Timothy Bielec hangs herbs to dry at Needfire Apothecary on Free Street in Portland. The shop offers supplies, information, and learning experiences for magic practitioners. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

In Maine, self-described witches have long been practicing their craft. But a rise in popularity on social media has created a chance to be more open about the practices that are important to their spirituality.

Even so, threats still remain from those who fear or don’t understand witchcraft.

Witchcraft is the practice of casting spells or conducting magical rituals in order to connect spiritually with the surrounding world and exert some influence over its events. Despite common misconceptions, witchcraft usually doesn’t involve Satanic worship, nor rituals intended to cause harm to a community.

“It entails a lot of self-reflection, honestly,” said Araminta Karlsson, owner of Needfire Wellness & Apothecary in Portland. “In terms of the practical aspects, I do spells semi-regularly [but] I do more spells for clients.”

Karlsson, who uses they/them pronouns, practices “trolldom,” a magical practice from their Swedish heritage that uses historical spells and rituals from the region. Those who practice it are called “trollkunning,” Karlsson said they are “totally comfortable if someone uses the word witch to describe [them].”

Karlsson has seen a growing interest in magic and witchcraft since opening their retail location in early 2020. The store sells items of all magic types.

“There’s a pretty young population moving to Maine, who are more influenced by pop astrology and pop witchcraft,” Karlsson said. “I don’t have a problem with that.”

From left (clockwise): Araminta Karlsson cuts fresh herbs at Needfire Apothecary on Free Street in Portland; Araminta Karlsson cuts fresh herbs at Needfire Apothecary on Free Street in Portland; Candles, patches and wood for burning sits for sale at Needfire Apothecary on Free Street in Portland. Credit: Troy R. Bennett | BDN

The rise of witchcraft in Maine

Witchcraft is not new to Maine. Accused conspirators in Massachusetts’ Salem Witch Trials like George Burroughs, a Salem minister who was thought to be the witches’ ringleader, escaped to Maine before ultimately being caught and tried.

Still, a number of factors may have led to the increase of modern witchcraft in Maine. In 2012, the Bangor Daily News reported that, according to a census by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies, Maine is the least religious state in the country (though a Gallup poll in 2011 ranked it third, after Vermont and New Hampshire).

Karlsson sees witchcraft as potentially filling that void.

“I think that belief is inherent for people, especially during times where things are feeling really scary and overwhelming, people want a story that they have more control over,” Karlsson said. “For a long time, especially in our country, religion and Christianity were the main things around that. Magic fills a lot of that need for a collaborative story that someone can be a part of.”

The pandemic may have also played a role in witchcraft’s growing popularity.

“I really think it’s self-care in a lot of ways,” Karlsson said. “A big part of magic is releasing things. You do a spell, you have control at the moment and you let it go. I think that’s so healthy. People really need that.”

Another factor is social media. Anjou Kiernan has been a practicing witch for 22 years, the last eight of which she has lived in Maine. She said that Instagram has played a huge role in developing a witching community in Maine. The hashtag #witchesofinstagram, for instance, has more than 7.1 million posts.

“We share magical places in the state to go and talk about native plants and wildlife via direct messages [on Instagram],” Kiernan said.

Karlsson sees the rise of social media witches as a mixed blessing. Karlsson pointed to the controversy about new witches on TikTok trying to hex the moon with negative energy in order to sow chaos (in the middle of a pandemic, no less). Experienced witches saw this as an affront to the craft.

“There are parts [of social media] that are really cool and help the story of what witchcraft is and there are parts that are potentially very problematic,” Karlsson said.

What does it mean to be a witch in Maine?

Witches’ practices are largely individual, and can vary greatly depending on their beliefs. There are a number of magical traditions from around the world that witches draw on for their modern practices.

An array of pendants and earrings are for sale at Needfire Apothecary on Free Street in Portland. The shop offers supplies, information, and learning experiences for magic practitioners. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Kiernan said that while Mainers may not think they understand witchcraft, the actual practice might look familiar. Making herbal medicine, for example, can be considered witchcraft, as could foraging for mushrooms and plants for specific medicinal or culinary purposes.

Arwyn Sherman, a witch in Portland and owner of the Etsy shop Toad and Bones, is very involved with herbal medicine. She said that in Maine, the community around “green” witchcraft, which is centered around the magic related to plants, herbs and nature, is stronger than in other places.

“I come from California which is rooted in a lot of new age spirituality — tons of crystals, psychics [and the like],” Sherman said. “I’ve noticed Maine seems to be focused more on nature and most witches I’ve met here consider themselves green witches or some variation thereof, myself included.”

However, Sherman explained, there are key differences between traditional herbalists and witches who use herbs. While pure herbalists might focus on tangible products like making medicine, dyes or syrups, witches creating the same products might focus on spiritual intentions as they do so, like healing grief or cultivating their relationship to the natural spirits around them.

The witching community in Maine

The witching community in Maine is growing, but still dispersed.

“The witching community here in Maine is not as concentrated or supported as it is in densely populated areas,” Kiernan said. “We are more spread out and so it is difficult to get together in person, especially during the pandemic. I have lived in many different states, and I will say that there is a more defined community in the larger cities across the country, but again, I think a lot of this is due to proximity and density of people.”

Kiernan has found that witches with different practices are more inclusive and open-minded than elsewhere.

“Particularly in Maine, I’ve noticed that we are very open to inclusion, so even though I might identify as a witch and someone else might identify as spiritual [or believing in some higher power but not necessarily witchcraft], we can still come together with the same intentions,” Kiernan said.

Not all witches have experienced such acceptance in Maine, though — and with that comes one of the downsides of a community largely built on social media.

One witch, who preferred to only go by the name “Angel” and her Instagram handle, @themainewitch, for fear of retaliation, said that though she has developed a community on Instagram, she also regularly receives death threats for her witching content.

“I’ve probably blocked about 50 accounts already of [users saying], ‘I’m going to find you and kill you,’ ‘God banishes all witches,’ ‘Satan worshipper,’ things like that,” she said. “There is a lot of stigma.”

Another witch named “Beth” from Lewiston, who uses the Instagram handle @mainelywitchcraft, said that while she feels the stigma against witches is starting to fade from the mainstream culture, she continues to receive death threats from religious radicals.

“I get so much that I can’t personally respond to it one on one,” she said.

Karlsson said that they have never had that issue in person in their shop, either, but they recognize that living in Portland and not having as much of an online presence might shield them from harassment.

“I’ve never lived in places that are super, super rural,” Karlsson said. “I know that rural Maine has a lot more right wing conservative and right wing Christian folks. There’s a lot of trauma on both sides of the conversation, both the witches and the people who are attacking them. I don’t think it’s well founded. I don’t think anybody should be attacking anyone else for their spiritual practice, but I think it comes from a place of fear. That’s something I hope can be healed from conversation instead of creating this wall of contention.”

Kiernan believes that, ultimately, the witching community will continue to grow and be accepted in Maine.  

“The witching community in Maine is attracting a lot of people who in my experience would have been very closeted in the past,” she said. “I just saw that my realtor follows my witchcraft account on Instagram and that my neighbor with two grown boys shares witchy memes on the internet. I’m not sure if this is the power of social media or that the state is getting more progressive, but either way it’s very cool to see people from all walks of life tuning into the craft.”