Will the real witches please stand up?

Lineage and Legacy

M

iracles,

If you have been paying even the barest attention to trends, you know that the word and concept of “Witch” is enjoying a surge of social media and commercial popularity. Why is this?

I contend that the role or archetype of Witch is not a goal in itself but rather a pointer to something deeper and vaster, and – in a sense – more universal. I contend that the something being pointed to is our magic. I have written at length about the importance of names, and this one, Witch, is one of the most important of all, so I want to take some time to really explore what is happening with Witch in popular culture right now.

Now, I live in (what I like to call) my magic mushroom doing my work, so these trends often go zipping right over my head. But with the recent Sephora dust-up, you couldn’t help to catch a glimpse of what’s happening out there.

You may have seen it. Sephora partnered up with San Francisco based beauty brand Pinrose and offered a stylish kit complete with scent – you can smell like a witch (what does a witch smell like?) – slated to be carried in stores everywhere – but then pulled due to accusations on the part of both witches and Native Americans that the witch-kit was an act of cultural appropriation. In an interesting turn, some Native American tribal representatives also accused (appropriately in my opinion) witches themselves of appropriation. The whole thing was a mess frankly – poorly conceived and poorly executed. Accusations that Sephora was trafficking in endangered White Sage were met by claims that Pinrose had employed Native American artisans to craft their smudge bundles (and who as a result of the dust up are now out of a job). Two words y’all: HOT. MESS.

I take the question of cultural appropriation seriously. In fact, one of my guest teachers for Spinning Gold this year, my good friend and head of Dartmouth College’s Native American Program, Sarah Palacios, and I met to talk about the problem of appropriation in the Sacred Arts because make no mistake – it IS a problem. We do need serious and clear thinking about human culture and our roles in making – or unmaking – culture.

But when it comes to Sephora’s mass-consumer product, a make-up ‘witch-kit’, it is in some ways not easy to know what we are dealing with here.

There’s an argument to be made that all mass-consumerism has been nothing but a corrosive agent to human culture and aspiration for as long as it has been around. In this light, Sephora’s ‘witch-kit’ is simply a tiny part of a much wider and more serious long-term, on-going exploitation of human culture. Getting rid of the witch-kit – making consumer culture cleaner and more culturally sensitive – doesn’t get rid of the underlying structural problem: it just makes it harder to see. A “kind” slave master is a slave master all the same. The rim of the poison cup may have honey on it, but it is poison nonetheless.

Secondly, trends are just that: trends. They come and go. Witchcraft – or some shadowy idea of it – has been part of kitsch consumer culture at least since the days of Wizard of Oz, the crooning Sinatra and the 1970s TV sit-com, Bewitched, and then more recently, Harry Potter.

But folks who used to make fun of “woo-woo” now begin their sentences with “not to get all woo but…” as they then proceed to do exactly that, get all, you know, woo on you (whatever the heck that means!). There are the popular writers who have never mentioned sacred arts or rituals in their work and now are making them a core part of their “marketing strategy”. There are the life and business coaches who are adopting “witch” or some variation thereof to their list of job titles. How much of this represents real learning? And how much of it is merely following the trend? Underneath all of it is there any sense and any respect for what Witch is really about? And what happens when the trend shifts, and blows in a different direction?

I would hope that many continue discovering their magic and a broader stream of Sacred Arts, but I suspect that all-too-many of the voices we hear “witchifying” everything will eventually turn to something else to ‘market’ themselves. Who knows? Maybe one day the trend will turn to adopting the inquisitorial “look”of crucifixes and monks, or the“look”of Puritan witch-hunters. Wouldn’t that be fun? Instead of lots of instagram ready pics accessorized with crystals we will accessorize with what? Burning coals? Pyres ready to be lit. A hangman’s noose?

If you have grown up in North America, and have participated in Halloween as a child, you’ve heard of witches. Witches are fun. You’ve ‘seen’ them too: in posters and images, movies, songs and costumes. You know, the green skin, hooked nose, broomstick wielding and black cat loving old biddy. You’ve of course heard all about the Salem witch trials and the witch hunts. Not so fun. And you hear the term witch-hunt appropriated in the political sphere today – even less fun.

The word itself has an old history, well before North America was first colonized by Europeans. The women and men called witches have always been associated with a dangerous power – even as large institutions (like the Church or later the Scientific Establishment) have claimed that they have no power, that their beliefs and life ways were built on mere fantasy. The women and men called witches have been, and in many places still are, harangued, accosted, harassed, and killed. Groups of people who experience such are not sought out and molested because they are seen as powerless, but precisely because they are seen as powerful, as dangerous. Persecution is always a tacit admission that the group persecuted has power. What is more, the sources of their power are not understood, easily rationalized, visible, and/or controllable.

