Archive for the ‘Resources & Recommendations’ category

Blog Post 216 – Graphic Witchery (Occult Graphic Novels)

July 25, 2019

As you may have guessed, I’m something of a bibliophile. On a recent shopping trip, I picked up no less than six books at multiple witchy shops. Even a trip to the science museum with my kids found me grabbing a pair of small field guides to plant identification.

This is not a phenomenon limited to print books of academic density or in the “non-fiction” category. I love my e-books, fictional stories, and graphic novels immensely. Which is what brings me around to this post today. One of the “texts” that I’ve really enjoyed in the past decade or so was the web graphic known as the “Psychonaut Field Manual: A Cartoon Guide to Chaos Magick,” by Bluefluke. I’m not a Chaos magician myself, but I appreciate some of the methods involved, and the way the graphic work condenses down and streamlines some of the concepts found in more extensive works by Peter Caroll, Austin Osman Spare, or Robert Anton Wilson (and in latter days by the droll and delightful Gordon White of Rune Soup). That’s not to say it’s the definitive last word on the topic, but it provides a wonderful portal of entry for newcomers or a good thumbnail index of the field for the more experienced.

I love graphic materials because they can sometimes hit us in ways that the written word alone cannot (it’s also why I think that hearing lessons or seeing a teacher can sometimes be much more valuable than just reading something from a book, no matter how much I love books). I thought that today I’d offer my thoughts on a selection of graphical representations of witchcraft and folk magic. The prolific reader/reviewer Mat Auryn has already compiled a great list of graphic novels with witchy themes over at his blog, culled from a number of esoteric and occult authors and featuring titles like the Psychonaut Field Manual listed above, as well as works by Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Mike Mignola’s Hellboy series, the Hellblazer series featuring chaotic mage John Constantine by Garth Ennis, and Grant Morrison (and a tip of the pointy hat to Chas Bogan and Natalie Zaman, who mention slightly outside-the-field authors like Edward Gorey and Nick Bantock (Griffin & Sabine) as well as a graphic novelization of historical witch hunts). I will largely be avoiding those titles in favor of ones that I don’t see mentioned as often elsewhere, and which seem to be rooted in branches or streams of North American or folkloric magic and witchcraft instead. So, on to the list!

1. Witchbody, by Sabrina Scott. This is an excellent graphic novelization of Scott’s personal reflections on witchcraft, particularly as connected to the female body (or any physical body). It embraces the sheer mortality of our corporeal forms and asks that those who walk with magic in their fingers recognize the bones and earth they will become. This is not a morbid fascination, but a beautiful feminist philosophical meditation that puts power in the act of natural communion. Cooking, walking among trees, padding along a city sidewalk–all of these activities invite connection, or as Scott puts it, “Witchcraft is the act of saying hello, speaking back to ones who speak with us.” Breathing is a long funerary rite with immense potential, and decentering our human perspective allows us an access to shapeshifting as we learn to listen to how the living and dying world observes us. It’s gorgeous, a rich memoir of magical physicality.

 

2. Belladonna Magic, by Christine Sloan Stoddard. Similarly to Witchbody, Stoddard is using her personal experiences and art to enhance the words and create a sense of enchantment. She turns each poem into both a memorial to her own life’s path and manages to wedge in potential spells among the words and images. In this case, the images are not a “graphic novel” format, per se, but artistic photographic compositions paired to the poems. These are not easy or simple poems. “Mary in Wyoming” asks questions about the lingering effects of pain and violation, such as “I wonder if my rapist flips his pillow/ to the cool side in the middle of the night,” which feels almost like a curse, but blends in with words that attempt to provide some kind of peace as well. Some poems are rituals, as when she says “I am naked in the window/ when I wish on a star./ But as a wilderness-dweller,/ I have no neighbors.” The themes and images here are not always as precise and clear as in the more cohesive Witchbody, but should still resonate with those seeking a contemporary feminist version of witchcraft that fuses art and words.

 

  

3. Witch Boy and The Hidden Witch, by Molly Ostertag. These are–ostensibly–children’s graphic novels telling the story of a thirteen-year-old boy named Aster who belongs to a family of magical folk. However, the rules of the family state that all the girls can learn witchcraft, and the boys must learn shapeshifting. Aster, it turns out, has no desire to shapeshift but has a natural knack for witchery. The book unfolds as Aster develops his skills, and Ostertag uses these books to explore issues of gender and identity, friendship (especially in the second book, The Hidden Witch, when jealousy becomes a powerful egragore for a young witch who can’t control her power), and prejudice. At the same time, a tremendous amount of North American folklore appears here, including Native American shapeshifting lore, discussions of tulpas and egragores, and healing spells and herbs. The concept of using sigils to “speak” to the plants is marvelous, and the sweet stories in each book are tender, occasionally funny, and frequently a little heartbreaking. If you have children (tween and up, most likely) who have even a slight interest in folklore or magic, these are good books to use to introduce them to witchery (and some of the issues they will face growing up). My own ten-year-old loves them, and I highly recommend these.

 

4. The Lost Words: A Spell Book, by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris. As the digital age progresses, dictionary makers frequently find themselves facing a problem: they need to add new words that are crucial to living in modern society (such as “blog” or “voicemail”), but they must also take into account page totals. Thus, some words get dropped. When the Oxford Junior Dictionary had to cut around forty words, including “willow” and “heron” among many others, author Robert Macfarlane and illustrator Jackie Morris came together to save those words, almost all of which had to do with the natural world. What they put together was a “spell book,” a play on the idea of a spelling primer and a book of magic. This book is both of those and something more. Poems and letters dance across pages with gorgeously painted images that conjure to life these lost words. In some ways, they act as spells of resurrection for language and nature. This is an eerily synchronous book taken with Ostertag’s Witch Boy series and Scott’s Witchbody, because all of these texts seem to be about the conversation with the natural world that is born from our bodies, our breath, our tongues (at least in part). The book is absolutely stunning, and huge, and unwieldy, and all the more wonderful for it. Keep watching our sites (especially YouTube) as I got an extra copy of this one that I will likely be giving away sometime in the future.

