As I write this, I’m covered in injuries: one spider bite, a bunch of gnarly blisters on my fingers, too many cuts and scrapes to count, and one giant scab on my nostril. Why am I so banged up? Because I decided to find out what it would be like for a modern city gal to live as a real-deal witch, and that involved me spending two months devoted to The Craft. Rather than join up with an established coven, I decided to give it a go DIY-style—it is called witchcraft, after all. So instead of spending my nights the way I normally would—hanging with friends and binge-drinking on rooftops—I was at home with my candles and incense, reading books on sorcery, witch hunts throughout history, and the different sects of paganism. But witching is a full-contact sport, so I also spent an ass-load of time creeping around the woods at night preparing for sacred rituals, burning my fingers on hot cauldrons, and getting scratched by sharp twigs of rosemary. So what’d I find out while trying to make this old-school sorcery work for my hectic city life? Turns out, witching is totally possible for a modern lady, but it’s definitely not for sissies.
There are tons of sects of witches around the world, dating back to ancient Greece, but I had to start somewhere, so I focused on the Wiccan tradition. Wiccans follow the Wiccan Rede, which basically dictates that you can do whatever magic you want, as long as you don’t harm anyone. In fact, as I was about to learn, the only thing I’d be putting a hurting on was the dirt in my apartment. I wanted to start my witching journey by surrounding myself with the best vibes possible, since, as all the Web sites and books informed me, clutter and grime can keep energy from flowing freely. So after reading Mrs. B’s Guide to Household Witchery, I began with a spell called a “sweep,” which basically required me to sprinkle an herbal mix onto my carpet and use a broom to sweep it up. Using instructions from the Web site witchesofthecraft.com, I mixed together bay leaves, dried ginger, rosemary, dried lemon rind, and baking soda. Then I left this concoction on my carpet overnight; the next day, I swept it into a paper bag like Mrs. B’s told me to: clockwise to bring in good energy and counterclockwise to sweep bad energy out. Since I have a lot of carpeting and cat hair at my crib, the sweeping seemed endless and gave me a brutal broom blister on my thumb. After the carpet was finally clean, I was supposed to dispose of the dirt somewhere off my property, so I walked it down to the next block and threw it in a neighbor’s trash can. I’d dumped my dirt and finished my first spell. Not only was it easy, but I’d basically deodorized my carpets, too.
The next step in my cleansing was tougher. Mrs. B’s told me to make a “protection wash,” so I had to mix up even more herbs and spices, steep them in hot water for 15 minutes, then strain them out. I was supposed to mix the remaining liquid with warm water and a dash of castile soap, and use it to wash all the entrances to my house—windows, sills, doorframes, and doors, inside and out. I live in an apartment building, which added an extra layer of difficulty. To go undetected, I decided to do my washing at night: after all, what kind of nutcase scrubs the exterior door of her rental apartment building? But when I went outside to wash my front door, my neighbor was playing basketball; I had to wait three nights for the fool to finally take an evening off from shooting hoops before I could wash on the down-low. Once I finished, I was supposed to pour the remaining wash over my stoop and brush it off with my broom. But how in flying sticks was I going to pour a whole bucket of water onto my porch without my landlord noticing? I really needed it to rain to mask the noise; weirdly, it wasn’t long before I heard the pitter-patter of raindrops. There’s no scientific proof, but as far as I’m concerned, I made it rain, motherfuckers. I ran outside to pour out the wash undetected but skipped the broom part, because sweeping a porch in the rain is crazy-people stuff.
