And I fortunately know a little magic
It’s a talent that I always have possessed
If there’s one thing I’m known for in all my close circles these days, it’s being a witch. My friend and her husband visited recently to attend a wedding, and her husband delighted in introducing me to everyone as, “Anna, she’s a witch.” Another friend used me as an example of real-life witchcraft when teaching her 2nd Grade students about Roald Dahl’s The Witches. I embody the stereotype well: black is my favorite color, there’s an altar in the corner of my bedroom, I have an ever-growing apothecary of medicinal teas to treat whatever minor ailments befall my friends and family, there’s almost always a tarot deck in my purse, and animal skulls are an integral part of my apartment decor. I even have a black cat as a familiar, one who showed up out of the darkness during a full moon and followed me home. In short, I’m a walking cliché.
To be honest, though, I often feel like a bit of a fraud, especially when people look to me as an expert on these matters. I rarely design or perform complete rituals. More often than not, I forget to do anything to observe the cycles of the moon. Sometimes I go months without so much as lighting a candle on my altar. I don’t own, or even read, many spellbooks or pagan texts. There are people who manage to infuse ritualistic witchcraft into everything they do, and I am not one of them. My brand of magic involves scribbling sigils for friends in the sketch app on my phone during my morning commute and haphazardly combining random objects that I found on the sidewalk and lying around my apartment to create charms and spell bottles. I don’t have a besom or an athame or a wand or many of the so-called “basic” witch supplies. I make it up as I go along, so when people ask me to teach them about witchcraft, I often have very little of measurable use to contribute. You want a spell for luck? Just take anything that represents luck to you and arrange it in a way that pleases you. Maybe light a green candle, and if you want to make up a rhyme that wouldn’t hurt. Do I have one I’d suggest? Not off the top of my head.
Here’s where I need to interject with a few important points. The first is that none of what I described above is actually necessary for working magic. Magic is all about amplifying your intention through action. Rituals and moon cycles are powerful because they require you to stop and really focus on your intentions, to get in tune with natural energies that already exist in our world, but they are not the end-all-and-be-all of witchcraft. Nor does witchcraft have to fit the aesthetics and rules you see on Instagram and in the majority of the spellbooks you might find at your local occult store. In fact, most of the rules and tools considered “standard” for witchcraft these days come from Wicca, and there are SO many different spiritual practices and religions that involve magic and ritual that do not adhere to the sensibilities of Wiccanism (I’ll hex whoever I damned well feel like, and no, it won’t come back to me threefold).
This brings me to another important point, one that is oft repeated in the various corners of the internet where witches gather - witchcraft is a practice, not a religion. When I visited The Salem Witch Museum, I stood in the back muttering angrily under my breath as one of the exhibits informed tourists that witches nowadays are called Wiccans and worship gods like The Horned God and The Goddess. Some witches may be Wiccan, yes, but Wicca is a New Age religion that was created in Britain less than 100 years ago, while witchcraft has been around for thousands of years and is found in some form in pretty much every culture in the world. There are Christian witches, Jewish witches, atheist witches, Satanist witches, witches focused on reconstructing the various forms of paganism found in Western and Northern Europe (Celtic, Hellenistic, Norse…), witches who practice Santería and Hoodoo, and the list goes on. My particular interest lies in learning more about the folkloric magic my ancestors would have practiced in the Slavic regions of Eastern Europe and in Finland, although that information can be hard to come by. In short, while many witches may combine religious and spiritual practices with their magic, it’s certainly not a requirement, and to suggest that all witches must follow the rules, observe the holidays, and use the tools popularized by one (relatively new) religion isn’t just inaccurate, it’s downright insulting.
None of this is to say that there’s not some value in learning some basic principles before diving into spellcrafting or that there’s anything wrong with using spells from books or following a clearly defined path. After all, it’s difficult to create something that actually works as intended if you don’t have a solid foundation on which to build it, and it can even be dangerous if you get yourself into something you’re not prepared for. I find witchcraft to be a lot like cooking — some people prefer to follow a recipe to an exacting degree, while others are more comfortable winging it. But if you don’t at least know the basics of cooking, anything you concoct may turn out to be an inedible mess regardless of which approach you follow. And if you’re not practicing basic safety, well, you could find yourself in a world of trouble. But just as not every cuisine will fit into the French style of cooking, knowing the basic foundations does not mean shaping your magical practice around the New Age principles of Wiccanism. It just means understanding how spells work and why (yes, I HAVE been watching/reading a lot of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat this week, why do you ask?).
Which brings me back to my not-at-all fraudulent practice (listen, sometimes we all need a reminder of our own validity). As someone who chafes at rules, bores easily, and has the attention span of a goldfish, anything that requires me to perform the same steps for every spell and make sure I have the exact right ingredients and tools laid out beforehand isn’t going to work for me. So, I improvise. I take what I know of symbolism and herbalism and any other magical -ism, and I combine it with what I have close at hand and what has emotional resonance for me. My ingredients are more along the lines of lost keys, lucky pennies, bits of ribbon, whiskers my cats have shed around the apartment, and whatever herbs and flowers I have in my pantry. I’m more likely to use the white emergency candles I can buy at the bodega for a dollar or two than to match candle color to my spell’s intentions. My sacred objects aren’t found in any books, but they’re laden with meaning - the rubber wristband from a super corporatized lantern festival I attended with my best friend and her daughter this summer, a palm-sized steel heart I found on the sidewalk that I believe is a message of protection from my sister’s spirit, the collar that belonged to my cat Esme, a salt-eaten knife that I found washed up on the beach in the Far Rockaways.
A line of Ursula’s from “Poor Unfortunate Souls” comes to mind here - They weren’t kidding when they call me, well, a witch. It is something that infuses everything in my life, sometimes without my realizing it; it just may not always look like what people expect from witchcraft. But, then again, isn’t that more authentic to the way my ancestors would have done things? Using the knowledge that was passed down to them, collecting the principles that they know were most effective, and then using whatever they had available to them to put it into practice? Like life, what you see on social media is only the most photogenic aspects of witchcraft; what isn’t shown is far more messy and far more real.
So for those looking to dabble in magic themselves, fear not — it’s nowhere nears as complicated, time consuming, or expensive as it may appear. Once you learn the basics, you can use whatever speaks to you from your life and environment to craft something that works best for you. Pull what you want from spells and practices (being mindful of not taking what doesn’t culturally belong to you from closed traditions, please, there’s far too much cultural appropriation in the New Age community, and I promise your own ancestry has practices you can draw on that will be far more effective for you than what you take from someone else), mix it together, and see what you come up with. You’ll know it’s working by checking in with yourself at every step and making sure that your choices resonate with you and your personal beliefs (my witchcraft version of tasting your cooking at each point in the recipe that Samin Nosrat preaches in her cookbook). And if you have any questions, this witch is always happy to answer them. Just be warned that the answer may be less, “Add three pinches of lavender” and more “find something that represents peace to you.” What can I say? I’m an imprecise person.