Witches, witchcraft gaining popularity in Denver, Colorado

Hailey Jonoubeh breathed deeply and closed her eyes, clasping a deck of tarot cards in her hands. She shut out the light streaming through her downtown Denver apartment, the ambulance wails from the city streets below and her black cat Raja perched on the window sill.

Jonoubeh exhaled, asking the cards the same question she does each morning: What do I need to know today?

The three she plucked from the deck denoted a need to leave her comfort zone, to think before she speaks and to trust her intuition. Jonoubeh groaned, offering a resigned smile. They were the same cards she’d been drawing all month, she said.

Jonoubeh is a witch — more specifically, a bruja, which means “witch” in Spanish. The 26-year-old is a member of a vibrant witchcraft community in Denver.

Once unmentionable, witchcraft is now trendy, witches and academics who study the craft agree. It’s having a moment, not just in Denver, but in the broader culture — enchanting a new generation of magic-seekers and affording mature practitioners the chance for more outspoken coven lovin’.

“It is showing up everywhere, for sure,” said Rory Lula McMahan, a pagan priestess in Denver. “It’s hip and cool and faddish, and I have mixed feelings about that. … It means the mainstream is shifting, and there’s more acceptance and exploration, but I also worry a witch being faddish means people think listening to Stevie Nicks and wearing black lipstick is what it’s all about.

“How do you break through the exposure to get to the value?”

Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

Hailey Jonoubeh reads her daily tarot cards at her home on Dec. 11, 2018, in Denver. She has an avid interest in tarot cards and the practice of modern day witchcraft.

“How friendly and normal we are”

The 12 women and one young man shaking off a frosty December night inside a Denver shop brimming with potions, crystals and tarot cards were trying to unearth that value for themselves.

“Witch 101” was in session, presided over by McMahan, a member of the Denver witchcraft community for more than 20 years, who explained that her title was akin to pagan clergy.

“It wasn’t that long ago that people like us would have been in danger for meeting this way,” McMahan told the class.

Helen A. Berger, a resident scholar at the Brandeis University Women’s Studies Research Center, has been studying the witchcraft movement for 30 years and said she has seen an undeniable increase in interest and members.

“People are really coming out of the broom closet, as they say,” she said.

While there aren’t reliable numbers to determine how many practicing witches reside in the United States, Berger said all one has to do to get a clear picture is peer into the pop-culture crystal ball.

Urban Outfitters and Anthropologie, known for trendy clothing and gifts, now hawk magical kits and spell books. The #WitchesofInstagram hashtag on the picturesque social media platform is a collection of more than 2 million posts. Demand for more classes and merchandise prompted Missy Rhysing — owner of Denver’s Ritualcravt shop, where “Witch 101” is held — to make plans to move the shop to a larger space early next year.

In the meantime, students trickled into McMahan’s cramped class, ogling the occult curiosities around them: a replica of a hand detailing palm-reading guidelines, “Unbreak My Heart” handcrafted tea, a candle spell kit to promote prosperity.

McMahan gave a three-hour crash course on the basics of witchery. She went over handouts about the moon phases manipulating people’s moods the same way they dictate the ebb and flow of the ocean tides. She spoke of witchcraft’s nature-based spirituality and focus on social justice. She stressed embracing diversity and authenticity.

At the beginning of class, students divulged how they came to find themselves there: a queer woman felt her sexual orientation was disparaged in her Christian community and sought more welcoming spiritual company; one woman said she was giving in to years of repressing magical feelings like clairvoyance; the lone man drove all the way from Wyoming on a quest to find a spirituality that felt right.

“My hope is that people come in and see how friendly and normal we are,” said Rhysing, the shop’s owner. “I’m a mom. I have three dogs. I’m a homeowner in the neighborhood. My house doesn’t look like the ‘Blair Witch.’ ”

Rhysing cracked a smile.

“Well, it might a little bit.”

Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

Herbs and teas are available for purchase on Dec. 6, 2018, at Ritualcravt, a local store that offers classes like “Witch 101” in Denver. The store is located at 2842 W. 44th Ave.

