In the ancient city of Exeter, three women were hanged for practicing witchcraft in the late 17th century, the last of such executions in England. Now, merely a short walk from where the hangings occurred, the University of Exeter will offer a postgraduate degree in magic and occult science, which the school says is the first of its kind at a British university.
Prof. Emily Selove, the head of the new program and an associate professor in medieval Arabic literature, said the idea for the degree, which will be offered starting in September 2024, came out of the recent surge in interest in the history of witchcraft and a desire to create a space where research on magic could be studied across academic fields.
Coursework will include the study of Western dragons in lore, literature and art; archaeology theory; the depiction of women in the Middle Ages; the practice of deception and illusion; and the philosophy of psychedelics. Through the lenses of Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions, lecturers will explore how magic has influenced society and science.
Christina Oakley Harrington, a retired academic of medieval history and the founder of Treadwell’s, a London bookstore specializing in literature on magic and spiritualism, said that many witches she knew were talking about the degree program, announced last week, and were thinking about enrolling.
“Not because they’re idiots and think it’s going to teach them how to wave a magic wand and do a spell,” Dr. Oakley Harrington said. “They’re people who have just a huge curiosity about the world and the way we perceive the seen and the unseen worlds.”
And in the United States, where fewer people are affiliated with religious institutions than in the past, interest in all things magic has surged. Six in 10 U.S. adults believe in one or more of the following: reincarnation, astrology, psychics and the presence of spiritual energy in physical objects like mountains or trees, according to a 2017 Pew Research Center study.
There has also been renewed interest in witches, with feminism and pop culture embracing them as symbols of female independence. The trend is reflected in posts on TikTok, where videos under the #WitchTok tag have amassed nearly 50 billion views on topics such as cleansing homes of unwanted energy and identifying the qualities that make a person a witch.
Dr. Oakley Harrington said that she had seen an increase in sales in books on feminist witchcraft and on the history of magic, including to customers in their teens and early 20s. “They will pick up a book on witch hunts, which they wouldn’t have 10 years ago,” she said.
Pam Grossman, an author and the host of the popular “The Witch Wave” podcast who Vulture described as “the Terry Gross of witches,” said that people did not need to be “woo woo” to be interested in magic. “Whether or not one believes in magic, it is still worthy of academic rigor because human beings have practiced magic for thousands upon thousands of years, and therefore it is worthy of study and attention,” she said. This weekend, Ms. Grossman is leading the Occult Humanities Conference, hosted by New York University.
While some schools, like the University of Exeter, are adding to their humanities programs, others have eliminated courses because of funding shortfalls. West Virginia University said in August that it was shutting down 32 of its 338 majors and cutting programs including creative writing and languages. At the same time, some colleges are emphasizing career-focused programs, such as supply chain management.
The University of Exeter said it was the first British university to offer a degree in magic, but other universities have offered courses and certificates on the subject. The University of Amsterdam offers a specialization in Western esotericism. The religion department at Rice University in Texas offers a certificate in gnosticism, esotericism and mysticism. Career paths could include work in museums or art organizations, leading spiritual retreats, or pursuing further academic research in the field, Dr. Selove said.
Magic is sometimes thrown around as a synonym for false thinking, said Prof. Jeffrey J. Kripal, who helped to create the Rice University certificate program. “People have been practicing magical rituals and thinking about the world in magical terms much longer and deeper than the world religions,” Dr. Kripal said. He added that the defunding of studies in the humanities could lead to a more polarized world that is less prepared to cope with the biggest issues facing society.
Southwest England has a long history of witches and witchcraft, and a concentration of people who are interested in the subject. The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, about 60 miles west of Exeter, has a collection of more than 2,000 artifacts representing British magical traditions, from medieval magic to modern Wicca, which is part of the contemporary pagan movement.
Dr. Selove said she had received a few hundred inquiries in recent days from students interested in the degree at the University of Exeter. “If we are looking for truly new and creative solutions to the problems that we as a society face, then we need to be honest and courageous about the fact that some of our tried and true methodologies do have a limit,” she said. “Let’s cautiously and responsibly try some new or some old ideas that we’ve thrown out.”