They wear Balenciaga, cast spells on Instagram Live and swear by sound-healing—meet the new breed of London witches

·9-min read
 (Volta Pablo / © ADAGP, Paris and DACS,  London 2021)
(Volta Pablo / © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2021)

It’s Wednesday morning and I’m in an industrial estate in Hackney where a woman I’ve never met is handing me a small, tightly wrapped parcel of herbs saying, ‘Here’s something to sniff to get you going.’ But before you get the wrong idea, I’ve not been on a midweek bender. ‘Mama Moon’, aka Semra Haksever, is a witch and she has invited me to her workshop — full of candles, crystals, bell jars of dried flowers and cat statues — to experience her bespoke spell service.

Over a cup of ‘cosmic tea’, normally mugwort but today lemon and ginger, and soft house music, she begins by burning some fake money in a small copper pot, ‘an offering to the ancestors and the spirits around us’. Then we discuss what I want to cast a spell for. Haksever says love spells are popular, as are people wanting jobs or to change their mindset. Over a chat that feels like a therapy session, we decide she will cast me a spell to raise self-love and clear creative blockages.

While Haksever pops to the back of her shop to blend the herbs — all organic, which she has previously blessed in a summer solstice ritual — I have to write down on a piece of paper all the negative thoughts I have about myself. Then on Haksever’s instruction I take the paper, fold it outwards six times and set it on fire in a cauldron, throwing the herbs over the top to banish them. Although I feel a little silly, it’s also quite fun watching it go up in flames. It reminds me of Catholic mass and that bit in Friends when the women set fire to mementos from their exes in a bin.

Haksever, 44, is a former stylist, and tells me she had her spiritual awakening on the top of a volcano in Bali. With her black leopard-print skirt, stacked gold rings and heavy, kohl-rimmed eyes, she looks every inch the Cool Girl Witch, part of a growing movement of modern, urban practitioners of magick (many modern witches use this spelling to distinguish what they do from the ‘pulling a rabbit out of a hat’ kind of magic).

Forget hooked-nose, pointy-hat-wearing hags of yore. Today’s witches are hip, mostly millennial women with slick social media profiles and soothing advice about manifesting your dreams. Instead of capes they wear what’s known as ‘witchcore’: black dresses, lace tights and black boots. Their favourite labels include Balenciaga, The Vampire’s Wife and Ganni’s Sun, Moon & You celestial collection. They congregate in covens often around east London (where else?), will draw daily tarot cards on Instagram live, and always have a crystal or two in their pocket. Instead of a bubbling cauldron, they’ve got a crystal Tibetan singing bowl for a spot of sound healing, while ‘eye of newt’ has been replaced with essential oils and energy-cleansing sprays.

When it comes to popular culture, ’tis officially the season of the witch. There are now a range of witchy podcasts from The Fat Feminist Witch to A Common Craft. Recent witch books include HausWitch (kind of like witchy hygge) and Bitchcraft: Simple Spells for Everyday Annoyances and Sweet Revenge. A new series of the Sky TV show A Discovery of Witches lands in January. And as with any trend, celebrities have been leading the charge. Lorde came out of the broom closet in 2017 when she said ‘I am basically a witch’ and videos from her new singles are full of pagan imagery, while Lana Del Rey cast online ‘binding spells’ to stop former US president Donald Trump and his administration from doing harm while in power.

London’s modern witches hang out at Treadwell’s, Bloomsbury’s pagan bookshop, or at She’s Lost Control, a peachy-hued spiritual emporium in Broadway Market. But they’re also on TikTok, or ‘WitchTok’, as it’s known. TikTok’s #witch hashtag has received over 10.5 billion views and #babywitch, a hashtag for those just getting into the craft, has 2.3 billion. On Instagram, #witchesofinstagram has 7.8 million posts, where witches share tarot readings, spells and memes such as Witch = Woman In Total Control of Herself. In July last year, the witchier corners of the internet got into a frenzy after some baby witches on WitchTok hexed the moon.

One such witch of Instagram is Aisha Carrington, 38, who wears a broad-brimmed, camel Free People boater over her shoulder-length braids, teamed with an Adidas tracksuit. Carrington tells me that she discovered witchcraft in 2017 after a ‘deep, dark period of depression’ when she began using herbs to calm her anxieties along with sage smoke cleansing. ‘Being a witch is a beautiful thing and a coven is just women coming together to help other women,’ she explains. ‘For me, witchcraft is inclusive — the more people who can step into it, the better.’

Carrington, who sells a Chill Babes Spray (£45) and Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe aromatherapy roll-on (£28) on her online shop, acknowledges that the modern witchcraft scene, like so much of the wellness industry, is dominated by white women. ‘There are more black witches stepping into their power now but I wish there were more,’ she says. ‘Witchcraft is actually very strong in many non-white cultures. Take Brujería, which is the umbrella term for African, Caribbean and indigenous Latin American witchcraft, dating back centuries.’

