The Witches of Providence

A growing community of spell weavers add magic to the mundane

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“Everybody has magic,” says Loren May while she spoons an incense blend onto a flat holder. She strikes a match and the incense goes up in a poof. I inhale lingering smoke while she eyes me expectantly. We’re searching for a scent that aligns with my spiritual state of mind, to bring clarity to whatever I am grappling with psychically. Based on my expression, May decides if we’ve found a match or if the scent sampling will continue. 

I’m at The Veiled Crow, a popular metaphysical store tucked into a shopping plaza in Cranston at the Providence border, owned and operated by May and business partner Tracey Lawrence. 

Both women serve as one part witch, one part therapist. On the day I visited, Lawrence was engaged in an intense tarot card reading for a client. May held down the apothecary counter, guiding witches and muggles alike to the proper incense, oils, candles, and other magical items to help them gain clarity around their spiritual journeys. “The world is falling apart,” says Lawrence. “We tap into people’s energies and realize what they need.”

“It’s psychic cleaning for psychic boogers,” May adds.

Every few years, witches capture the imagination of popular culture. From the benign witchery of Samantha in Bewitched to the world-saving escapades of Harry Potter and his friends, to the evil cackles of the Wicked Witch of the West, legends and lore abound. With the just released Hocus Pocus 2, witchery is trending once again. But witchcraft, beyond its Hollywood appeal, is rooted in ancient beliefs and practices that seek out the magical in the mundane.

 Lawrence has been a practicing witch for over 25 years, though she was raised Episcopalian. “I enjoyed working on spirituality but I didn’t agree with it,” she says of organized religion. She lived at the library as a kid and gravitated towards fiction that featured witches. It was a chance meeting with a practicing witch (in Salem of all places) that triggered her practice.

May, in contrast, grew up in New York City, raised Universal Unitarian. “Basically witchcraft,” she deadpans. As a kid, she “tried out a lot of things,” including Buddhism. She found her calling when she got a job at Enchantments, a storied witchcraft shop in NYC, and saw the impact it had on people. “Real witchcraft is about seeing someone,” she explains. “We live in a culture where to be seen is one of the most powerful gifts to receive.”

After 9/11, May wanted to get out of New York. She essentially threw darts at a map and landed on Rhode Island, expecting to stay only for a short while. She soon realized a void in the market for the handcrafted spells and bespoke incense, oils, and candles that she learned to craft at Enchantments. While The Veiled Crow also sells metaphysical baubles like jewelry and crystals, both are quick to point out witchcraft is not an aesthetic. “It’s self-empowerment, it’s strength,” says Lawrence.

“And you don’t need a Sephora witch kit,” May adds.

“I was always on the weird side,” says Laura Tempest Zakroff, founder of Witches Night Out, a popular market that features witchy and witch-adjacent makers. “In my teens, I discovered there was more than your standard organized religions.” A precocious child, she didn’t gel with the books that promoted witchcraft as fantasy. When she discovered NPR reporter Margot Adler’s seminal book, Drawing Down the Moon, she knew she found her path. “This is the real stuff,” she recalls thinking.

Witchcraft, Zakroff says, is organic, “connected to the land and our bodies.” There’s also a huge history to mine; every culture has their own forms of witchcraft, folklore, and mythology. “How do you pick?” she asks. “You take your history, the culture that you've grown up in, but also recognize the land and what inspires you and use that to create an authentic practice.”

Witchcraft by its nature rejects conformity, so asking it to be mired in ritual and tradition like some forms of Western occultism feels a bit antithetical. “We especially see this in cultures where you're dealing with colonialism, patriarchy, and all that. [Witchcraft] is part of wanting to reconnect with ourselves and part of trying to fight the system so that we can actually be respected and honored and continue to connect to the world around us.

“Not to say that witchcraft isn't spiritual or can’t be a religion, but I think people are leery of dogma,” she adds. “What does witchcraft mean? You’re going to get six answers.”

It’s telling that while the witch trials of the 17th century reached a fever pitch in neighboring Massachusetts and Connecticut, Rhode Island never tried or executed anyone for witchcraft. Sure, neighbors accused other neighbors of devious intent, but it never went beyond finger pointing.

 “When you think about Rhode Island being founded by basically heretics – Roger Williams, pirates – it makes sense that there's this undercurrent,” says Zakroff. “Rhode Island has always been a very witchy place.”

Zakroff began building the community as a student at RISD, forming the school’s first Pagan society. It proved so popular, Brown students wanted in; other local colleges followed. “Then we'd have people who were like, well, I'm college aged, but I'm not in college, can I come, too?” she recalls.

She left for Seattle after graduation, where she founded Witches Night Out, bringing the idea back to Rhode Island with her when she returned. The first Providence market was in July 2019. Seattle’s event brought in 600 people, so Zakroff’s expectations in Providence were low, anticipating 200 people. In the weeks leading up to the event, she watched the interest on the Facebook page go up to 19,000. “I'm having a heart attack. How are we going to fit this many people into the space?” A move to the Cranston Street Armory gave Witches Night Out more space, but there were still lines wrapped around the building for four hours.

