“This is the day I’m going to do something”: daily magic with Judika Illes

Image credit: Eryn Eaton Photography – HarperCollins Publishing

NEW YORK – On any given day, there are numerous spells to perform, deities to invoke, and saints to petition. And thanks to Judika Illes – a pioneer in magical compendia – the power to engage with the mystical is always within arm’s reach.

Illes’s new book, Daily Magic: Spells and Rituals for Making the Whole Year Magical, is a perpetual calendar that highlights the spiritual significance of each day. It is an enormous undertaking, but Illes’s longtime readers are familiar with her unique brand of writing. In fact, anyone who has ever expressed an interest in Witchcraft, magic, or the occult in general has undoubtedly come across Illes’s work.

Her books have educated an entire generation and helped define the ever-shifting modern spiritual landscape. Tomes like her bestselling Encyclopedia of 5,000 Spells and Encyclopedia of Witchcraft are staples of any esoteric library. With Daily Magic, Illes casts an even wider net: the book explores numerous faiths and their respective traditions in an informed, accessible way. Every page is a new starting point to enhance one’s spiritual journey.

Take February 18th, for example. The entry in Daily Magic focuses on the healing powers associated with the day: it is the day St. Bernadette Soubirous had her apparition of the Virgin Mary, which uncovered the spring in Lourdes, France, to which millions of people flock annually seeking miraculous recovery from ailments. Flip ahead to November 16th to learn about Hekate Night and how to perform a ritual to the great goddess of the crossroads. No magical stone is left unturned.

“If you want to be a magical person, everything is magical,” Illes said in an interview over Zoom from her home in New Jersey. “Every day is magical. The jewelry you put on is magical. The clothes you wear are magical. Conversations are magical.”

The challenge, Illes acknowledged, is that it takes time and effort to remember the sacredness of each day, let alone to practice the spells and rituals that can foster a connection with the divine. In fact, life’s frenetic pace was the seed that ultimately inspired Daily Magic.

“The book was something that I started to do for myself,” Illes explained. “I wrote a bunch of books, and then around 2010-ish I felt pretty burnt out. I wrote four encyclopedias one after the other, and I was tired. I looked up and realized that my children needed attention, that my parents had gotten old, and I spent a couple of years just taking care of them.”

During that period, Illes wasn’t working on a book project, but she was busy. While she did her best to keep up with the demands of social media, she always found herself short on time.

“I kept missing important dates,” she said. “Let’s say I was looking forward to the feast day of St. Anthony of Padua or some other special occasion. I’d make plans and want to do this and that, and then I’d look at my calendar and realize that it all happened two weeks ago. Or it was tonight, and I didn’t have the time to do what I wanted to do. And so I started to find ways to ground myself, to anchor myself.”

At first, Illes bought astrological calendars on which she made notes that read: This is the day I’m going to do something. But a lack of time kept derailing her plans, and she rarely had a moment to even look at those hopeful reminders. That was when she began her own system of what can be described as magical time management.

A copy of Judika Illes new book, Daily Magic: Spells and Rituals for Making the Whole Year Magical. [Courtesy J. Illes]

“I started writing in notebooks weeks in advance, and that’s really the genesis of Daily Magic,” she said. “I wrote these notes for myself and realized that other people might find them useful. And so the goal is that maybe you’re going to look at Daily Magic a week in advance and see something that resonates with you, and now you have time to plan. You have time to get supplies, to do research, to find a babysitter if you need to. You’re going to have the time to do whatever it is that you need to be your most magical, and to have your maximal magical day.”

Illes’s insights come from years of experience. She is an independent scholar and has worked as a spiritual counselor, aromatherapist, and tarot reader. She understands that Witchcraft is a personal journey, and that it works for people on different levels and for different reasons.

“Witchcraft is something that I do,” Illes explained. “There’s a spirituality connected to it, and I am a spiritual person, but it’s not exclusively spiritual for me. The magic is very important for me. Sometimes the magic gets lost in the philosophy and I think the magic is very important; it brings you joy and it brings you power – power in a good way.”

The transformative power of magic is a theme that runs through Illes’s diverse body of work. More than instructional guides, her books invite people to enrich their spiritual practices and knowledge beyond the mechanics of spellcasting.

“If you do enough magical work, your self-esteem improves,” Illes said. “There are lots of reasons to cast a spell beyond the practical reason for why you want the spell to work. I think it makes your mind sharper. I think it makes you more aware of your surroundings. It makes you more aware of the way other people treat and speak to you because you become so attuned to language. We become seers, and when you have these experiences, you develop a better sense of your own self worth.”

It is a sentiment largely echoed by Witches, Pagans, and magical practitioners today. Witchcraft doesn’t offer quick-fix solutions to life’s occasional foibles; it provides people with the tools they need to create better lives.

