Witches are among us, and far more of them than you think. Today, when people talk about “witches” in this country, they are often talking about members of the “Pagan” movement, a group of perhaps as many as 1 million Americans whose practices draw from a combination of pre-Christian European religions, Western occult and Masonic societies, and forms of witchcraft. I spent much of the last five years immersed in the American Pagan community — first at arm’s length, as a journalist; then as someone personally curious about the rituals I’d observed; and finally, for a couple of years, as an active student and participant. The result is Witches of America, both a snapshot of present-day witchcraft across the United States and a memoir of my own searching and questioning. Now that we’re in the thick of Halloween season, here are some facts about witches that may surprise you.
1. Witches are often invisible. Not literally, of course. But the women and men who consider themselves witches or Pagans don’t always announce themselves in goth gear, tattoos, and piercings. Many are just as likely to dress in utterly innocuous ways — in the daily uniforms of, say, a single mother driving her kid to track practice, a grade-school teacher, a tech entrepreneur, or a cashier at Trader Joe’s. Morpheus, the Pagan priestess who served as my personal entrée into the witchcraft community in the Bay Area, was actually working for an environmental protection group when I first met her. She’d drive to work in a pickup, dressed in khakis and a hoodie, her hair in a long red braid. The local ranchers she consulted with had no idea that she regularly hosted rituals under the moonlight out on her property, just a few miles away.
Some witches choose to remain “in the broom closet,” as they call it — because they work for the government or with children, live in a conservative community, or are simply afraid that the word “witchcraft” still carries too much baggage. At the same time, since the ’80s, Pagans have been gathering in outdoor festivals and indoor hotel conferences all around the country, sometimes in groups of a few thousand. And with the rise of the Internet in the ’90s, vast networks have also spread online, making it that much easier for someone Craft-curious, in an area without a visible Pagan presence, to connect with a mentor in a chat room.
2. While Hollywood horror films have (unfairly) made witchcraft out to be the work of the Devil, they’ve gotten plenty of details right. Pagans are not interested in worshipping the Devil — many would say that the Satan of Christianity is a god they don’t even believe in — so that’s a major strike against the Hollywood horror-movie depiction of witchcraft. On the other hand, there is a certain amount of drama and flair to ritual magic that the movies have come close to getting right. Witches do gather in a circle to perform rituals, sometimes outdoors, under the moon. They use wands and ritual daggers (or athames) to guide magical energy in the right direction; they chant, sometimes in ancient languages. Depending on the specific tradition a person trained in, they may also practice magic while “skyclad,” or in the nude. This isn’t an invitation to sex but instead a way of letting go of the mundane, material world and entering a heightened state that allows for more powerful magic.
3. Most witches follow a strict moral code. Returning to the sinister Devil-worship thing: The horror-movie assumption that anyone who labels herself a “witch” is out to harm others is false and unfair. This community follows an ethical standard that’s similar to a concept of karma: The Threefold Law warns that any action you take will come back at you three times over. Or, for witches of the Wiccan tradition, there’s the Wiccan Rede: “An’ it harm none, do what thou wilt” — follow your own lead, as long as you don’t cause harm to anyone else.
Yes, some witches perform “hexes,” and a personal or coven rivalry might, in a rare situation, escalate into a “witch war.” But this kind of behavior is frowned on. The goal, as with many religious practices, is to bring yourself closer to spiritual enlightenment and balance — which is that much harder to achieve if you’re busy creating chaos.
4. Witches often do practice in “covens.” A witchcraft tradition can spawn many “lines” (or splinter sects) founded by the disciples of a particularly influential priest or priestess. And those lines, in turn, are each often made up of at least a few covens.
At the same time, while many old-school Pagans believe that the only way to become a full-fledged witch is through disciplined, in-person training with — and initiation by — a coven, the Internet helped spawn an entire generation of “solitary” witches who learned through mentors online, connecting with looser, long-distance covens and practicing alone in their own homes, backyards, or nearby woods. (There are no churches or synagogues in Paganism: any natural place can be made into a place of worship.)
5. Many men also call themselves “witches.” Because Pagans believe the universe is driven by forces that are equally male and female, the community seems to be equal parts men and women. (For women, there’s the significant appeal of having the opportunity to become priests, something that’s rare in more mainstream religious traditions.) The person credited with founding Wicca was a man: Gerald Gardner. A retired civil servant from a well-off merchant family, Gardner spent most of his life in Asia before returning home to England and eventually claiming he’d uncovered a long-practicing coven in the New Forest.
A side note: Pagan men today are much more likely to label themselves “witches” rather than “warlocks.” Though the words “pagan” and “witch” started out as historical slurs and have since been revived and reclaimed, “warlock,” for some reason, is still mostly considered an insult, taken to mean “oathbreaker.”
6. The Salem witch trials had nothing to do with real-life witchcraft. In spite of our relentless fascination with the trials, in pop culture and literature, there’s still no real evidence that those tried and executed in Salem back in the 1690s practiced witchcraft. There is also no clear proof that the people executed as Satan-worshipping “witches” in Europe during that same time period — possibly as many as 60,000 between the late 1500s and early 1700s — practiced anything connected to the witchcraft of the Pagan movement today. Some American Pagans, however, consider these persecuted women and men their spiritual ancestors, identifying with these victims as outsiders who somehow did not fit into the larger Christian culture.
7. Many witches are polyamorous. The witchcraft movement spread throughout this country largely because of its absorption into ’60s counterculture and second-wave feminism, and it’s just as open-minded about sex and different stripes of sexuality. While plenty of Pagans may be in conventional relationships or marriages — they may live in a house in the suburbs with three kids and a collection of family pets — there has long been an overlap with the polyamory movement. By this I mean that it’s not uncommon for a witch, particularly on the West Coast (the Bay Area is the nucleus of American witchcraft), to find herself in more than one committed relationship at a time. Some Pagans say that if you’re devoted to multiple gods, it makes sense to devote yourself to multiple partners.
8. Witches do celebrate during Halloween season, but, for them, it’s a very different holiday. During Halloween, our annual time of Spider-Man costumes, candy binges, and slasher films, hundreds of thousands of Americans are observing the high holiday of Samhain (pronounced SAH-win). For Pagans, this is the time of year, from late October into early November, when they say that “the veil” — the boundary between the living and the dead — is thinnest, making it a special time to commune with lost loved ones or distant ancestors. All around the country, witches hold particularly intense rituals, evoking people who have passed away and hoping to receive a message or help from the other side. Many will dance and drink and eat the things the person they are remembering enjoyed, giving the dead the pleasure of living again through their own body, if just for that one night each year.
9. Unlike many other religious groups, witches have no interest in converting you. Witches are not out to convert you or your kids. They don’t believe in proselytizing — in fact, they find it rude. There are many ways to live a spiritual life, the consensus goes, and you don’t have to subscribe to ours.