23 May 2012, 11:59
Photo by Amanda Pratt.
My favourite childhood book was definitely The Witches. I dreamed of one day growing up to be The Grand High Witch, & how I would spend my days thinking of ways to squelch children. I wanted to wear a wig & gloves, & be able to use my own spit for ink!
“The eyes,” my grandmother said. “Look carefully at the eyes, because the eyes of a REAL WITCH are different from yours and mine. Look in the middle of each eye where there is normally a little black dot. If she is a witch, the black dot will keep changing colour, and you will see fire and you will see ice dancing right in the very centre of the coloured dot. It will send shivers running all over your skin.” (The Witches)
“Witch” is one of the most evocative words in the English language. Whenever we read it or hear it, some kind of image is immediately brought to mind — & it’s not necessarily very positive. When someone says it, you think of Fairuza Balk floating on her toes in The Craft... You think of striped stockings & The Wizard Of Oz.
But the place our mind goes & the truth about witches are often two entirely different things.
History lesson time! Before Christianity, people celebrated the seasons in their own way, with rituals & rites that they felt brought them luck. When Christianity started to spread, “pagan” became a blanket term for anyone who didn’t show an interest in organised religion. While people previously lived in harmony with people they called witches, believing them simply to be people who possessed magical powers, that began to change.
What had previously been a belief that some people possessed supernatural abilities (which were sometimes used to protect the people) now became a sign of a pact between the people with supernatural abilities and the devil. To justify the killings, Christianity and its proxy secular institutions deemed witchcraft as being associated to wild Satanic ritual parties in which there was much naked dancing, orgy sex, and cannibalistic infanticide. (Source)
Hysteria swept the world, & an estimated 40,000-60,000 people were burned at the stake. Witch-hunts still happen today in some parts of Africa, India, Papua New Guinea & Saudi Arabia. (Also, did you know there’s a lot of logic to support the idea that most of the Christian holidays we celebrate today were totally co-opted from the early Pagan festivals? More info here & here & here — thanks, Jennifer!)
So it’s sad but no huge surprise that even today, the word “witch” is still somewhat loaded.
All of this feels very far removed from what I understand of modern witchcraft, but that’s not something I feel I have the authority to talk about. Instead, I went straight to the source!
When I put out the call for witches to interview, I was thrilled when two women, Kristy & Grace, responded eagerly. Kristy has been practicing & investigating paganism for about a year, while Grace has been involved in it for as long as she can remember. I wanted to get their perspective on what they do, & think what they said was wonderfully illuminating. Their answers are also quite different! I think you’ll adore learning about their world.
Who are you & what do you do?
Kristy: My name is Kristy and on the weekends I moonlight as a masked vigilante dressed as a platypus. Now that you know my darkest secret, you should also know that I’m a 26 year old who moved from Buffalo, NY to Albuquerque, NM about 6 months ago. I’m still on the road to getting to know myself and discover my passions but in the meantime I work as an administrative assistant at the University of New Mexico because I like to eat. I recently adopted a corgi-chihuahua-basenji mix whom I named Basil because in my mind he’s British. I’ve recently discovered that sunshine and fresh air are good things, as everything in Albuquerque revolves around the outdoors. I’m learning to enjoy hiking with my boyfriend although the topic of camping is still up for debate. I absolutely love anything animated and I’m a solid gamer girl. I recently started a blog because like so many, I enjoy writing and wanted a place to archive of my thoughts and ideas. I am also Pagan.
Grace: My name is Grace Quantock and I am a wellness provocateur, writer and Soul Detox energy therapist. I practice the traditional Celtic ways of my Welsh/Irish family in the Welsh mountains where I live.
When, how & why did you convert to paganism? Did you have an epiphany moment or was it a conclusion you came to slowly, over time?
Kristy: I sat on this question forever, revisiting all my past experiences and trying to think of the best answer. I could probably write a dissertation cataloguing every detail on my encounters with different religions, my trip to Salem and how I finally got to where I am spiritually. It was a slow process but I think the fact that it was slow led me to the right place.
