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In Plain Sight: Having Halloween with Witches

Saturday, November 08, 2014


Pentagram via iStock

A few weeks ago, when I couldn’t find a single broom in my house the obvious and logical question that popped into my head was, “Would a witch ride a Swiffer?”

I called my sister, Jennifer. “Have you ever known a witch?”

“You mean a Wiccan?” she asked.

“What’s the difference?” I wondered.

“I don’t know. Maybe Wiccans are the men witches? Or no, that’s a warlock—I remember distinctly. I learned a lot about all that from watching Bewitched.”

I asked eight more friends, “Have you ever known a witch?”

They all answered the exact same way, “You mean a Wiccan?”

While in New Orleans recently, I interviewed a Voodoo priest for a project I’m working on. He interchangeably referred to himself as a witch and a priest, but not a warlock or Wiccan, as I recall. I really had to wonder. Wiccan or witch--is there a difference? I wasn’t sure if I had ever known a Wiccan, witch or warlock because I had never seen anyone that looked like what I thought a witch might look like. I had to assume that they are out there---hiding in plain sight.

So my curiosity quest that started with a Swiffer, advanced to a wonderful interview with Dawn Isadora, a 20-year veteran witch of the Reclaiming Tradition of Witchcraft, and ended at a glorious Samhain Ritual. 

For witches, Samhain is the Celtic ritual/festival that marks the beginning of the New Year. For non-witches, it marks the time to embrace our inner costume fantasies, sneak fun-sized candy bars, and deck our halls with spooky adornment before hauling out the holiday tchotchkes. Thanks to the Celts and their Samhain, and Christian missionaries and their Pagan-hating ways, we have a long history of executed witches...and we have Halloween.

Given that we both come from the Jewish tradition, Dawn did not have to remind me that no matter how organized a spiritual belief system or religion is, it is still very personally interpreted. What follows is my interpretation of her interpretation.

In Case You’re Curious: Ten Things You Might Not Have Known About Witches and Witchcraft

1. Wicca was founded in England in the 1950s. Many witches and Wiccans use the terms Wicca and Witchcraft interchangeably; some do not. Paganism refers to earth-based faiths. Some witches claim to be pagans; some do not. Dawn said that from her experience, warlocks are only on TV. She explained that many use the term, Wiccan, because people find the term, witch, to be inciting. She doesn’t refer to herself as a Wiccan and I love inciting insights--that’s why I choose to use the term, witch.

2. A witch named, Star Hawk, started the Reclaiming Tradition of Witchcraft in San Francisco, in the 1970s.  It is based on the belief that everyone is his or her own direct connection to the divine. The seminal book is called, The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess. In the Reclaiming Tradition, there is no required initiation like in other Witchcraft traditions. However, one can choose to be initiated after attending classes, rituals and participating in community-oriented practices. Like other major religions, there are many different witch and Wiccan traditions.

3. Witches do not proselytize. In the Reclaiming Tradition there are reclaiming cells that function like special interest groups, including ritual, teaching, and magical political activism cells. There is no traditional hierarchy of members in the collectives, circles and covens. The covens are autonomous, intimate groups of witches whose members are often closer than family. Prospective members must seek out covens and demonstrate a deep level of interest.

4. Earth-based spirituality focuses on five sacred elements: air, fire, water, earth, and spirit. Air is associated with communication through words. Water is associated with emotions and feelings. Fire is creativity and action. Earth is body, health, and the physical things we do to sustain ourselves. Each of us has a balance of the elements like a fingerprint. Young and old witches learn this at Witch Camp.

5. There are four core classes in the Reclaiming Tradition. The first involves the elements of magic and learning to connect with the sacred elements. The second is the Iron Pentacle, which includes sex, pride, self, power and passion. The third is the Pearl Pentacle, which involves love, natural law, knowledge, liberty, and wisdom. The final class teaches the Rites of Passage, which includes trance skills, dream work, and inner self-discovery.

6. The witch terminology gives Witchcraft a mysterious vibe, but once deciphered, it’s fairly bland. Tending the Temple is cleaning the house—only more mindful and, therefore, perhaps more thorough. Sacred Witnessing is listening with intent. Casting spells is intense prayer. Spell work is finding objects and physical things that represent what one wants to transform. Trance has more of an otherworldly ring to it than mediation, but ultimately they both frame access to the subconscious and access the mystic. For Dawn, making soup and being present with the ingredients is a form of magic. The terminology gives the behaviors more of an intent and purpose.

7. Dawn and I had an interesting conversation about public, private and secret lives. We talked about the perception that there is more power in that which is held private. What is secret, however, is often not a choice. Within this definition there are Witchcraft mysteries that are referred to as secret, but they really are more private. Of course I tried to pry, but Dawn’s reasons for not sharing were more about respecting her coven and the value they place on privacy, than anything more mysterious than that. I don’t think I’ll ever know the really private stuff because when I found out that learning to work magic is like learning to play an instrument, I realized that my magical abilities would probably never advance beyond kazoo-level.

8. I admitted that my mental image of witches is of women dancing naked around a fire, and Dawn smiled and said, “Yah, that happens.” I asked her about casting evil spells and she explained about the Rule of Three—anything you put out will come back to you three-fold. That sounded like a good deterrent. I asked about sex because something about mysterious stuff always seems to come back to sex. She explained that witches don’t look at sex as a lie cycle that is hypocritically in your face and yet so shamefully submerged, but rather a kind of sacred, natural connection without the baggage.

9. Samhain is pronounced Sow-en by knowledgeable, non-Gaelic speaking people, and pronounced Sam-hayn by people who have never heard the word pronounced out loud. It is the time of the Celtic calendar when the veil between this world and the world of the deceased is the thinnest. The ritual I attended was in a non-descript, nice building in close-in SE Portland. About 70 witches gathered to honor and summon their ancestors. They also honored celebrities like Robin Williams, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and the voodoo queen, Marie Laveau. I secretly chanted a shout-out to Joan Rivers, but like my mother, she stayed on her side of the veil as far as I could tell. Most of the attendees were women witches, but it was kind of dark and Portland gender-neutral-ish, so I could be wrong.

10. The ritual started with spoken word and simple songs. Some sat along the side and some people stood in a loose circle. Eventually everyone stood and clasped hands while grape-vining around and chanting songs in a round like one does at summer camp. A few people took off their shirts, but I didn’t catch the reason or strategy behind that. People called out to their ancestors and invited them to join. Most received messages from the other side of the veil and many shouted out what they learned. All were positive affirmations from the other side. I had strategically worn my late-mother’s least favorite shade of lipstick because if there was the remotest chance she would show up, she wouldn’t miss the opportunity to let me know that she did not approve of the shade. Sadly, I heard nothing.

Witchcraft is not a religion revealed by a revered man, and I couldn’t help but wonder if that’s why it has been so vilified. It’s certainly not scary or weirder than other religions once you get the hang of it.

Even though Portlanders are considered to be among the most un-churched people in the country, if we give ourselves permission to be curious, there is almost nothing as provocative as spiritual inquiry…except maybe religious inquiry.

A graduate degree in behavioral science, three generations of Portland blood in her veins, 20 years as a real-estate broker, and a lifetime of delving into other people’s business has caused Becki Saltzman’s severe curiosity disorder. She is the author of Arousing the Buy Curious: Real Estate Pillow Talk for Patrons and Professionals, founder of Oomau Media, and she looks forward to expanding membership in the Tribe of the Curious.

Banner Photo Credit: iStock 


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