An exploration of pop culture’s appropriation of the Occult.
By: Abeer Almahdi, Managing Editor

Montreal is no stranger to witchcraft, and the Occult is embedded in local popular culture. Bars such as Datcha host Jazz and Tarot Thursdays, psychics have doors across the city, and even storefronts on Rue Sainte Catherine display Tarot cards, incense, crystals, and other spiritual objects.

Because of its large international student population, McGill is a place where different cultures meet: Many students bring their local rituals from home to campus. For as long as he can remember, Ibrahim*, U2 Arts, has been surrounded by different Arab customs.

“There were always examples of witchcraft [present] in my family,” Ibrahim said. “I would wake up to my mother [reading or watching] horoscopes on the TV or burning Bakhoor [...and] my aunts would come together to drink Turkish coffee and read each other’s cups. Although I understand why none of these practices seem grounded in science or reality, it became a practice of community, [...] as a form of [shared culture].”

My own cultures are full of otherworldly traditions, many of which are rooted in either Islamic, pagan, or other religious origins. Similarly to Ibrahim, I have fond memories of seeing my grandmother and great-aunts read my coffee or tea. I would wake up to strong smells of Oud or Bakhoor—incense and wood chips soaked in different fragrant oils—burning throughout the house. My father gifted me beautiful, crystal prayer-beads and evil-eye and hamsa amulets for safety and to ward off envy.

However, not everyone has the same start to their journeys. For many people in the diaspora, the pursuit of ancestral metaphysical traditions comes later in life, sometimes manifesting as a form of resistance. A friend introduced Rachel Habrih, U3 Arts, to the world of the Occult during her first year at McGill. Only then did she begin to dive deeper into her own culture.

“It was actually through astrology that I got really into Tarot reading,” Habrih said. “One of my first-year friends was really in touch with her cultural traditions [...and she would tell me] about them. I really enjoyed how connected she was to witchcraft. She inspired me to learn about myself.”

Ibrahim’s interest in Occult rituals started off as a way to reconnect with his culture while being in the diaspora.

“When I was reintroduced to all of these [rituals] in university, they weren’t foreign to me,” Ibrahim said. “It was actually a way to be connected to family so far away [...these rituals] became a way to battle homesickness and create memories with ancestors I’ve never met.”

Similarly, Habrih’s interests began with a desire to relate with her cultures and its traditions.

“I got into witchcraft, tarot, and [the Occult] as a way to get more in touch with my culture,” Habrih said. “Both my parent’s cultures have elements and traditions to do with [the Occult… such as] astrology, Tarot, incense, and similar rituals.”

Even if the metaphysical may not be always rooted in science, these rituals act as a way for people to understand one another. For Laila*, U3 Science, participating in rituals such as Tarot readings is a way to build connections.

“I like [Tarot] because it offers a perspective I wouldn’t have thought of, and it's a way to connect with the [reader],” Laila said. “[Tarot] allows me to connect with my friends and the people around me [....] I had an experience with a psychic and everything he said was useful [....Tarot] doesn’t have to be a concrete science in order to teach you things [about yourself].”

Over the last 10 years, astrology resurfaced as part of mainstream popular culture. Through memes and apps like Co-Star and Sanctuary World, understanding one’s natal chart is now common for anyone interested in spirituality, the Occult, or even internet culture. Other forms of the Occult, such as crystal healing and Tarot reading, have also become mainstream—Golden Thread is one such app available for Tarot reading. Laila was first introduced to astrology on social media.

“Before, I thought of [astrology] as Snapchat stories,” Laila said, referring to the daily updates Snapchat users receive on the app’s public story page. “Now, I see it as tradition. The stars have been there for so long. Of course, it affects us in some way or another, even if it’s not [physically]. It’s part of our heritage.”

However, modern forms of ‘trendy’ witchcraft, similarly to many other aspects of material culture, have roots in the cultural appropriation of different Indigenous, Black, and Brown cultures. Smudging refers to the ritual of burning different sacred herbs and plants. The practice holds a different significance for different cultures: Communities outside of North American Indigenous peoples have different names for the ritual. Many Indigenous activists are raising concerns surrounding the commercialization and appropriation of White Sage—a common ingredient in mainstream smudging—by non-Indigenous people, especially since its recent popularity has led to an increase in the cost.