After my cleanse, it was time to set up my altar—a sacred space to do spellwork, and basically the equivalent of a witch’s desk. But as you might imagine, finding space for altars in an apartment you share with three roommates can be very tricky. I knew I was supposed to do spells “skyclad” (witch-speak for nude), so I set up a small altar in my room, covering a side table with some cloth. Since I’d also be witching with friends and needed more space, I created a second altar in my living room, making sure it was tucked away enough so my roommates wouldn’t set their glasses and bullshit on top of it. I read a bunch of different Web sites and picked an altar setup I liked, placing a candle in each directional corner to represent the elements that those directions correlate to. Because north is represented by the color green and the element earth, for example, I put a green candle and a wooden bowl filled with dirt in that quadrant. Then it was time to make the tools all the books told me were necessary for doing major spells. First up was an athame, a dull, double-edged sacred knife that’s used during rituals you do in a circle. (The athame is used to “cut” that circle and allow people to enter and exit.) Since I didn’t have any dull knives lying around, I just wrapped one end of a letter opener in black cord and thread and dangled some charms and beads from it. Next I needed a witch cauldron, but as real-deal options can be pricey, I decided I’d cook up any potions in the best vessels I had on hand: a small cast-iron Dutch oven and the inside of an old Crockpot.
Witches also keep a diary/scrapbook called a Book of Shadows, but I didn’t want to use a big dumb spiral notebook for this special artifact. So instead, I used a leather binder and stained some paper with coffee to make it seem more spooky and appropriate. This book was actually the biggest stress for me in my witching journey, since I was supposed to bless it at the same time every day for a week. I chose 11 p.m., but I knew I was doomed to fail, since I can’t do anything at the same time every day: I can’t get to work on time, and I stopped taking the pill in high school because I found it impossible to remember. I was over at my friend’s one night watching Charmed (of course) when I realized I had to get home, and quick. She casually reminded me, “Dude, it’s always 11 o’clock somewhere,” and gave me a watch set to 11. She suggested I go home and bless the watch so that it could be 11 whenever I needed it to be. That was a major flying monkey off my back. After all, an urban witch needs to make her rituals work for her, not the other way around.
With the cleansing complete and my witch’s tool kit filled, it was time to come out of the broom closet and try my first group ritual, an important part of witch life. Wiccans celebrate certain holidays: Sabbats for the seasons of the year and Esbats, which are celebrations of the phases of the moon. I realized that the supermoon (the moment annually when the full moon is closest to Earth) was coming up, so the timing was killer; I decided to gather four friends and head to the beach for a ceremony in which we’d thank all the lunar goddesses for their many blessings. Though I hadn’t read anything specific about the supermoon, I figured that if the full moon was a magical time, then the supermoon was doubly magic.
Around sundown, we found our place in the sand (yes, I was a sand witch!), and I set up an altar similar to the ones in my apartment. I drew a big circle for us to sit inside and walked around the area clockwise, “smudging” the circle by waving around a clump of burning sage—several of the books and Web sites I read mentioned that burning “protection herbs” like sage will purify the energy in the area where you’re working your magic. (I also did this to my entire house during the cleanse.) As I walked, I asked for the area to be protected from negative energy and for the power created there to be focused and pure. This is called “casting a circle,” and the stuff I read suggested lots of different ways to do it. But I didn’t stick too closely to the script—I freestyled while I blessed the space so the ritual would feel more personal.
Then I had to “call the quarters,” a process of inviting the elements to join you and lend their powers to your magic. One person stood in each directional corner with the appropriate colored candle and had an item to represent the associated element next to them. I don’t own a compass, so my friend used her smartphone to help figure out which direction was which. I stood in the center, holding a white candle, my athame, and my notes. We each read a passage about the elements and asked them to join us in a circle. I then “called the center,” the power that binds all the elements together, and asked that power to guard us. Finally, I was ready to perform the Esbat Rite: a celebration of the full moon and the goddesses. Following instructions from the Internet, we filled a large jar with ocean water and lit a candle. I read a passage I’d printed out from a witch site about appreciating the moon and lifted the jar over my head so it’d soak up some moonlight. We had just made Moon Water! I figured I’d use it in future spells or just dab some on myself when I needed a lunar boost.
