The latest trend in spirituality might just cast a spell on you. Is there really something behind all the fuss about “ritual magick”, or is it all just hocus pocus?

“Witches don’t burn, honey,” Sabrina Villard, a modern-day shaman, tells me as we’re standing in a ceremony room inside her chic apartment on Robinson Road in Hong Kong’s exclusive Mid-Levels district. “We are not going anywhere.” 

As a baby, Villard took her first steps in the Sahara desert, just south of Algeria, holding the hand of her great grandmother, a Bedouin shaman who lived to be 123 years old. It was from her that Villard inherited her craft.  “She is still with me every day, guiding me,” Villard tells me as she looks fondly at an altar adorned with candles, flowers and a faded photo of her great grandmother. 

By day, Villard is the project manager for APAC at one of the world’s biggest luxury fashion houses. By night, she guides clients on shamanic journeys, straddling the living and spiritual realms, and if some people might think that’s a little woo-woo, it turns out that there are a growing number of others who are tapping into ancient practices, witchcraft included, as a means to navigate and find balance in an ever-changing world. And Villard is among those who are approaching spirituality through a more modern lens.

“The traditional definition of a shaman is a seer in the dark,” she says. “I don’t know about anyone’s life when they come to me. I am shown what you are ready to see by your spirit guides, ancestors and your own memories. I have a conversation with your soul.”

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Above Sabrina Villard is a modern-day shaman who guides her clients on spiritual journeys (Photo: Kwannam Chu)

Witchy Business

As more people allow themselves to explore spirituality outside traditional religions, ritual magick (the preferred spelling in these circles) and witchy ways of healing that were once banished to the fringes of society now have people’s interest piqued. These include beginner-level basics like meditation and tarot reading, or more out there concepts such as reiki, aura cleansing, dream reading, moon worshipping or spell casting.

“Our lives are so chaotic and so much of modern life is designed to take us out of the present moment,” says Nathalie Kelley, an actress who appeared in Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift and Dynasty, and a co-founder of Ritual Community, an online platform that provides resources to incorporate sacred practices into everyday life. “Rituals like meditation or tea ceremonies are ancient practices designed to bring us into, and ground us in, the present moment.”

The other co-founders of Ritual Community, based between Sydney, Australia and California, US, are Isis Indriya, who identifies professionally as a “visionary, creative director, experience designer, community leader, ritualist, culture maker and educator” and “a carrier of the Oracle Clan Fire and ordained Priestess of the Fellowship of Isis”, and Brooke Brash, who left an unsatisfying career in the corporate world to pursue wellness and ritual study three years ago.

“People are seeking a more sacred way of living,” Indriya says. “They’re seeking that depth of connection with the self, other humans, plant and animal beings and the elements; how to be part of the ecosystem again rather than sticking out of it. We need that equilibrium in order to help with this transitional time.”

See also: Is Tarot Making A Comeback In Hong Kong?

People are seeking a more sacred way of living

- Isis Indriya -

As it turns out, there are many ways to witch. There are sea witches, plant witches, city witches like Villard, kitchen witches and the newer generation of digital witches. The coronavirus pandemic, in fact, might be one reason why we’re seeing a rise in coven gatherings, moon ceremonies and energetic healing sessions held over Zoom. The #witchesofinstagram hashtag, an amalgamation of cheeky witch memes, DIY spells and potions, and neo-goth outfits of the day, is more than five million posts strong and growing.

And of course, witches remain a fixture of pop culture, from the 2020 remake of The Witches with Anne Hathaway, which reset Roald Dahl’s story in 1968 Alabama, to so many television series—from the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina to A Discovery of Witches—that bring their heroines to face challenges of the modern day.

Keeping up with the times

“What’s the point of a practice that doesn’t evolve with the times?” asks Gabriela Herstik, author of books including Inner Witch and Bewitching the Elements.

History has shown that surges in interest in witchcraft have always come in times of instability, particularly when trust in establishment ideals begins to wane. Second-wave feminism in the 1960s to the 1980s, and the #MeToo movement that started in 2017, all saw witches come together to help their fellow women. Last October, with the looming election between Donald Trump and Joe Biden in the US, a video went viral of a Hong Kong “villain hitter”—older women who perform black magic rituals beneath a flyover in the city’s bustling Causeway Bay district—cursing Trump by repeatedly hitting a photo of the presidential candidate with a slipper. Did it work? It’s hard to say. But we’ll get into the topic of a placebo effect a little later in this article.

