By one count, there are now more self-identifying witches in the United States than practicing members of the Presbyterian Church of the USA or the Episcopalian Church.

When Supreme Court judge Ruth Bader Ginsberg fell and broke three ribs recently, witches on Twitter were concerned. “@LanaDelRey needs to get her coven together to cast spells protecting RBG … Hey, @jk_rowling, we're gonna need a protection spell for #RBG stat … Stop everything. Start praying and doing every known form of witchcraft to protect RBG.” 

Other witches have publicly cast “hexes” on Donald Trump and Brett Kavanaugh. It’s unlikely that anyone would have done that a decade ago. What is going on?

For answers, MercatorNet contacted Massimo Introvigne, an Italian sociologist who is a world expert in new religious movements. He is the head of the Center for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR), in Turin.

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MercatorNet. Witchcraft seem to be on the rise. Recent articles mention figures: 12,000 wiccans in England and Wales; 80 covens and pagan groups in New York Metropolitan area; 734,000 Americans identifying as pagan or Wicca; an Instagram personality, The Hoodwitch, with 329,000 followers – and so on. Is this happening in Europe too? Is it a significant trend?

A. Wicca today has most of its followers in the US and those who believe it is an American phenomenon may be forgiven.

However, Wicca was actually born in England, not in the US, thanks to the creative genius of Gerald Brosseau Gardner (1884-1964) and other pioneers. Nowhere in the world are numbers comparable to the US but Wicca is a globalized phenomenon. There are Wiccans in Europe, and even in Israel—and in Iraq.

In our last CESNUR conference in Taiwan, Japanese scholar Eriko Kawanishi presented a fascinating paper on Wicca in Japan. The key point is that what exists today in Japan has little to do with the traditional witches found in Japanese mythology. Wiccans there mostly follow the post-Gardnerian, Western tradition. It is a fascinating example of globalization.

But then it is also true that I was in Vietnam before Halloween and shops sold appropriate costumes for children wanting to go trick or treat — in a Socialist country of Buddhist tradition…

Q. What was witchcraft historically? How is modern Wicca different? Is it correct to call it a religion?

A. There is a very large debate about what mediaeval and early modern witchcraft in the West (something different from phenomena also called witchcraft in Africa or Asia) exactly was.

The idea dominant in the early 20th Century that there were no witches except in the imagination of Inquisitors has become a minority theory after the studies of the Italian historian Carlo Ginzburg and a number of British historians who wrote in the 1990s. They demonstrated that the witches suppressed by the authorities really did practice folk rituals with ecstatic experiences unacceptable to dominant Christianity.

However, these historians have not rehabilitated the theories of American folklorist Charles Godfrey Leland (1824-1903) and British Egyptologist Margaret Alice Murray (1863-1963), who believed that the witches secretly continued the pre-Christian pagan religion as it had existed before Christianity. Leland’s and Murray’s theories belong to a rejected consensus. The folklore of European witches in fact included several elements from popular Christianity.

Contemporary Wicca would not have existed without Leland and Murray. Gardner and other early Wiccans believed that, by recreating witchcraft, they were restoring the pre-Christian European “old religion.” This was not the case for two reasons.

First, as mentioned earlier, pace Leland and Murray, witchcraft was not a continuation of the pre-Christian European religions.

Second, all Wiccan pioneers, including Gardner, told the story that they had been initiated by a mentor or grandmother or grandfather who continued an hereditary tradition of witchcraft since time immemorial.

However, it has been persuasively demonstrated that everything in their rituals comes from more recent Western esotericism—Theosophy, the Golden Dawn, Freemasonry, and the ideas of British magus Aleister Crowley (1875-1947)—, or from what Leland described in his books as rituals he found in Italy, which were probably of a comparatively recent origin too, unless they had been simply invented by the American folklorist.

In sociological terms, Gardner and others created and invented tradition. Invented traditions are not to be dismissed lightly, as they may have powerful social effects, but historically speaking they are imaginary traditions.

I believe what they created is a religion, although the boundaries of the concept of religion are notoriously controversial and porous.

Q. The burning and hanging of witches at different times in history are frequently cited by Wiccan and feminist sources as examples of patriarchal misogyny against women. Could you give these episodes a bit of context?

A. Feminists are right in arguing that marginal women practicing folk rituals were suspicious and unpopular in different cultures, which often led them to be killed.

Missing in their reconstructions, however, are two points. First, “witch” is a word that identifies both male and female practitioners of witchcraft. In some areas, male witches were at least as numerous as their female counterparts.

Second, they make some confusion about the Inquisition. There were different courts called Inquisition. With some exceptions (notably in Germany, where the notorious anti-witchcraft manual Malleus Maleficarum was published in 1487 by two Dominican friars), the Inquisition was, or quickly became, more sceptical about witches than secular courts.