I found a mad-simple recipe online and decided to bake some cookies as a tribute to the lunar deities. You read that correctly: I baked cookies for the moon.
We ended the rite with “cakes and ale,” which is the Wiccan tradition of sharing food and drink to connect the ritual’s participants and thank the goddesses for your blessings. Though I’m not much of a chef, I found a mad-simple recipe online and decided to bake some cookies as a tribute to the lunar deities. You read that correctly: I baked cookies for the moon. After eating, we gave the moon and all the elements another thank-you, and then I “opened” the circle by making a slice in the air with my athame—this symbolizes the end of the ritual and closes the bridge between our world and the spiritual realm. It was time to hit the road.
The Wiccan religion is heavily focused on celebrating Mother Nature, and the next big holiday was Lammas, the Wiccan Sabbath held in August to celebrate the first harvest. Since there’s not much to harvest in my part of Brooklyn, I went upstate to my friend’s farm and invited some friends who were interested in witching out. We made a huge bonfire, and I cast the circle and called the quarters like an old pro. We ground together bay leaves, cinnamon, star anise, and ginger to make Wish Mix, as Mrs. B’s instructed, and heated it over the fire in my makeshift cauldron. The smell was incredible (though I did burn my finger while readjusting the pot). Then each of us took a pinch of the mix and focused on a wish. Once everyone was done, I yelled, “So mote it be, dudes!” (That’s witch-speak for “so it will be,” which sounds just slightly less awesome.) With that, we all tossed our pinch into the fire. After the ceremony, a few guests I didn’t know very well thanked me for letting them witch with me. They also came bearing gifts: two coyote claws and a fang, cow vertebrae, chicken wishbones, and a moose tooth. I would’ve gladly accepted these freebies a few months earlier, but now I could put them to good use in future spells instead of just keeping them around as creepy knickknacks.
But I didn’t want that to be the end of the ritual. So the next day, I collected ash from the fire pit and labeled the jar “Party Ash.” I totally just made this concept up, but I figured that if it represented a good time to me, then that was all that mattered. I decided that during my next party, I’d sprinkle this around to generate positive vibes. As everyone was leaving, I spotted one of the partygoers whittling a stick. When I asked what he was doing, he said he was making a wand for one of his buddies, and that he was planning to put a carabiner on it so his friend would be able to keep it on his belt while he hiked. I flipped out at the adorableness, and at the idea that my witching was now inspiring my friends. Guys, I touched that bitch and made him witch.
In addition to inspiring my bros, I picked up countless new facts during my witch training: I now know the uses for stones, herbs, and magic tools, and info on the moon phases. I can also glance around in nature and quickly see something I can take home and work with during my spells and rituals. So if I like the cut of a branch’s jib, I can thank the tree and then bring it home with me to use in a ritual. I’m also able to spit off random witch facts, like that “eye of newt” is just ye olde witch slang for mustard seed.
Throughout my experiment, I was constantly asked if I’d keep on witching after I finished. But I can’t imagine why I’d stop now—witchcraft is superfun. It essentially boils down to studying fascinating parts of history, doing crafts, making your house smell great, and getting weird with your buds. Being a modern witch isn’t just about casting spells or having a wand, though; it’s about finding time to appreciate the things around you in a busy, often-unnatural world. Also, when I call down a deity, I don’t actually believe that a goddess is going to come down and change my life—I’m really using an image of that deity to represent my feelings and wishes, and focus on ways to motivate myself to obtain my goal. As a result, I’m more proactive now and better at observing and appreciating my surroundings. After all my training, I’m not just dabbling in magic anymore—as far as I’m concerned, I am a witch. And since witchcraft is a learning process, I intend to keep on studying and practicing. I’ve always been a crafty lady, but now I’m a lady in the craft.
By Callie Watts
Photos by Lauren Silberman
This review appears in the Oct/Nov 2013 issue of BUST Magazine with Neko Case.