To Be a Witch: The Balancing Act of Embracing Darkness & Light

A witch is as comfortable on the dark side of the duality as on the light. Possibly more so, depending on the witch. It's about balance. 

 Francisco Goya

Francisco Goya

JOANNA Z. WESTON

July 17, 2000

It wasn't hard to wait until my parents went to bed. I'd been staying up until 2 or 3 am and then sleeping in all summer, in order to avoid them as much as possible. After the freedom of my first year in college, I wasn't used to their constant attention anymore. Plus, I really didn't want to talk to them about my depression. I didn't want to do anything. But I did want to do this ritual. I would only turn 18 once, after all.

Once I was certain of privacy, I sat on the floor next to my bed in my childhood bedroom, with the wine colored walls I'd convinced my mom to let me paint when I was 13, and the fairy door I'd painted in after a dream when I was 16. I had to consult my copy of Scott Cunningham's Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner multiple times before I was was happy with my make-shift altar, but eventually it was all there: a green candle for the goddess and red for the god, a bowl of water and a bowl of salt, and a cauldron only slightly larger than my fist. My window was open, to let in the night air.

Belatedly, I realized I hadn't prepared anything to say. If I was dedicating myself to the gods and claiming the title of “witch,” I ought to have something to say. Ideally, something in rhyming couplets. Instead, I spoke from the heart. I spoke of the moon and the tides, and I spoke to the moon herself, lady of light in the darkness. I pledged myself to her, bound myself to her service, sensing in the moment that I was merely confirming a link that already existed. I felt the heady rush of power and energy for the first time, the quickening in my chest that has always accompanied spiritual connection and magical work. By chance or fate, the moon was actually full that night, and I felt her blessing.

Having said my piece and felt a response, I must have been giddy as I shared “cakes and ale” (water and a cookie) with the gods. Haltingly, I dismissed the elements and opened my circle. Lastly, I extinguished the red and green candles with a candle snuffer I'd fallen in love with at some hippie store: a castle turret and two dragons with rhinestone eyes.

***

I came into this world a mystic without a religion and a dreamer without a foundation. But I learned early on that animism was unacceptable in suburban New York. That didn't sit well with me, but I was a good girl, and tried my best to go along with the rationalist worldview expected of me. During my teen years, I discovered Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, archetypes and the serious study of mythology. These were people who confirmed what I had suspected all along: that there was more to the world than could be measured by the senses, and more to life than practicality and productivity. But these voices, as well as those of other beloved authors, were insufficient support against the certainty of those around me. As much as I wanted to, I couldn't quite believe in them, or in myself. I mourned the fact that the very things I needed in order to believe life was worth living – planetary interconnection, psychic phenomenon, other-worlds, and beings the eye can not see – could not possibly exist.

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At the same time that I was building a secret worldview and hiding my most passionate beliefs, I battled with undiagnosed depression. On the surface, I appeared fine, with good grades, friends, and participation in the school literary magazine, but underneath I wanted to die. I just couldn't see a place for me in this world, or any way I could someday contribute to the society I saw outside of my books. There wasn't space for a mystic questioning the meaning of life; there wasn't space for me.

When I got to college and lost my usual safety nets, my mental health plummeted. I finally got help when it started to affect my grades. It got me out of the quagmire of the immediate crisis, but something about my life still wasn't right. I was too busy trying to survive to identify what.

My sophomore year, I met people who thought and felt as I did. My roommate knew I was interested in the occult, and mentioned that someone else in our dorm was a witch. Once I realized this girl was in my German class, I spent a week begging her to teach me before she relented. She loaned me her photocopy of Starhawk's The Spiral Dance, one of the earliest and most influential texts in American witchcraft. I must have read it half a dozen times before I purchased a copy of my own.

I wasn't alone. I wasn't insane. I wasn't broken or wrong or stranded on an inhospitable alien planet. I was a witch. By the end of the semester, there were four of us practicing together, fumbling our way through full moons, self-discovery, and figuring out how to get candle wax out of a dormitory carpet. In those early days, I didn't really know what that word “witch” meant to me, or why it felt good, but I knew I had found something powerful, and something true.

