The Wiccans and Witches of Wes is the first installment of a three-part interview series, conducted and edited by Danielle Cohen. She can be reached at email@example.com
In the wake of #MeToo and the dawn of what’s sure to be a new era of female empowerment, witches have emerged out of the woodwork of myth and fantasy as trendy torchbearers representative of a mysteriously all-powerful feminine energy. Celebrations of witches in movies and TV have blossomed, and legions of women have begun evoking the term as a harbinger of female empowerment. In October, the New York Times ran an op-ed entitled “Yes, This Is a Witch Hunt. I’m a Witch and I’m Hunting You,” subverting Woody Allen’s dismissive labelling of the explosion of allegations in Hollywood as a “witch hunt atmosphere.” Leading up to Halloween, Vulture introduced “Witch Week,” a 13-piece series dedicated to what they called “pop culture’s most wicked depiction of female power.” The witch has become a glamorous emblem of the empowerment that women are seeking out these days—something spiritual and uplifting, but also threatening, filled with a mystical power that can take down even the mightiest of opponents.
But witches were around long before the era of explosive feminist resistance in which we find ourselves. One of the earliest witch references can be found in the Bible, when King Saul asks a witch to summon Samuel’s spirit to help him defeat the Philistine army. Starting in the mid-1400s, witch hysteria sprouted in Europe and spread to America, leading to the 1692 Salem Witch Trials. Since then, witches have seemingly existed mainly in the realm of fiction, most frequently as mystical, evil entities. Witchcraft in the real world became associated with Wicca, a religious movement developed in the 1950s by a man named Gerald Gardner. While most Wiccans practice witchcraft and many witches happen to be Wiccans, one is in no way a prerequisite of the other. Wiccanism is a Pagan religion oriented mainly around the moon and its cycles, and witchcraft is a practice that often stems from Wiccan sets of beliefs. Think about Buddhism and meditation—the practice is linked to the religion, but not all practitioners are religious, and not all devotees practice.
So what exactly is witchcraft and why is it so big right now? The Argus sat down with two witches to find out what the practice is all about. We’ll refer to them by their first names only, at their requests. Natasha ’21, a pre-med biology major who identifies as both a Wiccan and a witch, has been practicing for eight years. She calls herself the resident witch at Wesleyan, and often reaches out on Instagram to people she thinks might be practicing (“witchlings,” as she calls them). Abby ’21, who identifies as a witch, is a prospective FGSS and American Studies major who discovered witchcraft when she was 15 and began frequenting occult stores in her native Rhode Island. Abby and Natasha told The Argus about how they understand witchcraft and Wicca and what the craft means to its practitioners.
To start out, can you tell me how you might define witchcraft?
A: It’s utilizing energy that can be found in oils and crystals and natural things along with your own energy to produce a desired effect. For me, witchcraft and spells are for accomplishing things that I can accomplish but that I’m having a little bit of trouble getting there. And I need a little extra boost.
What exactly is the difference between being a witch and a Wiccan? Can you be both?
N: Wiccanism is a religion, just like Judaism or Christianity or any other religion. And witchcraft is a cultural practice, like how meditation could be a cultural practice to some people. The best analogy I have for it is string theory, which says everything in the universe is made of these little vibrating strings. Wiccanism is the personification of those strings as being a living entity, and witchcraft is the manipulation of those strings, utilizing the energy to enhance the physical power that everyone has inside of them. But Wiccanism is as formal as other religions, so there’s no one text that you can find all the answers in.
A: Primarily for me, Wicca is its own separate religion. Some Wiccans don’t even practice magic. I’ve looked into it—it’s a really beautiful religion, but I didn’t feel that strong of a pull towards it and I didn’t want to partake in something I wasn’t fully there for and believed in, because I felt that was disrespectful. So I just decided to stick with witchcraft.
N: From my experience, the majority of Wiccans also practice witchcraft, because witchcraft is a way that Wiccans can connect with the earth and enhance the “spiritualness” that they feel. But a lot of witches don’t feel the religious aspect of it, just like how someone could meditate and not be a Buddhist.
What drew you to the religion and the craft?
A: I have not been practicing nearly as long as Natasha. We’ve talked about how we feel like most witches and Wiccans are drawn to the craft just through popular media that you see, and just being, like, “That’s really interesting. Where does that come from?” The way that I got started was I just Googled local witch and occult stores, because they’re usually owned by witches. So I just went and said to them, “I’m really interested in getting into this path. Can you help me with it?”
N: I think my mentor witch was Willow from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Watching that in, like, seventh grade, I just thought, “How fricking cool, I wish that was real!” And at the library, there was a big box of free books, and I still have the book that I found—it’s called “Encyclopedia of 5,000 Spells,” and it just talked all about Wiccanism and witchcraft, and I was, like, “Oh my god, it’s real! What?!” And I started looking into it more and going to occult shops mostly, because Southern California, where I grew up, is a very hippie, spiritual place, so there were plenty of access points for me. And that just kind of spiraled from there.
A: That book, by the way, is the coolest thing ever. It’s so wild.
