Spell Check: Magic in the Valley

Amy SilvermanNovember 4, 2021
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Phoenix witch Monika George; Photo by Nancy Wegard/Nanushka Photography; Hair and makeup by Alexa Paige Beauty
Phoenix witch Monika George; Photo by Nancy Wegard/Nanushka Photography; Hair and makeup by Alexa Paige Beauty

Eye of newt, toe of TikTok. Hold on to your broomsticks as our columnist dives into the modern world of Valley witchcraft.

When one decides to write about witchcraft, it makes sense that somewhere along the way, there will be a broom or two. But I didn’t expect to be cleaning my kitchen floor in the name of journalism.

And yet, here I am on a Thursday morning – on deadline – carefully pouring a capful of a thick orange mixture called “Banishment” into a bucket of hot water and mopping the checkered tiles that always seem to need it in our dusty desert. I bought the floor cleaner from the Etsy shop of Courtney Jameson, who runs Crimson Sage with her husband out of their East Valley home.

The two make their living by selling an assortment of balms, oils, spell kits and not-so-common accessories like “Lucifer’s bride flower crown,” which features bright red artificial flowers, a flowing veil and a black emblem of the devil’s face. They also sell hand-forged metal cauldrons, and Jameson makes a “divination salt,” which involves “burning oak bark, collecting copper dust, graveyard dirt, cruelty-free snake skin, ground eggshells and thyme,” according to a recent post on Crimson Sage’s Instagram stories. 

The salt is a ritual tool used for creating protective boundaries around altars or your personal space. “You’re vulnerable when you’re opening yourself up spiritually,” Jameson says. 

Jameson, who calls herself a witch, is part of a growing movement of people practicing witchcraft, partaking in pagan rituals and generally trying to conjure spirits, mostly in the name of finding some kind of meaning in our increasingly incomprehensible world.

Witchcraft is not the exclusive province of women, but the Phoenix scene definitely skews that way. 

“I think witchcraft specifically is becoming more of a term for women and non-binary people to sort of break away from normalcy and societal pressures and traditions that are so imposed on us,” Jameson says. 

No two people come to witchcraft for the same reason, she adds. Jameson found it through poetry, which she studied in college, and her rituals are based in Celtic traditions. She has seen the recent increase in interest among young people and says it’s tied to many things – activism, past trauma, the search for a higher power.

An advertisement for a clairvoyant as it appeared in the Bisbee Daily Review on December 14, 1917; Photo courtesy Arizona Newspaper Project
An advertisement for a clairvoyant as it appeared in the Bisbee Daily Review on December 14, 1917; Photo courtesy Arizona Newspaper Project

While the movement lacks the enduring cultural currency of Sedona’s vortexes or the mysticism of the rituals of indigenous people, residents of metropolitan Phoenix have been dipping into the occult – or trying to, anyway – for a long time. A search of local newspaper archives reveals advertisements for the services of occult experts like “Exalted Mystic Rabboni,” a palm reader in Downtown Phoenix billed as “a child of nature’s greatest gifts” in an ad in the May 11, 1909, edition of the Arizona Republican. “Spanish, Mexican and colored people are also invited to call,” the ad continues, adding that readings are “strictly confidential and private.” 

If you’ve been in the Valley any length of time, you’ve likely passed Mrs. Rita’s, a spiritual center on University Drive just west of Mill Avenue in Tempe that offers palm readings. The quaint house has been there for decades, now dwarfed by high-rises, its namesake memorialized in a Gin Blossoms song. 

Today, it appears that witchcraft and other occult-related pursuits are more popular than ever in Phoenix. While there have always been a few metaphysical shops in town that sell crystals and books about spirituality, the commodification is in full force.

“Occult evangelist” Cecelia Gustaf promotes her ladies-only lecture in the Coconino Sun on July 10, 1925.; Photo courtesy Arizona State Library, Archives and Public Records
“Occult evangelist” Cecelia Gustaf promotes her ladies-only lecture in the Coconino Sun on July 10, 1925.; Photo courtesy Arizona State Library, Archives and Public Records

Instagram is packed with images of Arizona millennials harvesting desert plants for elixirs and reading tarot cards at local boutiques. It feels like a new apothecary pops up every week. You can have your aura photographed, then purchase a floral arrangement to match. On a Sunday in early October, hundreds gathered at the Glendale Civic Center for Witchcrafted, a market featuring dozens of vendors selling spell kits, potions and, yes, floor cleaner. 

My husband will tell you that it takes nothing short of magic to get me to clean the kitchen, and I suppose in this instance it’s kind of true. In any case, when I was done mopping the floor with Banishment, the room did smell better. But that was about it.

Masked and vaxxed, I leave the house, determined to find signs of the occult in the Valley.

since the pandemic began, there have been stories in just about every national publication about the increased interest in witchcraft. Curiosity about such things is not unusual in difficult times. 

In his 1995 book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, Carl Sagan explained that people turn to what he called “pseudoscience” to try to make sense of and bring hope to their complicated lives. 