 

      

5. Finally, I’m offering a few graphic novels in a more “adult” vein of storytelling: Wytches, by Scott Snyder/Jock; Harrow County, by Cullen Bunn/Tyler Crook; The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, by Robert Aguirre Sacasa; and Locke & Key, by Joe Hill/Gabriel Rodriguez. Each of these has a lot to offer in terms of storytelling and the occult, but also take a very scary bent when looking at those topics. Wytches is a fiercely gritty tale about a young family moving to rural New Hampshire after a tragedy, only to discover they are haunted by a dark and occult past and hunted by a tribe of forest beings–the titular “wytches.” Harrow County is situated in a rural community (which bears some hallmarks of both Appalachia and places like the Upland South), and tells the story of Emmy Crawford, a young woman who finds she has occult powers blooming in her as the reincarnation of a…well, you’ll have to read to find out. The story features a variety of North American lore, including the “haints” who roam the area around Emmy’s home, such as her (sort-of familiar) the Skinless Boy. This one is a potent, gut-gripping series with a lot of good suspense and plot twists. Almost everyone has heard of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina the Netflix show, but I love the comic series that birthed it even more. Set in the “Archie Afterlife” universe (and more integrated with Riverdale and its inhabitants than the TV show), Sabrina slowly uncovers her family’s twisted and witchy history as well as its involvement in the Satanic Church of Night. It’s set in the 1960s and has a much darker tone than the long-running and glib Archie series upon which it is based, and the differences between the show and the comic are pronounced but not distracting. Author Aguirre-Sacasa also helms the show, so if you like one you may very well like the other. Finally, Locke & Key is by American horror master Joe Hill and tells the story of a family tormented by an unseen evil force who is slowly unpacking all sorts of occult mysteries for them, providing the family children both tools of resistance and traps into which they often fall. It’s Lovecraftian by nature (they even live in the town of Lovecraft), and there are some truly brutal moments in the story, but if you’re a fan of folk horror you will likely enjoy this.

That’s more than enough from me for now, but if you’ve got good suggestions of graphic works that show folklore and the occult playing well together, I’d love to hear them in the comments below (or feel free to drop us an email or voicemail as well…or send us a heron if you are displeased about the whole “voicemail” thing I mentioned above in Lost Words).

Thanks for reading!
-Cory

Video: Nashville Witchery 2019 (with AthenaBeth!)

July 17, 2019

 

I’m currently doing some traveling, but while staying in Nashville, TN where we visit with my in-laws each year I was fortunate enough to have a day where both Laine and our friend (and fellow YouTuber/witchy bon-vivant) AthenaBeth made the drive in to meet up with me. We did some witchy shop-hopping and visited four different stores, where I picked up a few fun items (and probably more books than I should have). I made a video of it so please check it out and feel free to comment and/or share it around!

Oh, and AthenaBeth ALSO made a video about it you can find here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SGNnGERcnRM

And here are the shops we visited:

Thanks for watching!
-Cory

Blog Post 213 – A 2018 Magical Media Retrospective Roundup

January 25, 2019

I read. A lot.

Who doesn’t like alliteration?

At the beginning of 2019, if you were following me/us on social media, then you saw me post a photo of a stack of books and a long list of everything I had read over the course of 2018. A number of the items on that list are books that I’ve not really had the time to review or discuss on the site or the show, or that would be worth revisiting because they’re so good. So today I’m doing a brief(ish) roundup of some of the magical media I liked best in the past year, particularly the stuff that relates to folk magic, folklore, and witchcraft (although I’m sure I’ll stray a bit here and there from the beaten path, but I have a feeling if I’m interested in something at least a few of you are, too). The year 2018 was a good one for magic and enchantment in the public eye (and in the right nooks and crannies of our own little folksy corner of the internet), so there’s a lot to recommend. I hope this is useful to some of you!

 

Books

When it comes to books, there were tons to choose from that made my folklorist/magical whiskers twitch. I’m going to divide this list into two categories: books about witchcraft and magic, and books about folklore that are probably of interest to people who read this site.

Witchy Books

  • The Witch: A History of Fear from Ancient Times to The Present, by Ronald L. Hutton – I reviewed this book professionally for the journal Western Folklore, and while I do have a few issues with it (Hutton sometimes pulls from anthropology in ways that don’t make sense or paints with some overly broad brushstrokes), for the most part I find this book gives a very comprehensive overview of the concept of “witchcraft” as it developed from Ancient Rome into contemporary times. The focus here is on Europe (and even more so on the British Isles), but it still offers insights into everything from shamanic practices to the cunning folk and the role that secularization played in fanning the flames of witch trials, so to speak. A solid, if sometimes dense, read.
  • Folk Religion of the Pennsylvania Dutch, by Richard Orth – There seem to be more and more books looking seriously at the Pennsylvania German cultural region, and some of them are seeing that the practice of magic (even if it isn’t called that explicitly) forms a piece of the greater patchwork of that culture. Orth, the director of the American Folklife Instituted, has written a book that takes a scholarly-but-not-dismissive look at the witchcraft and magic of the PA-Dutch and covers areas of interest ranging from the physical objects of deitsch magic to key figures like Mountain Mary. If you like learning about powwow and braucherei, this is absolutely a read for you.
  • Sigil Witchery, by Laura Tempest Zakroff – Zakroff has been on our show before and we’ve talked about her fresh and original take on both cauldrons and sigils, but I haven’t had time to do a full review on her book about sigil magic. My completely biased two cents? Buy it. Immediately. It was absolutely perfect for getting me thinking about magical symbols in new and creative ways, while still seeing them rooted to a variety of cultures that use them (without directly stealing anything from those cultures). Her latest release, Weave the Liminal, is also worth reading, although it’s a 2019 book so I will hope to do a full review later on.
  • Six Ways, by Aidan Wachter – I did manage to review this one on our site when it came out, so I reiterate here that this is a book worth reading, worth writing in, worth dragging with you outside under a tree, worth stuffing into your backpack or briefcase, and worth giving to others when you’re done. It’s a remarkably unique and resourceful approach to practical witchcraft rooted in Wachter’s own experiences, but written in a way to make the work he’s doing accessible for anyone. It will likely get you doing magic in different ways and discovering enchantment in things you hadn’t noticed before, and that’s a mighty accomplishment.
  • Besom, Stang, and Sword, by Chris Orapello and Tara-Love Maguire – More guests from our show doing great things! I made a point in my review of Besom, Stang, and Sword that it provides an eerie complementary text to Wachter’s Six Ways, because both are about a rooted practice building on an animistic understanding of the world. Orapello and Maguire open up their own traditional witchcraft practices here, and show the deep connections they have built up in their own spaces, while offering a reader so many (SO MANY!) good rituals and tools to do the same in their spaces. We’ll likely have them on to talk about this more, but it’s 100% worth reading.
  • Witches, Sluts, and Feminists, by Kristen Sollee – This one is less directly about practical witchcraft and much more about the role of witches in society. I don’t love Sollee’s somewhat fast-and-loose recounting of witchcraft history, but she does try to keep the roots of her discussion grounded in fact rather than sensationalism. She also makes some truly excellent points about the deep connections between women’s bodies, sexual identity, and the use of the labels “witch” and “slut” over time to exercise control over them. Her point? That women can and do take power from those labels eventually, and that witchcraft can be something that helps women exercise their personal authority in ways that rational, hierarchical systems can’t. It’s a lot of social theory rather than witchcraft-proper, but if you are into that line of thought you might find value in this one.