My parents were never particularly religious. I can’t recall anything religious associated with my dad although I think his family would call themselves Christians. My mom has a Jewish background and was always spiritual but I think she struggled with her own feelings of religion for many years before she made her own religious commitment to Judaism once more.
I became interested in Polytheism when I was very young. My parents took me to see Disney’s Hercules and while I can’t remember actually watching the film, I remember that being the catalyst and being very struck with the idea of multiple gods. I remember thinking, “If I was God, I’d be really lonely without others to hang out with”.
When I was in my teens I always felt as though I was searching for something to believe in. But I could never really make the commitment to a specific religion because I never felt fully comfortable. I had dabbled here and there but lost interest in it quickly, partially because I have the attention span of a goldfish. I also had a lot of questions that I could never seem to find answers to. The teenage years are the time when you’re fighting to be an adult and railing against it at the same time. Blind faith in an authority figure and being told how to practice, when to practice and who I should and shouldn’t love and accept just wasn’t sitting well with me so I went without.
Last year I met a co-worker who was pagan and so I attached myself to her underbelly like a baby monkey. It was the perfect opportunity to learn more about paganism and what it meant. It was a really inspirational and life changing. I started to get more information, meet people and take a class. It was then I decided that I wanted to be pagan.
Grace: It is what I was brought up with. I know nothing else. I am Welsh with Irish grandparents, we celebrate the traditional Celtic holidays. My mother always says that this is part of our heritage and that we cannot lose or break it. We are the result, the celebration and the hope for generations before us and for those who come after. Keeping the practices is a way of preserving our own living history and all they lived through for us.
There is a museum here with a recreated Celtic village in it (that I, as a school girl, helped to build). Every Gwyl Galan Gaeaf (Yule/Midwinter) my mother says, ‘Imagine 2000 years ago, we would all be living in the Celtic village and here we are celebrating the same rites on the same days’. We remember our history and the old magics. I pray as my ancestors prayed. We have a line, bent and scarred but unbroken, that traces back to when this land was new and we kept to our wisdom.
Magic is all around us, next to our skin, closer than our breath but we close our eyes to it. The Celts would have looked out of their roundhouses and seen the spirits in the trees and the Goddess flowing through the streams as clearly as they saw their fire pit or the trees themselves.
What would they think of us, all running around unseeing, with power that could move mountains just a fingers breadth from us? Or would they pity all we have lost and thrown away, the lands unseen but so real. In the Celtic traditions Annwyn, the Otherworld, the Summerlands where we go after death, is not in the sky, it is sometimes said to be in the sea between Wales and Ireland and sometimes to be all around us, just beyond the veil.
But there are special times and special places where the veil between the worlds is thin, and on these nights the old Gods walk again.
What does being pagan mean to you?
Kristy: Freedom and creativity! There is so much expression and creativity that it’s almost tangible. You can prepare your rituals in any way you want and it never has to be the same. It gives you a fantastic opportunity to use your imagination in celebratory way and when you’re in a group it gives everyone a chance to share their ideas and experiences. You can work as a team and come together to make this beautiful, exciting, magical outing.
Grace: It is connection, community, roots and living.
Connection to the Divine and the divine spark within my own soul.
Connection to the land I live in, the land I was born to.
Connection to community around me, family is a massively important part of my life.
Connection to the community of my coven.
Connection with compassion to the community of my country, the earth and it’s creatures. I have been veggie all my life and live vegan and ethically now.
Connection to the Divine, through prayer, through magic, through rites and celebrations, through kissing my husband, stroking our rescue dog… We honour the Divine in the mountains, in the heavens, in the wild and secret places, in the ocean, in a beautiful morning, in our own hearts.
How big a part does paganism play in your daily life?
Kristy: I don’t get the opportunity to do rituals or meditate as often as I like but I’m hoping when I move into a bigger place I will be able to create a space dedicated specifically to the practice so I can deepen my connections. I try to remember to say something to the Goddess every day so I can just check in and remain connected. I feel this is really important as it provides a deeper connection and I just don’t want to be buzzing in when I need something. On the days that are more stressful, I may need to create a shield or pull more energy from around me so I can make it through the day.