“Because of the hyperconnectivity we have today, and the intensity of what’s happening politically, with Covid-19 and climate change, there’s never been a more important time for people to understand their own power,” says Herstik, who regularly shares mantras and astrology-based advice to her 42,000 Instagram followers. She also previously wrote an online column for Nylon magazine in which she taught readers how to use magick to fix their money problems and manifest better sex.

While most witches would agree that there are no real prerequisites, or even a clear definition of what constitutes being a witch, some aspects of the recent phenomenon of mystic hedonism has made more purist practitioners wince. Palo santo, the sacred wood traditionally burned by shamans, is now a staple of yoga studios and trendy lifestyle stores around the world. Retailers like Lane Crawford and Revolve sell water bottles that contain crystals, promising a hit of good energy with every sip.

“Some people like the theatrics of it; the crystals, the potions or dressing a certain way ... but it’s not for me,” says Villard, who prefers not to use any tools in her shamanic practice. “For me, the modern witch is sure of herself and her intuition.”

I can personally vouch for Villard’s witchy intuition. During a session with her, she was able to recall people and memories from my childhood, and her descriptions of animals and flowers she saw were identical to those I had witnessed while in a light shamanic sleep state.

No matter which witch one decides to be, there’s one thread that binds them. “We use the natural world to manifest our intentions, and to understand life,” says Villard. 

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Above Actress Nathalie Kelley co-founded Ritual Community, an online platform that provides resources to incorporate sacred practices into everyday life (Photo: Pablo Costanzo)

Tied To Nature

Rebecca Howe, a practicing witch, medium and Tarot reader in Hong Kong, agrees. “Shamans, witches, naturalists and psychics all work with nature’s energy and the cycles of the world; the cycles of the self, the moon, the sun, the planets and the seasons.” But how they interpret signs may differ from one practice to the next.

Take the pentagram. It carries spooky connotations for its association with Satanism, but in neo-paganism and witchcraft, the pentagram is a symbol of life, as each point of the star represents the five elements: spirit, air, water, fire and earth. It is one of many symbols or tools used in magick that are easily misunderstood.

The wand, Howe explained to me, is used to point and direct energy and intention, not dissimilar to prayer flags in areas like Bhutan and Tibet, where the wind is believed to carry their blessings to the surrounding land and people. Abracadabra, far from a curse, comes from the Aramaic phrase ‘avra kehdabra,’ which translates to ‘I will create as I speak’.

“What people call spells are really just intention and manifestation,” Villard explains. “It is no different to praying for something or setting an intention for yourself when you meditate.”

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Above Modern-day witches like Gabriela Herstik say life is more fun with a little magick (Photo: Alexandra Herstik)

Shoshana Weinberg, a practising witch for 40 years who previously worked as the spa director for Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts across Asia, says, “Witchcraft, for me, is just knowing how to heal mentally or physically. Knowing how to channel the whispers of the spirits around us, crafting the wisdom of the unspoken. All one has to do is listen to the breath and quiet the mind. All the answers will come.”

Today, Weinberg dedicates herself completely to sharing her ritual practices; she hosts monthly moon gatherings and brews healing herbs and elixirs, which she learned over decades of travelling and working with spiritual masters around the world. I asked Weinberg why she thinks so many people, including herself, have found themselves delving deeper into witchcraft in the last year or so.

“The vibrations have been lifted higher by shifts in the planets and the stars, the astrologers will all tell you, and the veils are being exposed and we are seeing for the first time,” she explained. “We are ascending as a people and so our hearts are becoming open. I have been healing and studying and learning from the Earth for more than 40 years, and I feel that the youth already know what took me a lifetime to learn. Everything is speeding up and the knowledge is easy to access. We are in a beautiful time.”

The rise of spiritual practices and witchcraft doesn’t come without questions, though. Like, does any of this stuff actually work? Howe, who has seen a surge in clients from the corporate world, says, “Whenever bankers tell me that astrology is crap, I remind them JP Morgan was believed to have once said, ‘Millionaires don’t need astrologers, but billionaires do’.”

Throughout history, royals and elites have been known to employ spiritual advisors like sorcerers, oracles and astrologers and held them in high regard for their advice on everything from how to decorate a home to when to launch a new business and even how to take down an enemy.

Still, that doesn’t really answer the question of whether witchcraft and ritual magick work, or if it’s all a placebo effect. For believers, however, a placebo is actually proof that humans have the ability to heal and create outcomes based on belief and expectation.

“When you start to understand how connected everything is, and how powerful our thoughts and vibrations are, the right things start to appear,” says Howe. “There are no coincidences.”

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