So when we use a word like“witch”, we are – unconsciously – calling upon both a blood-stained history and at the same time kitschy commercial stereotypes that seem like harmless fun. Those are two strands of the lineage carried in the word Witch. Here is another: sovereignty; sovereignty for all.

Witches make magic. That’s what they are supposed to do (besides scare children in graveyards or seduce married men, I guess). The idea of magic appeals to so many of us right now because we are (if I may put it bluntly) so tired of the pall of fatalism and hopelessness hanging over everything, especially in politics. It is so tempting to feel like we are on a runaway train, headed to the brink of a precipice. Magic – when practiced correctly, we sense – leads to the discovery of hitherto unseen choices and possibilities – on our own terms. Magic, especially our own wild magic, poses a brilliant alternative to the fatalism, hopelessness, and victim hood that the air can feel so very thick with these days.

There are many theories: it could be that Witch is the new face of feminism, a millenial battlecry, about claiming or re-claiming our personal power – and evidently then exercising that power in whatever ways we see fit. Witch is about allure, rebellion, seduction, and independence – all at the same time.

Meanwhile, actual witches are doing their thing, you know, living life. They are picking up kids from soccer practice, learning how to dance flamenco, trying out a new recipe, asking the cute girl or boy out for the third date, working out, trying out a new flower essence, planting seeds, listening to dreams, living life in the best way they know how. And that is really the whole point of the thing isn’t it?

So when “witch-kits” are introduced into the mass market encouraging a huge outcry, what are people crying out against? Yes, they are angry that their way of life has been packaged for profit. Yes, they are responding to a sense that to try and package a spiritual path, any spiritual path, is, all good intentions aside, an attempt to diminish both the path and the people that travel it. And yes, they are responding to their way of life being presented in its most vapid, superficial, and superfluous form. They are rightly reacting to a perceived threat and theft of their power. But both our fascination with Witch and our resistance against trading on the term for profit strike at something deeper than power.

Power, at the end of the day, is not that interesting. There are the forces that you have power over and then there are the forces that have power over you. The pursuit of power is almost always one way: we want to increase our personal power and we want to decrease the ways in which we feel dis-empowered or without power. Rarely do we hear someone say that they want to learn from power, rarer still do we find people interested in precisely the places where things are quite beyond our power to control. In fact, in today’s world we have all tacitly said that there is nothing, really, beyond our power to control.

Big science and big money are working in tandem to rule over and control everything – even up to and including Death. And those of you who have read your Greek Tragedy, your European fairy tales, your African and Middle-Eastern folk tales, your Native American legends, or watched Tolkien’s Lord of the Ring trilogy know just how well seeking to have power over everything including Death goes. Why do all of the stories agree? They come from different people, different times, and different cultures – how can they agree? Because the authors and tellers of them all encounter exactly what we do – the lust for power leading to ever more lusting for power, leading ultimately to the exact opposite of what we are actually seeking, which is not power at all, but something far more precious and subtle: magic.

Magic may appeal to many people because of some kind of promise of power, but magic goes beyond power. Its roots are much deeper, the word itself is rooted in an ancient word for wisdom, its shadow and radiance much wider. Any true power has a hint of magic – the ability to transform ‘water into wine’, waste material into good soil, a still heart into one that beats out the crimson taboo of life once more. This transformational power, must be exercised with wisdom and discernment: we need to make sure we really know what is good and beneficial in our sense of things, as we attempt to call in the good and beneficial while repelling that which harms and diminishes. We all make mistakes – we just do. That is one way that our magic goes beyond mere power and leads into wisdom ways. It embraces the mistakes, it learns from them, it does NOT pretend that they never happened.

More than that, our wild magic takes us beyond the over-simplified power dynamics and points out what is really interesting and worth wondering about: the warp and weft of the things that are not up to us, that are out of our power and how we live our lives in light of those things. Witches, whatever else they do, make magic. And this is why we love them and fear them and seek them out – because they overtly traffic in something we sense belongs in reality to all of us; and the best witches I have met (and I have met quite a few) would nod in agreement and say: well of course it does, dearie. Your magic has been there all along, waiting for you to see it.

Yes, witches make magic. But so do others: Magicians, Sorcerers, Priestesses, Prophets – they all make magic too – they all carry a whiff of the Witch. What about creative artists and good lawmakers and good business people? Yes, they too make magic, they too have the power to wonder and transform and bless, and so perhaps they too carry something of the Witch within them, perhaps we all do.