***

April 2003

Central New York is not known for its clear, sunny skies. We often joked that there was a quota on sunny days. But that spring was particularly bad. After a long, cold, snowy winter, we just wanted to feel the sun on our skin. Plus, Beltane, the Wiccan holiday celebrating the start of the spring, was around the corner, and one member of our circle had planned a public ritual. We didn't want it to be rained out!

So we did what any group of young witches would do; we planned a weather spell. We consulted one of Katrina's books – she had been doing this longer than any of us, and so had a better collection – and tried to figure out what spell ideas we could utilize with things we already owned. Getting off campus was too onerous to be considered. In the end, we offered a toast to Thor and poured wine onto the grass near our dorm, while spinning clockwise until we almost fell over.

The next day, it didn't just rain. Torrents of water poured from a sky that wasn't so much gray, as a solid gun metal mass. The day after was much the same. We concluded that we had made a terrible mistake, and were now paying the consequences. It was unfortunate, but what can you do when you've pissed off a thunder god?

The day of the ritual dawned not only dry, but sunny, without a single cloud in the brilliant blue sky. We were awestruck by the coincidence or our own success.

***

Who are modern witches, and where did we come from? Like all good questions, these don't have a concise answer. Indirectly, we are a backlash against Enlightenment era rationalism, dating all the way back to the eighteenth century Romantic Movement in both Germany and Britain. Those poets and philosophers felt that mankind had become too separated from the natural world, and blamed social and personal ills on that isolation. They wrote numerous poems to and about a nebulous goddess of the earth and moon, and a pastoral god they called Pan, loosely inspired by the Roman god of the same name. More specifically, we are all spiritual descendants of a man named Gerald Gardner. The moment England repealed its anti-witchcraft law, he published a book about his experiences being initiated by a coven of witches, whose practices were said to date back to before Christianity. His book and fame spread, and became a major part of the foundation for the modern revival of pagan-inspired religion and magic.

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Eventually, his witchcraft crossed the Atlantic and landed in the United States, where it met feminism and ecology and hippies. I like to imagine a bolt of lightning and a rainbow occurred at the moment of their merging, because magic in America would never be the same again. Here (and elsewhere, but mostly here), Gardner's witchcraft (which he called Wicca) gave birth to a virtually infinite array of practices and traditions. Such an array, in fact, that it can be hard to say what they all have in common.

Most are pantheist (believing everything has a spirit) or panentheist (believing that spirit is inherent in the physical world and also exists outside of it), and many are polytheists of some stripe or another, recognizing multiple gods, goddesses, and spirits. Most find their greatest sense of spiritual connection outside, in nature, and a good number of them feel connected to the moon in particular.

What makes me uncomfortable is the fact that we have very little, if any, historical claim to the label of “witch.”

One of the myths of Wicca and its offshoots is that we are part of an unbroken tradition spanning back to ancient days, rather than a syncretic religion dating back to the 1950s, which combines ceremonial and folk magic, poetry, debunked anthropology, and whatever else we picked up from the zeitgeist. It's a compelling story, but not factually accurate. While there are elements that come from folk traditions, that doesn't make us a survival of any sort of pre-Christian pagan sect.

The other myth, courtesy of historian Margaret Murray, is that the witch hunts of medieval Europe were an attempt to destroy this unbroken tradition. The reality is that those trials were more about political gain and misogyny than anything else. Widows living on the edge of town were easy prey, and the property of those burned, hung, or otherwise executed as witches went to the church.

There are numerous reasons why the W-word was first used by Gardner. For starters, the idea of the good witch – a positive, earth-aligned figure of healing – was already out in the popular culture, in books and poems. This was a dramatic shift from the purely negative connotations that the word had held for hundreds of years beforehand (good magic workers were known as cunning men or cunning women in England), but the Romantic movements initiated this shift in meaning. Plus, Margaret Murray's theory had not yet been debunked, so Gardner likely believed it was true.

