Am I a witch?

Since my book Empty Cauldrons was published, I’ve had the pleasure of being interviewed by a number of remarkable podcast hosts who are also witches, including Patti Negri (on the Witching Hour), Dawn Hunt (of Cucina Aurora Kitchen Witchery), and the legendary trio who host That Witch Life, namely Courtney Weber, Hilary Whitmore, and Kanani Soleil. I’ve been asked some thoughtful questions about my life and practice, but one that I’ve never been asked is if I’m a witch. Hosts of two of the aforementioned programs assumed out loud that I am, but I’ve never used that word to describe myself. Am I a witch? I am finding that the answer to that question is not immediately obvious to me.

There have been points in my life when I would have answered, “I guess I am,” and others when my response would have been, “Definitely not.” This is a word reclaimed, a word that I have seen transformed over the course of my life from caricature of feminine evil to magic-worker at the margins of the world. It deserves a certain amount of authenticity and commitment before it’s claimed, and in the past I never felt I had both at the same time.

When Courtney Weber asked me the signature That Witch Life question, “When did you realize that you were a magical person?” my response was, “When I got angry at the sky,” when the wind blew down our tent during a really excellent invitational camporee on the grounds of West Point. I should have said that as of that night, I started thinking of the wind as my enemy. My filters were angry, oppositional, and combative, but I was still recognizing that the wind has opinions of its own.

I didn’t even touch upon what was in my earliest formal magical training. It was all about consequences. I was taught that magic can’t affect anyone who doesn’t give it permission, but that setting wards and putting up shields were a form of permission. I was also taught that the impacts of a working are the responsibility of the worker, even if they are unexpected. It was impressed upon me that emotions shape and fire spells, and that working during a period of uncontrolled emotion could yield very unpredictable results.

As a teenager recognizing that the wind is a spirit, my first reaction had been anger because there was a lot of anger within me. Now I was being told that magic feeds on my emotions, that the consequences of my magic were mine to bear, and that the more I incorporated magic into my life, the better the chance that magic would be used against me at some point. Those are the lessons that informed me, and by my early 20s, I just stopped doing magic on my own. I was willing to lend my energy to build a cone of power as part of a group, but on balance I figured that magic was more than likely to backfire on me at that point in my life.

What makes a witch varies across time and space. My friend Penny Novack has been a witch longer than I have been alive, and gave an interview that’s in the book Drawing Down the Moon about that path. Penny holds to the axiom that a witch should do no harm, and should never work dark magic. Witches who began their work more recently are more likely not to follow an explicit “harm none” credo, sometimes arguing that all magic has consequences and that it’s impossible to eliminate them all. On that, I disagree: the one certain way to eliminate all possible negative impacts of magic is to work no magic.

I chose to lay down casting spells because I didn’t want to take risks I did not understand. I chose to lay down casting because I didn’t want to take risks I could understand, either. Is it the casting that makes someone a witch? Penny Novack might disagree. When interviewed by Kirk White for Advanced Circle Magick—the material of which has since been incorporated into Masterful Magick: a Guide for Advanced Wiccan Practice—Penny admits as much. An adept understands consequences to such a degree that very little spell-work is needed to effect a particular change. There is magic in both action and inaction.

“It has so much to do with relationship,” Penny told me. “I know some easy things which are basically more about finding a level of relationship with the world and walking a different path briefly. But intellectually created magic is more like art. There are tools but they are like the short-cuts in math or the ways a good cook uses tools to achieve things which otherwise are difficult and time-consuming. It’s art because you have to pour your own creative fire into the structure for the thing to happen. You don’t just throw your energy at the desired end. You see the potential and you create a conduit shaped by your will and vision. Or you can just make friends with the local elemental spirits and be nice to them all the time so now and then they can do a small favor for you. It’s kind of a way of life.”