A classic treatment of this matter is The Witches’ Advocate by Danish historian Gustav Henningsen. The “witches’ advocate” in the title was the notorious Spanish Inquisition. While the Spanish Inquisitors believed that Jews and Muslims were very real threats, and exhibited a notable anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, they did not believe in witches. When Spanish secular courts started prosecuting witches, the Inquisition came and prosecuted the judges rather than the witches, accusing the secular magistrates of believing in superstition.

Q. Feminism has played a large part in reviving witchcraft. To quote one writer, the witch is “one of the few models of independent female power.” Is there a risk of coming under Satanic influence?

A. I see a risk first of all of forgetting male witches. Gerald Gardner was a man. His main collaborator and, in a way, successor was a woman, Doreen Valiente (1922–1999), although Gardner and Valiente quarrelled and parted company in 1957. Historians regard the story that Gardner had been initiated by a woman, one “Old Dorothy,” as largely a figment of Gardner’s imagination (the Dorothy he hinted at, Dorothy Clutterbuck, 1880–1951, was a pious rich Anglican lady and had nothing to do with witchcraft). It is on the other hand true that the feminist wing is very important in American Wicca.

Wicca and Satanism are different. Wiccans believe that Satanist practice an inverted version of the “new religion,” Christianity, since in order to be a Satanist you should believe in the biblical stories about Satan. Wiccans claim to believe in the “old religion,” i.e. in pre-Christian European religions, be they Greek, Roman, or Celtic-Nordic, where Satan was nowhere to be seen.

Q. Much of female witchcraft today seems to consist of rituals for self-realisation and belonging, with a few rhetorical “spells” and “hexes” thrown in, so is there any real harm in it?

A. In part, this is a consequence of the work of scholars systematically debunking the Leland-Murray-Gardner theory that witchcraft, and as a consequence, Wicca as a revival of witchcraft, were really the old pre-Christian European religions.

While some Wiccans insist that academic scholars are wrong, others accept their findings but their reaction is, “So what? It doesn’t matter whether a tradition is real or invented, if it works for me and if I feel better that is enough.”

Having interviewed quite a few Wiccans, I do not doubt they feel better. This is true for most beliefs. They normally “work” for the believers, otherwise they would simply change their beliefs.

Q. It’s no coincidence that witchcraft has boomed at the same time as social media — especially Instagram, it seems, where the visuals are exciting and commercial products (crystals, Tarot cards, herbal concoctions…) along with more mainstream practices like yoga and mindfulness classes can be marketed. Millennials are the biggest market, some writers say. Perhaps most are dabblers who will quickly pass on to some other fad, but should we be concerned about young people being enticed in this direction?

A. As you know, I have written a very comprehensive survey of Satanism. There are very few cases of Wiccans who moved to Satanism. As mentioned earlier, Wiccans are taught that Satanism is a misguided inverted Christianity, and they look at Satanism as an inferior tradition.

On the other hand, it is true that Wicca has become commercialized. This is something many Wiccans themselves do not like. The risk that young (and not so young) people may be milked of their money is very real. I am much more sceptical when I see Christian activists confusing Wicca and Satanism. Although they are not wrong if they detect in Wicca an anti-Christian substratum.

Q. Fantasy fiction has also boosted the profile of the (largely pagan) supernatural world among young people: the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the Harry Potter books and movies, Twilight series, Game of Thrones, Phillip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy, even Lord of The Rings… Is there a problem with this genre? Can one separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to wholesome or malign influences?

A. I would put The Lord of the Rings in a separate category, as Tolkien was undoubtedly a Christian and the book has a deep Christian message. Magic, good and bad, has been a raw material for building tales in the Western literary tradition for centuries. If we want to ban The Lord of the Rings or the Harry Potter novels because they call for a suspension of disbelief about magic, we should ban also Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty. And in fact some fundamentalist Protestants and Catholics propose precisely to do so.

It is a different story with Buffy, where Willow, a lesbian witch, is a positive character, and even more with the TV series “Charmed”. These characters and series are based on a positive image of contemporary Wicca.

Q. What’s the message for Christians in the rise of witches and witchcraft?

A. I believe there are two different phenomena. Classic, organized Wicca is part of Western Esotericism, a current in Western history and thought. Christian should learn to take this seriously because of its cultural relevance, although from the 19th century on it developed mostly outside of, and often against, Christianity.

Self-styled young witches who spend money in buying paraphernalia without a real knowledge of the Wiccan tradition are more an example of how fashions are created, imposed, and followed. The risk is more superficiality and a lukewarm approach to the sacred than demonic influence.

Massimo Introvigne is one of the leading international scholars of new religious movements. He is the managing director of CESNUR (Center for Studies on New Religions) in Turin, and the author of 71 books on religious minorities (at last count). His most recent books are The Plymouth Brethren and Satanism: A Social History. He is also the editor-in-chief of Bitter Winter, an online magazine on religious liberty and human rights in China.

Massimo Introvigne is an Italian sociologist of religions. He is the founder and managing director of the Center for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR), an international network of scholars who study new...