The word "witchcraft" conjures up images of pointy hats, blood sacrifices, Victorian clothing and torchlit rituals, but these fantasies have almost nothing to do with how real witches look and act.
Through shows like Netflix’s reboot of Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, which premiered on Oct. 26, stereotypes in the mainstream media have constantly reinforced the idea that witches are wicked devil-worshipers, but covens have refuted their likeness to infamous characters like the Wicked Witch of the West.
Although witches perform rituals, these usually don’t involve blood, sacrifice or devil worship. Rather, they are for celebrating the seasons or life events, performing healing, and divining or casting spells. Despite television shows portraying witches dressed in black robes and holding goat heads to perform rituals, the Pagan Coffee Social, run by Donna Conrad, who identifies as a witch, hosted a ritual known as Samhain (sow-in) which proved otherwise.
The Samhain ritual usually takes place on Oct. 31 — also known as the day people dress up and get into a spooky spirit for Halloween — and it’s a festival of the dead. Often, witches and Pagans perform the Samhain ritual either to let go of the things in their lives that no longer serve them or to welcome their dead ancestors to a feast in their honour. It’s similar to when we make our New Year’s resolutions: new year, new you. It also acts to celebrate the end of the harvest and the start of the coldest half of the year.
“Everyone performs rituals in their daily lives; they just don’t recognize them as such,” says Conrad. “Your morning ritual, getting ready for work, dinner ritual, birthday parties. This is just a formal method, like going to church.”
During the Samhain ritual led by Conrad, a group of 10 to 12 people called upon their ancestors, inviting them for a feast. They also called on the quarters — representations of the four cardinal directions on a compass — to bolster their energy from the four elements: fire, water, earth and air.
To do this, they gathered in the centre of a dimly lit room surrounded by a circle of four tables, which stood as the four quarters and four elements. On the tables were sacred items, including a cauldron of water, candles, a bell, a small chest and a mask. While some people were wearing black robes or long ankle-length dresses, many, including Conrad and her 11-year-old daughter, wore street clothes. The group proceeded to face each quarter at a time, raising one hand and reciting poetic lines, akin to prayers, asking for energy.
“We draw on the energy inherent in everyone and everything,” says Conrad. “This power is available to anyone. Witches have just learned how to use it.”
Conrad teaches her daughter how to do rituals and believes in educating her so that she can make her own informed decisions about religion.
Conrad herself became a Pagan when she was 17. In her younger years, she met the owner of an occult store called Merlin's Whim, and after meeting with him many times, she discovered that Paganism was in line with what she already believed.
Conrad may work at a metaphysical shop called Nimue's Closet and draw the occasional tarot card to see how her day might go, but other than that, her life is almost mundane. She wakes up, drinks coffee, helps her daughter with homeschooling work, makes dinner, watches TV, meditates and goes to bed.
Conrad believes in a universal energy inherent in everything including all living beings. She believes everything is connected, and that affecting one thing affects everything else, like ripples in a pond.
“While being Pagan is a religion and lifestyle for me, being a witch is just something I practice,” explains Conrad. “Like how a doctor practices medicine or an actor acts. For me, witchcraft is just something I know how to do, like driving a car.”
For many within the space, involvement in witchcraft and Paganism stems from childhood fascinations with the supernatural.
“I started on this path as a child when I was very interested in spirits and ghosts,” says an individual named Castalia, who participated in the ritual. “It’s harder for a Pagan when they want to make connections with people. They could be lonely, but I was really lucky when I was about 18, because I heard about the Wiccan Church of Canada, and they had a community."
Castalia describes her first ritual when she was absolutely sure it was her destiny to be a witch. In a big all-black room inside a temple, she recalls an altar in the centre with a lot of incense burning, and she describes candles glowing everywhere. She explains that she felt like she knew the priest and priestess in the centre in her past life, as she was standing in between these two tall men in black robes who were chanting loudly. She says it was a totally different experience from the regular world.
Thirty years later, after being appointed as a priestess of the Wiccan Church of Canada, she now reads tarot cards, and she still provides support to Pagans who seek to worship and need a place to go. But because of school, she is currently very inactive.