But to call oneself a witch is to court controversy. While we have plenty of fictional examples of good witches in movies and television, the word still carries more than a whiff of evil for some people. I can tell most people that I find spiritual connection in nature, follow the phases of the moon, perform divination, and have spirit guides, and it's mostly met with polite curiosity or passive scoffing. Say I'm a witch, and people get really uncomfortable.

Of course, anyone drawn to this path probably already has some experience with making people uncomfortable. I will likely never forget riding in the car with my parents, the afternoon after my dad asked my mom if I was a witch, and she answered him truthfully. At least she had the decency to call and warn me before they actually arrived to visit me at college, and I had to think fast. I wish I could remember what I said to him, but I remember feeling that it was on par with the Gettysburg Address for clarity and passion. Suffice it to say, it was not as well-received. His concern for my mental health came through loud and clear, his concern over what other people might think of me if they ever found out my shameful secret, even more so.

For a long time after college, I stopped describing myself as a witch. Not because my father disapproved, but because through him, I saw the futility of going that far against the grain of the society in which I live. If I have to constantly define a word and fight against the associations it invokes, what purpose does it serve? I told myself it was because the historic precedent for this particular usage of the word “witch” was too thin, that I wasn't comfortable with that level of historical manipulation. In retrospect, I can see that I was afraid of courting controversy. I saw how my father had always looked at me for having these beliefs (never mind using that word!), and I imagined spending the rest of my life defending myself from similar judgment from other sources. The prospect exhausted me, so I compromised by using other, less loaded words, like seer, mystic, or even pagan.

My depression continued to wax and wane, never fully retreating. Compromising yourself can have that effect, no matter how eloquently you argue that isn't what you are doing. I'm not saying that my bouts with depression are entirely because I rejected the W-word, but they stem from the same source. So I've decided to stop lying to myself. I'd love to say that this came in a surge of self-revelation, after which I donned a pointy hat (yes, I do own one; it's for Halloween) and started brewing up some magic in my cauldron, but it was more of a grudging acceptance of reality than anything else. My conflicted feelings about the word 'witch' remain unchanged, only now I realize I have to face up to it.

In my experience, people who seek out this label already feel alienated in some way, and want to create meaning out of it. I am no exception to that rule. Despite being a straight, white, able-bodied, middle-class woman, and thus experiencing most of the possible privileges of living in the United States, I've always felt at odds with the assumptions of the world around me. In Witching Culture, Sabrina Magliocco calls this oppositional culture, and suggests that “what is being resisted is a dominant discourse about the nature of reality, which marginalizes certain kinds of spiritual and imaginative experiences as irrational and irrelevant.” Those spiritual and imaginative experiences are the most important thing in the world to those of us who identify as witches. To us, that is what makes life worth living. So we naturally end up in conflict with the cultural narrative that invalidates our priorities.

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The dominant culture values rules, progress, and status. Witch culture values imagination, connection, and personal expression. We place the most value on individual experience and intuition, rather than the repeatable experiments of science. It's not that we reject science, so much as we reject the notion that science is the only way of seeking truth. We're more interested in a holistic world, where the emotional impact of the weather is as important as the meteorological conditions causing it, and where there is time for both writing poems about the rain as well as repairing the leaks in the roof, not to mention an understanding that there are times for an umbrella, and times to just get wet.

I like the idea of being in opposition to the dominant culture. It speaks to my experience, and it feels validating. But what does it mean for day to day life? There haven't been many demographic studies of witches and pagans, but the ones that I can find suggest that we include a fairly equal mix of genders (leaning a bit heavily towards women), mostly found in the working and lower-middle classes, well-educated, overwhelmingly suburban and urban, and predominantly white. Based on my observations, we tend to favor local and organic produce, enjoy creative pursuits, read more than the average person, and spend an undue amount of time on the internet. We support environmental causes and social justice organizations, and we hate big business. Personally, I think that describes a large percentage of the Boston area, not to mention San Francisco and areas of New York.

