As witchcraft becomes a multibillion-dollar business, practitioners’ connection to the natural world is changing

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Witches, Wiccans and other contemporary Pagans see divinity in trees, streams, plants and animals. Most Pagans view the Earth as the Goddess, with a body that humans must care for, and from which they gain emotional, spiritual and physical sustenance.

Paganism is an umbrella term that includes religions that view their practices as returning to those of pre-Christian societies, in which they believe the Goddess was worshipped along with the gods and the land was seen as sacred. Wicca focuses specifically on the practice of the British Isles.

Witchcraft has also become a multibillion-dollar business. As a sociologist who has been researching this religion for more than 30 years, I have witnessed this growing commercialization: Witch kits are sold by large companies and in stores – something unheard of when I began my research in 1986.

This surge in popularity has changed these communities in some subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Groups called covens were the norm when I began my research, but as my own research shows, most Pagans now are solitary practitioners. Even while the Goddess continues to be revered, the practitioners’ connection to the natural world, at least for many, is also changing.

Spiritual objects

When I first began my research, I would join Pagans when they went to forests, the seaside or other natural areas to attend a retreat or to participate in a ritual out in nature. I would often see them pick up a rock, a pine cone, a shell or another natural object as they walked along.

Typically, I observed that they chose each object with care, and they didn’t keep every object they found. I once walked beside a man who collected shells; he put most of them back after admiring them until he found one with a perfectly formed naturally occurring hole. He kept that one, as it held a spiritual spark for him.

The objects were seen as connecting the person to both the natural world and to the spiritual realm. Some of these objects were then further imbued with spiritual significance by being placed on an altar during a ritual. Most often these rituals, a part of Wiccan spiritual practice, celebrated the cycle of the seasons in eight holidays called sabbats. But the ritual could also be for a special purpose, such as to provide healing for someone who was ill.

Pagans believe the object from nature was possibly left there for them by the divine, and the ritual further imbued the object with magical energy.

The cherished objects can be passed on as gifts to others who may need them. At a ritual I attended I witnessed one woman, who had recovered from her own illness, give an object to another who was ill. It was clear that she felt the object would be an important tool of healing, and the person receiving the object also viewed it as such.

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