Jessica Castro doesn’t look like a witch—no pointy hat, no wart-ridden nose.
Besides the pentagram necklace peeking out from beneath her gray sweater, there’s little indication that Castro’s religious beliefs might lean toward the occult.
“There’s a difference between practicing Wicca and labeling yourself a witch,” Castro, a senior strategic communication major, said. “One’s a belief and one’s a practice. Not all Wiccans are witches and not all witches believe in Wicca. I pull from both Wicca and witchcraft because I am a practitioner.”
By practitioner, Castro means she is a witch who does magic—a blanket term for spells, herb and gemstone lore, Reiki healing, reading auras and psychic abilities, she said.
“[Doing magic] feels like I’m tapping into more than just myself, more than just my will, more than just my hopes and dreams,” Castro said. “I’m tapping into energies that are beyond myself … into more of a higher power, and it’s such an electrifying experience.”
Castro stumbled upon Wicca at a young age. Raised in a Christian family, she always felt she didn’t quite fit in. She preferred the outdoors to church and enjoyed “one-on-one conversations” with God, whom she perceived as a woman.
When she found Wicca, it felt right—particularly the worship of a female deity known as the Goddess. Wicca also boasts much less rigid rules than Castro’s religious upbringing.
Wicca is not based in Satanic rituals, human sacrifice or other bloody acts—at the mere mention of such things, Castro sighed heavily before bursting into laughter—but instead connecting with the Goddess, nature and oneself.
“Having a relationship with the Goddess is like having a relationship with the mother of all,” Castro said. “She has given birth to the trees, birth to the flowers and animals, and everyone and everything that has ever walked the earth comes from her.”
Castro’s beliefs, as well as modern Wiccan, neo-Pagan and other similar systems, are quite different from traditional witchcraft, said Linda Lee, an adjunct professor in Temple’s Intellectual Heritage department and a folklore expert.
“When we talk about historical witchcraft, European witchcraft and American witchcraft, we use these terms as if they mean one thing,” Lee said.
But there is a wide array of contemporary neo-Pagan, Wicca and other witchcraft in the United States, Lee said, each with varying geographical areas.
The practice of Wicca as a religion is not really something that existed in earlier times like it does today, but “the folk beliefs that feed into our ideas about witchcraft are beliefs that have existed alongside of mainstream religious beliefs all along,” she added.
Historically speaking, witchcraft is the utilization of old-world folk practices to manipulate an outcome in the favor of the person practicing, said Nick Katsikis, a practitioner at Mystickal Tymes, a New Age Wicca and Pagan store in New Hope, Pennsylvania. The owners also offer a teaching group called the Circle of Ancient Paths.
Because folk traditions like harvest celebrations are no longer relevant to today’s society, Katsikis said, “we’ve had to adapt what witchcraft is in the modern day.”
“It’s an evolving practice,” he said. “But it’s a way of life, not just a religion.”
“Witchcraft is the action by which you maximize what happens for your good and minimize what happens for your ill,” Katsikis added. “The role of a witch is to always do the best they can in anything they do and emphasize the energy around them.”
What it means to be a witch is changing, said Katsikis and Mystickal Tymes co-owner Eric Lee, or at least it is for the practicing group at the shop.
“The evolution of witches is happening,” Katsikis said.
“Which is cool,” Eric Lee added. “We’re taking it up an octave in our practice as well. We’re doing things that are not the norm.”
Magic is changing because the basis of how much an individual needs has changed over time, Katsikis said. Humans need less and less in a modern environment.
“We no longer want for as much as our primitive man did,” he said. “The practice of worshipping in the old world gods and the methods and modalities of that worship changed.”
For the witches at Mystickal Tymes, rituals are no longer for a good harvest, but instead a good job, finding the right love or keeping family safe. For Castro, being a modern witch means being an urban one—which isn’t as radically different as one may think.
“The resources that an urban witch might have to a suburban witch might be way different, but their intentions are the same,” Castro said. “They want to create change in their own lives. They want to empower themselves.”
Urban witchcraft is utilizing energies, elements and tools within the city to create that change, she said. Castro often makes use of any connection to nature within Philadelphia, whether it be a public park, small grove of trees or an abandoned house filled with what other people perceive as weeds—but might be wild plants unavailable in herb shops.
Witchcraft is a way of life—it’s about intention and visualization, Castro said, and allowing herself to “radiate positivity and love” through a connection with the divine she could not find in another belief system.
“People come into this because of interest,” Eric Lee said. “Because of dissatisfaction with the status quo of faith practice. They’re seeking information that is not being fulfilled by traditional religions. People are tired of being sheep.”
Victoria Mier can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @victoria_mier_.