Do You Believe in Magic?
At first I thought she was cradling a monkey in her arms. Then I realized the grandmotherly goth lady was holding a baby werewolf doll, its wizened little face covered in fine, wavy hair. With a twinkle in her eye, she set down the were-infant and picked up another little bundle of joy.
“This is my vampire baby,” she said. “You can see his tiny fangs.”
“Adorable,” I said. “And he has your eyes.” The bat ears, though, were all the baby’s own.
This was just the kind of outlandishness I’d hoped for at the Macabre Market, “a curious coven of artists and makers inspired by Halloween, the odd, and the macabre.” Posters called it “Halfway to Halloween,” and while nitpickers might point out that technically that holiday was five months away, not six, I don’t suppose we can expect dabblers in the dark arts to be terribly strict about their math.
Now before I go any further, let me reassure you that I have not embraced occult practices or goth attire. The Craft is not my path. But I was pleasantly surprised and vastly entertained by much of what I found during my afternoon among modern American witches.
Everyone at the Macabre Market seemed to be having a splendid time. Swathed in ghoulish black, often sporting astonishing tattoos and plenty of metal accoutrements, they browsed happily through stalls selling Corpse Freshener soap, handbags gorgeously embroidered with cobwebs, and jewelry that would appeal to Dracula's mother. Despite the noir trappings, the atmosphere was fun and friendly, and everybody I asked was delighted to have their picture taken. As a ballgown-wearing transvestite once told me, “Honey, you don’t dress like this and hope not to be noticed!”
We’ve come a long way since the days when witchcraft was a death-penalty offense. Now it’s largely viewed as yet another nonconformist spiritual tradition that gained traction in the rebellious sixties. Many practitioners consider themselves Wiccans, a modernized religion legally recognized by US courts. Contrary to popular belief, they don’t follow — or even believe in — Satan but are instead inspired by nature.
And it’s a growth industry. A 1990 poll put the number of practitioners at 8000, by 2008 the US Census Bureau reported 342,000, and recent studies suggest there are 1.5 million. That’s right, witchcraft now has more active practitioners than the mainline Presbyterian church (1.4 million). Today’s covens congregate on TicToc; the hashtag #witchtok alone has amassed more than 19.8 billion views.
So what’s the attraction, you ask?
“The proliferation of witchcraft reflects two timeless and universal urges: the need to draw meaning from chaos, and the desire to control the circumstances around us,” according to witch Antonio Pagliarulo writing for NBC. “With the dire catastrophes brought on by climate change, wars, and the loss of rights, it’s not surprising that witchcraft appeals to those seeking to mend what’s broken in ourselves and the wider world.”
Like me, Pagliarulo was raised Catholic, surrounded by miracles and mysteries. “I myself grew up with Italian folk magic passed down from generations of practitioners who melded pagan customs with Roman Catholicism,” he says. “In petitioning the archangel Michael for protection, for example, I will recite a prayer but also make offerings of wine, bay leaves, and cloves. In addition to venerating Catholic saints, I light candles to the goddess Diana at every full moon and place small bundles of rosmarino, or rosemary, on my altar to honor the dead. This blending of faiths has been a seamless process for me and other folk magic practitioners despite what traditional religious authorities might say.”
All this would sound a lot loonier to me if I didn’t have a long-standing habit, picked up from my Seville neighbors, of placing fresh parsley in front of my little statue of San Pancracio, patron of health and work. The logical part of my brain knows this symbolic gesture won’t really help Rich get over his post-flu cough or make it easier for me to find the words to write this post. But symbolic gestures — from a goodbye kiss to saluting the flag — have a reassuring way of grounding us in reality. And who doesn't need more of that?
Connecting with nature is one of the best way to feel grounded, according to Fiona Duncan, who teaches an online witchcraft course. Her students, she says, include a physician, a physicist, an epidemiologist, college professors, and published authors. “These people are highly intelligent and emotionally developed and yearn for something more. They believe they can find it (and they can!) through connecting with Nature’s energies and their own, which is what the Craft is all about.”
Jayme Moye, a student of Natalie Rousseau's "earth-based wisdom and everyday magic," explains, “The idea is to start to notice how our own physical and mental states — our energy levels, emotions, sleep patterns, and food cravings, to name a few — are in or out of alignment with what’s happening in the natural world.”
How we connect with nature is highly individual, which might explain Black Widow Bottles, the oddest of the curiosities at the Macabre Market. “Rich," I exclaimed, "am I really seeing little dead animals in jars?” Looking like they’d strayed from a mad scientist’s laboratory, the mortal remains of snakes, bats, voles, geckos, and other creatures floated behind glass, tagged with prices and backstories.
“Did you pickle these animals yourself?” I asked the woman behind the table. Her name, I soon learned, was Tracy, and she was accompanied by her husband, who sat stoically at her side, looking as if he’d rather be off having a root canal or possibly even a limb amputated.
“I didn’t kill them,” she said. “They’re all ethically sourced. I preserve them with formaldehyde and suspend them in 70% alcohol.” OK, but what were they for? “People collect them. I’ve been doing this for five years; my house is full of these things.” I glanced at her husband with increased sympathy. That couldn’t be easy for the non-enthusiast.
The Macabre Market was held in Alameda, terminus of the first NY to SF railway journey in 1869, former site of Neptune Beach, which gave the world the snow cone and “Pop’s Sicle” (today’s popsicle), and now home to the Feathered Outlaw, a shop dispensing metaphysical supplies and services. Naturally, I popped into the shop for a look around.
The shop was suitably dim and mysterious, with a cheerful young staff, esoteric products, and a tarot reading going on in the back corner. I learned it was designed as a safe place for people to explore alternative spiritual paths, a haven for those whose beliefs and lifestyle left them feeling marginalized and misunderstood.
Witchcraft remains far from mainstream and no doubt still attracts a darker element today. Having been raised in the faith that gave us the Spanish Inquisition and will be forever identified with pedophile priests, I know any belief system can be perverted in horrifying ways. All I can say is that my experiences at the Macabre Market and Feathered Outlaw were considerably more wholesome and family friendly than I expected.
As a writer, Nutter, and spiritual explorer, I enjoyed meeting modern-day American witches. I didn’t bring home any magic spells, baby vampires, or Corpse Freshener. But I came away with a new understanding that for some, embracing this practice enables them to be welcomed into a community and open themselves to the world in entirely new ways. And that’s its own kind of magic.
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TO I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain.
Wanderlust has taken me to more than 60 countries. Every week I provide travel tips and adventure stories to inspire your journeys and let you have more fun — and better food — on the road
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