When I was a kid, I sought out signs of magic everywhere.
Where I lived, it was easy to find proof that it existed. Growing up in the countryside of Sonoma County as the child of a single mother in her early twenties meant we were always on the move, swapping out one bedroom for another that was cheaper and closer to work. The places I lived were unconventional, and lent themselves to a larger, fantastical narrative I wove for myself as a child.
A small cabin on the outskirts of a forest was home to fairies and elves who found their homes beneath towering redwoods. A room with a window that overlooked the eyelet in Jenner, where the ocean met the river, mesmerized me for hours as I imagined the beasts that swam beneath the river depths and into the sea. When we lived in a yurt on the farm my mother worked at for a brief spell, I spent my time after school roaming through apple orchards, making friends with the nature that surrounded me.
As I got older, I mostly grew out of these beliefs, and gave up on my search for magic. But there was a part of me that still hoped to find the secret spellbook, the key that opened the door to another world where real magic exists.
Now, as I stand in a store filled with sparkling crystals and shelves of books with titles like Spells for Beginners and The Witch’s Cauldron, talking to a self-proclaimed witch, I realize I might have stumbled upon just that.
Emelia Nahinu is not just any witch. She is a Priestess in her coven, and a teacher of magic.
“I always knew I was a witch,” Nahinu says as she leads me through Air and Fire, the mystical bazaar that she owns in Boulder Creek. “It was just a matter of accepting it.”
She was also enchanted by the idea of magic from a young age. But unlike me, who gradually let go of the hope that magic exists in the world as I knew it, Nahinu sought out ways to make magic a reality for her.
It wasn’t an easy path, in no small part because Nahinu grew up in one of the strictest religions: the Mormon church.
Both within the religion and outside of it, Nahinu was deemed “weird” early on. Eventually, she leaned into that outsider identity.
“As a teenager, people would call me a witch—I mean, I even kind of look the part,” Nahinu says with a wry smile. She has long, auburn hair that falls around her shoulders in curls, and bright green eyes. Today, she’s dressed in all black, and her hands are adorned with large stone rings. “They used it as a derogatory word, but eventually I was like, ‘Yeah, you’re right.’”
For Nahinu, who practices what she calls natural magic, being a witch means she can use the four elements to create magic. She believes there is energy in nature, and she can harness that energy to create certain results. She says she creates and casts spells, and has daily and monthly rituals that she and her coven practice together.
Another way she uses her magic, and one of the first ways she says she experienced magic in the real world, is through tarot readings, which Nahinu now gives to people at her store. Tarot is a deck of cards, and the common perception is that they are used to tell someone’s fortune. Tarot is also the reason why I am talking with her on a bright, sunny day in mid-October: Nahinu has agreed to perform a tarot reading for me.
She pulls aside the curtain that separates the front of the store from the back, and leads me to a back room. The room is smaller, decorated with candles and crystals, and as Nahinu lights candles and silence falls between us, I start to feel apprehensive.
Nahinu explains she has cast a protection spell around the room, and that the space is sacred. She asks me to turn off all recording, and calls out to my ancestors in a strong, clear voice, asking them to oversee the reading. When she finishes, the silence feels stark, and my ears ring.
“Let’s begin,” Nahinu says, spreading the deck of cards out in front of me. “Draw a card.”
A Little History
Hundreds of years ago, tarot was more akin to a typical deck of playing cards than a tool for predicting the future.
It can be traced back to the fourteenth century, with the earliest documentation of people using the cards in Italy. The deck was used to play an elaborate card game, one similar to modern-day bridge. Wealthy Italians commissioned artists to create decks known as “carte da trionfi,” or “cards of triumph.”
Historians differ on when people began using tarot decks for divination purposes; there is evidence in the 18th century of Europeans starting to use them for fortune telling. In America, it was the 1970s when tarot became popular, thanks to the well-known Rider-Waite Tarot deck.
But some people, like Nahinu, argue that tarot has always had roots in some type of exploration of the human condition.
Tarot cards were originally marked with suits of cups, swords, coins and polo sticks (eventually changed to staves or wands) and courts with kings. Tarot cards later incorporated queens, trumps (the wild cards unique to tarot) and the Fool to this system. Today, the suits are referred to as the minor arcana, while the trump cards are the major arcana.
But unlike a typical deck of cards, there are stories behind each card, meanings that reflect a deeply human experience. Nahinu explains that tarot is often also known as the Fool’s journey, and the remaining cards are representative of the challenges and successes the fool encounters throughout life. In this way, tarot is rooted in human experience: psychoanalyst Carl Jung explained that the cards were an easy way to represent the “archetypes of mankind”— the universal traits like strength, ambition and passion.