Am I a witch? I do work magic, now, for more years than I avoided it. Unlike the wiccans who first taught me, magic is not central to my religion. Unlike the non-wiccan witches who are prominent today, magic is not a pillar of my identity. Animism is a pillar of my identity, and magic that is based on building relationships with spirits resonates in that pillar. I am not the angry adolescent who once screamed defiance at the wind. I am now one who is open to the gifts spirits may choose to bring, and one who engages with those spirits from a place of gratitude. I do not use spells the way I use pens, for example. I’ll reach for a pen multiple times a day. Instead, I use spells the way one of my woodworking friends uses a sawmill: I plan my day around the preparation, and give a lot of thought as to what I want to accomplish before I start the engine. I am also drawn to slow magic: I have one spell that I’ve been actively casting for a dozen years.

The word “witch” has a fluid meaning by design, and I have no doubt that no one in these esoteric communities would question my right to use it. I have raised cones of power in a sacred circle under the auspices of two unnamed deities. I live at a largely private life at the edge of my village, willing to provide aid to those who seek me out, uninterested in promoting witchcraft as a service. That’s enough for me to own the term, perhaps, but it still doesn’t feel like a good fit. I’ll just have to continue to associate with witches I admire, and see if my perception changes.

I may someday be a witch. Time will tell.

water of depression

I am surrounded by thickened water, slogging through a pond or pool that has much more resistance than nature intended. It’s gray: rather than murky, like a pond rich with life, this liquid looks as dense as it feels. My sight is blurred by this near-liquid, and my thoughts slowed as much as my limbs. The desire to cry out is muted by a sense of futility even as it is muffled by the medium surrounding me. It is difficult to rise, to walk, to speak, to think.

Water is the element most often connected with emotions, and it’s the element that is perhaps most polluted by the presence of depression. Those who shared their experiences with me as I wrote Empty Cauldrons used water analogies frequently. Depression is a torrent, a still pool, a sucking swamp, a cold rain, an impenetrable bank of clouds, a thick fog, and capable of drowning those who experience it. Water’s life-affirming qualities are not the ones evoked in these discussions; it’s more Creature from the Black Lagoon than it is Stranger in a Strange Land or Dune. This is water when it brings sickness and death.

Each of the elements has qualities essential to life, and for that reason this experience of water can be transformed. Even though it may feel that water brings only woe during depression, water is central to healing. It is through tears that we humans have learned to release our most intense emotions. In depression we may become convinced that to let those feelings go is to lose ourselves entirely, but this is a lie. It’s an easy lie to believe, because the truth is a paradox: the more we let go, the more we find ourselves. “It’s okay to be sad,” Orion Foxwood told me; I would argue that allowing ourselves to feel sadness is necessary to being a whole person. Reject the lie that emotions must be suppressed.

One of the healing tools I am privileged to be able to use is a bathtub. Whether or not you find a bath useful for cleaning the body, warm water is a balm for spirit and mind. I write about how I use a particular set of stones for easing depression in my bath, stones that each have are known to support emotional health, and also won’t dissolve or fall apart in the tub. I include a ritual with which I have personally had success. Inspired by my interview with Kirk White, I also developed another bathing spell that’s intended to break depression, like a curse. Depression can present in many ways, which is why trying different approaches to address it is worthwhile.

What I cannot stress enough is that among the different approaches used should be techniques to address body, mind, and spirit. Spell-work is not enough. Always act in accordance by seeking professional help for this condition. Driving that point home, a spell provided by Kelden Mercury to me for this book will help in finding a therapist in a time of need.

It gets better, friend.

You are not your emotions

It’s funny how humans see ourselves. We cut ourselves up into disconnected bits when, for example, we imagine that our bodies and minds are separate or disconnected. We lump ourselves together when we think that everything about ourselves begins with thought. That’s what we get for thinking—or at least, for limiting ourselves just to thinking.

During an absolutely delightful interview conversation I had with Dawn Hunt—and will be out on Dawn’s podcast in April, because professionals plan ahead—we talked about the interplay between thoughts and emotions. “Cogito ergo sum,” said Descarte, leading every who learned any western philosophy to presume that because we can think, that everything about us is thought. Or, as Kari Tauring told me for Empty Cauldrons, “It was the moment when we pulled ourselves completely apart.” As thinking animals, we think that our thoughts are the source of emotion. That does not fit my research, or my experience.