Positive boundaries, like saying “no” to someone who takes advantage, go up, just as fears and hesitations crumble. The image in the mirror starts looking a lot stronger. But Illes was quick to point out that the mystical component of magic can transcend its practical outcomes in life.

“Magic gives you that sense of being connected, that you have touched the divine,” she said. “It’s like you can put your hand through the veils between the worlds and feel what’s on the other side. It’s incredible. Miraculous, wonderful things happen and I think everyone should feel that. The world would be a happier place if everyone had that kind of experience. ”

Born in New York City to Hungarian refugees, Illes was exposed to the esoteric early in her childhood. Her older sister once brought home a tarot deck, to which Illes formed an immediate bond. It was this seed that blossomed into a lifelong passion for the occult.

Later, she frequented shops in Manhattan, including Enchantments and The Magickal Child. She began researching and collecting spells and shortly thereafter turned her attention to writing. Though she credits those early years and the New York Witchcraft scene with teaching her a great deal, Illes always knew she was a Witch.

“I knew before there was anything to know,” she said. “This is just who I am. Why? I don’t know. I got this deck of tarot cards. The question isn’t only ‘why did I fall in love with them?’ It’s also ‘why has the love lasted?’ There was never a time when it didn’t interest me on every level. I saw from a very young age that Witches were powerful people, that they had knowledge and wisdom. I wanted that knowledge.”

Illes has gained that wisdom and has imparted it widely. In addition to four encyclopedias – which also include Encyclopedia of Spirits: The Ultimate Guide to the Magic of Fairies, Genies, Demons, Ghosts, Gods & Goddesses and Encyclopedia of Mystics, Saints & Sages: A Guide to Asking for Protection, Wealth, Happiness, and Everything Else! – she teaches and lectures across the country. What distinguishes Illes’s work among metaphysical writers is the breadth and scope of her oeuvre.

In her practiced hands, the magical arts transcend categories, denominations, and labels. This is reflective of Illes’s own view of magic as universal and her belief that those eager to explore a spiritual path remain open to new possibilities.

“Read everything,” she instructed. “One of the dangers today is that people sometimes only read things that validate the beliefs they already have. But if you read something and disagree with it, you’ll ask yourself why you disagree with it, and that helps you to find your own path. The whole point of spellcasting is to find your own power, to find the gold within you. How do you transmute your power into gold? If you don’t expose yourself to other people and theories, how will you ever learn? It’s easy to get yourself locked in a box, but Witchcraft is about breaking out of the box.”

The cover to Judika Illes’s Encyclopedia of 5000 Spells: The Ultimate Reference Book for the Magical Arts [HarperCollins]

Illes has made the proliferation of knowledge a cornerstone of her life. She doesn’t only write books. She also edits them. Since 2015 she has worked as an acquiring editor for Weiser Books, one of the foremost publishers of esoteric and occult-themed works. And the magical thread that connects Illes’s childhood fascination with a pack of tarot cards and her current role as an editor is not lost on her.

“There’s a bit of synchronicity and serendipity here,” Illes noted. “When my sister was attending Cooper Union, the school was located near the old Samuel Weiser Bookstore, and she brought lots of stuff home from there. And here I am in 2021, still playing with tarot cards!”

Unsurprisingly, Illes views her role as an editor through a nurturing lens. “I consider myself a book midwife,” she said. “It’s wonderful. I work with amazing authors. I get to read the books first and then watch their evolution. I get to polish these books and help them come out at their best, their finest.”

To date, Illes has edited close to a hundred books. Among them are The Witching Herbs by Harold Roth, Orishas, Goddesses & Voodoo Queens by Lilith Dorsey, Blackthorn’s Botanical Magic by Amy Blackthorn, American Brujeria by J. Allen Cross and Ancestral Tarot by Nancy Hendrickson. A few forthcoming titles include Espiritismo by Hector Salva, Hoodoo Your Love by Starr Cassas, and Witch Queens, Voodoo Spirits & Hoodoo Saints by Denise Alvarado.

Amidst the turmoil the world is currently undergoing, Illes continues this work. She understands that magic plays a necessary role today and will continue to do so in the future.

“We find ourselves in a time of uncertainty,” she said. “We don’t know where we are going. But I have to believe that Witchcraft and divination and the magical arts will respond to this. We have to be adaptable. We have to be creative.”

And Illes has done just that, not allowing COVID-19 restrictions to stop her from connecting with her readers. In addition to the publication of Daily Magic, she has three virtual classes scheduled for the remainder of 2021 around the country. These include a September 21st Zoom class with New Moon Books of Pompano Beach, Florida; an October 6th workshop with Mirabai Books of Woodstock, New York; and on October 23-24 at A Gathering of Witches, a multi-author author event.

When considering how mightily Illes has served the magical community despite the storm of challenges making human connection and journeys for meaning that much harder, one can’t help but wonder if she’s harboring a secret superpower?

“Everyone has a power, and everyone’s power is important,” she said. “And that includes you.”