Zakroff linked up with the Providence Flea last October, holding the event at Farm Fresh RI – first with the vendors outside, now in their spacious hall – offering plenty of space to move around.

It’s women like May, Lawrence, and Zakroff who laid the groundwork for young witches like Mercedez Matos and Serena Barton-Zainyeh, founders of Providence-based Cedez Tarot, which began as a pandemic project and has since become full-time employment for both of them. After her COVID layoff, Matos took an herbalism class at Farmacy Herbs. Learning about the energetic and medicinal properties of the herbs proved her a-ha moment; Matos began creating herbal blends inspired by the tarot, matching the spiritual properties of the herbs used in the blends with a tarot card’s intention. 

Matos introduced Barton-Zainyeh to the craft. In fact, they had a witchy meet-cute when Matos offered to read Barton-Zainyeh’s tarot cards. Barton-Zainyeh, who was raised in a home that wasn’t religious, was drawn to the work, and Matos taught her the art of divination, or seeing into the future.

“I felt that you had to have a gift to read tarot, that you had to be psychic,” says Barton-Zainyeh. “Now I think anyone can pick it up. It's really good self help, good for reflection, and for seeing things that maybe you don't want to see consciously.”

“I feel like the more that you listen to it, the easier it gets to hear,” adds Matos. “It's like working on muscle.”

 While easy for non-believers to dismiss, divination is grounded in science. In a 2016 study published in the journal Psychological Science, scientists observed the participants made better decisions when they listened to their gut. According to the team leading the study, learning to trust your intuition becomes easier the more you use it. 

Cedez Tarot’s mission as a company is to carry as many local products as possible – from sourcing herbs to working with artisans based in Rhode Island. When they do buy products not available in the area, they hold their suppliers to rigorous standards, ensuring what they carry is harvested sustainably and ethically. While they search for a permanent brick-and-mortar space, they continue doing pop-ups, like Witches Night Out and the inaugural Key and Serpent event held over the summer. 

“I feel like everything leads you up to whatever moment you're in,” says Matos. “You’ve got to live by the fool card.” That tarot card means new beginnings.

Witchcraft doesn’t happen in a bubble, and the unrest of our current cultural moment is drawing more people to the practice. “Every 20 years, there’s an eb and flow,” says May, pointing to the burgeoning interest in witchcraft that happened in the early aughts. “It’s back again, but it always ends with a villainization of witchcraft.”

“I’m worried we’re going into another Satanic Panic,” Zakroff admits, referencing the 1980s and ‘90s, fraught with paranoia over unsubstantiated rumors of Satanic rituals happening in the woods. “Only this time instead of it being Dungeons and Dragons and the devil, now we have, ‘oh, it's those queer people and those trans people who are, you know, doing things.’ It’s the same manufactured nonsense.”

That nonsense is often rooted in power dynamics and money. “Healers became political when science and medicine overlapped with herbalism and midwifery; it became about controlling bodies,” May points out. Land ownership was at issue during the Salem Witch Trials. The church would confiscate the family land of any accused witch who entered a plea – with either plea a death sentence – leaving the surviving family members with nothing.

 “Christianity did it right when they took our community,” says May, referring to the witch hunts in the Middle Ages prompted by the publication of the Malleus Maleficarum, essentially a witch-hunting manual penned by two Catholic priests. Eighty-thousand suspected witches were killed, 80 percent of whom were women.

“It was a strategic action,” she continues, explaining how these medieval witch hunts split apart covens and forced practicing witches underground. “We’re forever pulling [our community] back together.” 

Which is what The Veiled Crow does in their store, hosting classes and creating, with Zakroff, the Key and Serpent Society, which held its first pop-up over the summer in Pawtuxet Village.

 Growing the Providence community is working. The new generation of witches coming up feel confident in their identities as witches. “I feel like a former version of me wouldn't have wanted to identify as a witch because of the negative connotation that people have with it,” says Matos. “We intentionally surround ourselves with very accepting, loving people, so I feel like that's all we really receive.” Barton-Zainyeh agrees. “I feel really accepted here.”

“There are soccer mom witches and hippy witches and some witches who are just a little weird,” says May.

 “But we’re kind,” adds Lawrence. “And we’re your neighbors.”

Dress Like a Witch

Providence-based couturier Harper Della-Piana is known for her custom bridal gowns, but the talented designer and seamstress has a side hustle outfitting witches. The in-demand needleworker spent 25 years in New York City, from working on Broadway shows to gigs in film and television. She has her Emmy citation from her work on the Late Show with David Letterman hanging in her atelier.

Last year, she completed work on Hocus Pocus 2, where she outfitted the three drag witches (filmed in Newport), including Drag Winifred played by RuPaul’s Drag Race star Ginger Minge. Della-Piana also created costumes for the esoteric music artist Ashly Cruz and is currently conjuring a costume for Cruz’s performance at Stonehenge. 

“In New England, what we think of as a ‘witch’ look is 17th and 18th century inspired,” notes Della-Piana. But before you go digging for an old-timey outfit, Della-Piana offered some suggestions for channeling your inner Stevie Nicks.

 

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