Halloween conjures up images of spookiness, from ghosts and goblins to all manner of monsters, to name a few. But perhaps one of the most iconic images associated with the holiday remains the witch, and our culture is rife with witchy stereotypes.
Many people will recognize at least the opening phrase of William Shakespeare’s “Song of the Witches” from “Macbeth:”
“Double, double toil and trouble;
“Fire burn and caldron bubble.”
Children here in the United States often meet the good and wicked witches of the “Wizard of Oz” at some point in their childhoods, and of course there is Snow White’s evil stepmother. Disney’s “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” and “Mary Poppins” captivated the imaginations of many youngsters with dynamic songs and animation. The television sitcom “Bewitched” that ran for eight years beginning in 1964, brought witches into our homes as welcome guests each week. Since those early days of entertainment, the presence of the witch in popular culture — whether beneficent, evil or comical, seductive or repulsive — has remained and thrives, with too many examples to name. But are they really what we think they are?
“I think it’s easy to point out elements in movies and tv shows that over exaggerate or get witchcraft just plain wrong,” says Ian Allan, known as The Witch of Johnson City. “Witches have been a part of folklore and mythology for thousands of years, and they represent so many different things thematically. Clearly, we are neither flying through the air on broomsticks like the Sanderson sisters from ‘Hocus Pocus,’ nor are we trying to suck the life energy out of children — or anyone — to stay alive forever.
“We also aren’t behaving like the witches in ‘American Horror Story’ or ‘Coven,’ which honestly is one of the worst depictions of witches in modern cinema.
“I would say ‘Practical Magic’ did a good job representing modern witchcraft, minus the murder and bringing back the dead. The day to day magic of daily life, of family connection, of love, is the core of witchcraft. Even ‘The Craft’ gets a little correct when Lirio, the magic store owner, tells the girls that ‘True magic is neither black nor white. It is both. Because nature is both; loving and cruel all at the same time. The only good or bad is in the heart of the Witch.’ And that goes for all people of all religions.”
Allan, who is the head of the GEODE Mystery School in Johnson City, describes himself as a traditional witch.
“My path has developed over 23 years,” he said. “In having to define my path I would say it is the path of a traditional witch, meaning that I am an animist who sees divinity in every aspect of nature. However, as a human I break it up into a way that my mind can understand it. This is by giving the spirits names and attributes such as Mother Appalachia, a ‘goddess’ figure who rules all here in my world.”
It is a common misunderstanding, Allen says, that witches worship the devil.
“I think some of the bigger misconceptions that people have about Witchcraft in general is that it is anti-christian,” Allen said. “Simply put, it is not anti-Christian at all. My own particular path does not have any correlation to Christian deities. Therefore, there is no satan or satan worship in the sense that a lot of nonwitches think witches have. My path is focused on aligning myself with the Divine and connecting to nature.”
He added, “I relate to other people of all or no religion simply by understanding that they are human and, as humans, are flawed and divine all at the same time. We are at our core the same nature. Both sacred and profane, loving and cruel.”
Another misconception is that witches are the end all and be all of pagan, or non-Christian, traditions. It turns out pagan traditions are as varied as Christian traditions.
Lori Mongillo, of Jonesborough, began her spiritual path with Wicca, a relatively new tradition within witchcraft, 20 years ago but refers to herself as eclectic today.
“I’m monotheistic and polytheistic,” Mongillo says. “For me there is one Great Unknowable Spirit with masculine and feminine energies that I frequently refer to as the Goddess and God. I’m a big fan of the ancient Hermetic Principles and their relationship to today’s science. Nature/creation is my teacher at this point in my life. The energies of Earth, air, fire and water are the building blocks of the universe and brought into circle. I believe quantum physics is paving the way to a new understanding of spirituality through the universal field of intelligent energy. It’s opening minds and perceptions to the incredible flow of Spirit.”
Mongillo, like Allan, doesn’t believe in evil spirits and ghosts.
“I do believe in consciousness theory and I only perceive ghosts as a consciousness connection. ... The natural/supernatural world is without good and evil aspects. These are human concepts. We embrace only what we want to embrace. Through nature, Spirit holds creative and destructive energies. These are the energies that we work with for self-improvement and positive action. Spells are very similar to prayer and magic is the outcome of that prayer.”
Mongillo follows the Wheel of the Year, an annual cycle of observances popular in Wicca and some other pagan traditions.
“There are eight sabbats of the Wheel of the Year, and the full and sometimes new moons are celebrated,” she explained. “Samhain, or Halloween, is one of the most loved rituals of the year. It is viewed as a time when spirits can move freely between the worlds. It’s a matter of perception and belief.