Some modern witches practise Wicca, the religion that sprang up in the 1940s to worship pagan gods and goddesses (the 2011 census recorded almost 12,000 Wiccans in England and Wales) but many more call themselves ‘eclectic’ witches, and practise a broader brand of witchcraft that has elements of other areas of wellness including yoga and meditation, mindfulness, new-age spirituality, sex positivity and polyamory.

Budding witches typically study for a year and a day before the opportunity to get on the path to become a high priestess

Via Zoom, Leila Sadeghee is showing me her altar, a collection of sacred objects where she casts spells. ‘I like to joke that I have an altar instead of a TV,’ she says. ‘This is my cauldron, my chalice bell, my ritual dagger and these are the sacred nectars from my body…’ Wait, what? ‘Just my tears, menstrual blood; I use them in spell-casting and dab it on my body. Sometimes I feed them to my plants.’

Sadeghee, 47, who used to work in the art world, looks every inch the hipster (messy bun, big glasses, tattoos) but is actually a priestess, the highest form of witch you can be. ‘I’m spell-casting all the time,’ she tells me. ‘The other day I had a taxi driver who was in a difficult relationship, so I gave him some essential oils and a few practices to do.’

She runs events in practical magic through Secret Yoga Club in Hackney and the Mandrake Hotel. ‘People used to think what I do is woo-woo or say, “You can make a living from that?” But now there’s a lot more acceptance,’ she says. ‘I find people are intrigued by magic and what it can do for their life.’

‘Interest in witchcraft and spirituality tends to increase in periods of upheaval,’ explains Rebecca Beattie, author of Nature Mystics: A Literary Gateway To Modern Paganism. ‘We’re in a big period of transition now and we’re all looking for a sense of enchantment in the world, but also to have some control over it.’ Beattie, who has been a practising pagan since her early 30s, has taught a class at Treadwell’s called How to Find a Coven. ‘It typically attracts a young crowd of arty women who live in warehouses in east London and are trying to find themselves,’ she says.

According to Beattie there are some red flags to look out for when looking for a coven to join. ‘Anyone who says they’ll initiate you straight away is suspicious,’ she says. Budding witches typically study for a year and a day before the opportunity to get on the path to become a high priestess. ‘Also any coven that says you have to perform rituals “skyclad” (naked) is something I’d be very wary of.’ Indeed, as with many areas of wellness, modern witchcraft attracts young, often vulnerable, women to ‘healers’ who have little or no training or qualifications.

Tears, menstrual blood; I use them in spell-casting and dab it on my body. Sometimes I feed them to my plants

For Jennifer Cownie, 34, an advertising executive from east London, being witchy is the sweet spot between the wellness movement and intersectional feminism. ‘I wouldn’t call myself a witch but I’m interested in tarot and crystals and spirituality,’ she says. ‘Embracing all things witchy has become a way for women to feel empowered and trust their instincts.’

Although witchcraft is matriarchal, it does not appeal only to women. Beattie says there are equal numbers of women and men in her coven. And many non-binary or transgender people identify as witches, says Sadeghee. ‘I recently ran a course for self-identified women to use to step into their power,’ she says. There is also a community of drag witches. ‘I think anyone alternative or outside the mainstream is drawn to this,’ agrees Haksever.

Tree Carr, 49, has been interested in witchcraft since she was a teenager. She now runs rituals and ceremonies for women to ‘embrace their menstrual cycle for empowerment, alchemy and magick’. ‘Blood is a potent elixir of power, and working with your periods is a big part of the witches’ path,’ she explains. ‘We talk about the four phases of a woman’s cycle and how to use various herbs and plants to nourish and strengthen you.’

Of course, Halloween is on Sunday. Most of the witches roll their eyes or laugh when I mention dressing up and trick-or-treating, like it’s an embarrassing uncle. For them this season is Samhain, a special time when the veil between the worlds gets thin. ‘I’m not big into Halloween,’ admits Carrington.

Back at Mama Moon, it is time for me to step beyond the black velvet curtain and out into the world. Much of what Haksever has done over the past hour is familiar from mindfulness or positive-thinking work. Some less so; at one point I have to spit on a bay leaf, set it on fire and say, ‘I am worthy of good things.’ I get a ‘power potion’ to set alight and sniff when I want to elevate my creativity.

It’s easy to be cynical about witchcraft, but this spell-casting session has been surprisingly uplifting. Haksever charges £150, which if you’re spending £50 on a candle or a crystal seems like good value. The messages behind all this — about female power and being in the moment — seem to be a healthy remedy for combating the stresses of modern life. Do I go home and write my novel? Not yet. But creativity feels at the forefront of my mind. And that feels pretty magick.

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