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Campus & Community

Casting a Dispel About Modern Witches

Terps in Campus Club Explore Contemporary Paganism and Witchcraft

By Annie Krakower

tarot cards

Members of UMD’s Pagan and Witchcraft Council—who aren’t the wicked creatures commonly seen around Halloween—explore tarot cards, runes, spells and more at their meetings.

Photo by iStock

If you’re looking for flying broomsticks, pointy black hats and bubbling cauldrons this Halloween, don’t turn to the University of Maryland’s witchcraft club.

Rather than gathering the wicked, warty creatures you might be picturing, the Pagan and Witchcraft Council instead acts as a campus hub for Terps to explore, practice and learn more about a variety of beliefs that often harken back to ancient religions, while putting a more modern spin on spirituality.

“We are not evil. We are not selling your soul. There are no demons that we’re summoning,” said Edward Brennan ’23, the council’s treasurer. “We’re not in a horror movie.”

Founded in 2017, the club focuses on contemporary paganism, encompassing several traditions and belief systems. Among them are Wicca and modern witchcraft, which view nature as sacred and focus on interactions with the world’s different “energies.” UMD’s 30 club members explore those ideas through runes, tarot cards, spells, or gods and goddesses during their weekly meetings, occasionally featuring local pagan groups or churches like CedarLight Grove.

Especially around Halloween—which stems from Samhain, a pre-Christian Celtic festival that’s now one of eight major Wiccan holidays—the group strives to distance itself from the “Hocus Pocus” image of witches (even if that is a favorite movie this time of year, Brennan said). Below, they help to dispel some of the main myths:

Witches Are All Withered and Wizened
Paganism and witchcraft have gained popularity in recent years, with more than a million people practicing in the United States. Contrary to the stereotype of cackling crones, UMD’s club members are among a growing number of millennials and Gen Zers identifying as witches.

This younger demographic has even created an online community known as WitchTok, where they share spells, offer info and connect with fellow witches and pagans through short videos on the popular social media platform.

They’re All Women
Along those more inclusive lines, witches don’t have to be female, and Maryland’s club welcomes members of any gender, major or background. An openness or curiosity about paganism is all that’s needed.

“It’s definitely very diverse,” said council President Caitlyn Mercado ’24. “Most of our newcomers are people who have started to research (paganism) for themselves, and they are very interested in learning more with other people who are in the same sort of stages.”

They Wave Magic Wands, a la Harry Potter
If you grew up with the witches and wizards of Hogwarts, you might picture a spell as a flourish of a wand and an uttering of “wingardium leviosa” or some other magic words. But in modern witchcraft, no wand-waving, chants or rhymes are needed, Mercado said. What’s important is the thought that goes into a spell.

“(Magic is) just sort of adding a little bit of an edge to make things more likely to happen,” like academic, financial or relationship success, Brennan said. “It’s not Hollywood magic, where we can make fire appear from our hands—which sucks, because I think that would be really cool. It is very much about intention and belief.”

The spells themselves can be as simple as candle magic, which Mercado demonstrated at a recent meeting. She showed the group how to carve different sigils, or symbols, into the wax for certain functions, like to improve focus during studying.

They’re Servants of Darkness
For UMD’s club, spells must be well-meaning. The group has a strict policy against curses and hexes.

“Because they’re bad-intentioned, it’s very easy for them to spiral more into those bad intentions,” Mercado said, especially if the person casting the spell isn’t clear or specific enough. “We try to teach away from that.”

They Gather in the Woods or Spooky Lairs
Fans of films like “The Blair Witch Project” or “The Witch” might be surprised to learn that instead of convening in frightening forests clad in black cloaks, UMD club members meet in Kirwan Hall wearing jeans and hoodies for discussions or lectures.

“There are times when people come in, and they’re expecting a dark room, candles lit, odd symbols painted on the wall. We’re in a basement classroom,” Brennan said. “We’re really boring in that regard.”

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