Wild Gods, Misconceptions, Altered States, Con Artists, and Bewildering Lore: How to Survive the First Few Decades of Practice
The single most common question that both new and old practitioners frequently ask is “Am I doing this right?” And honestly? Yeah, you’re probably doing just fine, whether you’re using birthday or beeswax candles. It’s been years, decades, centuries since we’ve been able to practice so openly. Much of what we’re doing now is rediscovering stuff our ancestors probably took for granted as common knowledge. Frequently it can feel like we’re missing something, or that even the highest rated how-to books on Amazon are leaving something out.
For your pleasure, then, here’s two decades worth of what I wish I’d been told about witchcraft before I got started. Hopefully this helps you, and if you feel so inclined, drop a few pearls of wisdom in the comments below.
For Every God of Home and Harvest There is a God of Wild Places and the Restless Dead, and Not All of Them Are for You.
Early in the days of working alongside other witches, I saw more than one coven presenting new witches with an encyclopedia of gods and goddesses and telling them “choose one”, the way you might choose a pair of pants or boots from a catalogue. It didn’t matter that there wasn’t much information on the deities in the book beyond a paragraph, or that there was no real connection between the deity and the witch, just that everyone in the coven needed to swear to a god and they all needed to be different because the coven was going to be “stronger” the more gods it collected. Wanted to worship Thoth? Tough, Nikki joined the coven three weeks before you and she called dibs on him.
Because so little was known about the gods, we were encouraged to place them all into a maiden-mother-crone understanding (rogue, father, sage, for the males), to treat them like our best friends, and to report back to the coven on how our gods helped us do everything from select fruit in the grocery store to pick a new thing to watch on Netflix.
Beyond the appropriation of cultural practices (a whole other article), there is a disturbing amount of material and people out there that will advise you to call on “Mother Melinoe”, the Wild Hunt, and the Unseelie Court. Often these guides will approach interaction with these gods and spirits (many of whom were never considered “mothers” or benevolent figures) as if they were customer service hotlines you could call into as needed to get a desired result.
It is not uncommon these days to Google and research new acquaintances or potential dates before we commit to a night out with them. It should be at least as common to research and get to know any gods or spirits we intend to interact with, and to know when such interactions were never meant for us.
Not Every Spirit Will Like You or Choose You, Either.
A few of us were courted by colleges during our senior year of high school or offered jobs straight out of the gate, but for most of us we had to do our research, ask around, and submit applications. We worked to round ourselves out as people, participating in community service, art programs, and sports. In many cases it’s better that we found where we belonged on our own: we weren’t flattered into taking the first offer we got.
As in mundane life, odds are good you’re not going to be called by a spirit or god into an immediate relationship with them. It is much more likely you’re going to do the work to grow as a witch, attract a being with similar goals, and form a working partnership with them.
Sometimes a god or spirit you think is amazing just won’t feel the same about you. It happens. It doesn’t mean that you’re a terrible person or a failure as a witch, just that some personalities don’t mesh. It’s better to respect the choice of that being (which often comes across as a lack of response from them) than to keep beating your head against a metaphysical wall, wondering why they don’t want to be friends.
Not Everything is a Sign or Omen.
If you were going to send a message to a person, would you do it by making the message blend so totally into the everyday world that it could be overlooked, or by making it stand out as being different or unusual so that it catches the eye?
It’s common to see people grasping at feathers they come across as if they were messages from the heavens. Well, they are, in a way: they’re a message a bird has flown by. If there are hawks or geese that pass through your area, while it can be beautiful to find a feather from them, it’s not necessarily a message so much as it’s an indication that a bird is native to your area.
Signs and omens are unusual things that stand out from the norm and are designed to catch your attention in a personal way.
A much more likely example of a true sign would be finding a feather of a bird not known to be native to your area, but which has a personal meaning for you. Another might be coming across a rare book that your dearly departed father read to you as a child, just as you near the anniversary of his death.
Altered States Are Invaluable but You Don’t Need to Drop Acid to Achieve Them.
All an “altered state” is, is a different mental state than the default. In some ways, periods of deep sadness, joy, or anger can be considered altered states as the emotion is affecting the way you think about and understand things.
For the purposes of ritual, an altered state occurs when you are more receptive to outside influences, more in touch with your feelings, and more aware of the things around you. It can be a difficult state to reach unaided without years of practice, and even then, historically, many of our ancestors made use of entheogens and alcohol to reach such states. These can be potent tools for a witch to use, and while I will not cover the legality of specific ones here, I will caution that no tool should ever become a crutch.
Used properly and safely, altered states can remove the barriers (self-doubt, distractions, past traumas) that can prevent us from realizing our magic or connecting with the spirits. They can help to blur the lines between the worlds, making interaction easier.
It is important to place altered states within the proper, sacred context, and not view them as states to be sought for the purposes of personal amusement, required for all rituals, or necessary to be a “real” witch. Do you research, be safe, and be willing to try alternative methods, such as drums, dance, singing, and meditation.
Witchcraft is Not About Buying the Prettiest Tools and Biggest Crystal Collection; it is About Resourcefulness and Adaptability.
My first year of being a practicing witch, I spent just over $400 on getting all the “basics”, as outlined in Uncle Bucky’s Blue Book. My husband? A little under $2,000. This is a scandalous amount for anyone outside of Scientology to spend, more so because so many witches will openly mock the prosperity gospel and the West’s preoccupation with money.