Language points to the answer: emotion is of the body. With churning stomachs and gritted teeth, hearts on our sleeves, drenched in sweat, and shivering in apprehension, we are motivated by butterflies and fluttering feelings inside of us, shed tears of sadness, fear, relief, joy, and laughter, and can have our thoughts completely consumed by someone we love or something we said. Emotion is expressed first in the body, as emotions are older than thought, and the outer parts of the brain where we do that thinking. By the time I pull out my thinking cap, my body is awash with chemicals that are tightening here, raising temperature there, and determining how much blood is flowing into the head on which I’m placing that very thinking cap. My brain’s monitoring systems will have noticed all of these changes, and those data are inputted into the thoughts. Every thought we think seems very logical to each of us, because hey, we think! and I find it really easy to forget that you can’t disentangle emotions that easily.

Emotions inform thoughts, but they are not in the brain. It’s through the body that they emerge. During my conversation with Dawn, I surprised myself by stumbling onto wells of emotion regarding my late mother, and my unsuccessful decision to cut my life short. The latter also thrilled me. I’ve been unconsciously guarding against that danger, and that wave of feeling told me that I can devote that energy to nourishing my final third of life.

As emotions are of the body, depression also lives in the body. Depression also has an evolutionary role. It’s been hypothesized by Maletic and Raison that depressive behaviors could have protected our distant ancestors by prompting their injured and diseased brethren from isolating as they healed. The appendix also once had a role, too. Unfortunately, depression isn’t an organ that can be removed if it gets weird. The first step toward emerging from depression is to recognize that our thoughts are not the only source of authority within ourselves. Descartes is cool and all, but if anyone thinks us into being, it’s probably not ourselves.

Depression and the gods

Adapted from my book Empty Cauldrons, here’s a list of deities who might have a particular interest in—or understanding of—depression. Keep in mind that all gods have their own personalities and preferences. If you are drawn to any of these deities, do some research to understand how best to make their acquaintance, which should include divination as to whether a particular god is interested in a relationship at this time.

Apollo or Apollon is connected with both Greek and Roman pantheons. A god of healing, truth, and light, Apollo also has an interest in creative pursuits such as music and poetry, that might be dampened during depression. In some traditions Apollo is said to drive the chariot of the sun across the sky, as well.

Consecrating a divination system to Apollo may make it easier to use during a period of depression.

Ares is a Greek god of battle, carnage, and war. The myths about this god are not entirely noble, but in one the god kills Hallirhothios, who raped Ares’ child Alkippe; Ares was then acquitted by the other gods. Ares does not let anger fester, and instead acts. Ares is also difficult to ignore: during one battle, the god bellowed like nine thousand soldiers when wounded. During one particularly dark time when I felt isolated from the gods, Ares came to bellow at me like a holy drill sergeant, extolling me to stop being weak and instead to direct my anger at finding solutions. For me, those solutions included reorganizing my practice around Hellenic polytheism.

Offer your anger to Ares, especially if you do not know how to use it. Ares will help you hone and focus it, and thus release it rather than being consumed by it.

Blith is a Norse god of happiness and head-weather, as Raven Kaldera explained: “In the shamanic healing system of [northern tradition shamanism], the body can be seen as a world unto itself, an ecosystem, and we are taught to journey inside someone’s body, visualizing it as an entire world, and interpreting the ecosystem. In the apple valley, which is the brain, chemical imbalance sometimes shows up in these shamanic journeys as ‘bad weather,’ thus Blith, a minor Norse healing goddess whose name literally means ‘happiness,’ and who is called upon for healing mental illness and mood disorders by my tradition, is referred to as ‘the goddess who calms the weather in the brain.'”

Ask Blith to calm the weather that rages in your own head. Try offering an apple to represent the apple valley, and ask the boon of a clear day of happiness.

Demeter is a Greek god of agriculture and the fertile earth. The abduction of Demeter’s child Persephone forms the basis of the myth explaining the existence of winter, and was the focus of one of the longest-running mystery cults in history. After that disappearance, Demeter lost hope and was inconsolable, resulting in the first winter.