 

Folklore and Witchcraft-Adjacent Books

  • Border Lore, by David Bowles – We had Bowles on the show this year, and there are actually lots of books he’s written that I could recommend. I start with this one because Border Lore hits the right notes of folklore, magic, witchcraft, and storytelling for me. It talks about La Llorona and lechuzas, spooky roadside encounters and dances with the devil, and it’s a helluva lot of fun to read.
  • Every Tongue Got to Confess, by Zora Neale Hurston – This is a new-to-me collection that actually came out ten years ago, but it contains an immense amount of Hurston’s research and folklore work from her time in the Gulf States working for the WPA. She covers a lot of material, including plenty of stories about folk devils and witchcraft that would be worth reading for anyone who likes the things we do. As an added bonus, if you happen to be an Audible member, you can get this as an audiobook narrated by Ruby Dee and Ozzie Davis (which is an AMAZING combination).
  • The Annotated African American Folktales, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Maria Tatar – If you know much about African American studies or folk and fairy tale studies, then the names of this book’s editors should have you rushing to buy it already. Gates, famous for his work on African American history (and his role hosting the PBS genealogy show Finding Your Roots) and Tatar, Harvard’s resident fairy tale expert, have compiled a tremendous collection of African American lore and added insightful notes on the stories. The magical lore isn’t extensive, but it’s there in the stories, and provides a strong sense of the cosmology that has been so influential on the American psyche for hundreds of years. An excellent addition to your library.
  • The Old Gods Waken, by Manly Wade Wellman – This was a recommendation from a listener and I was very impressed by it. In it, an Appalachian bard and a Native American shaman have to save a folklorist and her love interest from a family of New World druids (why do folklorists always get into these kinds of scrapes?). There are lots of folk magical tidbits mixed in, and the story (it’s fiction, by the way) is generally fast-moving and compelling, with a real flavor of Appalachian language in the text.
  • Who by Water, by Victoria Raschke – This is the first in a trilogy of books set in Slovenia and in it an expat named Jo Wiley suddenly discovers a dormant power to speak with the dead, including her mother and her murdered lover. This leads her on a quest through Slovenian myth and mystery as she evades people–and forces–that fear or want to use her power. It’s engaging and fun, and exposes you to an area of the world you might not know much about in a way that feels exciting. Definitely worth it!

 

Movies, TV, and Other Media

This section is a bit of a catch-all, in that the recommendations here are more connected to things I’ve watched and enjoyed, although there’s also at least one book in this category, too (and some of the TV shows have double-lives in print and screen, but that will make more sense in a moment). I don’t expect everyone to agree with me on some of these, but I do think all of these are worth watching and forming your own opinion about.

 

  • Hilda (Netflix Original Series) – My family and I fell in love with this series and are hungry for more when it comes back later this year. It’s about an impetuous girl in Scandinavia who must move to the city of Trollberg with her mom after they lose their house in the distant countryside. Hilda (the girl) has always been good at relating to the strange creatures around her, including giants, trolls, woffs (flying dog-like puffballs), and elves (who love paperwork more than anything). There is so much magic in this series, and it’s beautiful. We also have devoured the graphic novels by Luke Pearson the series was based upon, and found that they often have even more wonderful lore in them. This is one of my highest recommendations.
  • We Don’t Go Back: A Watcher’s Guide to Folk Horror, by Michael D. Ingham – Okay, this is also a book, so why is it here in media? Mostly because it is a book about film and television that any fan of the uncanny, bizarre, magical world that haunts us would like to watch. Ingham’s book is wonderful not just in the way it offers a reader a chance to discover so many unknown gems of cinema and TV that fit the “folk horror” category, but in the way the author makes no bones about the stuff that doesn’t work, is generally terrible, or exploits people in some way. At the same time, his recommendations are rooted in a deep appreciation of the genre and a love for the rural and urban weirdness that fascinates so many of us. What is folk horror, by the way? It’s a genre that deals with strange mysteries and hidden pagan pasts intruding on our modern (and often ill-equipped) world. If you like films like The Wicker Man or Pan’s Labyrinth, you will probably get some good new things to add to your watch list out of this book.
  • The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (Netflix Original Series) – Really, this is probably the most controversial inclusion here. If I’m honest, it took me about seven episodes to enjoy this series, and even then I’m not sure I really love it in the way some people do. It’s problematic and messy at times in the way that a number of teen dramas can be, and it really, really digs into the trope of the Satanic witch in ways that will put some people off. The cosmology behind it, however, makes sense if you think of this as a show that says “What if the Puritans were right and Satanic witches were around all along? How would their society have evolved alongside (or under) our own?” It’s not a perfect show, and frankly I got a lot more pleasure out of reading the comics upon which this new Sabrina reboot is based, but I don’t judge it as harshly because it is still baby-stepping its way forward and taking risks while it does so. After all, if I judged Buffy by its first season alone, I don’t think I’d ever have thought twice about it. I want to give this series more of a chance and hope it finds its feet, because there really is some good stuff in here, so I’m including it here with a tentative recommendation (and a huge grain of salt with which to take many of its more off-putting elements).
  • Hereditary (Film, A24 Studios) – This one is likely to be a bit controversial as well. You will either love or hate this film, and either way I completely understand why. The story follows the strangely cursed lives of the Graham family, including artist mother Annie (Toni Collette) and doting-but-often-clueless father Steve (Gabriel Byrne). When their daughter, Charlie (Milly Shapiro) begins to have eerie visits from Annie’s dead mother, things go from bad to worse, and the family soon finds itself in the clutches of a generational curse brought about by familial witchcraft associations. It can get really gruesome at times (and I mean stomach-turningly so), but the effect of impending dread and the way magic is presented here both worked for me. Things are seldom completely flashy, but rather almost grind forward in a relentless advance, and that makes the ending (as strangely mysterious and confusing as it can be) feel like a breath of relief. One that makes you almost feel guilty for taking it.
  • Errementari: The Blacksmith and the Devil (Film, Kinoskopik) – Based on a folktale with iterations found around the world, this Basque film tells the story of a blacksmith whose deal with the devil (in actuality not the Devil, but a devil) leads to a twisted road of consequences, horror, and bloodshed. The folk roots of this story are done beautifully, and it’s gorgeous to watch. It is in the Basque language, but there are English subtitles as well. It’s available on Netflix and I definitely enjoyed watching it.

