Welcome to W’s Witch Week, a celebration of all things witchy. In the days leading up to Halloween, we’ll be boiling up a wicked brew of all things occult, from pop culture’s favorite new witches to the real women practicing Wicca today.
Halloween is right around the corner, but that’s not the only reason witches seem to be everywhere as of late. Increasingly, they’ve been popping up all over the place, from pop culture—see: Luca Guadagnino’s remake of the horror film Suspiria, Netflix’s remake of Sabrina the Teenage Witch—to the runways of Fashion Week (Celine and Burberry were just two of the seemingly dozens of brands that served up witchy vibes this past season alone). There are, of course, deeper things at play: Witchcraft and covens have also proven to be a source of solace and solidarity for some in the #MeToo era, following an increasing association between witches and feminism.
Alas, one doesn’t simply become a witch by wearing Burberry and accessorizing with a black cat, or buying some crystals and altering their Instagram aesthetics. (Just ask one of the estimated one million Americans who currently practice some form of paganism.) Get acquainted with some of the preliminary steps for joining their ranks, here.
Know the risks.
Witchcraft isn’t just fun and games; perks like hexes and love spells can come with a price. The infamous Salem witch trials may seem far in the past, but the persecution of witches (or those suspected of witchcraft) continues today. Despite the mainstream’s growing fascination, the past few years have also seen, for example, a whopping 900 percent rise in (at times lethal) child-abuse cases linked to suspicion of witchcraft and demonic possession in the U.K. There are, of course, methods of protection, like carrying an evil eye. The easiest one, however, is to simply not go around shouting about your newfound identity.
Choose your path.
There’s no shortage of types of witchcraft, meaning there’s also no shortage of choices for an aspiring witch. Rather than get overwhelmed, get your bearings by having at least a basic understanding of the terms below.
Paganism: An umbrella term for religions other than the Abrahamic faiths of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam that typically places emphasis on the earth and nature. Its modern-day practitioners are known as neo-pagans.
Wicca: A religion that’s perhaps the popularized form neo-paganism, thanks in large part to the so-called Father of Wicca, Gerald Gardner, who cultivated his specific ideology, now known as Gardnerian Wicca, in the mid-1900s. Whereas witches are typically thought of as women, many Wiccans are men and worship both a god and a goddess. What was initially thought of as an anti-monotheistic gesture, though, has more recently been criticized for espousing heterosexuality and the idea of a gender binary, which was, in part, what led to the emergence of Dianic Wicca, in the 1970s, for those who chose to only worship the goddess and to do so only in the presence of women—a policy that’s since proven to be problematic, as many of its covens prohibit transgender women.
Ceremonial: The by-the-book practice of placing the highest value in—not to mention expertly executing—ceremonies and rituals.
Brujería: An umbrella term for African, Caribbean, and indigenous Latin American witchcraft, dating back centuries, if not thousands of years. Increasingly, though, the word bruja, Spanish for witch, has been reclaimed by Latinx women interested in their heritage—and made contemporary by, say, using the gender-neutral term brujx.
Solitary: This group is made up of those who choose not to find a coven, but instead operate on their own with the type (or mix) of witchcraft that they choose.
Eclecticism: A more social route for those who choose not to stick to a particular category but instead mix traditions as they please.
Learn the terminology.
You can get a more comprehensive guide to definitions via Shelley Rabinovitch and James Lewis’s The Encyclopedia of Modern Witchcraft and Neo-Paganism, a good portion of which is available on Google Books. Before that deep dive, though, any beginner should have at least cursory knowledge of the terms listed below.
Initiation: The rites that put a budding witch on the path to making things official, by joining a coven after studying its practice, traditionally for a year and a day. The initiations that follow eventually allow the initiate the opportunity to become a high priest or high priestess; those with enough knowledge, experience, and dedication can become the leader of a Wiccan coven.
Coven: A gathering or community of initiated witches, usually led by a high priest and/or high priestess. If a coven is Wiccan, their meetings often involve sabbats, which are celebrations of the annual cycle of seasonal festivals known as the Wheel of the Year. (Non-sabbat meetings, such as the observation of a full moon, are known as esbats.)
Familiar: An animal-shaped spirit that serves as a witch’s spy, assistant, companion, and protector—the classic example of which is Sabrina’s black cat, Salem.
