Why use that word? Mostly, because it’s true.
Also, because it’s an incredibly important word.
As Madeline Miller explains in her brilliant Guardian article, From Circe to Clinton: why powerful women are cast as witches, the word witch “reflect[s] our ideas about women back to ourselves.” This lone syllable is a palimpsest of information about women’s history: forms of feminine power, fear of feminine power, and the independence of women who hold power.
I learned I was a witch at age 11. Unfortunately, not by owl.
When I was 9, my progressive Episcopal school hired a remarkably conservative pastor. He taught my third grade Bible class that women were inferior members of the Christian faith. Convinced of my equality, I fought him openly. When the class reached Corinthians, I was exiled to the hallway.
Fortunately, I also spent that year studying Scandinavian history and mythology. I thus realized that pre-Christian spiritual alternatives existed, but the old gods still seemed distant, found only in fairy tales and books of ancient history.
Two years later, I stumbled on a curious volume at a used book fair. It was pink, with an picture of a beautiful woman on the cover and a compelling title: The Holy Book of Women’s Mysteries. I took it home and devoured it in one sitting.
Running into my mother’s bedroom, waving the book like a flag, I hollered, “Mom! I understand now! I’M A WITCH! Everything makes sense!” I was deliriously happy.
My mother lowered her newspaper and said levelly, “OK. But you can’t ever say that to anyone else. They won’t understand.”
If you’ve met me, you know I’m a rules-follower. (Well, except when my Bible teacher tells me to accept my subservience.) I didn’t speak the word “witch” to anyone else for nearly ten years.
Yet, I was a lucky wee witch: I had little supervision, an allowance, subway tokens, and all of New York City at my disposal. I bought a tarot deck at a comic book shop, made a wand from a branch found in Central Park, taught myself to meditate, and spent hours on the floor of Barnes and Noble devouring feminist classics and occult texts.
I paid scant attention to pop cultural depictions of witchcraft. It seemed a bit dangerous: would my curiosity indicate that I was, indeed, a witch? Also, I didn’t want to get my information from Willow. I wanted real magic.
When I reached Duke University, I found a trove of resources in the Divinity Library, which was often empty and had a forgotten copy machine in the basement. I studied there, Xeroxing whole chapters from Doreen Valiente’s works after I finished my homework.
I also found mentors: a married pair of witches raising their young daughter in the craft. They took me in, filled the many gaps in my knowledge, taught me how to perform rituals with proper tools and other witches, and coached me through many challenges. But they practiced in secret, because North Carolina wasn’t a safe place to be a witch in the 1990s. So I practiced in secret, too.
Until I met my husband. Nominally Christian, he was remarkably sanguine about my beliefs and befuddled by my secrecy. We spoke Methodist vows at our wedding, but did so bathed in sunshine and surrounded by flowers, bees, and butterflies, so that I could feel the presence of the divine.
I stuck a toe out of the broom closet after my daughter’s birth. As her primary role model, secrecy and sneaking around seemed like a terrible precedent to set. We decided to become an interfaith family: our daughter was baptized, but also included in my observances. Today, we celebrate all pagan holidays and some Christian holidays. Openly.
Yet, I didn’t really leave the broom closet until we moved to Asheville, where I found allies, resources, and wise teachers including Byron Ballard, Becky Beyer, Sarah Chappell, Maia Toll, Jodi Rhoden, and Katie Vie. When I stopped hiding, I found my tribe.
So, what do I believe now?
I am an animist, which means that I perceive all natural things – rocks, plants, trees – as in some way alive. I also believe in divine immanence – an organizing force in the universe that is both holy and present in all natural things. I believe we can perceive divine order in the patterns of sacred geometry – pentagrams, spirals, stars, whorls, the Fibonacci sequence. (Here, let Donald Duck explain!) Thus, I believe nature is to be cherished, protected, and venerated.
Views about classic theological questions – the soul, the afterlife – vary widely among animists. Personally, I think our bodies and consciousness return to nature, but I really don’t know what that means. I doubt my mind is capable of understanding it.
Paganism is a polytheistic religious practice. I believe it is difficult for the human mind to approach the divine without some organizing principles. Gods, goddesses, myths, and stories help us conceive of the divine in a concrete way. Forming a relationship with one of these manifestations is a way to venerate the divine in the material world.
Views about classic theological questions vary as widely as you might expect among pagans. We have a “family goddess” and organize our veneration around her symbolism and incarnation.