 

Whew! That’s seriously a LOT of magic to pack into one year, right? And I’ve actually only just scratched the surface! There are tons of things I’m missing here (including the Charmed reboot, which I’ve watched a bit of and mostly enjoyed so far, as well as the Hulu original show Light as a Feather, which I liked a bit less). I have a feeling that we’ll be seeing a lot of magical media coming out this year, too, and I’m hoping to keep on top of it and share recommendations as much as I can.

What about you? What enchantments did you brush up against or bump into (or run full tilt towards) in 2018? What are you looking forward to in 2019? Let us know by email, social media (Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are our top public spots), or in the comments below!

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 212 – Book Review: Besom, Stang, and Sword by Chris Orapello and Tara-Love Maguire

January 1, 2019

If you listen to Down at the Crossroads (and you should, in fact, listen to that show, as it taps into some great magical wisdom and practice), you will find yourself quickly saying, “I know that rite!” when you get to Chapter One of Besom, Stang, and Sword. That is, of course, no accident, as the hosts of the podcast and the authors of the book are one and the same. Chris Orapello (going by Christopher Orapello in the book’s byline) and Tara-Love Maguire are already well-known to the magical community, but they have been weaving spells over the years that many of us are only just now seeing as the book emerges to laud and praise. That praise is rightly bestowed, as this book does a phenomenal job of conveying a real sense of the couple’s locally-rooted magical tradition while also inviting any and all readers curious about where to start with traditional witchcraft in a modern world to join them for a cup of…well, best not question the proffered cuppa too much.

 

With Besom, Stang, and Sword, Chris and Tara open the doors to their own practices, laying out the materials of magic for all to see. The results drive home the central point that magic—specifically witchcraft—is available to anyone, but that it requires time, effort, patience, and thought along with a dose of fate and a sizable amount of risk. They build a hexagram of approachable practices that asks anyone picking up this work to root their magic in the land surrounding them and their own personal history, rather than taking secondhand sorcery from others. Chris and Tara reveal their Blacktree tradition without pretense or artifice, but instead with clarity, insight, and acid wit, which testifies to their talents as both seasoned occultists and engaging writers. This is a book that will reshape a reader’s encounters with magic and the landscape around them. They make the point that the landscape is “hidden,” but not in any sense inaccessible. No, the landscape is there, has always been there, waiting to teach you, they say. All you need to do is take a breath and pay attention to the “flutter in the gut coming up through your own roots…and you will automatically know if the land there welcomes you with a friendly warmth, or if it is repulsed and angry at your intrusion” (158). That immediate connection to your surroundings defines the Blacktree tradition and the approach Orapello and Maguire take to all magic–it must be rooted and connected, but it must also have the freedom to grown in its own way (indeed, one of their crucial variations upon the Witches’ Pyramid is the addition of the dictum, “to grow”).

 

The book is broken into twelve official chapters (with an Introduction serving as the thirteenth member of their verbal coven). Each chapter lays out some fundamental aspect of their practice, complete with spells and rituals, incantations, tools, and techniques that they have tried and tested in their own lives. Within the first few chapters, you are creating a ritual cord, crafting a witches’ broom (the titular “besom”), acquiring a (genius loci-approved) Token of the Land, and raising an ancestral altar. Chapters conclude with a highly selective and generally very thoughtful “further reading” list to guide you deeper into topics that spark your interest the strongest, thus creating a practice rooted in history and the experiences shared by others but never restricting your own exploration and creation of magic. Techniques build upon one another–you access the Hidden Landscape of Chapter Seven by using the above-mentioned Token tool created in Chapter Two, for example. At the same time, once you read the first chapter of the book, the rest is generally readable in any order, and your own interests can guide you to the methods and tools they use in a winding, crooked path through traditional witchcraft (and the reference to Peter Paddon there is very much intentional, as his spirit lingers in many of the pages of this book). They draw influences from Robert Cochrane, Michael Howard, and Nigel Aldcroft Jackson, while also incorporating research from academics like Éva Pócs, Carlo Ginzburg, and Emma Wilby, giving it intellectual roots that run deep and hold tight.

 

In some ways, the book smirks a bit at tradition, too, by revising or reinventing it. One prime example is the way Orapello and Maguire reconfigure runes, pentagrams, and the oft-spun “wheel of the year” found in so many books on modern magical religion. There are frequent repetitions of sixes within the work: six points on their version of the World Tree (the Black Tree); six key ideas within the Witches’ Hexagram (to know, to will, to dare, to be silent, to go, to grow); six key holiday points in the annual cycle (leaving off the equinoxes in their version). Besom, Stang, and Sword bears some resemblance to Aidan Wachter’s  recent book Six Ways in that respect, but the two books approach the topic of witch-work differently. Wachter’s book looks inward to the author’s personal experiences and years of practice immersed in a sort of background radiation of magic (the “Field” as he describes it) and draws out a series of universalized principles, weaving them into the acts of breathing and the sound of poetry. Orapello and Maguire turn their own experiences into tools through which a magical practitioner connects their personal experience of enchantment to the very real and immediate landscape around them. That’s not to say either book is “right” or “wrong,” but rather that they have an almost eerie synchronicity in their approaches. They complement each other beautifully. Both demand real, dirt-under-the-nails work. Both honor tradition while also practicing the art of reverent improvisation based on particular circumstances. Tradition is not discarded here, but re-imagined in a way that takes it out of the past and situates it in a living, thriving continuum of practice.