Grace: This is a difficult question as I don’t know any other way to live. I pray everyday, I speak to my guides, I plant by the moon, I plan my meetings and product launches taking into account astrological aspects, I read cards, take clients for Soul Detox sessions, I do readings, dowse daily, practice Reiki, pray in the garden. I lean on the Divine, I work to be of service to the world.
I think it is a big part of my life.
I pray that my faith deepens and that I may be guided, follow my path, be of service and live well.
Photo by Emily Soto.
Are you part of a community of like-minded people? Who do you turn to when you need advice or guidance?
Kristy: When I made the move to Albuquerque one of the first things I did was research local shops. Having access to resources such as supplies and books are so helpful. Sure, you can order the stuff online but I also like being able to go and explore. There is a fairly large and active community in the area which is fantastic but I haven’t felt confident or secure enough to join them. There are still a lot of things I want to learn and study on my own first and that’s simply because there are so many different ideals and paths you can explore that I want to get a better sense of what works for me so I don’t wind up “going with the flow” just to feel included.
Grace: I am very blessed to be part of a coven who support, advise, help and celebrate with us. I turn to my family and to my friend Callie Broussard Wheeler who is an Urban Minister with a doctorate in divinity, we often pray together and do moon rites long distance. Dyana Valentine is also a wonderful spiritual support and a well of deeper dreaming information.
Are you “openly” pagan? Why or why not?
Kristy: I wish I was more open about it. I had a co-worker that was openly pagan and open gay. She was the embodiment of the “Loud and Proud” mentality which is very inspirational and I am striving towards that. But she had her fair share of hardships with it. A co-worker once threw holy water at her and called her a witch. Unfortunately there are still many ideas about paganism that are just archaic. People hear “pagan” and just shut off their minds. They are uncomfortable with what they can’t understand. Even my boyfriend has a hard time with it. He’s a scientist and because he can’t understand the ideas or the practices, he’s uncomfortable. My dad and his side of the family don’t know and may never know. Much like being gay they wouldn’t be able to understand and would be too uncomfortable to try. My mom knows and she’s totally cool with it. She understands that spirituality is all about what feels right to you as an individual and she’s open minded enough to let me explore, let me believe and even share in some of it with me.
Grace: Yes… But I don’t call myself pagan very often. It would probably be the most easily recognised word associated with me, but when asked I tend to say I practice the traditional Celtic beliefs. Pagans don’t prothletise, or at least, none that I know, so I don’t tend to bring it up unless asked directly.
Why? My work involves magic and so it is not detrimental to that, my family support my beliefs and I have been blessed to build a community around me that celebrates such joy and connection.
Why not? Because I don’t feel the need for a label or a category. I’m not Alexandrian or Dianic, although I am trained to first degree.
My connection is more part of my identity than what that connection happens to be called.
What is the best thing about being pagan? What is the worst thing?
Kristy: I love the freedom that comes along with being pagan and the variety. As I learn more I can feel comfortable taking bits and pieces from others and using them how I want. I also really feel comforted by the idea of a Matron or Patron god or goddess and that you can have more than one, it’s very freeing and I don’t have to feel so completely tied down.
There are a lot of ridiculous misconceptions and people are judgmental. That can make it really difficult and that’s one of the reason I have to be really mindful of who I share my beliefs with.
Grace: The best thing is that it is my path to the Divine and that I have found it and can live it. The best thing is feeling the magic flow, the moon come down, the spell fly, the Lord and Lady move in your heart.
Are there any general misconceptions about your beliefs?
