The White Witch of Los Angeles loves science. Though she performs rituals and readings (tarot, I Ching, astrology) for clients across the city, her background is in biochemistry. Her name is Maja D'Aoust, and defying expectations is what she does for a living.
"The reason I use the term witch is that the word means 'one who knows,'" D'Aoust says. "It's about one who has or seeks knowledge. And since I was very small, I've needed to investigate things. For me, a witch is someone who is not satisfied with the answers they're given and seeks out a true answer for themselves."
To use an X-Files metaphor, D'Aoust is Dana Scully and Fox Mulder combined into one person: She believes in the fantastic, but the years she spent studying science keep her grounded.
"The origin of modern scientific theory comes from René Descartes having an argument with Satan inside his own head, so I really enjoy reminding scientists of the nature of science itself," she laughs. "Its origins lie precisely in magic and alchemy."
D'Aoust regularly performs as the Oracle, standing before audiences and inviting them to ask her a question—any question. It never ceases to amaze. Sure, she gets the occasional jackass demanding the answer to a dizzying math problem—or requesting her phone number—but D'Aoust remains unfazed through it all, generally offering eloquent and knowledgeable replies to complex questions while onstage, under hot lights, in front of a curious, but sometimes skeptical, crowd.
"Usually these performances happen at a bar or club where people are drinking and they're there to see a band," she explains. "But all of a sudden I'm up there and it's like, 'What's she doing? What's she talking about?' By being open and vulnerable, I'm disarming them into an open vulnerability of their own."
Her favorite questions are the more theoretical and abstract, like What is love? "Just pondering that is worthwhile, whether or not I can give the correct answer," she says.
For me, a witch is someone who is not satisfied with the answers they're given and seeks out a true answer for themselves.
As a teen witch growing up on Vashon Island, just off the coast of Washington state, D'Aoust devoured books on everything from spells and paganism to hallucinogens and eco-feminism. She earned her biochemistry degree at the Evergreen State College in Olympia while working in the school library and taking a linguistics class alongside Carrie Brownstein.
"I was in Olympia when the whole K Records, Kill Rock Stars scene was popping off," D'Aoust recalls. "That stuff definitely encouraged me, because the Riot Grrrls were off the hook. Kathleen Hanna was living in Olympia at the time, so I got to take part in that environment of empowerment for women. It had a very positive effect on me."
In 2008, D'Aoust co-wrote a book called The Secret Source: The Law of Attraction and Its Hermetic Influence Throughout the Ages with Feral House publisher Adam Parfrey. Reprinted in 2012 due to high demand, The Secret Source was written in response to the controversial 2006 self-help film (and book) The Secret. "That movie is propaganda," D'Aoust says. "It took this esoteric, occult material and turned it into what's known as spiritual materialism, where you utilize universal concepts for personal gain. So I wrote my book for people who'd seen the movie but had no idea about the real history behind it. The book is meant as the antidote to The Secret."
Along the way, D'Aoust also studied Chinese herbal medicine, acupuncture, and several different styles of martial arts. After college she went to Seattle, where she worked at the public library in the Ballard neighborhood. In 2000 she moved to Los Angeles, where her CV helped her land a job at the Philosophical Research Society, a nonprofit learning center founded in 1934 by Canadian philosopher, author, and mystic Manly P. Hall. "I was riding my little pink granny Schwinn down Los Feliz Boulevard when I saw PRS," D'Aoust says. "I went in, and they needed a librarian."
The library at PRS is no ordinary library. With a collection of rare and antiquarian books on philosophy, history, and religion—including a Mayan codex written on deerskin—the library does not allow visitors to sign books out: Everything must be viewed on the premises.
Some of the scientists who made the most profound changes in terms of humanity were looking at alchemical material. I mean, Newton made an astrological chart for every day.
In addition to her librarian duties, D'Aoust began giving weekly lectures at PRS on topics such as magic, shamanism, and alchemy, chemistry's medieval predecessor that focused on the transformation of matter. (Specifically, into gold, or into a "universal elixir" that would cure all diseases and make humans immortal.) She called the series "Magic School." Again, her scientific pedigree often kept the discussions from delving too deep into the twilight zone. "Alchemists were my major focus at PRS," she offers. "I spent so much time studying chemistry at school that alchemy made total sense. Some of the scientists who made the most profound changes in terms of humanity—Isaac Newton, Nikola Tesla, Niels Bohr—were looking at alchemical material. I mean, Newton made an astrological chart for every day, and he was the person who figured out the laws of the universe. Pretty good, right?"
D'Aoust says she left PRS after 11 years because the administration didn't like that she was referring to herself as a witch. But she recently formed a nonprofit called Well Wishers—"aimed at providing education, dialogue, research and exploration into the well being of humanity and the planet earth," according to the site—in an effort to continue her lecture series.
"The witch thing, that need to know, is fueled by a sense of wonder," she says. "Many people aren't that wonderful. They don't wonder about what people are or what the universe is. So if I can get people to consider, even for a second, what they'd want to know if they could have any information they wanted, that's a victory."