“Now, I see it as tradition. The stars have been there for so long. Of course, it affects us in some way or another, even if it’s not [physically]. It’s part of our heritage.”

Additionally, for hundreds of years, non-white people have been targeted for any practice that deviates from Western religious traditions. Vodou, for instance, is a centuries-old practice, which originated in its combination of African religions with Western Catholicism in the Caribbean. In Montreal, Haitian Vodou is still stigmatized: Local priestesses, such as fourth-generation priestess Rolanda Delerme, are still working to bring their temples into the public eye in an effort to reduce scrutiny.

“[Delerme] and her mother established la Belle Déesse Dereale Vodou, Vodou temple, with the purpose to [...] build a better image for Vodou,” Delerme’s website reads. “So that people understand that these traditions and this religion should not be feared.”

Most importantly, through colonization, the Canadian government has used genocidal and oppressive practices—including violently limiting language, traditions, rituals, or regalia in legislation—to forcefully assimilate and erase Indigenous peoples and cultures. The appropriation of White Sage and other herbs does not exist in a vacuum: It is part of ongoing legacies of colonialism.

As a settler on Turtle Island—a term some Indigenous languages use to refer to the continent of North America —Habrih believes it is important to understand the significance of land when performing rituals.

“Behind every [...] cultural tradition there is also a spiritual connection to the land, so that's really important to take into account when you're doing [rituals],” Habrih said. “Doing [...rituals] here on campus and on Turtle Island, I have to take into account who actually feels spiritually connected to this land. It’s appropriation to not reflect on your positionality and to not actively resist colonialism.”

Cultural appropriation of traditions similarly manifests through Orientalism and the fetishization of ‘Eastern’ cultures. Orientalism describes the process of stereotyping and envisioning cultures through a colonial lens. According to Laila, witchcraft in popular culture is also guilty of appropriation and orientalism. She points to the example of Jalāl ad-Dīn Rumi, a widely-circulated Sufi Muslim poet.

“I went to a bookstore [in Montreal] and I saw a tarot deck that was ‘Rumi-inspired,’ Laila said. “What does this Sufi Muslim poet have to do with these cards? Why [should] Rumi have his words poorly translated and [appropriated] for an aesthetic? When white people take advantage of [my culture] to make money, or [for social media], it’s not genuine. [Appropriation] gives my culture a bad name.”

"It’s appropriation to not reflect on your positionality and to not actively resist colonialism."

Montreal is home to many stores and communities dedicated to the pursuit of modern witchcraft. Charme & Sortilège is a shop in the upper Plateau specializing in ‘white magic’ and ingredients for rituals, and even has on-site ‘Psychism and Divination practitioners.’ Crystal Dreams World is an online international crystal hub based in Montreal; they have a physical store, host seminars, and even put on a “Metaphysical & Spiritual Showcase” once a year. The Crescent Moon School of Magic & Paganism has been in practice for around 25 years, hosting courses at four levels: Seeker, Explorer, Witchcraft, and Lay Clergy, most at a cost of $600. Although these establishments seek to make the pursuit of the metaphysical more accessible for average consumers, for Ibrahim, commercialization makes the Occult less accessible.

“It was very hard for me to be convinced [...] or to want to be a part of [witchcraft] activities and rituals because it is so [commercialized] by Western culture and media,” Ibrahim said. “When I understood that these practices actually originated from non-white cultures, including [my own], I began to appreciate them in a different way [ something] I can reclaim. Commercialization makes [knowledge] more accessible, but it makes the products [financially inaccessible.]”

Moving forward, Habrih believes witchcraft and rituals can be pursued by the many, so long as they are practiced in a correct and appropriate manner.

“I think that appropriation is a huge problem because it takes away from the true meaning of [traditions],” Habrih said. “I don't have a problem with you [performing rituals] as long as you feel that connection [...] and as long as you understand the cultural meaning [...and] are not reclaiming a [culture] that is not yours.”

Regardless of the outcome of rituals, the important part for Ibrahim building is community through traditions.

“It’s not about how real it is, it's not about science, it's not about the cards, or material objects like cups,” Ibrahim said. “It’s not about the effect on your life or manifesting your fate. It's about coming together, learning new ways of reflection, [...] new ways of looking at the world, and finding safe havens with others, at times when the world becomes overwhelming.”

*Names have been changed to preserve the anonymity of the sources.