In modern society, Nahinu says there’s a misconception that tarot is similar to fortune telling. She says the reality is much different.
“Tarot is an amazing tool to help you gain a deeper understanding of what’s happening in your life, and who you are right now,” says Nahinu, as we look down at the cards I drew. “When we look at the future, it is based upon how things are going at this time. I’m not telling you your exact future, it’s not absolute.”
Every placement of the cards that I drew is meant to signify a point in time: the past, the present, the future. As we go through the cards and their meanings one by one, Nahinu first asks me to interpret the pictures on the cards myself.
Before my reading, I decided to divulge as little personal information to Nahinu as possible. I had the idea that by doing so, I could more easily discern how legitimate and accurate the reading was. As a journalist, I tried to suspend skepticism and also deploy a certain degree of wariness.
But as I describe the scenes in the tarot cards to Nahinu, I’m quick to abandon my professional role—the reason for the reading in the first place—as we dive into my favorite pastime: dissecting my life.
Right away, I am assigning meaning to the cards and their depictions based on what’s going on in my life, already drawing my own connections. Nahinu’s explanation of the card afterwards offers a perspective, and a suggestion, that always seems relatable to the situation.
The two swords, with two soldiers at an impasse as they struggle against each other, seems to represent a recent conflict with my sister. Conflict that at times seems insurmountable, given our similar brand of stubbornness.
“You’re in a standstill with someone. You’re both passionate, an equal match. Something, or someone, needs to shift, needs to let go,” Nahinu says as she explains the card.
Another card I pulled says that I need to establish better boundaries; another, that it’s time to take stock of my life, and examine the people or patterns that might be holding me back. Nahinu is quick to advise against making any quick judgments about cutting people out of my life, right as I start to compile a mental list, instead encouraging me to take the significance of the card simply as an opportunity to evaluate.
Yes, the advice is a little generic, but at the same time, I find myself nodding along and opening up as Nahinu asks, “Does this feel connected to anything in your life?”
Psychologist Cassidy Sterling would say that this connection I’m making between the tarot cards and the events happening in my life can be explained away by a common psychological phenomenon.
“Whenever we want to believe something, if we’re looking for answers, we often succumb to something that’s called the confirmation bias, or selection bias,” says Sterling. “Confirmation bias is the principle where we believe things that we want to believe and then we discount evidence to the contrary.”
He says this tidy, packaged up interpretation of the things happening in my life is likely what makes tarot, and other occult magic, so appealing.
“People want to have quick, simple explanations about things going on in their life,” says Sterling. “They want meaning, to have some control over their life, they want to feel like there’s some sort of guiding principle, and they want to tap into that.”
Sterling explains that this desire for explanation and meaning, combined with our basic instinct to seek out patterns, makes belief in occult magic, at its core, humanistic.
“For millions of years, our ancestors evolved the capacity to recognize patterns in the world,” says Sterling. “It makes sense that now we might start to notice patterns that may not actually exist and then attribute cause to something like tarot cards.”
Usually, nothing bad comes from these beliefs: in fact, at its best, psychology would agree with Nahinu that tarot can be a powerful tool for critical self-evaluation and actualization.
“Tarot doesn’t change the physical world,” Sterling says. “But what it could do, especially if one believes strongly in something that the cards tell you, like ‘set better boundaries’… if you believe in it, then you might work to set better boundaries, so it could actually cause the effect that you have to then work at maintaining boundaries. And the more that you practice something, your brain gets optimized to do that thing.”
Along with other occult practices, tarot is having a moment in modern society. Sales of tarot decks have doubled in the past five years, according to the U.S. Games Systems, and tripled during the first year of the pandemic.
A 2017 Pew research study says that 30% of Americans believe in occult magic—the highest that number has ever been. More and more, people are identifying as ‘spiritual’; meanwhile, the number of people opting for organized religion is shrinking.
As to why tarot and occult magic are gaining popularity, Sterling hazards a guess that social media might be increasing the visibility of people who believe in and practice occult magic, inspiring people to be more transparent about their own beliefs—in other words, the number of people who believe in these practices might not actually be growing, Sterling thinks.
But with a quick look at pop culture, it’s undeniable that all things witchy are increasingly trendy.
“This is your sign,” “If you see this, it’s meant for you,” “The universe wanted you to find this” — scroll through TarotTok on social media platform TikTok, a corner of the internet that has 36 billion views, and you’ll see videos of people drawing tarot cards and promising that this information found you for a reason.
