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.