 

Besom, Stang, and Sword combs through the materials of modern life and shows the reader how and where to poke to raise the dragons of sorcery wisely and well. One particularly memorable moment in the book guides the reader through the orgiastic sabbatic rites of the modern dance club and ties them to Dionysian revels while not attempting to diminish the ecstatic frenzy of either the rituals of Ancient Greece or the Saturday night sweat-and-sex of the discotheque (they thankfully do not use the word discotheque, by the way). As they build their own calendar of lunar magic with a Crow Moon in March or a Cricket Moon in August, they also make a subtle note that in a world continually being shaped by human influence on climate change, those moons may change as well. There are echoes of Peter Grey’s Apocalyptic Witchcraft here, but they do not dwell on witches as midwives of death and rebirth on a planetary scale. Instead, they show you how to root the adaptations you make to your own experience of the moon in your immediate landscape, even as that landscape shifts around you.

From the east, I go to west.

About to north.

And then to south.

Crossing roads as I go about.

Laying the ground for a witch’s work.

Down at the crossroads is where I vow,

To meet with she and he and they and thou

 

You’ve been greeted with those words for years in Chris Orapello’s lovely baritone if you’re a listener to the show he and Maguire have worked so hard on. The spell they weave is real, and as they lay each of their tools–a broom, a staff, and a blade–down across one another, they create six points, a star, a tree, a crooked path, a serpent, a year… They make a crossroads for you in this book, and then show you how to build your own. They meet you in the pages, and you get a very real sense of who they are and what they do, but then they send you off on your own way to make some witchcraft and lay some ground for others. They uncover a hidden landscape and in doing so, call up more mysteries than you could ever solve (but you’ll have great fun trying). They give you magic that works in a moonlit forest, a city full of humming concrete, a farmstead a century ago, or the flooded coastal plains of tomorrow. Besom, Stang, and Sword also creates a rune with roots running deep and branches that reach for the sky. Let it work its spell on you, and you will see traditional witchcraft in new ways every day.

 

I hope you enjoy reading the book as much as I did, and thank you for stopping by and reading this review!

-Cory

 

*[Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book for review and as a potential endorser, and part of this review has been used in the opening endorsements of the book. I will also note that the authors are personal friends of mine. Chris and Tara did not pressure me for an endorsement, and I am proud to recommend their work, but in the interest of being completely transparent I wish to include this note]

Blog Post 208 – Book Review: Six Ways – Approaches and Entries for Practical Magic by Aidian Wachter

June 19, 2018

Aidan Wachter is well-known among a subset of the magical community for his gorgeous talismanic creations, forged from silver and bearing arcane markings of his own design or derived from richly sorcerous sources. This year, he has also embarked upon a career as an author of magical texts, building upon his years of experience and bringing the same level of creativity and depth to his writing that he has long done with his jewelry. With Six Ways: Approaches and Entries for Practical Magic, Wachter seeks to open up pathways into practice for those who, like him, are “dirt sorcerors,” practitioners who may have some cosmological interests but who are far more interested in applying magic to the world around them in inventive, operational ways. At the end of Chapter Eight of his self-published work, he says, “The first and most important enchantment is the enchantment of the world, which by its very nature is also the enchantment of us, its perceiver. A large amount of the work of magic and sorcery as I have come to know it has to do with this concept” (44). Wachter’s stated aim, reenchantment, has been on the minds of the magically-inclined since Keith Thomas’ summative text on the decline of magic in the modern world, and if many hands make light work then Six Ways shoulders a goodly portion of that burden.

The book’s thirty-three chapters all come in digestible chunks of a few pages, but in most of those bite-size portions the flavor runs deep (except in his rejection of red onions, an opinion in which he is clearly wrong). He begins by introducing himself and his purpose: to add “approaches and entries” to the Field of magic (I capitalize that term here because Wachter does, explaining that the Field is the “totality of manifest and unmanifest reality. Sorcery is the art of effective inter-being with the Field”) (10). The emphasis here is in the practice, the application, the dirt-under-your-fingernails approach to getting things done in ways that most people can’t or won’t. By Chapter Two, Wachter is already handing out homework and pushing the reader to put the book down (a hard task at times) and go do the stuff. Exercises within the text are wide-ranging and pull from a variety of systems including some Ceremonial and chaos magic, hoodoo, and Traditional Witchcraft, although seldom in any way that feels disrespectful or disharmonious. In Chapter Nine, he leads the reader into silence as a way of understanding meditation, then segues into trance in Chapter Ten. He relates the practice of offerings (in a general animistic sense) to a more specific chapter on working with the Dead and follows the deeper relationship-building practices into a chapter on “the stacking of skulls” as a way of understanding altar construction. Of course, one of his standout sections comes in the form of chapters on sigil work and talisman creation, where his expertise is evident.

Wachter’s book is remarkable in that it feels very much like having tea with a friend—a friend who knows a great deal about practical, action-oriented, behavioral occultism. The conversational tone he strikes may actually deter some readers because he speaks from his own experience and the lessons he’s learned but does not do so in a prescriptive way beyond providing potential tasks for a developing magician to try. Put another way, the book is a bit like an afternoon break with a mad scientist in his workshop, where he allows you to tinker a bit with his Tesla coils and bottles of bubbling concoctions as you walk and talk. It is a strange book in some ways, and at times I found myself a bit astray from his path (I do not particularly follow some of his meditative methods), but he always drew me back in again. His arguments about making contracts with spirits responsibly, seeing animism in its most relationship-oriented form, and making magic a thing you do in the world, rather than something that happens to you all resonated with my own sense of folk magic as a continuum of praxis.

One of my favorite moments in the book is Wachter’s description of the feeling when magic works: “This is magic, and if done with intention, and devotion, it should feel a bit like falling in love…Magic is the art of falling in love with the Field and its inhabitants” (120). Those inhabitants include us, of course, and falling in love with ourselves, the world around us, and all the beautiful threads that weave us together is a bit of magic itself. It is a reenchantment of the world, and this book makes that task a little easier.

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

*In the interest of full disclosure, I received a review copy of the book from the author.

