Wiccan Reads: The No-So-Wicked Witch of Western Mass by Steffi Porter

I had an article written about me! 😀  A friend of a friend was writing a paper about witches and he referred her to me.  Steffi (a journalism major) got an A on her paper!  When she has it published, I’ll post a link to the article

“Magic is merely what science hasn’t explained yet. That doesn’t mean it’s not real,” –-J.ME

Jamie is a witch. She casts spells. She loves black cats. She reads Tarot cards. She believes in fairies, spirits and magic. She celebrates the solstices and other Pagan holidays. Jamie is also a University of Massachusetts Anthropology major and a twenty-six-year-old resident of Amherst, Mass. She is a native Floridian, a huge fan of Britney Spears, and an avid belly dancer.

When I first meet Jamie she is on her way to class in Herter Hall at UMass, and I see no outward indicators that she is a witch. She has long brown hair that falls like a sheet down her back, wears ripped blue jeans with fishnet stockings peeking through and a winter coat. Later, I find that witchcraft is a large part of this university student’s social life and identity, and has been for three years.  She invites me to a meeting of the UMass Pagan society, SPIRALS, which stands for Student Pagans Integrating Religion and Life Spiritually. The club meets in the Campus Center later that evening.

***

I don’t know what to expect, attending my first SPIRALS meeting. I have always been fascinated by the modern practice of witchcraft and the Pagan religion.  Paganism is a polytheistic religion, meaning Pagans worship many deities, both gods and goddesses, while also worshiping the Earth.

I ride the elevator up to the ninth floor of the Campus Center, and then walk into a small room with a long, rectangular table where ten people gather. Among them, the SPIRALS Treasurer, who goes by the name Apple, and leads the group in the first activity of the evening: finding a spirit guide.

I did a quick online search about SPIRALS before attending the meeting, and learned that anyone within the Pagan faith can be a member. Jamie is Wiccan, though she prefers to be called a witch. As she describes it, all Wiccans are witches, but not all witches are Wiccan. Wicca is a religion, a branch of Paganism, and is an earth-based faith that involves witchcraft. A primary symbol of Wicca is the five-pointed star in a circle, a pentacle. It is the equivalent to the Christian cross or the Jewish Star of David. The five points of the star symbolize the five elements in Wicca: Earth, Air, Fire, Water and Spirit.  Members of SPIRALS vary in how they identify, all under the umbrella of Paganism.

“So, what is a spirit guide?” I ask.

“It’s like a guardian angel, almost,” explains Isabella, an undergrad SPIRALS member with black hair, glasses and red lipstick, who is a member of the UMass Belly Dance club, like Jamie. The two have just finished a rehearsal, and sit at the table in bejeweled bras, shawls and dramatic eye makeup.

When everyone has gone around the circle and named their Spirit Guide, they are led by Apple in what is called Astral Projection: letting your soul leave your body and travel elsewhere while staying attached to you, as if by a cord.  The purpose of this evening’s Astral Projection is to give everyone a chance to meet their spirit guide. Some of the discussed guides are Athena, Persephone and Artemis.

Today’s Astral Projection has certain parameters: you can travel to one of two possible destinations. The first, Akashik Records—a library with all the knowledge of the universe, and the second, Yggdrasil, a Norse word for a tree that connects all possible worlds and realities.  Apple shuts off the lights, and kicks off the projection. He says everyone will have ten minutes, starting in ten seconds.  Nine. Eight. Seven…

For the next ten minutes, the only sounds are those of a ceiling fan spinning, and some students talking in the room next door. These ten young adults, who live in a world of almost constant stimulation from technology, sit in total darkness, with nothing but their minds and spiritual beliefs to entertain them. Most say, once the minutes are up, that they wish they’d had longer.

***

Once the SPIRALS meeting has adjourned, Jamie and I bundle in our coats and scarves. Winter comes early in New England.  It is 9:15 p.m. on the twentieth of November, and the temperature hovers somewhere around 28 degrees. We walk through campus and catch a bus into town, where we stop to pick up some snacks before heading back to Jamie’s apartment.

Jamie lives in a second-floor walk-up in South Amherst with her roommate, Katie, a UMass graduate student and fellow witch.

Entering Jamie’s apartment, I see it is, as Jamie said it would be, “pretty obvious that a couple of witches live here.” The first thing I notice is the scent of incense. The walls are decked with string lights, and the living room furniture is an eclectic mix of thrift store and garage sale hand-me-downs, refurbished with paint and lavish tablecloths. There is a plush rug on the floor, paper flowers and leaves on the walls, and a sign that says No Parking, Broom Lane—a humorous reminder that this is a witch’s house—posted by the door.

Jamie definitely has a sense of humor about witchcraft, while also defending it fiercely as her spiritual and personal belief system. People often ask her if she is offended by popular culture’s representations of witches: Willow from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the witches on the popular 90’s drama, Charmed, or the Disney Halloween classic, Hocus Pocus. What about the iconic green-faced, warty-nosed old women in pointy hats flying through the sky on broomsticks and turning people into toads?  Her response is, simply, “not at all.”

“We’re not old ladies who fly around on broomsticks,” she says while we sit on her couch eating pretzels dipped in Nutella. “I mean, I’m not old yet. Hopefully one day someone will invent a broomstick that I can fly on.”

In Jamie’s apartment, she has quite a few homages to the classic witch, from an oversized pointed black hat she got in Salem, Massachusetts, to a sign on her bedroom door that says “The Witch Is In.” While we lounge in the living room, she even dons a “Sexy Witch” tank top, also a purchase made in Salem. Jamie has a lot to say about common misconceptions of witchcraft, though, and they all fall under the same general category: judgments and assumptions.