The “spirituality” tag of Gwyneth Paltrow’s online shop Goop contains articles on tarot. Urban Outfitters stocks spell books. Fashion designer Christian Dior’s spring 2021 haute couture was inspired by tarot. The makeup brand Urban Decay released an “Elements” eye-shadow palette decorated with alchemical sigils. Sephora briefly offered “witch kits” with tarot cards that were later pulled due to public outcry.
“It’s interesting that we are seeing a huge rise in commodifying [occult magic], something that lots of people take to be a sacred and personal practice, and making money from it,” says Julie Walsh, philosophy professor at Wellesley College in Massachusetts.
Walsh teaches a course on witchcraft as a way to explore philosophical questions about historical attitudes towards gender, womanhood and evil. Part of what is so interesting to her about witchcraft is the modern-day commodification of all things considered witchy—tarot, spells, the “witch” concept itself—despite the historical context of persecution and execution of people who were accused of practicing witchcraft.
Walsh attributes the attitude shift towards witches in part to Hollywood. With shows like Bewitched, Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Charmed, the witch transformed from evil and scary to mysterious, sexy and non-threatening.
“There’s nothing scary about the witch anymore,” says Walsh. “One of the things that Hollywood has done is they’ve made the witch sexy. Or, if they’re not young and sexy, they’re like, the Wicked Witch of the West.”
Siwa, a High Priestess local witch I spoke with who asked her last name remain private, say that they actually don’t mind the way that their spiritual practices have made it into the mainstream. Even though it simplifies what they do, if it makes magic more accessible, then that’s a win in their book.
“It was hard growing up and believing in magic,” says Angelique, a witch in Siwa’s coven. “If some little girl buys some witch balm from Bath and Body Works, and that’s how she gets to start exploring magic, and it makes it easier for her, I’m all for it.”
Nahinu has also made a business that relies on people being interested in magic.
“I like to sell things. I like money. I need that to survive,” she says.
But, like all things in a capitalist, structurally racist society, not everyone has equal opportunity or accessibility to the world of magic.
“As a Black tarot user, there were not many decks available that feature Black people in them,” says artist Courtney Alexander. “The ones that did exist were not even created by Black artists—they just used a pen name.”
Alexander is queer, Black and a practicioner of occult magic: she’s also an artist, and creator of the tarot deck Dusk II Onyx, a deck made especially for the Black community.
Her tarot deck only features Black people, and her artwork is rooted in Black cultural history. She is unapologetic in catering to the Black community, because at the root of her inspiration for creating tarot decks is serving a need that she didn’t see reflected in the tarot industry.
But it hasn’t been an easy journey.
Alexander used Kickstarter, a website where artists can crowdfund their projects, to raise money to create her tarot deck. She raised $30,000, and later $50,000, for her decks, money she was surprised and excited to put towards her projects. But she also notes the disparity between her deck’s funding and the ones that cater to a wider—and whiter—audience.
“I see decks that are clearly intended for white people, featuring white people, raise seven figures off of Kickstarter alone,” says Alexander. “I definitely see the difference in the amount of work between me [and white artists], too.”
And while the witches and practitioners of occult magic I spoke with often cited the accessibility of these practices, and the more accepting nature of the religion, Alexander says that narrative ignores the reality of the stigmas and dangers that Black people face when trying to tap into this growing industry of magic.
The largest demographic that believes in occult magics tends to be younger, affluent women. Sterling says that might be because of the relationship between power and affluence in America.
“Affluence allows the ability to think about things and act in ways that others may not be allowed to act,” says Sterling.
Sterling says this can also be true with issues surrounding race, and might also explain the challenges Alexander says she runs up against as she tries to tap into the Black magical community: as we consider racism, stigmas and stereotypes, there’s a greater risk involved for non-white people who want to enter into the occult space.
“I feel like the access point for these practices is whiteness, and at the core there is this sort of idea that anyone can be involved, right?” says Alexander. “But pretending like it’s equally accessible almost removes white identity, which means they can absolve themselves of responsibility and accountability.”
Reclaiming the Magic
After stepping into real world magic, my biggest takeaway is how familiar magic feels. When Nahinu talks about magic, at its core, it seems to stem from the idea that what we focus on will become our reality. When she read my tarot cards, my initial apprehension melted into self-evaluation, a practice I love and which gave me new insight into my life.
The frightening parts of magic and witchcraft came from unexpected origins—the realization that I’ve never paused to consider the historical context as I donned a witch hat and tight dress, assuming the costume that people—especially women—were oppressed and persecuted for.
“With Halloween around the corner, and I see little kids in their witch costumes, I’m always a little uneasy,” says Walsh. “Anytime in our culture that we encounter images that have staying power, it’s worth interrogating where they come from.”
And, as it was often portrayed in my fantasy books and as Alexander reminded me, magic never comes without risk—and that risk is not equal for everybody.