. This community follows an ethical standard that’s similar to a concept of karma: The Threefold Law warns that any action you take will come back at you three times over. Or for witches of the Wiccan tradition, there’s the Wiccan Rede: “An’ it harm none, do what thou wilt”—follow your own lead, as long as you don’t cause harm to anyone else.
Yes, some witches perform hexes, and a personal or coven rivalry might, in a rare situation, escalate into a “witch war.” But this kind of behavior is frowned on. The goal, as with many religious practices, is to bring yourself closer to spiritual enlightenment and balance—which is that much harder to achieve if you’re busy creating chaos.
4. Witches often do practice in covens.
A witchcraft tradition can spawn many lines (or splinter sects) founded by the disciples of a particularly influential priest or priestess. And those lines, in turn, are each often made up of at least a few covens.
At the same time, while many old-school pagans believe the only way to become a full-fledged witch is through disciplined, in-person training with—and initiation by—a coven, the internet helped spawn an entire generation of “solitary” witches who learned through mentors online, connecting with looser, long-distance covens and practicing alone in their own homes, backyards, or nearby woods. (There are no churches or synagogues in paganism: Any natural place can be made into a place of worship.)
Covens have adapted to the times—many now meet online, and there are plenty of witches with an active social media presence. Yes, your coven can have a group chat—and many do.
5. Many men also call themselves witches.
Because pagans believe the universe is driven by forces that are equally male and female, the community seems to be equal parts men and women. (For women, there’s the significant appeal of having the opportunity to become priests, something that’s rare in more mainstream religious traditions.) The person credited with founding Wicca was a man: Gerald Gardner. A retired civil servant from a well-off merchant family, Gardner spent most of his life in Asia before returning home to England and eventually claiming he’d uncovered a long-practicing coven in the New Forest.
Gardner published a number of books about his experience, notably Witchcraft Today, released in 1954. His biographer, Philip Heselton, told the BBC in 2014, “He wasn’t a religious pioneer. What he did was to publicize it and write about it and he gradually became known through that and people made contact. He initiated quite a lot of people into the Wiccan culture. He felt it was important that it survived.”
A side note: Pagan men today are much more likely to label themselves witches rather than warlocks. Although the words “pagan” and “witch” started out as historical slurs and have since been revived and reclaimed, “warlock,” for some reason, is still mostly considered an insult, taken to mean “oath breaker.”
Paganism is also more welcoming to LGBTQ+ folks than many religions. One 2021 study found that 93% of American pagans agree with policies supporting LGBTQ rights, compared to 69% of non-pagans, while another 2021 survey found that the pagan community collectively shows the highest support for LGBTQ individuals of any religious group. Political science professor Kathleen Marchetti concluded that support for LGBTQ+ rights is connected to “Pagan religious identity.”
6. The Salem witch trials had nothing to do with real-life witchcraft.
In spite of our relentless fascination with the trials, in pop culture and literature, there’s still no real evidence that those tried and executed in Salem back in the 1690s practiced witchcraft. There is also no clear proof that the people executed as Satan-worshipping “witches” in Europe during that same time period—possibly as many as 60,000 between the late 1500s and early 1700s—practiced anything connected to the witchcraft of the pagan movement today.
Some American pagans, however, consider these persecuted women and men their spiritual ancestors, identifying with these victims as outsiders who somehow did not fit into the larger Christian culture.
According to Smithsonian Magazine, the Salem witch trials were taboo for residents for centuries. But after the 1953 play The Crucible and especially the 1970s TV series Bewitched brought the witch trials back into pop culture, Salem began to welcome curious tourists—as well as witches. According to Vox, between 800 and 1,600 of Salem’s 40,000 residents identify as witches.
7. Many witches are polyamorous.
The witchcraft movement spread throughout this country largely because of its absorption into ’60s counterculture and second-wave feminism, and it’s just as open-minded about sex and different stripes of sexuality. While plenty of pagans may be in conventional relationships or marriages—they may live in a house in the suburbs with three kids and a collection of family pets—there has long been an overlap with the polyamory movement. By this I mean that it’s not uncommon for a witch, particularly on the West Coast (the Bay Area is the nucleus of American witchcraft), to find herself in more than one committed relationship at a time. Some pagans say that if you’re devoted to multiple gods, it makes sense to devote yourself to multiple partners.
8. Witches do celebrate during Halloween season, but for them, it’s a very different holiday.
During Halloween, our annual time of Spider-Man costumes, candy binges, and slasher films, hundreds of thousands of Americans are observing the high holiday of Samhain (pronounced SAH-win). This spooky holiday originated as a Celtic harvest festival. History.com explains, “After the harvest work was complete, celebrants joined with Druid priests to light a community fire using a wheel that would cause friction and spark flames. The wheel was considered a representation of the Sun and used along with prayers. Cattle were sacrificed, and participants took a flame from the communal bonfire back to their home to relight the hearth.”
There was a spiritual side to this ancient festival—it wasn’t just a party celebrating the harvest. As Mental Floss explains, “Celtic priests built huge bonfires, practiced divination rituals, and conducted rites to keep ghouls at bay—but since they didn’t keep written records, many of these practices remain shrouded in mystery.”
For pagans, this is the time of year, from late October into early November, when they say that the veil—the boundary between the living and the dead—is thinnest, making it a special time to commune with lost loved ones or distant ancestors. All around the country, witches hold particularly intense rituals, evoking people who have passed away and hoping to receive a message or help from the other side. Many will dance and drink and eat the things the person they are remembering enjoyed, giving the dead the pleasure of living again through their own body, if just for that one night each year.
9. Unlike many other religious groups, witches have no interest in converting you.
Witches are not out to convert you or your kids. They don’t believe in proselytizing—in fact, they find it rude. There are many ways to live a spiritual life, the consensus goes, and you don’t have to subscribe to ours. Their POV is that if Wicca works for you, then great! But if not, that’s totally fine as well.