Blog Post 207 – What is New World Witchery?, Part V (Witches Become Witches)

May 24, 2018

In previous posts in this series, I’ve already looked at some of the ways that history, folklore, and contemporary behavior come together to form what we’ve termed “New World Witchery.” If you’re just starting with this series here, you might want to flip back the pages of this dusty old tome on the bookshelf and read the first of these posts on “What is New World Witchery, Part I (Irrational Pragmatism).” There are other posts that follow, on topics like the moral implications of practical folk magic in North America, and the spiritual entities that seem to hover at the edges of (or stand smack in the center of) New World magical practices, and the physical “things” of North American witchcraft. You can certainly start here, though, and go where you wish, and let your intuition act as a compass for these explorations.

This time, I’m addressing a topic I’ve addressed before in a few different ways: how witches learn to do the magic associated with them. I’m revisiting these points here because the other posts on them all go into more detail on specifics, and I believe that a more general summary of themes and methods is useful here. As you’re digging into this subject, feel free to spend some time in those older posts, too, as they do provide more depth than this one will. As you will likely see early and often through the following examples, witches can gain their magical prowess in a lot of different ways, and so it can be hard to compare one witch to another in folklore and history. At the same time, there are themes that do unite the different stories, or at least themes that overlap with one another, creating a sort of “spectrum.” What is certain, though, is that those who claim magical power develop it in some way to eventually become what people call a “witch.”

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Witches Become Witches

In the time I’ve spent reading accounts of witchcraft in books of history and folklore, the time I’ve spent interviewing contemporary practitioners or examining specific magical artifacts, and the time I’ve spent consulting with other people who study this engrossing topic, I’ve learned that over-generalizations are not terribly useful when it comes to witchcraft. By reducing witchcraft into motifs and components, we tend to miss the highly individual experiences of the people actually practicing the magic. At the same time, it helps us a lot to look for patterns, and when it comes to just how witches gain their magical powers, we can see a set of patterns in the New World (or at least, specifically in North America) that point the way towards a better understanding of how these practices move between people. Tradition, as one of my folklore mentors has pointed out, comes from a Latin root having to do with “handing” things over, and witchcraft generally seems to be a “tradition” in that sense—it is handed over from one person (or entity) to another.

The exception to that rule is hereditary witchraft, although in this case I’m not referring to grandiose initiation stories of secret Granny Witches conducting rituals in their kitchens to initiate their grandchildren (looking at you here Alex Sanders). Rather, I’m referring to the wide body of lore that says that witches can often be “marked” from birth with special powers. For example, the presence of a caul around a newborn’s head is frequently noted as a source of spiritual power, and even when detatched the caul retains some magical abilities—sailors paid a pretty penny for dried cauls to stave off drowning, for example. In mountain lore inherited from European traditions, the seventh son of a seventh son is often reputed to have the ability to heal or do certain types of magic, setting him apart. Other birth-related demarcations of magical power include unusual moles, the presence of teeth in a newborn, extra fingers or toes, or a baby who is particularly hairy. One account of witchcraft among Pueblo Native Americans in the American Southwest showed that popular opinions claimed that witches often passed on their abilities to their children (albeit powers of malediction and harm in that example). A West Virginian herbal healer named Dovie Lambert who also “took off” bewitchments from others claimed that the passage of magical power occurred when secret words were transmitted across gender lines in families: father-to-daughter or mother-to-son, or even among aunts, uncles, nieces, and nephews. Dovie believed that if the power didn’t get transmitted before the witch’s death, the power of that line of witchcraft would die out, although she herself believed that was unlikely to happen anytime soon.

Even in cases of a “witch from birth,” which is not always the same thing as these examples of magical “election,” the person has to choose to use their ability, and often develops it during a later point in life. This power was not solely limited to magic, however, but often reputed to impart special gifts to children based on birth order that might include a talent for medicine or a need for expanded education. Vance Randolph recorded some such beliefs in his examination of the Ozarks and their lore:

“If there are seven sons in a family, and no daughters, the seventh son is clearly intended to be a physician. The seventh son of a seventh son is a physician in spite of himself, endowed with healing powers which cannot be denied. Even if such a man does not study or practice medicine, he is very often called “Doc” or “Doctor” by common consent. However, small-time gamblers are often called “Doc” too, just as every backwoods auctioneer becomes a “Colonel.”

If there are ten sons in a family, and no daughters, the tenth son must be a preacher. “God meant it to be that-a-way,” an old woman once told me. “He knows how many preachers we need in this world.” She would not go so far as to say, however, that it is a mistake to call men who are not tenth sons into the ministry.

Many hillfolk believe that a third son is more intelligent than his brothers and should therefore be encouraged to “git more book-larnin’.” Others contend that, other things being equal, the fourth child has the brains of the whole family.”

Frequently the turning point in a “natural” magician’s life is adolescence or young adulthood, when the person’s power fully manifests for the first time and they learn the techniques of healing from someone else in their community, usually a family member. For example, West Virginian folk healer Johnny Arvin Dahmer spoke of inheriting a copy of The Egyptian Secrets of Albertus Magnus from his grandfather, who was also known as a folk magician and charmer. While a person may be predisposed to magical talent, then, their use of that talent comes only with guidance and training.

That instruction forms is very much the “marrow of tradition” that underlies almost all other forms of witches-becoming-witches. Just how involved that training is depends on the type of magic being transmitted, the cultural context in which it is found, and the particular individuals involved. In most cases, magical practitioners do not hang out shingles and advertise their services as instructors in witchcraft, but over the course of a long-standing and developed relationship with another person they may decide to share their secrets. In Dovie Lambert’s case above, that may happen as a matter of survivial of the magical tradition—if it is not transmitted it will “die out.” Lambert’s cross-gender transmission appears in a number of European-derived practices, including those from German-speaking, English-speaking, and French-speaking groups. A detailed study of powwowing magic in Pennsylvania Dutch communities by David W. Kriebel sums up a number of these ideas:

“Training procedures vary greatly, although one rule is nearly universal, namely, that only a woman can teach a man and only a man can teach a woman…training time can take anywhere from a few minutes to a year. The training procedure used by [one informant] and passed on to [two others] consisted of a ten-week program with all information imparted orally. When the initiate returned for the second session he (or she) had to repeat all the incantations and gestures perfectly, as a sign the initiate was meant to become a powwower.”