Kristy: There are an insane amount of misconceptions. A lot of people think we run naked into fields and slaughter small animals in order to cast dark spells on people who wronged us. And you know what? There may be groups that do that but their beliefs and practices don’t represent the whole. They may call themselves pagans but I would not. Obviously everyone practices a little differently and is taught differently, follow different gods, have different rules. But Harm None was the absolute law and one of the first things you learn. I’ve met several people, all with different ways of practicing and that law was universal. We don’t cast spells to bend anyone’s will (love spells) or use magic to harm any living thing. Casting a spell is no different from praying, it’s just a physical manifestation. It’s a way to draw power from the energies around and give your prayer more oomph!
Grace: Yes, but the more confident I get in expressing my beliefs the less negativity I receive. I have written about spirituality for everyone from generational witches to traditional Christians.
The Divine is the Divine, after a certain point the rest is just details.
What books or websites would you recommend to anyone interested in learning more about paganism?
Kristy: If you’re interested in paganism I want to first say that is fantastic and welcome! It’s an incredible experience and I hope you are able to find what you are seeking and if you find that it’s not for you then I hope that Goddess will illuminate your way to wherever you end up. I also want people to be aware that paganism is a path with many divergences. Most people hear pagan and they think wiccan but not all pagans are wiccans. I feel that being pagan is a much broader term and it incorporates many spiritual paths and Wicca is one of those paths that you may opt to take.
You also have to do what is right for you. You may find you this idea from this source and this idea from that source but not necessarily agree with every idea. Take what you want and make it your own. I took classes with a group that wanted me to purchase all sorts of tools in order to perform rituals. I didn’t really care for that idea and tools can get very expensive. Instead I started paying attention to how certain items made me feel and would use those instead. The central power is going to come from you and what you draw into yourself, not the tools you use.
With that being said, everyone needs to start somewhere. I absolutely recommend looking for shops in your area. I love having the chance to speak with someone and get a sense of what their ideas and practices are. See if they have classes that you can take, it’s a great opportunity to meet other people with the same interests and get all your questions answered.
Silver Ravenwolf is no doubt going to be a name you’ll hear at one point or another. She is a very well-known practitioner and many many people choose to follow her. She’s also the founder of The Black Forest Clan one of the largest and most well-known organizations in the pagan and wiccan community. They have clans all across the states and provide a very thorough training program for those interested in following. She is wiccan but her books are very informative and easy to read. They provide a lot of information that are useful to beginners regardless even if you aren’t following the path of Wicca.
Christopher Penczak was the very first recommendation I received when I was looking for information. He is the founder of The Temple of Witchcraft which is a series of training books and/or classes. I find Christopher Penczak’s work really interesting because he didn’t start exploring witchcraft until college and then he began to explore it as a science. He studied a lot of different forms and tried several different things. I think his work is a little broader than Silver Ravenwolf’s as he seems to draw from a lot of different concepts and sources such as the Qabalah and the Tree of Life. His lessons are broken down and easy to understand and it allows for you to move at your pace.
Grace: I would recommend that you connect to your own Divine spark through sitting and going within.
We are of the earth and we can return to it. You may live in a city, you may not think you can know this. We can all know this. Listen to the old songs and stories told around the fires, they are inside you. We just need to quiet ourselves and listen.
If you are connecting to the traditional aspects of paganism I have written of here then do connect to your own roots, or to where you are now building your own traditions. Please don’t lift other people’s cultural practices wholesale. I know they might look gorgeous but your own will be better as they will be yours. Unless you are Welsh/speak Welsh it makes no sense for you to pray in that language. For example many people lift Native American traditions when they are not Native American. I feel strongly about this. Don’t, they are living through genocide, don’t force cultural imperialism. Furthermore other people’s practices are just that, part of a practice. If you pick and choose you miss the safeguards and the deeper meanings. If you are really connected to eagles, then why go for the totem? Find if there are eagles near you, or if there is something from your own lineage which vibes.
Books which I would recommend are The Red Book: A Deliciously Unorthodox Approach to Igniting Your Divine Spark by Sera Beak and Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner by Scott Cunningham.
Thank you so, so much to both Grace & Kristy for sharing their stories with us! I loved doing these interviews, & feel so inspired by hearing about their lives.