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Witches Are Having Their Hour

Pam Grossman lives on a quiet street in Park Slope, Brooklyn, next door to a Mexican restaurant that sells cheap burritos and $3 bottles of Mexican cola. She is soft-spoken with long, dark hair, wears punk black boots and is married to a man who collects “Star Wars” figurines, which he lines up on a dresser in their bedroom.

“My life is pretty ordinary,” she said one recent Monday as her cat, Remy, rubbed his whiskers against her hip.

Ms. Grossman was showing me her altar, a pastiche of moon pendants, candles, crystals and dried flowers. She calls herself a witch, and cast spells and teaches magical history. She has been named “the Terry Gross of witches” for “The Witch Wave” podcast she hosts. In June, she published “Waking the Witch: Reflections on Women, Magic, and Power.” And last weekend, she was an organizer of the Occult Humanities Conference hosted by New York University.

Today’s witches — those who identify more with feminism than burnings at the stake — are a part of the collective consciousness. For nearly two years, President Trump has called the investigation into Russia’s influence in the 2016 election a “witch hunt.” Witches are the subject of recent art exhibits. Even members of the Wing, the popular co-working space among well-heeled women in their 30s, refer to themselves as a coven.

Ms. Grossman, who keeps a statue of the Roman goddess Diana the Huntress on her altar, said witches are having a resurgence among feminists who want authority over their own lives. But they continue to be persecuted in places like Papua New Guinea, where angry mobs have recently accused vulnerable people, often women, of sorcery.

The witch is “the perfect symbol for anyone who wants to subvert the status quo and who wants to proclaim they belong to themselves,” Ms. Grossman said.

Her expertise also fuels a healthy career. Along with giving speeches and talks, Ms. Grossman is a movie consultant, most recently for the reboot of “The Craft.” “My friends are constantly teasing me about if I eat babies or whatever,” she said. “And it makes me laugh.”

The following is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.

How do you feel about politicians co-opting the phrase “witch hunt” for political purposes?

I think it’s the height of irony. For those who know the history of witch hunts, they know that it was normally the most vulnerable people in a society who were wrongfully accused of being witches. It’s very ironic to have one of the most powerful people in the world, who also happens to be male, white, cisgender and heterosexual, casting himself as a victim. It doesn’t offend me. It just makes me roll my eyes.

Richard Nixon used “witch hunt” when he was president.

There is a Twitter account that tabulates how many times the president has used the word. It’s called @WitchHuntTweets. That’s how often he uses it.

(As of Sunday, Mr. Trump had used the phrase 262 times in tweets, according to the account.)

Why do feminism and pop culture embrace the witch as a symbol of female independence?

The witch is a feminine archetype who has authority over herself. She doesn’t get power in relationship to other people. She has power on her own terms. And because of that she is, I believe, the ultimate feminist icon.

Do you think millennials identify with the witch because it gives them a strong figure to connect with?

With every wave of feminism, there is a renewed interest in the witch. This started as early as the 19th century with the suffragists. Matilda Joslyn Gage, who was a contemporary of Susan B. Anthony, wrote a book in 1893 called “Woman, Church and State.” In that book, she talked about how she believed those who were accused of being witches were, in fact, brilliant minds of their age and a threat to the patriarchy. Now, actually, her history is dicey. Not every woman killed in the name of witchcraft was brilliant. But there was a romantic notion of these people who were victimized. And that sentiment has stayed with us.

You say you use magic to help better the world. But magic, too, can be seen as a dark power. How do you keep power from being corrupted?

I think about this all the time. Especially in spiritual communities, you see people let power go to their heads. They get very stuck in their ego and overidentify with their power or being a leader. For me, it is something I am constantly contemplating and am intentional about. How can I stay connected to spirit, where the highest power is? And be of service to it? And, hopefully, a source of compassion and love for other people? If you are only in it for yourself, you are missing the whole point.

What about people who exploit witchcraft as a moneymaking venture?

I don’t think there is anything wrong with people making money and sharing their talents or gifts, or being of service. That said, there are certainly people who are jumping on the witchcraft “trend.” They are selling items, saying they are “spiritual” without any of the work or intention put into how those items are made.

I do have a problem with cultural appropriation, which does run rampant in the witchcraft community. And I also have a problem with people saying an item without intention is magical, especially when that item is made in a way that exploits people or resources of the planet.

Like crystals?

We know that crystals are sometimes mined in unethical ways. So there is a movement around educating people, in the same way people worry about where one’s food comes from. Can we be more thoughtful about where magical crystals come from? For sure.

Ms. Grossman said she is not offended by movies like “Hocus Pocus," which depict a less-flattering image of witches in popular culture.

You formed a coven. How does a coven work? Is it like book club?

For some people, it might be! There are a lot of people who have witchy book clubs, or there are study groups.

Do you get together once a month?

My coven meets on all the holy pagan days of the year. There are eight. We just met for mabon, or autumn equinox. My coven technically has 22 people in it. We usually gather at my friend’s home in Bushwick and we always, first, build an altar. It is gorgeous. It is festooned in candles and seasonal flowers and fruits. We all bring offerings. We bring anything we want supercharged, any talismans we want to carry the energy of the coven.

Are there prayers? Invocations?

We always call circle, which is how you set sacred space. I equate casting circle with building an energetic caldron. It is a sealed space where energy gathers. We often say, “We are between worlds.” Anything that happens after we call circle happens in a sacred, liminal space or consciousness. We do meditations. We do spells.

How long does it last?

We all bring food and wine, and we hang out and we talk. And we never start on time. It is usually around two hours that we spend doing the magical practice. Then we hang out and drink and talk.

How have your spells evolved?

The spells I do for myself are generally about asking to plug into my highest purpose. Whereas when I was a teenager, it was much more specific. It was, “I have a crush on this boy. May he fall in love with me. I want to do very good on a math test.” Now I recognize I don’t always know what the best outcome is. I am putting the intention out to be the best version of myself that I possibly can be.

I don’t believe in hexing people. That is not my style of magic. I am O.K. with binding and banishing. You will see some spells about binding or banishing certain politicians. That is more about doing a spell to prevent them from harming other people. But is not about harming them.

Witchcraft sounds a lot like self-help, but with mystical attachment.

Witchcraft is one means for women to be able to step into their power. It is not the only means. And people are gravitating toward this archetype not just for spiritual reasons. There are a lot of people calling themselves witches in a political way, in a tongue and cheek way. And that is empowering for them, too. They might not actually practice magic.

And you know what? That is fine with me. If calling oneself a witch is like calling oneself a nasty woman, and it emboldens someone to stand up for themselves or the most vulnerable in this world, then more power to them.

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