Witchcraft is a practice, not a religion. Thus, one can be pagan and a witch, pagan but not a witch, and a witch but not a pagan. I happen to be both. There are too many strands of witchcraft to list here.
Witchcraft, as I define it, is the practice of magic.
I think of magic as the conscious direction of intention on the material world. My practices are informed by Reclaiming, Norse, and Dianic Wiccan practices. (But I no longer use materials created by trans-exclusionary authors.) I’m also starting to learn about Appalachian folk magic, since I’m surrounded by it. However, I also think of magic and science as a spectrum: magic can be defined as a collection of observed (and still somewhat fuzzy) knowledge that has been passed down along generations but not incorporated into the laws and rules of “science.” I read Sagan and Einstein along with spell books.
My daily spiritual practices include meditation; reading tarot; caring for our land; invoking, spending time in the presence of, and making offerings to our family’s matron goddess; working on our family altar; casting spells; and taking classes in herbalism, mysticism, or history. Special spiritual practices are reserved for holidays known as sabbats and esbats.
Sabbats are the eight holy days observed by many Euro-American pagans and witches. They represent spokes on the Wheel of the Year. These are holidays for our family, and we have special traditions associated with each. Many are revivals of pre-Christian festival days, and fall close to popular holidays. Samhain is one of the holiest days of the year, often referred to as “The Witches’ New Year.” Yule is a lot like Christmas, so our family observes a full week of wintry celebrations. Imbolc is the return of the sun, a better version of Groundhog Day. Ostara is very similar to Easter. Beltane is May Day, and my daughter’s school actually celebrates a version of it with costumes, maypole dancing, treats, and games. Summer Solstice, or Litha, is a time for staying up with the sun, catching fireflies, drinking champagne in the grass, and making strawberry shortcakes. Lammas is the first harvest festival; we visit local farms, make bread, and learn about food systems. Mabon, or Autumn Equinox, is the big harvest festival, and I see it as the kickoff of the “season of the witch,” when everyone is getting ready for Halloween and I can luxuriate in feeling normal for a month! We carve pumpkins, pick apples, and decorate like love children of the Addams and the Griswolds.
Esbats are rituals held at the Full Moon and New Moon. These are special times for holding rituals and casting spells, so I set up a small ritual for my daughter wherein I teach her some new skill like grounding or casting a circle. Then I do my own rituals and spellwork after she’s in bed.
My decision to leave the broom closet was informed by (1) a new sense of safety, because witchcraft is extremely popular right now, but also (2) a new sense of responsibility, because of the misogyny unearthed in the 2016 election.
Clearly, the election itself was informed by a persistent hatred of powerful women. “Witch” played a strong role in misogynistic descriptions and depictions of Hillary Clinton. For younger women, especially witches like myself, this was alternately infuriating and thrilling. It was both a denigration of us as individuals and a recognition of our political power.
As Kristen Sollee has explained, “Witches have always been politically radical, in my opinion, but it seems that even more American witches are these days because the internet allows for a new kind of organizing on a larger scale.“ After the election, activist witches began to organize, often via the internet or in spaces created by feminist entrepreneurs. W.I.T.C.H’s many outposts. Intersectional feminist events at Hauswitch, Catland, Ritualcravt. (And many more I’m surely leaving out.)
Women who were witches – and women who weren’t – began to see themselves reflected in the activism of witchcraft.
Then Donald Trump co-opted the term “witch hunt.” It rang hollow. As Josephine Livingston said:
On the one side, we have the young woman. Her natal chart is fully indexed; she can read tarot. She knows that Planned Parenthood guards her liberty. Her interest in witchhood is bound up with her political conscience, gender identity, and sense of humor. On the other, the President of the United States. His witchhood is, by contrast, a simple claim: that enemies hunt him for no good reason.
Like Livingston, I believe that “the only sorcery effective against him is solidarity: more magic, more craft, more witches.”
If you can hex, do it.
If you can work to regenerate the earth, do it.
If you can bind, do it.
If you have the power of persuasion, use it.
But above all…
If you’re a witch, use the word.
It’s a powerful word. It rings with history, beauty, pain, and magic. We could all use a little more magic right now, by which I simply mean a little more intention in our relations with the material world, and a little more faith that our intentions matter.
“We are the granddaughters of the witches you could not burn.” It’s not a biological claim. It’s a tribal cry of belonging. A recognition of my powerful foremothers, the women who were called “witch”: Cleopatra, Joan of Arc, Anne Boleyn, the herbalists, the alewives, the midwives, Hillary.
I’m a witch.