Rhea Wolf owes a lot to the public library in Dodge City, Kansas. And to an astrologically inclined babysitter in Anamosa, Iowa.
Wolf, 43, is a witch. Not the kind with a pointy hat and broomstick (for the record, she does occasionally enjoy that getup), and definitely not the kind who signs her name in the Dark Lord’s book (no, she hasn’t seen Netflix’s Sabrina reboot—and she’s quick to correct you if you conflate witchcraft and Satanism).
Wolf’s witchcraft is far less flashy than all of that. “At the most basic level, witches engage with magic,” she says. “And magic is the art of changing consciousness or reality at will. That means inserting myself and working with the mysterious ones or the unseen forces to change and shape reality.”
A bit squishy? Yup. But witchcraft—which is having a serious cultural moment right now, from the Suspiria and Charmed remakes to mass hexes of Brett Kavanaugh* to smudge sticks and crystals for sale at Urban Outfitters—is incredibly broad, and often very personal. For Wolf, who’s lived in Portland since 1999, it dates to her childhood in the Midwest. First catalyst: that babysitter in Iowa, who showed a 5-year-old Wolf the zodiac wheel. “I remember feeling, like, this is important,” says Wolf, whose family was not religious. “This is familiar on some level, and I want to learn more.”
Flash forward a couple of years to Dodge City, Kansas, where Wolf discovered the public library’s occult section. “You could find everything from UFOs to ghosts to tarot cards,” she recalls. “I was just a self-studying little girl.”
That study continued, taking Wolf to four and a half years at Portland’s covert Blue Iris Mystery School and a master’s degree focusing on spiritual traditions from Marylhurst University. (Her thesis was on the metaphor of darkness in earth-based religions.) Today, she makes a living teaching at the Portland School of Astrology, leading workshops that blend astrology and creative writing, and facilitating rituals, including weddings and celebrations of the pagan cross-quarter holidays.
Portland, Wolf says, is exceptionally witchy, from its occult shops to its robust herbalism community to its covens of stand-up paddleboarders (yes, a thing). She attributes it, in part, to the city’s environmental ethic. “Once you get enchanted by nature, it’s only a few short steps to paganism,” she says with a laugh. (Interested in what witchcraft can do for you? Peek our list of classes and schools.)
Whatever stereotypes you carry about witches, Wolf is likely to shatter them. On a Tuesday in November, she wears a pale pink T-shirt and a hoodie, and is remarkably down to earth and upbeat for someone who casually mentions her visits to the underworld. (Chalk up her bubbly enthusiasm to all the Leo in her natal chart, which Wolf says makes her a real cheerleader in astrological readings.) And cast aside your visions of Hogwarts. For Wolf, spell work generally entails setting an intention and taking steps toward manifesting it: building an altar, cooking certain foods, or simply going on walks.
For a long stretch, Wolf brought her spiritual practice to an unexpected location: Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, the women’s prison in Wilsonville. Starting in 2012, several times a month, Wolf helped lead a two-hour pagan service, open to all. Often 20 women would show; sometimes, more than 40 gathered in the chapel. Services always began by casting a circle—invoking the elements and calling in a deity or Mother Earth—followed by meditation or visualization exercises. Inmates themselves occasionally took charge: A reiki practitioner taught about her craft. Another time, a Wiccan led a discussion about the morality of doing magic—say, how spells might interfere with other people’s lives.
“It was really radical for us to be in one of the most authoritarian places on the planet—any prison is the most authoritarian place on the planet—and do explicitly antiauthoritarian work,” says Wolf, who put her prison work on hold last summer. (Another volunteer continues to lead the group.) “We were offering people a different way of perceiving the world around them, and helping them see that they have more power than they’ve been taught.”
As the mother of two kids, Wolf takes a decidedly broadminded approach to spirituality and parenting. Just as some families celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas, Wolf’s family observes the winter solstice while also welcoming Santa Claus down the chimney (same goes for Halloween and Samhain). But that’s not to say she doesn’t thrill to their uncomplicated belief in her powers.
“My 9-year-old was having a meltdown about something in the house that scared them,” Wolf recalls. “And my 12-year-old said, ‘But Mom’s a witch and she cast a protection spell on our house!’ And I was just like, this is the most touching moment.” She feigns wiping away tears. “You noticed!”
*“Hexes may be the only things marginalized or dispossessed groups have at their disposal,” says Wolf.