“I think my parents thought I was a crazy teenager,” says Castalia. “My mother was confused because she was a strong Protestant Christian. Eventually, she knew that I had a passion for the Middle Ages, and she tried her best to be supportive, and my dad didn’t say anything; he didn’t want to talk about it.”
For a long time, witches had been condemned and persecuted because they were thought to be servants of Satan. They were simply misunderstood and feared because not much was known about them. Even today, many people think witches exhibit odd behaviour.
“I think people are just afraid of what they don’t understand,” says Conrad. “We do not believe in the Christian concept of Satan. Saying a witch or Pagan worships Satan would be like saying an atheist worships God. We also do not have orgies or wild parties, and we do not dance naked under the moon.”
These witch and Pagan stereotypes are indeed misconceptions. However, because of widespread myths like these, which are often perpetuated by mainstream media, Conrad has lost jobs and friends over her religious beliefs.
“Stereotypes are mainly annoying, but everyone deals with them: dentists, people of other cultures, police, young people, old people — it’s part of being in a society,” says Conrad. “However, we do like to dress up that way to make fun of the stereotype and reclaim them as our own.”
Witches and Pagans do cast spells, but they’re similar to reciting prayers. They’re not the type of spells you’d see in Harry Potter, where walls open up with the wave of a wand or in magic shows where they pull a white bunny out of a hat.
Conrad explains that she’s done spells to help her get to work, to sell her house and to maintain strength during a separation and divorce. Healing spells are also common for people who fall ill. But it’s not a simple “abracadabra.” According to Conrad, spells are meant to be used as a last resort to supplement mundane action.
Liana Mercer, like Conrad, is a witch, but she too leads an ordinary life. She goes to the gym, makes her own meals, and works as a sales representative for a manufacturing company. She has a fiancée and an 18-month-old stepson, and her hobbies are sewing and reading. Her day-to-day life is just like anyone's — for the most part. She also performs magick, but she says that not all witches do. Witches like to spell the word "magic" with a "k" because it differentiates their magick with staged magic (like making a bird disappear from its cage), which is used for entertainment.
“If I had to cast a spell to get a thief, rapist or murderer caught, that would be classified as ‘black magick’ by many because I am interfering with their will,” says Mercer. “But sometimes it’s worth the cost.”
She explains there is always a cost when you cast a spell, and some call it the rule of three: “What you send out, you get back times three.”
The faithful witch leads a Gardnerian Wicca coven of four people in London called the Forest City Coven. A coven consists of a group of witches who meet regularly, and Mercer believes it’s her role to help members deepen their understanding of the gods, their personal faith and their role within the coven’s path.
“Being a witch is part of me — like my brown eyes, my height, or my face,” says Mercer. “I am a woman of deep faith, just like any Christian who is devout.”
She’s been studying Wicca for 22 years and British Traditional Wicca since 2001. To clarify, some view Wicca as the religion and witchcraft as the practice, and according to Mercer, Gardnerians primarily worship in covens rather than in solitude. Additionally, one must be initiated into this Wiccan coven. The difference between Mercer's British Traditional Wicca coven and others is that hers is very structured, while others are more free-flowing. The Forest City Coven has an initiation process that is over two years long, and there is a formal structure to the teachings and learnings, which is practiced through witchcraft, similar to a Christian who practices their religion through the Bible and prayer.
Each person or coven worships different deities, depending on the path they identify with, such as Greek, Roman, Norse, Celtic and Saxon. And every person has their own experience with the gods, but the end goal is common: to deepen their understanding of their personal faith. To achieve this, they must communicate with these deities, which requires performing rituals and meditation. Some of the gods who are worshiped include Dagda, the Celtic god of fertility, agriculture, strength and wisdom; Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love; Ares, the Greek god of war; Hecate, the Greek goddess of the moon, ghosts and magic; and Persephone, the Greek goddess of the underworld.
Each coven has different requirements, and every individual, whether witch or Pagan, has different experiences, but the main thing to remember is that Wicca is experiential. Each member has to participate to get the full experience.
You won’t have to sacrifice anything, and you won’t have to worship Satan. And no matter how real movies like The Blair Witch Project may seem, they're all a director's imagination.