But if you look further, if you look beneath the demographics to the values within, we are unique. It's more than valuing the earth or talking to spirits or feeling sick of the consumerist culture we live in. In the end, to be a witch is to be comfortable with darkness. In the clash between light and dark, good and evil, with the rest of the world locked in an eternal battle between intuition, instinct and emotion on one side, and productivity, rationality, and intellect on the other, I know where I stand.

A witch is as comfortable on the dark side of the duality as on the light. Possibly more so, depending on the witch. It's about balance. Not a static balance, but a dynamic equilibrium that dips into the dark and the light in equal measure. There is despair, but also ecstasy, and neither is denied or repressed in favor of the other.

There are as many theories about what causes depression as there are people thinking about it, but in my case, I think it has a lot to do with denying my full self, with keeping parts of me locked away out of sight, sometimes even of myself. Jung and his intellectual descendants refer to that as the shadow. The truth is, we are both light and dark, and to deny one side of ourselves is to court disease and depression. But I live in a society that tends to deny the reality of anything that doesn't contribute to economic well-being, societal status, or the pursuit of physical perfection.

That's exactly what witches resist, but it's hard, especially if you're doing it alone. And having abandoned the label of witch after college has made it understandably difficult for me to connect with other witches. This is something I'll have to address in my life going forward.

***

May 2016

I turn off my computer, silence my phone, and lock my cat out of the room. My husband is in his home office, with the understanding that he will stay quiet until I emerge. I light a single candle before turning off the lights, so that I can still see what I'm doing. Ambiance is important, and candle flame is more than sufficient. Finally, I sit myself down on a green floor cushion, in front of a low table.

I'm feeling pretty unfocused, so I use a finger labyrinth to quiet my mind. My finger brushes the textured glaze as it follows the carved path to the center, and then back out again. It's a simple action, but works to calm me down and bring me into the moment, which is where I need to be. You can't do magic – even the simple magic I have in mind for tonight – if half your attention is wallowing in the past or planning the future. Maybe that's why magic often fails – it's hard to collect all the parts of yourself together at will. We don't really practice it.

I pick up my journal and rip a page out of the back. On it, I write down my most painful thoughts: the self-judgments, the blaming others for my unhappiness, the things that my wisest self knows are untrue and unfair, but which my depressed self clings to with the tenacity of a three year old. I pour it all onto the page. My chest tightens, my stomach churns, and by the time I'm done writing maybe six lines of text I want to sprint from the room just to escape them.

As I hold all of those thoughts and feelings in focus, I fold the paper again and again, until it's a dense stick. I take a moment to really focus, pouring all of that pain into the paper in my hand. I'm fairly buzzing with energy now. Swiftly, I plunge the paper into the flame, and watch it ignite. My tension instantly dissolves, replaced by a lightness I know won't last, but I enjoy the delicious sensation while I can. I don't fully articulate my intention for the fire to destroy those thoughts and feelings, but by this point my association of fire with cleansing is well-enough ingrained that I don't have to. I keep turning the paper until as much of it is on fire as I can manage, then drop it into my cauldron, for transformation.

This isn't meant to be a permanent fix, but for now, it's enough. I can repeat this ritual whenever I feel trapped by my depression, whenever the thoughts and feelings that tear me apart on a daily basis get to be too much. This is a cleansing practice, a part of my ideal spiritual and emotional upkeep. It's no more a permanent fix than brushing my teeth before bed. Though it is somewhat more labor intensive.

There are no fix-it-and-forget-it solutions to long-term depression, or at least to mine. The rationalist part of me rails against that, but my inner witch knows how to sit with ambiguity. She understands the necessity of accepting the presence of discomfort without giving up. She knows that she can – with time – transmute suffering into strength and wisdom. And as long as I remember to tap into that part of me, she won't let me forget who I am for long.


Joanna Z. Weston resides in Boston, where she writes, bicycles, and plays with her knitting needles and drop spindles. She lives with her husband and an emotionally needy cat.