Pray to Demeter for guidance on how to endure feelings of hopelessness, and ask for a sign that new life will again burst forth in your own heart.

Dionysos is a Greek god who is closely associated with mental health, madness, and liberation. “Instead of trying to get happy, it’s about letting go of all that I feel,” recounted Sarah W., a devotee of the god. Also closely associated with wine, Dionysos understands the subtle difference between using and abusing alcohol and other drugs. In one myth, Dionysos is torn limb from limb by enemies, only to be reborn in a more powerful form. The fact that depression is reminiscent of and underworld journey means that this rebirth is a hopeful sign that we can return from this difficult journey.

When life feels overwhelming and everything seems like it is spinning out of control, recite these words from Aelius Aristides: “nothing can be so firmly bound by illness, by wrath, or by fortune that cannot be released by Dionysos.”

Frey or Freyr is a norse god of grain and agriculture, called the “golden one.” As such, Frey is connected with the cycle of death feeding life that is systematized in agriculture. As with other gods on this list, Frey knows something of the mystery of death, but it seems that it’s Frey’s connection with light that makes this god a strong ally during periods of depression. JOshua Tenpenny shared with me an experience in which Frey placed a spark of light in Tenpenny’s heart. “He told me this was light in the darkness, and I could build this into a fire to keep me warm in the dark times.”

Call upon Frey to rekindle your own light, and teach you to find your own way in the darkness.

Freya or Freyja is a Norse god of love and fertility, which in this case has an unambiguously sexual quality. Kaldera advises that while Freya may bless any sort of fertility, it’s wise to set clear boundaries around pregnancy in any case. The body is the first place Freya will turn, and the body is often the repository for the accumulated emotions left to build up and stagnate during a period of depression.

Ask Freya to help you remember your love of life, and to use the gifts of your own body to feed your creativity, imagination, and passion.

Hekate is a Greek god who is described as “welcome in all the worlds:” the living earth, starry heaven, and the underworld as well. It was Hekate who helped Demeter search the world for the missing Persephone, carrying a torch to light the way to the dark places. The dark of the moon, called deipnon in Hellenic practice, is a time when Hekate is asked to help clear out the old month to make way for the new.

Ask Hekate to light the way as you undertake shadow work and explore the darkness of depression. In the alternative, when the moon is dark bring Hekate your doubts and fears and ask for them to be taken from you.

Hel or Hela is a Norse god of death, traditionally depicted with a body that is half alive and half expired. Hel is charged with caring for those who die of sickness and old age. Some devotees of Hela, such as Joshua Tenpenny, find themselves closer to this deity during periods of depression, when the god is experienced as a “loving, compassionate mother.” Tenpenny reports that during such deep devotion, “the depression is irrelevant to that [relationship]. Maybe it’s the key to access the experience.”

Call upon Hel when you feel lost and near the point of breaking. In your prayer, make it clear that you do not know where to turn and that you seek solace.

Helios is the god who first directed the chariot of the sun across the sky each day, according to Greek mythology, and continues to be honored as a sun god by some devotees. This all-seeing god was the sole witness to the abduction of Persephone, for even the darkness of the underworld is not thick enough to banish the light of day.

If you feel darkness encroaching, making it difficult for you to see the way forward or be willing to act, ask Helios to cast light upon your situation and allow you to see clearly.

Herne is a god of the hunt who is most strongly connected with Wicca. Herne is depicted as an antlered human man hunting to feed the people, and also as a stag who dies so that the people might eat. The cycle of predator and prey here serves as a reminder of how rare and precious life can be.

Call on Herne to remind you that others depend upon your skills and your presence in community, and that you are an important part of what makes your community thrive.

Himinglaeva is a Norse god, one of the nine daughters of Ægir and Rán, who are described as mermaids or waves. Kaldera refers to Himinglaeva as the “ninth mermaid” and a bringer of light. The name has been taken to mean “transparent on top” in English, suggesting the light shining through a wave of emotion.

Pray that Himinglaeva will bring light when your emotions are roiled and you fear you may drown in your own feelings.

