“There’s something about the word ‘witch’ that is both scary to people and also really empowering. When people hear the word witch, they either recoil or they lean in or both. There’s a fascination that’s stirred inside of us.” — Ylva Mara Radziszewski, Founder of Crow Song: School of Traditional Magic, Earth Medicine & Ceremony
On a Monday night in January 2013, I started witch school. We didn’t call it that at the time. Instead, we were “going to circle.” The winter of my initiation into the witches’ path, I was quiet, apprehensive, and completely unsettled. I was also yearning for something. I just didn’t know what, exactly. When I arrived at the first class, I had no idea what I was getting into. There was excitement and nervousness; I had given myself permission to show up.
Witch school, or more appropriately, The Healing Craft: Practitioner Training, is a three-year program taught by my dear friend and teacher, Ylva Mara Radziszewski. In addition to being a witch, Ylva is queer, transgendered, and has a chronic invisible disability as a result of living with chronic Lyme Disease. All of this, Ylva uses “to empower [her] students to grow their magic around dismantling the oppressive systems of white supremacy, racism, sexism, patriarchy, isolationism, xenophobia, ableism, and toxic heteronormativity.”
The Healing Craft curriculum draws upon Northern European spiritual practices, the relationship to nature through the elements, and the witches’ wheel. When she started the school, Ylva’s aim was to “create a space for folks to learn about spirituality and traditional healing in a way that wasn't culturally appropriative. Though my work is focused on reclaiming the voice of the traditional witch, and though my ancestral magic comes from Europe, the magic of my students find roots in a great diversity of ancestral and cultural background.”
“I walked in as a seeker, unsure of what I was looking for, but knowing there was something more.” — Emily Z., former student
Students came for different reasons. I thirsted for a spiritual practice where I could connect to the good, true, and beautiful of my ancestral lineage. For Lauren K., a current third-year student, starting the practitioner training was about protection and boundaries. “I ’d had a long-standing relationship with psychic opening, and by that I mean pretty much my whole life had been spent altering my relationship to reality in one way or another,” Lauren says. “I desperately needed help with cultivating psychic boundaries.”
Who are the students? They are queer, they are people of color, they are elders and youth, they are trans and gender non-binary. After Ylva came out as having a chronic illness, she saw more students with disability coming to the space. “There are pastors and atheists and 4th generation root workers and witches and Christians and queers and heterosexual folks all sitting side by side...crafting magic together, learning together, and empowering their own unique magic,” Ylva says.
In our first year of training, we met once a week. We sat together in a circle. Classes were part lecture and part hands-on practice. We would pair off and learn how to move subtle energies. We’d practice divination through fire scrying, wind walks, and tarot. We learned how to build an altar and how to bring ourselves to every moment.
In the second year, we met monthly, studying the sabbats and their respective ceremonies. We offered soul essence retrievals and learned how to hold a witches’ council. As we moved more deeply into the work, by the third and final year we focused on the arch of ceremony, including the facilitation of house and land blessing and holding rites of passage for community.
“Magic is about relationship. Magic is that vital force of life that moves through us and inspires us toward faith. Magic is part of all things, it is a tradition of faith, and faith is too individual to be claimed by religion.” — Ylva
Growing up, I held to the stereotypical ideas of magic and witch. Magic was about making magenta-colored potions and casting curses. A witch was a woman who was wicked, green-skinned, and vengeful (and don’t forget her black cat familiar).
As my studies and practice in circle intensified, my impression changed. So too, did Emily’s. It was no longer just “Halloween, broomsticks and pointy hats,” but something rich and meaningful. “Before meeting Ylva, I didn’t even realize that there were modern witches practicing in the way she does,” Emily says. “Now when I hear the word witch I think of a healer; someone who can find magic in the mundane.”
For Sparkle, who just completed the program, it was discovering that “there is no one right way to be a witch. It’s about cultivating our own relationships with nature, ancestry, spirit, and all the people we encounter.”
Many of us who have gone through the program choose to call ourselves witches, even though Ylva herself says that’s not necessary. “I don’t tell people to be witches. I say do what you do and if you get something from this circle, awesome. Use it.”
The circle gave Lauren, as she says, the space “to establish a working relationship with my own guides and allies and to make good use of what they have been trying to tell me all this time.”
We were also given room to grow in community, and with ourselves. We showed up angry and pissed off, happy and glowing, anxious and unsettled. We arrived authentically. And for Ylva, that is enough. “I try to hold a space of permission to allow people to be who they are,” she says.
What did witch school provide? Relationship.
For Sparkle, it was about “being held and seen” in community. When Emily and I were in that first-year circle together, she found the “ultimate safe space,” a place of little bias and judgment. “I had never felt so supported and comfortable being completely vulnerable with so many people,” Emily says.
For me, it was not only about relationships to others or to the unseen, but about how I related to myself. How did I show up to and for my own soul’s calling?
As a practitioner, we tell our clients that they will be changed by the work but we don’t know how they will be changed. We pray that the change will be for their highest good and that of their lineage and all their relations. The same was true of each class. We were reminded constantly that “where we are witnessed, we are changed.” And witness we did. We saw each other in grief, in despair, in crisis, in joy, and in bounty. We held space for one another in the reclamation of our bodies and our scars, and each of us was given the room and space to transform, to become.
“The healing craft of the witch is one that is in desperate need of triage and revival. Witches are healers; we always have been.” - Ylva
Shortly after the completion of my third year, I sat down with Ylva for a mentorship session. I felt as though my professional career was about to shift and I was having a difficult time finding my own voice around how to be a healer.
After opening with a prayer, Ylva looked at me intently. “What brings you in today?”
“I want to be a writer,” I said cautiously. “I don’t see myself being an acupuncturist or a naturopath like some of the other people in circle. I don’t know how to bring my healing gifts to the world unless I’m a practitioner in those ways.”
What I longed to ask, albeit in a roundabout way, was about how I could be both a witch and a writer. I had continued to enmesh the idea of a witch as one who is a healer in a very specific manner; one who must therefore also practice reiki or acupuncture, one who was a herbalist, etc.
“But what is a witch?” Ylva asked with a gleam in her eye. “A healer. And aren’t artists, writers, storytellers...are they not healers also?”
So who are the healers in 2017? They are everyone and anyone. They are all around us.
Sparkle runs a nonprofit HIV service organization. Emily is in sales. Lauren studies psychology and teaches yoga on the side. While I was in circle, I worked for a nonprofit organization.
I came away from witch school with more confidence and more joy. Yes, I gained practical witchcraft skills and applications for ritual and ceremony, but more than that, I understood the inherent wisdom I carry inside of myself. And that is pure magic.
“The voice of the Witch is one that seeks to empower sovereignty and accountability. As a witch, we must be accountable to ourselves, our actions, our privileges, and each other. We must be honest.” — Ylva
To learn more: www.traditionalmagic.com and www.cunningcrowapothecary.com
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Erin MacDonald is a writer, a feminist, a witch, and a dreamer. She is currently working on a series of screenplays about the Goddess, strong female heroines, and ancestral lineages. Follow her at www.sacredwrite.net and on Twitter @sacred_write