The role and concept of Witch is worthy and worthwhile in and of herself; but/and in her mysterious and twisty-turn-filled way she points to that which we all hold – or what holds us – in common, which is magic. When we diminish her, package her, attempt to render her harmless, we diminish ourselves as well. For she is both a reminder and a promise of our own wild magic. She is one of the oldest of old ones who calls us home, firmly back into ourselves. It is for these reasons that Witch cannot be packaged. One might as try to package fire, or the spinning of the stars, or birdsong.

In love and blessings,
Bri

magic, miracles: receive my lunar letters

ARRIVING on full moons each month.

Many Branches–Something Witchy this way comes with Sarah Anne Lawless

Learning and Community

D

ear Miracles, Many of those in my audience already know our latest guest in the Many Branches series–Sarah Anne Lawless. She is an occult author, witch, herbalist, and artist living in the Pacific Northwest. Her blog is well known in the Pagan community and beyond. Her knack for crafting a brilliant flying ointment is one that I can personally attest to, and her devotion to her Gods is inspiring. Please give her a warm welcome!

In her own words: A professional artist, writer, and herbalist, Sarah’s works have been published in various books, magazines, and online in The CauldronHex MagazineWitches & PagansWitchvox, Serpent Songs, and Hoofprints in the Wildwood. She is a carver, painter, and illustrator working in the mediums of bone, wood, ink, and paint creating original artwork, talismans, and ritual tools. Sarah is an animist, initiated witch, and wortcunner with a love of otherworldly beauty, folklore, mythology, poisonous plants, wildcrafting, wild places, and bones.

Find Sarah on the web at:

Facebook: Bane Folk
Twitter: @banefolk

In the occult and magical community, you are known for making excellent spiritual products, your writing, and fine artwork, but you are also one of the few voices out there talking about working with animals and zoological talismans in an ethical and sustainable manner. This subject is a bit controversial but one that I think the magical community needs more familiarity with. What led you to begin working with animals and animal parts in a ritual setting?

For me, it started with collecting feathers and escalated from there and I’ve found that others who consider themselves bone collectors often say the same thing. Taking home a feather you found on a forest walk isn’t really so far off from taking home a sea-washed bone or a small skull picked clean by scavengers. Once people find out you’re a bone collector they will suddenly start calling you about bones, feathers, or dead animals they found and ask what to do with them. Then people will start showing up on your doorstep with boxes of bones and any friends that hunt for food will start giving you bird feet, wings, and sometimes even organs that they don’t want to waste. Often people don’t want to use or give me the animals they find, they just want to know how to bury it safely and give it a respectful send off to the spirit world. A bone collector can find themselves taking on the role of an animal funeral director.

sarah-anne-lawless5a

I think the reason why many find my use of animal parts in magic controversial is because, through the use of zoological remains is still common in modern rootwork and the magical traditions of Central and South America, it is not common in modern witchcraft despite all the documented historical links and traditions. Many people are so far removed from nature, husbandry, and dirty hands-on folk magic that they find the use of zoological remains to be appalling and unethical without trying to first understand the context and history. Many assume that bone collectors such as myself are actually killing animals to use their parts in magic when this is very much not the case. You can find hearts, tongues, and feet at the butcher and you can find bones, skulls, teeth, claws, and hides from taxidermists, tanners, farmers, or hunters who don’t like to waste any part of an animal that’s been hunted or raised for food.

010b

Another reason I think this practice is controversial is that many people assume you are using a dead animal’s parts solely for cursing and other black magic when again this is simply not the reality. Indigenous cultures who’ve held onto their animistic beliefs and traditions use animal parts in a sacred manner – they are used to better connect with animal spirits and the whole of nature itself. Feathers are often used to fly prayers to the spirits so they may hear them. Teeth and claws are used for protection against harm and to give one strength. Organs are more often used for healing and offerings than anything else – anyone with a grandmother who still buries dead fish in the garden for the fertility of the plants may best understand this. In rural areas of North America, you can still find farmers hanging deer antlers or bull horns over their barn door. They may have forgotten why, but once upon a time, it was the belief that doing so would protect your livestock and also ensure their health and fertility.

Modern butchery and hunting practices are wasteful and unethical for treating animals as soulless resources. By doing this work and using animal remains in a sacred manner in our spiritual traditions, we make those animals sacred. By showing them respect even in death, we make their lives have the same value as our own.

You are well known for crafting various flying ointments, often using ancient recipes. Why flying ointments and when did your love affair with them begin?