Inanna or Ishtar is a Mesopotamian deity with a great many associations. The most relevant myth here is of Inanna’s descent into the underworld in an attempt to conquer it, which is a humbling experience that is characterized by giving up all that was precious to the god.

Ask Inanna for the resolve to see your journey through without ever forgetting who you are.

The Morrigan is a Celtic god of battle who models inner strength. While in the old myths the Morrigan is depicted mostly in the carnage of war, devotees who are experiencing an inner battle like one with depression also derive comfort from this god’s strength.

Offer the Morrigan your pain and your suffering. This is an offering that may readily be accepted.

Persephone is a Greek god best known for being kidnapped, but who is also a god of flowers and springtime. Persephone was taken to the underworld to marry Hades, and ultimately adopted a routine of spending part of the year in the land of the dead and the remainder in that of the living. Persephone epitomizes the hope that even death is not forever, and that there is always some form of rebirth in the future.

Ask Persephone for a sign that your own period of darkness will end, and because it’s hard to see in the dark, ask too that the scales fall from your eyes so that you can see that sign in the first place.

Poseidon is the Greek god of the moving world, whether that’s the storms and tides of the oceans or the planet-wrenching power of earthquakes. This makes Poseidon a manifestation of the emotions that are buried so deeply that no one can predict when they will next erupt. The depths of the ocean are places of incredible darkness and unimaginable pressure. This same pressure that births devastating tsunamis can also bring forth new land.

Give Poseidon your grief and your sadness, and ask that the salt of the ocean carry away your pain if you are unable to shed tears.

To which gods do you turn during the low times?

fire of depression

It burns away what ties me to other people: the love, the relationships, the shared experience. What it leaves behind is the ashes of loss, emptiness, desolation. The taste in my mouth is that of fear—fear of a particular something that is palpable, yet cannot be named. The blood is pounding hard and burning hot.

Depression is not always cold, and it is not always laconic. When depression burns, it moves at the speed of a forest fire, and its energy screams out of every pore in its explosive urgency. This is because depression does not eliminate emotion, even though the awareness of emotion can be numbed completely. Emotions are physical in origin, birthed in the spasmodic laughter of the diaphragm, the worried tightness of neck and shoulders, the excited fluttering in the stomach. Emotions are of the body, and are not easily suppressed.

The sense that emotions are depressed is in part a function of memory: in a period of depression, the emotional component of memory is altered, even stripped away—depressed. Anger, though, is difficult to forget. Recalling white-hot rage also serves as fuel for self-recrimination, negative self-talk, and a desire to avoid other people—ideal nesting conditions for this spirit. Instead of forgetting the experience of anger, it’s the warning signs that anger is building which are depressed. That can lead to the kind of outburst which is awfully memorable, both to me and to those caught in the blast.

Courtney Weber, one of the people who agreed to speak about the experience of depression for my book Empty Cauldrons, knows about anger and memory in depression. “I was always angry, but I didn’t know the source,” Weber said. On the other hand, “Sometimes my first thought [upon waking] is guilt and remorse over something I said in fourth grade.” One might suspect that this is a feature, not a bug, of the condition. While other emotions might be smothered like vegetables in a thick, simmering tomato sauce, anger inevitably comes to the surface like a bubble of gas that causes the sauce to spatter. The emotion is more violent by virtue of not being released in a controlled way.

Any fire can be controlled, given the right tools and skills. The fire of emotion will never be extinguished in an embodied spirit; emotion is proof of life as humans know it. That doesn’t mean that anger must run roughshod over that life. The tools of control include a mood journal, and the skills include meditation. Each contributes to self-awareness, making the manipulation of memory more difficult. Grounded in that knowledge, it’s possible to move from forest fire to candle, but not to shut it off completely. That would be like blowing out the pilot light of a gas stove.

Excessive fire in the life is a sign that there may be depression hiding in the shadows. Fire sustains us, but if anger is turning to outburst then fire may be consuming you, instead. Meditate. Track moods. Check in with friends. Be open to accepting help from professionals. Your fire is sacred, and nurturing it requires a group effort.