As you might imagine, the renowned cosmologist – who passed away in 1996 – wasn’t so keen on pseudoscience as an avenue for personal fulfillment. But really, he admitted in his book, who can resist? 

“How satisfying it would be,” Sagan wrote, “as in folklore and children’s stories, to fulfill our heart’s desire just by wishing. How seductive this notion is, especially when compared with the hard work and good luck usually required to achieve our hopes. The enchanted fish or the genie from the lamp will grant us three wishes – anything we want except more wishes. Who has not pondered – just to be on the safe side, just in case we ever come upon and accidentally rub an old, squat brass oil lamp – what to wish for?” 

I totally get it. I’m not above tossing salt over my left shoulder or knocking on wood, and there’s no way I’d book an airplane seat in the 13th row, but I’ve never delved into witchcraft or other outsider practices. To be fair, I’m not so into the traditional religion thing, either. But still, there’s a small part of me that really wants to believe that I can banish negativity and clear the air for better things by mopping the floor with a potion made of vinegar, orange oil, witch hazel and sage.

Valley witch Monika George with the implements of her trade, including a crystal bowl that she uses during tarot readings; Photo by Nancy Wegard/Nanushka Photography; Hair and makeup by alexa paige beauty
Valley witch Monika George with the implements of her trade, including a crystal bowl that she uses during tarot readings; Photo by Nancy Wegard/Nanushka Photography; Hair and makeup by alexa paige beauty

Before the floor cleaner, it had been decades since I’d engaged in anything remotely spooky. In 1997, I was engaged to be married, visiting my best friend in New York City for a bachelorette weekend. She took me shopping in SoHo and to The Carlyle hotel to watch Woody Allen play his clarinet (this was a really long time ago). Wandering around Greenwich Village, we saw a palm reader and thought,
“Why not?”

A few minutes later, I was sitting in a room decorated in jewel tones, offering my hand to an older woman. She looked down at my palm and almost immediately said, “I can see you’re in a long-term relationship.” 

“Well, yeah, you see my engagement ring!” I blurted, immediately wishing I’d stayed quiet as her face tightened. From there, the reading grew dark. Very dark.

I promised myself I’d stay away from such things, and I did a good job of that for a long time. So it’s with some hesitance that I approach Monika George’s door on a too-warm September afternoon. I’m the first client to come inside the Coronado bungalow since before the pandemic, George says, leading me to a bright dining nook decorated with crystals, candles and a salt lamp. 

We sit across from one another and I’m instructed to close my eyes while George performs a sound meditation using specially designed bowls she’d purchased during the pandemic. An English literature and graphic design major in college, George ditched that field shortly before the pandemic to start Cosmic Hour, a one-woman company offering astrology and tarot readings as well as aura photography. Magic runs in the family, George says. Her grandmother read tarot cards, although George had no idea till she started doing it herself and her mother mentioned that Grandma used to do the same thing back in her village in Poland.

East Valley witch Courtney Jameson uses her broom, known as a besom in pagan lore, to ritualistically cleanse the home of negative or stagnant energy, sweeping the “dirt” both physically and metaphorically.; Photo by Nancy Wegard/Nanushka Photography; Hair and makeup by Alexa Paige Beauty
East Valley witch Courtney Jameson uses her broom, known as a besom in pagan lore, to ritualistically cleanse the home of negative or stagnant energy, sweeping the “dirt” both physically and metaphorically.; Photo by Nancy Wegard/Nanushka Photography; Hair and makeup by Alexa Paige Beauty

George loves having her own small business, loves her work. “I get to do my favorite things, connect people to their intuition, show people that you’re more than a bag of bones.”

During our session, George photographs my aura with a fancy camera that reads your acupressure points (I am open to receiving energy, but don’t put much out), evaluates my tarot (I’m in a phase of transition, evidently) and does my birth chart (I don’t understand much except that I’m a quadruple Scorpio, which makes sense given the little I know about astrology). 

George got her start doing tarot readings at the local boutique Frances, and now offers party packages for birthdays, bachelorette parties or any other occasion that calls for a little mysticism. She also hooked up with Form Floral, a florist at The Fred in North-Central Phoenix, to offer aura photographs that are “re-created” in the form of floral arrangements. You can also attend a pop-up event where you get your hair styled at a salon in preparation for your aura photograph because, as George put it in an Instagram post, “Beauty rituals are SPELLS.” 

She’s happy to be getting out and doing her work in person, she says, but George also appreciates how important things like tarot readings were while we were in quarantine.

Gypsy Luna in her Warrior position during a ceremony; Photo by Julie Scudder
Gypsy Luna in her Warrior position during a ceremony; Photo by Julie Scudder

“During the pandemic, it’s like the exterior was so messed up with complicated misinformation, right? Spreading of false facts… when you were looking into the external, you only got more confused. And so, I think at that time, people started saying, ‘OK, what’s to be gained from inside of what I already have access to? And how can I use that to help me navigate, instead of looking to the outside world?’”