“It’s also the final harvest and a time of endings. It’s the last sabbat season before the Winter Solstice, when the sun begins its cycle of growing light once again. We celebrate Samhain with an ancestor altar and reflect on or mingle with those who came before us. We share our gratitude for the bounty the year has given us and we look within ourselves to see the truth of who we are — the good, the bad and the ugly — and plan to make the necessary changes in moving toward specific goals of becoming a better person.”
Observances aren’t required in pagan traditions, however. In fact, practices are so diverse it’s hard to even define what the term pagan means.
“Pagan was originally used to define religions that were not Judeo-Christian,” explained Lee Sinnot, who is a practicing therapist in the Tri-Cities area with a master’s degree. “That’s what pagan usually referred to. As it’s evolved, it’s (become) an umbrella term that captures anything that’s not a Judeo-Christian style of religion, usually not main stream.
“A church is not required and there’s very little dogma. If you look at Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, they have clear dogma, clear doctrine and it’s very clear as to what they believe. Whereas the pagan community is usually Earth-based and usually has some sort of ritual aspect to it, but not always, and it usually has some sort of magical practice, but not always. One of the funniest jokes I’ve ever heard was from John Michael Greer, who is a Druid and revitalized the Ancient Druid Order of America. He always said during interviews, ‘If you ask three druids what a druid is, you’ll get five answers.’ It’s very true.”
Sinnot, describes himself as a Christian Kapua Druid.
“I’m Christian because I believe in the Judeo-Christian God,” Sinnot said. “I do consider the Bible to be divinely inspired, like most other Christians. The Kapua is my Hawaiian lineage, and we consider that more of a philosophy than an actual religion. It’s a way of looking at the world that’s very useful. And then I say druid to capture the fact that I practice druidry in with that. I also do some Native American practices as well.”
“How you connect with the divine, is how you connect with the divine,” he added. “Through trial and error, knowledge and wisdom, you explore, you try new things. If it works, put it in the works column. If it doesn’t, leave it alone. It may work for somebody else. An example is, I’m primarily shamanic. Shamanism doesn’t fall under the pagan umbrella as much. It kind of like, if you made a Venn diagram, the circles would be overlapping.”
Beth Soulfire, founder of Soulfire Alchemy, is a certified shamanic energy medicine practitioner, certified Usui Shiki Ryoho & Crystal Reiki master teacher, and ordained interfaith minister, among other things. She describes her path as Earth-based spirituality informed by her Appalachian ancestral roots.
“I personally have no interest in worshiping a pantheon of gods,” Soulfire said. “Folk wisdom in the truest sense. And when I say folk wisdom, I don’t necessarily mean Apalachian, although for us it very much is because this is our heritage if you’re from here.
“I’m speaking to folk wisdom as all the cultural backgrounds of everyone that lives on this planet. Every single culture has its very own folk wisdom. A shaman typically refers to a medicine woman or medicine man. Here in the Appalachian mountains we call them granny women or a granny witch. They were the medicine women of these mountains.
“That’s part of my family’s tradition. If you would have called my grandmother a witch, she would have washed your mouth out with soap and probably hung you up on the clothesline for two weeks. She’s a Christian. You don’t call her that. But she knew how to make a poultice out of just about anything. My mother has taken warts off of me with just a wash rag and a little prayerful chant that I couldn’t quite hear under her breath. My warts were gone and never came back.
“They always had prayer meeting down at a rock, a special place that only they knew, a sacred place. They were too busy working a farm and trying to feed a family of 12 to go to church on Sunday. They didn’t hardly have time for that. But that didn’t mean that they weren’t deeply religious and had a deep love for God. But they also had a deep respect for nature and a working knowledge of what blossoms to go pick off of a tree and at what point in time, to make a salve or a balm that would heal the udders of the cow. What to go and pick for poison ivy, they knew that, or how to use willow bark to make something to ease your pain.”
“Believing in any of these things does not mean you reject the religion in which you were brought up,” she added. “If you still go to church on Sunday and you know with all your heart that Jesus died on the cross for your sins, and you believe that with all your heart, there’s still nothing that takes you away from being in and understanding that you’re a part of nature.”
Pagans come from all kinds of backgrounds and all walks of life. That begs the question, if there are so many from so many varied and vibrant traditions, why are pagans nearly invisible in our society?
“We don’t let people know because we are actively persecuted,” explained Sinnot, pointing out that many are afraid if their employer finds out they will be fired. “There is active persecution, still, against those who are pagan. Don’t think for a second that those of us who practice have forgotten the Salem witch trials, have forgotten that the druids were killed off for their beliefs. We fell in love with these teachings. We fell in love with these ways. And we’re still being persecuted for it.”
He doesn’t think the future is without hope of peaceful coexistence, however.
“It is possible for Christians and Pagans to live together in harmony if we just have some tolerance with each other and allow each other to practice what we believe,” he said. “Our aims are not different. We want the world to be a better place. We may disagree on how to get there and some of the ideas, but we all want the world to be the best place we can make it.”