Julie Skaarup and Catie Peiper seemed predestined to meet. They might even say that their meeting was manifested, their energies calling them together for a higher purpose, even if they didn’t know it at the time.
The 31-year-olds met as freshmen in the dining hall at Hood College, where they discovered that Julie lived in a dorm room directly one floor above Catie’s. Soon, Julie was trotting downstairs to have her tarot cards read, a skill Catie picked up as a teenager.
Julie learned to read that year, too, and soon the two were practicing tarot on each other and their friends, a hobby that brought them closer together. But there were other funny similarities, too — little strokes of serendipity. Like the fact, as Julie remembered recently, that they both dressed up as fortune tellers for their eighth Halloween. Or their early interest in alternative spirituality — Julie in the Chinese zodiac, Catie in Wicca and Buddhist philosophy.
Catie started identifying as a witch around the same time Julie did, which was after graduation, when she decided to get a tarot reading from a professional.
“I said to her, ‘I don’t know quite why I’m here, but I want to get more interested in metaphysics,’” Julie said.
The reader — a Wiccan high priestess — told her a number of things: to find a goddess, to buy a crystal, to read the book “Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner” by Scott Cunningham. It was that last suggestion that changed Julie’s life.
“When I was reading that book, it made me cry in happiness because I realized that I had been a witch all this time and never really had the word for it,” Julie said. “No one ever said to me as a little kid, like, ‘Yes, you can grow up to be a witch as a viable life path.’”
Yes, Julie and Catie are witches. That’s how they identify. Not as Wiccans, which is a specific religious affiliation. Not as the Harry Potter kind of witch, or the scary fairytale kind. Modern witchcraft is an amalgamation of different beliefs, but Julie and Catie define a witch, loosely, as anyone who practices magic. And magic, in turn, is equivalent in their minds to the Buddhist concept of prajñā, or the Chinese belief in ch’i.
“So, it’s energy,” Julie said. “And then the practice of magic is infusing that energy with your intention and anchoring that in the physical world. To send that intention out into the universe, or whatever you want to call it, and then wait for the effect to echo back to you.”
The two are used to getting dismissed, but think about it: What is a spell but a very active form of prayer, trusting that your own will — combined with the wisdom of the universe — can manifest exactly what you need? Julie, a certified yoga teacher, even ties in the Hindu concept of koshas, five layers of the self that should all be aligned before you cast a spell. It’s Maslovian psychology, perfectly tailored for the modern age. Can you use your cell phone to do magic? The answer is yes, according to Catie. Anything done with intention is magic. Making soup for a sick friend. Visiting your grandmother in the hospital. Witchcraft is just learning to take that innate power and crank it up to 11.
It’s a belief simple enough — and accessible enough — that Julie and Catie are betting a business on it. This January, they founded the Moonhaven School of Magic, a popup academy with a full curriculum of mystical courses. Classes cover divination and Norse runes, mythology and faerie lore, and they all trace back to a progressive millennial ethos. Julie and Catie make sure to highlight topics like the ethics of magic, or intersectionality and cultural appropriation in modern craft.
Because in 2018, magic is woke. Magic is a lifestyle. The hashtag “witchesofinstagram” has nearly two million posts with selfies and hand-drawn art and tongue-in-cheek branded content, like a heather grey T-shirt emblazoned with “Sage, Crystals & Trap Music.” There are active online communities debating ethical crystal sourcing and the environmental sustainability of essential oils. Witchcraft is even popular enough to have a discernible economic impact in Frederick, where three businesses have opened this year to support it.
There’s Moonhaven, of course, and In//Sight Frederick, a one-woman tarot reading company opened in February by Anna See-Jachowski. The 29-year-old offers readings every other Saturday at 11:11 Café and every other Sunday at Vini Culture, plus by private appointment and at the occasional special event at other businesses around the city.
Like Julie and Catie, she identifies as a practicing witch (she even spent her third wedding anniversary in Salem, Massachusetts). There’s also a strong progressive streak to her practice. Anna’s mother, a Reiki healer, first gave her a deck of tarot cards in middle school, but her interest returned again recently when she saw a friend promoting a new tarot deck on Instagram. Produced by an artist’s collective called Slow Holler, the sold-out deck featured illustrations by queer Southern artists and subverted many of the gendered symbols on traditional tarot cards.
“It’s just a healing, beautiful deck, and it’s what I started using more and more with friends,” said Anna, who identifies as queer herself.
Witchcraft, to her, is more of a personal belief system, wrapped up in universal principles like mindfulness and a reverence for nature. But that’s the beauty of it as a spiritual practice. Witchcraft isn’t tightly defined. It isn’t exclusive. It’s personally liberating for Anna, who spent most of her childhood at the Mother Seton School in Emmitsburg.
“I’m not knocking people who practice Christianity or Catholicism, if that’s your belief system,” she said. “But I will say, for me, it always felt like I was left out of it. Whereas magic has always been something that embraces people all across the gender spectrum. It's a form of spirituality that celebrates everyone who's a part of it.”
It’s an aspect of witchcraft that Catie calls “magical activism” and Anna calls “social justice in action.” There might be millions of people who identify as witches, but magic, as a concept, still feels subversive enough to break down institutional norms. It’s why a coven from Brooklyn gained so much attention when they gathered to publicly hex Supreme Court appointee Brett Kavanaugh. Or why so many witches also embrace feminism, or intersectionality.
“Magic is empowering in the sense that you can cast an empathy spell, or a justice spell, and feel like you have a role in things that are going on,” Catie said. “Or even in the nature of how we treat shamanism, which has a long tradition of cross-dressing. Witchcraft has been around for so long, there’s a sense that we’re all one family and we hold space for everyone.”