Kriebel’s account brings up the concept of a “calling” to do magic, which may be an echo of the idea of a hereditary practice or may signify the same kind of “calling” experienced by a religious or political leader. Kriebel also notes that one of his informants draws attention to the “price” of teaching magic, with one informant claiming “that when one powwower trains another the teacher gives up half his power to the student.” Several instances of this sort of transmission appear in folklore about witches who share their secrets or pass on their power only in the moments before their own death. A number of accounts make the claim that magical power can only be taught or transmitted at most three times within a person’s lifespan before the magic “runs out” or the practitioner dies.

Beyond the element of a calling to witchcraft, some witches may seek out their power in various ways. One Northern Mexican informant described the application of a special set of powders to his body, followed by a ritual bath, that gave him the ability to transform into animals. Notably, he learned the process by watching two other witches do the same in secret, and initially failed to do it correctly because he was wearing a scapular (a Catholid object designed to confer the blessings of Saints on the wearer). Only after removing the holy item was he able to begin his transformations. Many such initiations involve a renunciation of Christian practices or beliefs. Several accounts from Hubert Davis’ The Silver Bullet note that witches become witches by “throw[ing] rocks at the moon and cuss[ing] God Almighty” or writing the Lord’s Prayer on a plate in grease paint, then washing it in a river or stream in an act of inverse baptism. Vance Randolph’s informants note that the initiation experience could be “a much more moving spiritual crisis than that which the Christians call conversion,” at least according to his sources.

In some cases of initiation, witches were expected to pay a price similar to the one noted in the accounts Kriebel found among the Pennsylvania Dutch. That price might be an obligation to a specific spirit (most commonly framed in the American traditions as “the Devil,” although specific descriptions and formulations of diabolic initiation vary). It might also involve the death of a relative, or a period of intense sickness or near-death illness. Once initiated, however, a witch retained her power until her death or until she elected to pass it on to someone else. Other magical powers often followed this line of transmission: a calling or marking from birth followed by a powerful experience in young adulthood or adolescence that confirmed magical ability; the transmission of specific knowledge about witchcraft through the passage of oral lore or even the handing over of a book; and finally, the dispersal of that knowledge and power to another generation, often only in very limited quantities.

Contemporary practitioners tend to derive their magical knowledge in similar ways to the ones already outlined, but with some distinctions. For example, the emphasis on learning from books has become a de facto aspect of magical training. In some cases, the same books used in previous generations, like Egyptian Secrets, still hold sway, although in truth there are so many options available the older books are only a small sliver of the greater body of knowledge being used (I’m not complaining here, as I think many fantastic books have been produced in recent years, including some that surpass the older tomes in terms of breadth and depth of magical information). Several correspondents I’ve had have told me they look for “classes” in witchcraft, too, with structure and lesson plans and even homework. Some prefer classes focused on specific skills, as with Becky Beyer’s Appalachian wildcraft workshops, while others follow initiatory magico-religious traditions like Christopher Penczak’s Inner Temple structure. Training from groups directly (either in person or via postal correspondence) was the norm during the heyday of British Traditional Wicca in the 1970s and 1980s, but that is only a singular form of training now among many other forms available. Some practitioners still take on apprentices, especially in traditions like powwow or curanderismo, although both of those traditions are sometimes taught in whole or part within a class environment, too.

The one element that seems to have dissipated over time is the concept of the “price” paid for magical knowledge. The price has become the time and commitment required to learn the skills and magical techniques associated with a particular tradition. There are still some initiatory groups that do extract a price, such as requiring potential initiates to fast or wear special clothing for a certain length of time—something common in Lukumi traditions, for example. Occasionally the idea of the price being a loved one’s death surfaces, too, although that has become increasingly rare. So, too, has the idea of passing on the tradition before death as a matter of continuing a line of magical practice. Instead, practitioners often pass on their knowledge as more of a public service or as an aspect of their calling (some speak of being “called to teach” within a “training coven” structure, for example). Passing knowledge has also moved beyond rules about gender lines, too, instead becoming a more egalitarian and open-access approach.

Given the many roads into witchcraft, however, the road out is still in the transmission, even if the reasoning has changed. Witches become witches, and they do so because other witches make that possible. The stereotype of witches gathering in huge covens on Walpurgisnacht to engage in Satanic rites may be a medieval fabrication and fantasy, but in the act of sharing magical knowledge, there does seem to be a continuity of magical community. Almost like a family.

 

N.B: I will be doing one more entry in this series on the many and various talents of witches, but I am likely to set aside that post for a bit to cover a few other topics. This series has been rather grander in scope than I think I originally envisioned, but I hope it is useful to some of you. For now, I am so grateful to those of you sticking with me even with the longer gaps between posts.

 

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 200 – Am I a Witch?

June 3, 2016
Statue of a Witch, by Gegenbach (Public Domain)

Statue of a Witch, Gegenbach (Public Domain)

I’ve always liked the word “witch.” It carries with it a lot of connotations, sure, but so few words can evoke strong reactions across the spectrum, ranging from fear to excitement to anger to joy. Witches in folklore occupy a strange space; in many stories, they seem to be dangerous and do harm (e.g. “Hansel and Gretel” or “The Witch in the Stone Boat”), but then in so many other tales they are helpers, or benign catalysts for action (as in “Frau Holle” or “Finist the Bright Falcon”). We have tackled the question of “What is a Witch?” from a lot of angles here already: answering the question generally and rhetorically, looking at aspects of a witch’s practice, seeing what it takes to become a witch, and so on. But this weekend brings my birthday, so I’m going to turn that lens inward a bit, and ask the question, “Am I a Witch?” That may seem like a bit of a ridiculous question, coming from someone who talks about using folk magic on a regular basis, but it’s a question worth asking. There are many people from various backgrounds who would likely say I’m not, based on their personal definitions of witchcraft, whether they believe it to be a religion or a practice, or both, or neither. So how do I see it? If you read the articles here, you probably want to know if my own definition of witchcraft jives with yours, right? Today, I thought it might be good to clarify just who I am and what I do that might make someone think of me as a witch of one kind or another. In an upcoming post, I will use this as a bit of a launching pad to take a look at a few ways the figure of the witch appears in North American history and folklore, and see if I can find anything that I can use to create a broad sketch of what a “New World Witchcraft” practice might look like. This is, and must be, my own interpretation, so of course your interpretation may be quite different. But my hope is that by going through this question with some thought, maybe it will open up some doorways (or hedgerows) along the way for myself and others. If you’re interested in traveling this particular crooked road with me, read on.