What did I spend my money on? Candles in every color, an athame that arrived much smaller than the catalogue led me to believe it would be, a dress of crushed blue velvet and matching robes (I’ve never attended a Renaissance faire, but you wouldn’t think so by looking in my closet), crystals that look lovely when I arrange them in a grid but which normally sit in dark boxes and Tupperware containers, a diminutive cast iron cauldron (I would have been better served buying a Dutch oven), and, of course, an assortment of herbs I was told I could never sacrilegiously use for cooking (likely because they’re too old and musty).
If witchcraft had been solely the business of the wealthy in years past, you can bet it never would have survived longer than a single fashionable season. Witches have always made use of what’s around them and what they have on hand. Witchcraft is adaptable, it is tethered to the land, and you cannot buy your way into a healthy practice.
There Are as Many Styles of Witchcraft as There Are Methods of Art.
There has never been a culture that did not have a witch nestled within it. As beautifully varied as cultures are, and with as many ways as they can create essentially the same thing but wonderfully unique (stuffed bread, folks, it’s universally beloved!), you can bet there are just as many forms of witchcraft plus two more for good measure.
It is for this reason that I encourage so many people to explore the various methods and styles open to them before they commit to a singular path. And, of course, there’s no reason to pledge yourself to just one style of practice. You can bet Monet and Raphael, noted as they were for their distinctive styles which emerged over the course of their practice, still experimented with different methods. So, too, should you.
People Who Vote Against Universal Healthcare Will Argue Your Services Should Be Free.
Time and again I will hear people venomously insist “Why should I have to work hard to provide for someone else?” These same people, upon seeing you pull out a tarot deck, will whine and plead and huff until you consent to give them a free reading. And the next day, merrily, they will ask someone else to work a spell for them. The next day, an unhexing. Pay for any of this work? “You have a gift. You should be proud to do this freely for others!” And how will you pay for your healthcare? “Do some real work!”
My loves, my lambs, any working which someone insists you do on their behalf because they “can’t” is legitimate work that you have every right to be paid for.
By all means, give out free “samples” of your work. Be kind and compassionate to those who are struggling without. But if someone is prioritizing their time and money over your own livelihood, you have my permission to charge them triple.
There Are a Lot of Self-Proclaimed “Elders” Who Will Want to “Mentor” You or Tell You the “Rules”.
We can look back now on the beginnings of modern witchcraft, so long ago in the 1950s, and see the absolute mess that was made of things. Only young, attractive women should serve as high priestess? Smudge with wild plants which native peoples are dependent upon? Slap a few titles on yourself you heard bandied about because they sound “authentic”? The truth is we’re still disentangling ourselves from the appropriation and harmful practices of the previous generations.
Which is why it is a bit laughable when an “elder” (usually only practicing a handful of years themselves, but who assume that age alone grants them high status) comes along and insists that you’re “doing things wrong” and you need them to mentor you in “the Old Ways”.
Listen, witchlings, if you can pick up a copy of any of Scott Cunningham’s works or visit a Renaissance faire one day, you’ll get a plenty good taste of what these “elders” can offer you. Better you spend your time researching folklore, experimenting, respectfully working with other cultures, and leaving these would-be teachers to their own devices.
You Don’t Need a Coven to Practice, and Often a Group Just Gets in the Way.
Any formation of covens in the past few decades has often resulted in a miniaturized, glorified hierarchal system based on lordship and titles in which a handful of people boss around a handful of others, all of which are just as qualified as one another to lead anything (which is to say, often not at all). New groups often spend so much time trying to establish a pecking order that groups erupt into squabbles and break down before they get more than one or two rituals under their belts.
It can be terribly exciting to attend a ritual with other people, but I promise you that you can get this experience by attending a gathering or two, and you will likely get more work done if you focus on establishing your own rather than a functional group.
Value Your Contacts, but Be Prepared to Do the Bulk of the Work on Your Own.
There’s a saying in academia, “Publish or die.” The truth is that for witchcraft, it can also hold true. Witches with more published materials under their belt are granted paying positions at conferences, are better able to fund travels to attend events, and can command higher prices (should they decide to teach). Not every witch makes their living with their craft, but a good many of us do.
A lot of knowledge in witchcraft is hard-won after hours, days, weeks, years spent pouring over books, keeping notes on ritual craft, and conversing with spirits. This means that, even if other witches thought you would take their word for it if they were to just “give you all the answers”, many of them can be guarded with their knowledge so they can put it into a book later, or a class, or a conference lecture. Giving the information away for free means that no one is likely to hire them to share their hard work.
Many witches will share information with colleagues who are also putting in the time or effort to expand upon our combined practice, but this is often after years of being acquainted and traveling in the same lecture circuits.
You Will Never Have All the Answers.
Does this feel like a letdown after 20+ years of practicing? It shouldn’t. It should be liberating, encouraging, exhilarating. There are so many methods we haven’t tried of contacting the spirits, so many new ways to explore of working with plants and animals, of weaving spells and harnessing the power of liminal space.
Get out there. Make mistakes. Try new things. We have so much time to make up for.
[Ashley Nicole Hunter is a founding editor and regular contributor of ev0ke. She also serves on the board of directors of Bibliotheca Alexandrina.]