An intimate look into the witch's cauldron
By: Emma Chekroun
They walk among you—one could almost mistake them as one of the average Janes getting a morning coffee, rushing off to class, or picking up their kids from daycare.
“They” are wiccans, and the reason they are able to camouflage as Linda from English or Todd from the grocery store is because they aren’t skinwalkers, they are peers and pretty soon, if not already, they may be akin to celebrities.
As “spirituality kits” hit the mainstream and rose quartz vaginal eggs join the bathroom counters of women across the nation, thanks to Goop, Paganism is becoming chic. But pseudo metaphysical trends, such as crystals, when adopted by major brands and cultures, pose challenges to understanding “witches” on an intimate level.
All this is putting the cow before the cart, or, in this case, the broomstick before the witch. Metaphysics broadly relates to studies of what “cannot be reached through objective studies of material reality” or looking outside the material world to define reality. Socially, at least in the United States, metaphysical religion/spirituality is associated with most non-traditional, non-monotheistic religions.
Within this classification, Paganism is a broad religious term that contains different branches, which stem off into different types of Wicca or Celtic-based beliefs. While this is a general definition, and it is not a goal to simplify complex religions, sometimes this is not only ok, but often helpful.
Liz Johnson, one of the owners of Magus Books and Herbs in Northeast Minneapolis, states that over generalized approaches to spirituality are how everyone starts on their path.
“I accept that people are where they are, and if all they are ready for is that baseline idea,” she said. “I’m fine with that.”
The goal Liz Johnson describes isn’t to be the gatekeepers of faith but to find something that brings challenges and joy to life.
Everyone has a different need from faith, and “not everyone is going to want to become a priest,” she explains. Cultures always meet up and exchange goods and then change those products.
For Liz Johnson, it hasn’t been threatening to see that Paganism has entered the mainstream, it’s actually been fun. She touches on the excitement of people feeling more comfortable to reach out and blend practices with religions they’ve engaged in for a lifetime. This can involve buying tarot decks or candles to accompany more traditional prayers.
“As long as what they’re getting from it helps them with their lives,” Liz Johnson said, “Why not reach for those tools?”
“Hopefully people do it with respect.”
There have been challenges to Pagan communities internally as well as externally. In major cities like Minneapolis, it isn’t hard to find a variety of cultural enclaves. But in more rural areas, finding that community can be challenging.
“I'm not afraid to tell people” Lady Ziris (Shawnda Carlson’s magic name), a green witch with a focus on nature, said. “ I’m proud to be one [a witch].”
She adds that it hasn’t always been this easy. Often there was an element of secrecy, having come from rural Iowa. This came in the form of pretending to be Christian, something Ziris hated.
There was often pressure to lay low in her community, where churches dotted every street. Now with her own growing online community, Lady Ziris thrives on nurturing others with her spiritual advice.
Challenges have shifted from strict religious disdain to a new form of evil.
“Pop culture moves in a circle,” she explains. “Now it’s the witches’ turn.”
“Like an iceberg”
Misinformation—and to an extent, appropriation—has become a real challenge in Pagan circles.
The inaccuracy in portrayal of Pagan practices, specifically for witches, creates miscommunication that can be dangerous when it discounts the challenging past of being a witch.
Ziris mentions shop owners who have remained silent with their religious practices for fear of running their business into the ground.
Online communities like this offer opportunities for witches like Lady Ziris to flourish when surroundings are critical, but it is also a method for people new to Paganism to check-in and explore.
These communities create an element of safety for witches who fear coming out and that might be led astray into cults or just plain negative communities. According to Liz Johnson, it never hurts to check a group against Steve Eichel’s “Six Steps to Spotting a Cult.”
Aside from prevention, online communities offer a chance to glimpse the practices of other religious groups.
“Some might take offense,” said Ziris. She’s even heard that people become defensive and say that they “aren’t a side show to be stared at,” but affirms that they shouldn’t think like that.
Those fears are not an isolated occurrence either. Emily Johnson, a college freshman who was introduced to Wicca through crystal collections and friends, talks about the push pull between the excitement of finding community and the challenge of people who take in Wicca or Paganism on a surface level.
“It’s like an iceberg,” said Emily Johnson.
Essentially, there’s the top, and that is what most people are exposed to, but it takes someone passionate to get deep into the belief and dedicate themselves to daily routines and other aspects of being a witch.
With finding communities, you can fall into that same challenge of only finding people at the top of the iceberg. There are practices, as well, that the outside world may not understand. For example, Emily knows crystals can’t cure you, but they do give a sense of comfort, at least to her.
These varied levels of understanding, knowledge, and personal meaning are where the commercialization of Paganism and Wicca can become a questionable practice. Rayvin Carlson, who has been a solitary practitioner of her faith, and been involved with Paganism her whole life, comments on the multiple meanings that can be donated to being Pagan.
A bevy of stereotypes
Anybody can call themselves a witch, but there is an energy, and you need to know what you are doing with it, she clarifies. After all, Wicca itself is just a branch. When commercialization comes into play, that spirituality can adopt a whole new meaning, Carlson said. The broadness of Paganism can also lend itself to a bevy of stereotypes.
“People ask, ‘Do you dance naked under the full moon?’” Ziris said.
“Do you sacrifice animals?” Emily Johnson said.
These may not be false for every witch but are akin to assuming all Muslims pray five times a day or that all Jewish people abstain from pork—some do, but not all. Because Paganism is a real living and breathing community, it has its good parts and its bad parts like anything else.
An example of those bad parts is how white supremacist groups that have latched onto Paganism, such as the Asatru Folk Assembly who fixate on the survival of “Ethnic European Folk.”
There’s also the idea of curses, which comes from deep in Pagan history. According to Liz Johnson, this negative aspect of the religion comes from a real historical place—back when access to resources was limited, and people wanted to prevent their families from incurring harm. From that same lack of resources, modern Afro-Caribbean traditions reflect that concept of “negative magic” or curses.
“Where is the shining human being who wouldn’t do everything they could to save their family?” Liz Johnson, reflecting the nuance of being Pagan, and, really, of being human, asked.
Terms like evil or satanic are used to paint a caricature of witches as harmful and strange, but the reality of those terms do not line up with their hateful connotations. Even satanists, Ziris clarified, can be lovely, respectful people.
This is all to say, Paganism is an expansive group. Like any religion, it has its highs and lows, along with a dynamic set of individuals that is worth a little exploration before slapping down that credit card to buy a $600 rose quartz.