A section of my personal altar.

A section of my personal altar.

 

Firstly, let me talk a little about the things I do. My basic spiritual practice (and please note I’m setting this apart with fancy italics) involves a few basic rituals: weekly lighting of candles to a mix of saints, ancestors, deities, spirits, and other entities, along with offerings of incense and water and sometimes food and drink. I offer evening prayers directed at a pantheon of spiritual forces, mostly in gratitude and asking for safe passage through the night for myself and my family. Monthly, I light candles representing the new and full moons. When the dark candle is lit, I do divinations with my cards—although I should note this is not the only time I do that, and here we have a practice which may be only quasi-spiritual overlapping with the spiritual ritual of lunar reverence. It’s complicated, right? On the full moon, I offer libations and light other candles, and say prayers to specific spiritual forces I feel are connected with the moon. And that’s the big stuff. Despite recent discussions of sabbats and the Wheel of the Year, I tend to get into holidays in a more community-oriented way, attending parades or local celebrations and not really focusing on the spiritual observance of the days (although that does sometimes happen, especially during the winter months).

Reading my mother's cards.

Reading my mother’s cards.

My magical practice (again, fancy tilty-letters here) involves the aforementioned card divination, which I do more frequently in ways dissociated from a particular spiritual observance, but which does involve me calling upon some spiritual aid. I also frequently cast spells for various wants, needs, and wills. Most are incredibly simple spells, such as the creation of a petition paper and the lighting of a candle, perhaps with some anointing oil and the recitation of a psalm or charm. I might create a mojo bag to carry around and draw in a specific need or want (most often, these bags are in the “success” area, although I also do some protection bags and others as well). Periodically, I will brew up batches of condition oils to have on hand for dressing candles and bags, but if I run out of those for some reason I don’t worry, because I can usually substitute something from the kitchen in a pinch—coffee, whiskey, olive oil, etc. If someone gets a sharp bang on their shin or a cut on their finger, I’m usually right there with my little Pow-wow-style charms to ease the pain, along with an ice pack, kiss, or chocolate-chip cookie as appropriate. A few times a year I do house-cleansing and protection work, adding written charms to door lintels and washing down my front door with—well, traditional protective formulae.

 

Is any of this witchcraft, though? When we look at stories of witches in North America—whether derived from European, African/African American, Native, or other sources—we see witches doing some of these things in one way or another, perhaps. Fortune-telling by cards and other means seems to appear nearly universally. Zora Neale Hurston recorded tales of African American conjure women and men rifling playing cards and seeing the future. Some of the accounts of Salem’s tumultuous sorceries involved tales of divination by “Venus glass,” or through the use of a special cake baked from urine and fed to a dog, or even some evidence that accused persons like Dorcas Hoar owned divination manuals and had practiced fortune-telling for years before the trial outbreak. Other tools, like the dowsing rod or the use of geomantic shells or coins, appear in other areas, and every cultural group in American history has had some means of divination or augury. Even in contemporary times, the Ouija board has become a popular trope of adolescent divinatory rites, and remains a popular “game” among American youth.

Brewing condition oils

Brewing condition oils

Witches also made use of prayers and psalms, sometimes in holy and sometimes in profane ways. Tales of Appalachian witch initiation rites discuss the use of prayers which reverse one’s baptism. In many European-derived traditions, the recitation in reverse of whatever charm had been used to blight someone would remove that curse. In tales where witches work with spirits, they may make contact with faery-creatures (see Emma Wilby’s Cunning Folk & Familiar Spirits for a truly excellent rundown of that subject), or they may keep wee bug in a bottle to talk to (as in one Appalachian story). While we get a sense of their spiritual worldview—which is heavily populated and constantly interacting with the mundane world—we seldom get a sense that witches are denominational. They might act in non-Christian or even anti-Christian ways, up to and including signing pacts with the Devil, but just as often they make use of Christian prayers and charms, and may even be very religions—if a bit unorthodox. Having a rich spiritual life certainly seems to be found in most tales of folkloric witches, but there’s very little definition around that spiritual worldview. Instead, witchcraft seems to be—from the perspective of history and folklore—less about gods and goddesses and much more about muttering under one’s breath in a time of need, or knowing not to burn sassafras wood. It’s a practice and a way of acting which is shaped by spiritual understanding, but not completely defined by it. There’s much more to say on what witches do, based on folklore (and I should also note that I am increasingly aware of the fact folklore is not something from “back then,” but something alive and moving now, so perhaps we should spend some time on contemporary witchcraft from that angle, too). I will leave all of that for another day, however, and return to the question at hand.

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Am I a witch? I suppose it depends on who is asking. I have a fairly unorthodox spiritual practice and worldview, especially for someone living after the Modern era of rationalism and scientific inquiry. I think that my spiritual life, however, does not inherently make me a witch. It makes me an animist, perhaps, or put in contemporary economic terms, someone with a diversified spiritual portfolio. That can be a good basis for witchcraft, but it can also be a good basis for a number of practices completely outside of witchcraft. Many Christians, Hindus, and even Buddhists see such a diversity in the spiritual landscape (although they may assign different values to non-deity spirits and might even avoid all but a very few of them). What I do, on the other hand…that is witchcraft. I am a witch in divination, in charming, in meeting my needs through my own actions, and in doing so by working outside of rational methods (and please note I did not say in spite of such methods or even without also using such methods—a proper My Little Pony bandage can be just as important as a magical healing charm and a kiss to a scraped knee). I am a witch in knowing some of the ways that the world around us is constantly in conversation—whether through the growth of certain plants or the movements of certain animals or the scent and taste of the air before a storm. I am a witch in holding in me a certainty that I can do something about my circumstances, and that I am responsible for my own fate—both finding it and bending it.

 

Yes. I am a witch.

 

I hope to go a bit further and expand upon some previous discussions of what a witchcraft practice in the New World might look like. I will be turning to folklore, history, and contemporary behaviors and actions to help define that, and in the end, I will probably satisfy no one, but perhaps get into a few good conversations with the points I raise. For now, though, I hope that this article—a little bit of me put out there for you to consider—will clarify my practices a bit. I am not a perfect witch, mind you, possibly not even a very good one. Nor are my practices solely definitive of all witches everywhere. But if this article speaks to you in some way, I’d love to know. I’d love to hear if you are a witch, too.

 

Thanks for reading,

-Cory