N: I would say there are a lot of books like that. There’s significantly fewer than if you would go to the Christianity section of Olin, which would probably have, like, its own floor, but there’s at least a solid bookcase.
A: There’s not much research on witchcraft as separate from Wicca. I think a lot of people, when they’re doing research or scholarly work, focus on Wicca because it’s an extra added layer of a religion and history.
N: Also, Paganism is an umbrella term for any non-Abrahamic religion, so a lot of times a book will talk about Paganism and incorporate Wiccanism, witchcraft, Buddhism—all of the different non-Abrahamic religions — and kind of clump it together in a mesh of information. So you take from it what you can. There’s, like, five or six very well-known Wiccan authors who talk about Wiccanism and witchcraft. But for the most part a lot of the authors don’t recognize Wiccanism or witchcraft as being very individualistic for the person, so they kind of set the rules in their book, because they think their idea of it is what’s right. So that can be sort of alienating for someone if they read one book and they’re, like, “Oh, so this is the truth.” And then they read something else and they’re, like, “Oh, that’s the truth.” So part of it is knowing that whenever you’re reading literature about Wiccanism or witchcraft, no one truth is the absolute truth.
How did everyone react when you told them you were getting into witchcraft?
A: My family thought it was a joke. They were just kinda, like, “Okay…” I tried out a lot of things in high school and my parents were kinda, like, “Yeah, sure, whatever, go for it.” And then I kept bringing it up and they were, like, “Are you serious about this?” And then they thought it was, like, Satanic and they were, like, “Break this down for us because now we’re concerned.” But there was nothing negative they had about it. They just didn’t believe it.
N: I never told my family, but my family’s very spiritual, like, hippie Buddhist-y yoga white people, so they would always be, like, “Oh, a little Harry Potter over there with sage cleansing your room—how cute.” And then I never really told anyone in high school. It wasn’t until I got to Wesleyan that I started telling people, just because I knew this was so much more of an open community. They have it as one of the selected religions on the application to come to Wesleyan, so, I figured it’d be fine to talk about it here.
Have you guys found a sense of community with other witches throughout your life?
A: Sort of. I mean, my best friend began practicing witchcraft around the same time I did, so there was that. And I became friends with owners of occult shops so I could talk to them as a form of mentorship. but I didn’t really find, like, a coven.
Is there any community on campus or in Connecticut?
N: On campus, I don’t know of any specific covens. A coven can be anything from two or more witches who choose to practice together. And from what I’ve seen at Wesleyan, I don’t know if I’ve met another Wiccan. I think it’s mostly other spiritual people who connect with witchcraft or who don’t specifically define themselves as witches but use some of the practices—in a respectful way, obviously, but it’s their craft, so that’s how they choose to practice. I’ve done rituals with people, and I’ve done stuff with other Occult-practicing individuals, but I would say there’s not really a strict coven of multiple people here.
A: One really cool thing about covens is that usually they seek you out. It’s not, like, “Hey, I wanna join you guys.” You have to be brought into that. Unless you’re starting one.
Do you know of any covens?
N: I’m pretty sure there aren’t any covens or explicit groups on campus, but me and one friend of mine will sometimes do rituals together.
If you were sought out by a coven, would you join it?
A: I don’t think I would, not because I’m against them but because I haven’t been practicing witchcraft for that long, and that’s a lot of energy at once. So I don’t know if I’d personally be ready for it. The way I was taught was, like, you’re not gonna know about a coven unless they want you to know and they want you to join.
And there’s no club.
A: No, but that would be cool. Natasha’s the only other person I know who self-identifies as a witch on campus. It’s usually such an individualistic practice, and it’s not like: here’s something that all witches do. So I haven’t found a lot of other people who are big and open about it.
Let’s talk about spells for a minute. Do you use books to cast them?
N: 90 percent of the time, I write my own spells. But sometimes I’ll use a sigil or something from an already-known text.
N: A sigil is basically a symbol that represents a phrase of intent. I pretty much make one sigil a day. It would be, like, I’m gonna have a bio test today, so I’ll write, “I will pass my bio test.” Because we all know acing it is off the table. You write it on a piece of paper…I can show you. (She writes out the letters, manipulating them as she speaks.)
A: Natasha actually turned me on to this. I did one yesterday.
N: I love sigils so much, because it’s so quick and easy. So I’ll say, like, “Today is a good day.” So the first thing to do is cross out the vowels, because they’re the weakest of the letters, then cross out the doubles, so, two Ys—you only need one Y. And then you line up the remaining letters, so T, D, S, G, Y. Then arrange them into the most square shape you can. And then you kind of make a symbol, but it doesn’t have to be anything specific. You kinda just do whatever you feel is right, and then some people have specific markers. Like, I’ll always put two dots in places, and then that would be my sigil for the day and then I’ll draw it on my hand or my foot or something, and then I’d charge it with energy to give it more magical potential. With actual spells that are more effort and thought, I would probably do one a week or one every fortnight maybe, because that’s a lot of time and energy.
Danielle Cohen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.