“Reconnecting with the Earth”

Like many of the classes offered at the shop, “Witch 101” was full. McMahan already is accepting reservations for her 2020 year-long coven training, where she guides a new group of witches in their spiritual journey. (The 2019 coven’s already booked.) Ritualcravt soon will shed its 800-square-foot location at 2842 W. 44th Ave., growing into a 4,500-square-foot space at 44th and Wadsworth Boulevard.

“People in Denver’s witchcraft community keep asking for more,” Rhysing said. “More books. More plants. More classroom space.”

Rhysing dabbled in witchcraft on and off throughout her adult life, becoming more dedicated about 12 years ago when she lived in Santa Fe, she said.

“For me, being a witch is reclaiming that word,” she said. “It’s reconnecting with the Earth. Reconnecting with our own cultural traditions and walking that path in a modern-day setting.”

Berger, who first began studying witchcraft as a historical sociologist interested in the Salem witch trials, explained that the modern-day witches she’s studied tend to be progressive, feminist, accepting of all types of sexual orientation, politically active and concerned about the environment.

Despite what Netflix’s reboot of the 1990s classic “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” would have viewers believe, Rhysing underscored with exasperation that witchcraft does not equate to devil worship or satanism.

Rhysing isn’t a fan of “The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina,” which portrays witchcraft as hand in hand with devil worship. She echoed all the witches The Denver Post interviewed for this story, stressing that their practices involve customs such as meditation, spells and an attunement to nature — not conjuring up evil.

“It’s all about the intention,” McMahan told her rookie witches during class. “You’re not going to accidentally open a portal to hell or something when your intention is good. That’s not how it works.”

So how does it work? For Rhysing, magically.

Rhysing abides by the moon phases and uses candles to help with spells, which she said she uses sparingly.

On one occasion a few years back, Rhysing’s teenage son was being kept awake by a recurring nightmare. “I’ve never raised him to do any of this, but I knew I could help him,” she said.

Rhysing instructed her son to write his dream on a piece of parchment, bind it with a black thread and burn it. Then, they held a stone and charmed it with good sleep and peace, she said.

“Afterward, he slept like a rock,” Rhysing said. “That was the moment he was like, ‘Woah, my mom really is a witch.’ ”

Jonoubeh prefers tarot cards as her medium of choice.

The young woman gives herself a reading to start every day and enjoys watching her friends’ reactions when she reads for them. She hopes to someday be a professional tarot reader, but she wields her deck free of charge at the moment as she learns more about the trade.

“I come from a Latina family who’s pretty religious, and they are very strong with their faith,” Jonoubeh said. “I was always interested in magic and brujas. I had an attraction to the occult, and it scared me at first. But I learned it wasn’t dark. Magic and witches, to me, is just about there being more to humanity than meets the eye.”

Kari Tornow, left, waves her arms in the air as the sun rises while she and her friends take part in a drumming ceremony to celebrate the winter solstice at Red Rocks Amphitheatre on Dec. 21, 2018, in Denver. The drumming ceremony was held to symbolically drum up the sun. While not everyone who participates in the drumming identifies as pagan, the solstices are important dates in the pagan tradition.

“Women being strong together”

A hawk circling Red Rocks Amphitheatre at dawn on the morning of Dec. 21 had a bird’s-eye view of the hundreds of people who rose early to celebrate the Yule winter solstice — a tradition sacred to pagans and other cultures signaling the changing of the seasons and a welcoming of brighter, longer days.

The ceremony exuded a primal quality with revelers beating drums, their rhythm reverberating between rock formations. The darkness ripened into a sky lit on fire with the rising sun.

Some burned sage, others danced and yipped, and a businessman dressed in a full suit raised his hands toward the orange-singed clouds before heading off to work.

Kat McLaughlin donned a witch’s hat, shadows dancing across her face from the flame of a candle she held. The 29-year-old Denver resident said she wouldn’t consider herself a dedicated member of the witch or pagan community, instead dabbling in some of the traditions and having fun with the parts that appealed to her.

“For me, this community is about women being strong together,” McLaughlin said. “Look at us all out here enjoying a sunrise together. That’s magic.”