“A common misconception is that it’s bullshit,” she tells me. “But it could be argued that a lot of religions are considered bullshit by other religions.”

The main misconception people tend to have, though, is that witches are Satan worshippers. This is simply not true. Satan, as Jamie will tell you, is a Christian belief, one that has no meaning or existence in Paganism. If you are a witch, she says, there is no God and there is no Satan.

“Oh, and we don’t really sacrifice babies,” she adds, offhandedly popping a pretzel into her mouth. And we both laugh. Do people really believe these things about witches? I ask. Is it possible for someone to look at Jamie, a college student in her twenties with big green eyes, shaggy bangs, and a generally peaceful, free-spirited manner, and think her capable of “evil”?

Apparently, people have made such assumptions. Assumptions, Jamie says, that completely contradict the final lines of the Wiccan Rede: “An Ye Harm None, Do What Ye Will.” In other words, as long as you are not hurting anyone or anything, do what you please.

The Wiccan Rede is also at times referred to as the Threefold Law, and is a document of the Wiccan’s rules to live and practice by. The Wiccan Rede states that Wiccans are meant to do no harm, physical or mental, or ever violate another’s free will in the practicing of their craft.

***

Jamie moved to Massachusetts in early 2012, from Tampa Bay, Florida where she was raised by a single mother. She was raised Agnostic, though she was baptized in the Lutheran church. Her family’s responses to her religion range from tolerant to clueless.

“My mom knows I’m a witch,” Jamie tells me. “She basically thinks I put a pointy hat on and wave a magic wand around. She doesn’t take it seriously at all. Like, okay you’re a witch, whatever. She knows I’m a good person and don’t hurt people. She just thinks I’m weird, and doesn’t really get me.”

Jamie has other family who is more open to her beliefs, like an aunt and uncle who encouraged her to start her Pagan blog.  They even send her a card for the Pagan holiday, Yule.

Sometimes, when people find out she is a witch, a belly dancer and a fan of Britney Spears (she has a poster of her above her bed) they don’t take her seriously, she says. Especially guys.  Especially ones who know that sex is very key in Wicca.

“It creates life,” Jamie explains. “It is one of the biggest forms of magic. We [Wiccans] are very sex positive. Some guys who know that will twist it to their advantage to get laid. I think that’s the hardest thing I’ve had to deal with—men being more attracted to me because I’m a witch, and not for the right reasons. Because they think they’re gonna get kinky Pagan sex with me.” In general, Jamie has found some non-Pagans to be much less open about sexuality.

***

Jamie’s roommate, Katie, walks into the room. It is after eleven. She wears a baggy sweater and sweatpants on her petite frame, and her eyes peek out from behind thick, black bangs. Katie tells Jamie that she will be doing a house cleansing on Friday with her boyfriend, a fellow Pagan. I interject:

“What is a house cleansing?”

The client, she explains, lives in a town in Massachusetts where a lot of people died in a flood. Katie will be assisting in scouting out the area, searching for “trouble spots” and encouraging spirits left behind to move on to the “afterworld” and “stop bothering the family.”

“There are ten spirits there that aren’t really causing any problems, but died in the flood. One person there died in the house because of a heartbreak. That is the one that’s causing the problem.”

Witches have witch friends, it seems. Jamie definitely does. She finds bonding with other Pagans to come naturally, and most of her friends are Pagan.

One of her favorite experiences is meeting a fellow witch, which she compares to finding the Christmas presents early as a kid. One year, Jamie met another witch on her way to the grocery store. She and this woman are still friends today. Jamie had just moved to Boston, at the time, where she lived with family before moving to Amherst.

“I was walking to Stop and Shop the day after St. Patrick’s Day and there was a parade going on because we’re all Irish in Boston, including myself.  I saw a woman talking to another woman outside the grocery store and she had a long black braid and a fairy clip in her hair and a triquetra—do you know what a triquetra is? It’s an Irish thing, kind of like the holy trinity in Christianity. Wicca uses that symbol a lot. So she had that hanging in her hair. And I was like, this lady’s gotta be a witch. So I just walked right up to her and was shaking her hand like ‘hi!’ I had a pentacle ring on, hoping she’d notice it and she did and she says “oh, blessed be!” And I see she has a huge pentacle bracelet on.

“I love her. I call her my Strega Mamma. Because strega is Italian for witch and she’s Italian. She treats me like I’m her daughter. She’s only 10 years older than me, but she’s very maternal.  I love going to her house. It’s very witchy, and very spiritually dirty in a good way. Like you can tell a lot of witchy things have happened there. She’s really your kooky, New England witch and I love it.”

A little later I catch sight of something on Jamie’s end table: a black journal with a pentacle on it. This, Jamie says, is SPIRAL’s Book of Shadows. Jamie goes to her room and grabs her own Book of Shadows,  paging through it, describing it as her “magical diary.”

A Book of Shadows can really be whatever a witch wants it to be. It can be used to write about spiritual experiences, or to write down spells. Spell, as Jamie explains, is a very broad term. Anything can be a spell, not just the common representation of candles, cauldrons and chanting.

“There is no wrong way to do a spell. People have weird rituals that they do to get their favorite football team to win—that’s a spell,” she says. “Even wishing really hard for the bus to come could be a spell. Spells are very personal. Tea you use to relax, a song you wrote. A spell is putting your intent out into the world to try and make something happen.” It can be done with candles or cauldrons, she says. But it does not have to be.

***

If Jamie could tell any non-Pagan one thing, it would be this: “There’s more to you than you ever thought there was.”

Paganism is her “personal therapist,” she says. She learns a lot about herself through being a witch.  “The way I view spirituality is as paint,” she says. “It’s very fluid. You can take two colors and mix them together.”

**copyright Steffi Porter

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