It’s a far cry from the perceptions of witchcraft in the 1970s and ’80s, when magic was more closely associated with cults and satanic rituals. Frederick still has one coven that dates back to 1989, the Root of the Circle Witches, but it’s a different type of beast altogether, with an emphasis on nude rituals and cryptic pseudonyms. The coven’s leader, who identified himself as Luxas Aureaum, said he can remember a time when Wicca and paganism were considered interchangeable with satanism and demonic possession. That kind of misinformation still floats like flotsam in the general sea of pop culture, he said, but his coven has also witnessed the recent cutesification of witchcraft. There’s the upcoming “Charmed” remake, as one example, or the slick Netflix remake of “Sabrina the Teenage Witch.” More generally, there’s the current blend of the occult with Eastern traditions and the wellness industry.
“We keep up on these things,” Luxas said tartly. “I think they’re drawing from things like shamanism and yoga to make it more contemporary. But in no way is anything like that — yoga or any of the aesthetics of the New Age — any part of witchcraft.”
Even if older witches don’t agree with it, the intersection between wellness and magic makes modern witchcraft much more commercially viable. Julie and Catie offer a class called Self-Care for the Modern Age, and many of their practices utilize some of the same tools embraced by the holistic community. Incense, candles, essential oils — they can all be used in magical rituals or as a way to unwind at the end of the long week. There’s a universal appeal.
“I think the idea behind magic is that just like love or light, it’s in everything,” Anna said. “It encourages self-awareness and self-love, first and foremost.”
It’s a cultural movement that supports shops like Alchemy No. 119, a new wellness boutique that opened on East Patrick Street in May. Owner Pattee Brown isn’t a witch, per se (she describes herself as an intuitive — someone who can sometimes glean personal information from complete strangers), but her shop carries healing crystals and talismans along with self-help guides and meditation journals. Just a few doors down is Anam Cara Apothecary, a holistic health store opened four years ago by the mother/daughter duo of Ayme Clark and Chelsea Matuskey. Again, Ayme and Chelsea don’t identify as witches, but their store carries a whiff of the mystical, with beautifully bottled essential oil tinctures and shelves stocked with semi-precious stones. There’s citrine, amethyst, and tiger’s eye in glittering stacks, with signs that promise the stones can manifest wealth, luck, and self-worth, respectively.
Both stores profit from the growing popularity of witchcraft, even if they don’t directly associate with the lifestyle. For Pattee, the movement is indicative of a growing focus on spirituality and emotional well-being, of a new generation with a more tangible focus on physical and mental health.
“What I see happening in downtown Frederick is just a microcosm of a bigger picture — this shift in consciousness happening in the world,” she said. “I see a spiritual awakening insofar as people are more open to something as simple as chakra energy or the exchange of ideas between people, even if you don’t know them. And it seems to be steeped in the culture of witchcraft because that’s something people weren’t looking at before.”
The growth of witchcraft, at least for Chelsea, can trace back to the same social media platforms that helped magic become such a broadly appealing subculture. And the language used in the community is just part of the attraction — after all, she and her mother have capitalized on it. The tagline for Anam Cara Apothecary, which specializes in topical essential oil remedies, is “where science meets magic.” The back of the store is a custom “potion blending bar,” where customers can create their own essential oil blend.
Visually, too, witchcraft is attractive. The tools used in rituals — flowers, crystals, runestones — are aesthetically pleasing and infinitely customizable.
“Have you ever seen an altar not on Instagram?” Chelsea said. “Have you ever not seen a crystal collection on Instagram? I’m not saying it’s not real. I’m just saying it’s a shadow over this stuff.”
Still, there’s an unmistakable link between alternative medicine and the underlying philosophy of modern witchcraft, which pays lip service, at least, to the subversion of some institutional practices. Anam Cara was founded to provide an alternative to mainstream medical care, based off concerns that Ayme and Chelsea — both practicing reflexologists — were hearing from their clients. Ayme, a crystal healer and clinical aromatherapist, embraces claims about some of her products that fall well outside accepted medical knowledge (including that crystals can help relieve mental health symptoms like depression or anxiety).
“I don't identify as being a witch, but I identify with being one who understands nature and respects its magic,” she said. “Because I get upset when I see people not give legitimacy to nature's strengths.”
It’s an increasingly common feeling. Spending on alternative and complementary medicines topped $33.9 billion in 2007, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Market research suggests their use is only continuing to grow. And while not all healers identify as witches, there are plenty of witches who identify as healers. Julie, for example, has logged more than 2,000 hours as a yoga instructor and considers herself both a teacher and a healer. And Anna, a licensed social worker for Hospice of Washington County, hopes to one day incorporate tarot readings into her practice.
“The nice thing about tarot is that it kind of opened the door for me to explore the identity of being a healer, whether that's through psychic work or Reiki or things of that nature,” she said. “It validated that aspect of myself in a way I hadn’t opened up to before.”
It makes sense in the context of today’s world, where core institutions have been shaken by sometimes shattering revelations. Alternative medicine looks more appealing in the light of the opioid epidemic, spurred by misleading marketing by major pharmaceutical companies. Religious institutions like the Catholic Church are grappling with recurring reports of sexual abuse and intolerance towards the LGBTQ community. It’s easy to embrace witchcraft, long associated with feminism, when countless powerful men have faced allegations of sexual misconduct. Who’s to say a crystal can’t help manifest desires in the real world?
It feels empowering just to think that it can.