As soon as I step into Elements of Spirit, a small candle- and crystal-filled shop just off Grand Avenue near Downtown Phoenix, I can tell things are going to get serious. Before I can ask for the proprietor, a small woman with gray hair and long red fingernails steps in from a side room and stops, looking at me.

“Uh, hi, my name is Amy and I’m from PHOENIX magazine,” I mumble, adding something about wanting to talk to her for a story about witchcraft. 

“Hold on,” she says, and closes her eyes. 

Opening them, she announces that the spirits have given their blessing and it’s OK to speak with me. She introduces herself as Gypsy Luna. A few days later, we sit across from one another in the side room, which contains an altar and shelves packed with all kinds of books about spirituality, including Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs.

Vicktoria Garcia grew up in Texas, and from the age of 3, she says, she had the ability to “see things.”

“I have the power of vision to be able to see before it comes, to know what people are thinking,” she says. “I can read them very easily.”

But it wasn’t until she was a young married woman that she really put her powers into action, she says, countering a spell cast by her mother-in-law, whom Garcia says didn’t like her. It worked. Garcia and her husband are still married. They moved to Phoenix 15 years ago. 

Garcia didn’t find community here right away; she missed her “Witchiepoo friends” from Texas. “I used to attend a goddess fest every year, back in Austin,” she says. “They had a bunch of women who were all sorts of pagan, witches and all that. And we would literally dance naked in the forest around the fire.”

Eventually, she found her people – through a meetup group that led her to a drum circle. The drum circle itself was silly and bougie, she recalls, but there was one woman who pulled her aside and offered to introduce her to others who took magic seriously. She began to study with a shaman, and that’s how Garcia learned that, along with her Mexican heritage, she has Apache blood. One of her new friends gave her the name Gypsy Luna. She’s expanded her studies, exploring her indigenous roots. 

She opened her little shop just a few years ago and recently expanded, including a room for consultations and classes; other teachers offer everything from Reiki to the history of Nordic culture. Gypsy teaches what she calls “real magic.” She also performs exorcisms.

Gypsy Luna reading tarot in her Phoenix shop, Elements of Spirit; Photo by Mirelle Inglefield
Gypsy Luna reading tarot in her Phoenix shop, Elements of Spirit; Photo by Mirelle Inglefield

Like I said, this is serious. 

Gypsy has very strong feelings about her magic and admits her approach has changed over time. “I don’t do your future. I am not that kind of reader. I can. I used to when I was younger, but then I was foolish in a lot of aspects. As an adult, now I’d rather provide the tools to help people heal.”

More than an hour into the conversation, talk turns to the pandemic. Gypsy saw an uptick in business in August 2020, and it hasn’t stopped. Nothing surprises her. The universe is in a period of tumult that won’t end until 2024, she says, adding that she is not afraid of COVID. “I never wore a mask and I don’t have shots. I’m sorry. I have not caught COVID, not been sick. I’ve been around people who have been, I’ve seen death. Unfortunately, there’s somebody very close to me [who] died, and I had to tend to their body.”

Gypsy often walks the perimeter of the property where her shop sits as a way of keeping COVID away. “I’m like, ‘No, you’re not coming into my space.’”

She says the real enemy is fear. 

Then again, from speaking with Gypsy, it sounds as though a healthy dose of fear – or respect – isn’t such a bad thing, in some cases. She’s not impressed by the new crop of witch wannabes out there, the ones who learn spells on TikTok or follow spooky Instagram accounts. 

“The kids nowadays with magic,” she says, rolling her eyes as she recalls a recent customer. 

“This one girl, she was like, ‘I want to make friends with this demon. My friend has a demon. We called out to it,’ and blah, blah, blah.

“And I said, ‘You know, honey, that wouldn’t be good. No, no, no.’”

“It’s OK,” the girl told her. “I know what I’m doing.”

Gypsy showed her an herb. 

“That’s what I would use if I was you,” she told the girl. “However, I’ll see you in a few months when you come back and you complain that this shit won’t leave your house.” 

The older woman smiles, remembering the conversation. “She didn’t like it. I don’t care.”

More than 20 years later, I’m still a little spooked by that Greenwich Village palm reading, even though I can’t recall any of the dark details. But how could I tell the story of magic in the Valley without Mrs. Rita?

I recruit a friend and call to schedule our appointments. On a Sunday afternoon we park around the corner at a sketchy convenience store, then walk to the tan and white cottage. A woman I’m guessing to be in her 40s answers the door, introducing herself as Nancy, and it quickly becomes clear that she’ll be giving our palm readings. 

As delicately as possible, I ask for Mrs. Rita, and am told she’s been dead for several years. Nancy is her granddaughter. I try to hide my disappointment. In slacks and a blouse with straight brown hair, the younger woman is not what I was hoping for. The most notable thing about the décor is a gigantic television set showing a football game in the waiting area. 

I step inside the palm reader’s chambers, offer my hand – and shut my mouth.

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