Altar: A surface that a Wiccan uses solely for activities such as casting spells, chanting, and worshipping the god and goddess. Typically, the altar is covered in a symbol-adorned cloth, which protects it from ash, liquids, and candle wax, as well as religious and ritual items like incense, wands, chalices of water, and cauldrons.
Pentacle: A magical tool such as an amulet or talisman that often appears on an altar, and is also often confused with a pentagram—a symbol popular in Wicca and, confusingly enough, the Church of Satan, which has pretty successfully taken ownership of its inverted version. (Inverted pentacles aren’t necessarily satanic, though Wiccans have recently largely strayed from using them to avoid that association.)
Black Magic: A form of magic used with dark, malevolent, and harmful intentions, commonly associated with satanism. Spells have been used for a variety of purposes ever since the days of the Magi of Zoroastrianism and Ancient Egypt, but those that are specifically used for negative and/or harmful purposes are known as hexes and curses.
Séance: A ceremony used to contact spirits, including the dead, usually with the help of a medium.
Grimoire: The umbrella term for a magic text, ranging from diaries to textbooks.
Book of Shadows: A Wiccan’s personal grimoire, used to store information they need, such as thoughts, recipes, and instructions for spells, rituals, and hexes.
Even if you think you’re sure you want to proceed, it’s best to find out what exactly you’re signing up for. Before paging through your spell books, it’s wise to do your research—particularly since the modern-day idea of witchcraft has been pieced together by a mix of legends and existing translated historical documents, leading each of the pros to have a slightly different take on the subject. Going back to the first step of knowing the risks, The Penguin Book of Witches, written by Katherine Howe, a descendant of some of Salem’s accused witches, is a helpful guide to witch-related history (and tragedy), dating back to the 1600s. (For a more firsthand—and definitely lighter—read, Stewart Farrar’s What Witches Do recounts his experience of being a witch and part of a coven led by Alex and Maxine Sanders, who cofounded Alexandrian Wicca in the 1960s.)
Still interested? If so, start with the basics (and praise your deity of choice you made this decision after the invention of Google). For those interested in Wicca, Lisa Chamberlain has become a go-to source; her book Wicca for Beginners is basically Wicca 101, and there are plenty more books where that came from, both by Chamberlain and also on her recommended reading list. If you’re interested in other forms of witchcraft and/or ready for a deeper dive, pick up Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America Today, by the late journalist and Wiccan priestess Margot Adler. The first sociology of contemporary paganism in the U.S., it still holds up since its first publication, in 1979, thanks in parts to its three more recently revised editions.
Depending on what type of witchcraft you decide to pursue, you’ll likely need at least a few supplies from an occult store, like candles, oils, roots, and herbs for rituals; spell books; tarot cards; potion ingredients; cauldrons; and, for those drawn to psychism, a crystal ball. (Some supplies won’t need to be purchased—the so-called Feces Spell, for example, is definitely chief in that category.)
Practice, practice, practice.
Some places to start are learning how to do a candle dressing, trying out some basic rituals, and familiarizing yourself with the different uses of crystals and candles—all of which you can keep a record of in your Book of Shadows.
Find your coven.
First off, prepare to have patience; it may seem overwhelming that covens currently abound everywhere across the globe—even in Arkansas—but ultimately, their strength in numbers will help with avoiding being bound by oaths to a coven you’re actually not that into. In the New York metropolitan area, for example, there are nearly 80 covens to choose from—not to mention the opportunity to take part in the annual Pagan Pride Day festival. If you’d prefer (and can afford) to do your witchcraft with, say, the luxury of pastel macarons and grapefruit-and-cucumber-scented candles, you may want to reach out to the group of rather infamous rich kids whose ceremonies The New York Times has described as “more Beyoncé than séance-y.” For New Yorkers looking to go the social justice route—and brave enough to face death threats and Christian protesters—your best bet may be to hit up Melissa Madara, one of the owners of the Bushwick occult store Catland Books, who recently hosted a gathering to cast a hex on Brett Kavanaugh.
Fret not if you’re on the shier and more solitary side: The Internet has made it easier than ever to get into witchcraft, from podcasts, message boards, and accessible reading lists to Instagram’s newfound vibrant communities of a variety of witches, many of whom helpfully offer up tips and psychic consultations. As for which of the so-called “#witchesofinstagram” you can trust, a word of advice: Despite widespread efforts, posing for gothic photo shoots and/or taking aesthetically pleasing snapshots of crystals are not actually rituals—at least yet.