I first took notice when nightshades I had not planted started to grow in my garden plots and containers. Instead of weeding them, I researched them and became fascinated. This led me to grow other varieties like henbane, belladonna, datura, and Brugmansia. I had a lot of fresh plant material on hand and at the same time, I realized that no one I could find was making and using flying ointments today. Considering that flying ointments were one of the very few genuine direct links to the ancestral magical practices of preChristian Europeans, it puzzled me greatly that modern witches and pagans weren’t using them. Later I discovered this was largely due to fear of the plants as governments had been churning out frightening propaganda against them for centuries and our modern governments continue to spread the fear through misinformation. Tales of wild hallucinations and near death experiences come mainly from youths not seeking a spiritual experience, but who simply wanted to get high and who used these plants without research, proper preparation, and with no regard for dosage. They were using these sacred plants at a toxic level instead of in the much safer ways our ancestors would have and have consequently given these plants a much-maligned reputation.

mandragora

I mainly work with plants in the Solanaceae (or nightshade) family. Though many would believe we no longer use them today, the constituents of these plants, such as atropine, are actually considered “core” medicines on the World Health Organizations “Essential Drug List.” Aside from the nightshades’ long history with witchcraft, they are also some of the oldest and most potent medicines used by humanity. How could an herbalist fascinated with ethnobotany not fall in love with plants that were both powerful spiritual allies and incredibly potent medicines? Though my original intent was to use the Solanaceae and artemisias for spiritual purposes, the more I worked with these plants, the more I found people came to me for their medicinal uses as well.

And so, after A LOT of research and careful testing, I started to make ointments with the plants I grew along with dried European mandrake roots. I found them to be very useful in aiding in dream work, spirit work, and trance work along with being excellent topical pain killers for relieving migraines, sore backs, and other muscle and joint pain. I started making them for shamanic and pagan groups who wanted to use them for rituals and ceremonies and I started bringing them to my own rituals and teaching workshops on these plants. With all my experience, I learned that much of the fear and propaganda surrounding nightshades and flying ointments is simply not true and that those of us who have learned their history and proper preparations should pass on our knowledge so it is not lost to future generations as it has been to generations past.

A lot of folks in the magical community struggle with what to call themselves. You have referred to yourself as an animist, witch, and spirit worker. What do those words mean to you and what is your advice for someone who has not figured out what the right title is for their work and beliefs?

When I call myself an animist, I am referring to my religious philosophy just as others would call themselves a polytheist or a monotheist. I do not worship gods, but instead see all things, all of nature, as being imbued with spirit, anima, life force. Interacting with and honoring the local animals, plants, rivers, lakes, mountains, forests, and larger land features are what matters most to me in my spirituality – the local spirits, great and small. Within animism, there is also room for ancestor reverence and so I also honor those who have come before me, both my own blood ancestors as well as those who lived upon this land long before I was born. Animism is believed to be one of the oldest forms of spirituality in human history and still permeates surviving forms of folk magic, folk religion, and common superstitions.

When I call myself a witch I am referring to the practice of witchcraft, not a religious path. It is the folk magic I do, the early modern witchcraft lore I study, and the rituals I put into practice.

When I use the term spirit worker, it is to reference my work with spirits, both are in this world and the other worlds of folklore. It is my dream work, trance work, and the rituals I perform to interact with spirits – usually plants, animals, or ancestors.

I don’t personally believe in putting too much stock in labels and finding the right one as everyone has their own definition of a term, some using the archaic meaning and some using a modern derivative. It is far too easy to waste a lot of time trying to find a label that fits all we believe and do when we could instead spend that time actively practicing and developing our own beliefs to suit our individual spiritual needs. I think it is a better use of our time instead of trying to fit into a role someone else has defined and be constantly fretting over it.

I wrote a whole article tackling this subject last winter as it comes up over and over again in spiritual communities: “Ducking Pigeonholing.”

Your art is gorgeous, tell us a bit about how you got started and what your current favorite artistic project is?

018b

Thank you! I got started in art at a young age. I was always drawing and painting. I took art classes in every year of school because it was something I always enjoyed. I had a lot of support from my family who kept me well supplied with paper, ink, and paints. I even used to illustrate stories I wrote and bound them into little homemade books. Today I’m lucky enough to be in a position to get paid for my art and to illustrate the writings of others as well as my own. Falling more under the umbrella of a folk artist, I’ve been able to explore just about any medium I’m interested in – woodcarving, bone carving, pyrography, textiles, calligraphy, and jewelry to name several.

Right now I have a bit of an obvious obsession with drawing plants and skulls. I hope to do more pieces with plants and animals native to my beloved Pacific Northwest in the near future.

If you could give one piece of wisdom to my readers today, what would it be?

Don’t be afraid to chase your dreams and passions so you can live your life in joy and wonder, but at the same time be honest with yourself about how you’re going to pull it off in a practical manner.

magic, miracles: receive my lunar letters

ARRIVING on full moons each month.