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What does it mean to be a witch? A writer spent a year doing witchcraft to find out

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

From the colonial Salem witch trials...

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UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) We've got to tell her. They'll be calling us witches. Witchery's a hanging error.

CHANG: ...To the outcasts in "The Craft"...

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FAIRUZA BALK, NEVE CAMPBELL AND ROBIN TUNNEY: (As Sarah Bailey, Nancy Downs and Bonnie Harper) Light as a feather, stiff as a board, light as a feather, stiff as a board, light as a feather, stiff as a board.

CHANG: ...The magic of Sabrina, the teenage witch.

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KIERNAN SHIPKA: (As Sabrina Spellman) Spirits of the forest, I pronounce my intentions to thee. Come forth and seek me, and equal we will be.

CHANG: Witches have long cast a spell on American entertainment. But they aren't just a figment of our imagination. Witchcraft is a real practice, and people who practice witchcraft are all around you. But what does it even mean to be a witch? I mean, how does one begin a spiritual journey into the occult? Well, one writer decided to figure that out for herself by spending an entire year as a practicing witch.

DIANA HELMUTH: My name is Diana Helmuth, and the title of the book is "The Witching Year: A Memoir Of Earnest Fumbling Through Modern Witchcraft."

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HELMUTH: So I started my witchcraft journey arbitrarily at the end of July, and the next day was a high holiday called Lammas. It's the first harvest festival. It's originally pulled from the Celtic cross-quarter days. There's a lot of myths associated with it, but chiefly you're talking about sacrifice and what you need to let go of in order to have your crops grow for the rest of the year. And I realized this while reading a book, flipping through some pages, and I go, oh crap. I don't have the sacred knife. I don't have an altar. I don't have anything.

So I kind of in a panic run down to an occult shop. Northern California - there happens to be two down the street. And I go in there, and I grab all this stuff, and, you know, the man there mentioned, you look like you're getting the whole starter kit. I said, I am, and I have no idea what I'm doing. And he says, well, you don't need to worry about it. It'll be fine. And I say, yeah, it's just me there, right? And then he turns to me and he stops laughing, and he goes, well, the goddess will be there. And then I stopped laughing, and I'm like, right, the goddess will be there. And then I went home, and I did this ritual.

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HELMUTH: To me, it felt like a disaster. But the funniest part is I described it to other people, and they say, yeah, that sounds pretty normal. What do you think's going to happen here? And I'm like, I think I'm going to feel deeply connected to the flow of the universe and sure of myself and kind of blissed out on divine connection. And I had another friend tell me, that's cocaine. That's not religion. That's not what we're doing here. Where I grew up, it was very clear to me and everyone I knew that if you were smart, you were an atheist.

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HELMUTH: And I wanted to be smart. I wanted to be thought of as intelligent. So I rejected most religion and most spirituality throughout most of my life. And then during COVID, and in general, as I got older, the idea of a self-directed religion that promised me a way to have some control over the universe - I think increasingly we find ourselves facing things that really affect us deeply that we have very little control over - right? - climate change, housing prices, health insurance bills, pandemics, who's going to become the president? And here's this religion - this spirituality - that says, you can have an effect on these things that feel so much bigger than you. You just need a couple of candles and some willpower.

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HELMUTH: If I'm being really honest, I was tired of God being dead. I didn't want to feel like I didn't care about the divine anymore. I wanted to admit to myself that I did care, that I did want to feel held by the divine, but getting through the shame of that, to be honest, is something that is interrogated throughout the book. Like, why was that so hard for me to admit?

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HELMUTH: It took me until about month seven before I tried to make a connection with the goddess, who is a central figure in almost every form of witchcraft. Whether or not she's a real deity up in the sky or she's a metaphor for the interconnectedness of everything on Earth, there's this idea of the goddess. And I was hesitant around it because I didn't want to feel like I was playing make-believe. Again, this goes back to just being so afraid of feeling stupid. So I go, and I set up this ritual to try and talk to a particular goddess. And I'm by myself in my office in Oakland. I'm sitting in front of an altar that I've made out of a cardboard box. I have a stranger's playlist going on Spotify. My cat is on the other side of the door staring at me, and after about an hour...

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HELMUTH: ...Something happened. I just suddenly felt flooded with bliss. And after that experience, it became very difficult for me to continue to make fun of this part of myself that wanted to be connected with the divine. Shame just wasn't involved.

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HELMUTH: I felt I found a correct way to practice witchcraft for myself, but I, to be honest, still don't feel 100% sure about it. And something I have accepted is maybe that's the point. So I dabbled with a lot of these subcultures within witchcraft or that overlap with witchcraft, like astrology and tarot. And there are things where I'm just like, this just isn't for me. But there was one thing that really stuck with me, which were my tarot cards, which I was not expecting. My tarot cards scare me. Like, I don't like to look at them for too long. I have learned that I don't always want to ask them a question because I don't necessarily want the answer because it's not always fun, you know? Sometimes it's terrifying. Sometimes you don't want to look at yourself in the mirror that hard.

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HELMUTH: Witchcraft is a subculture. For the vast majority of people who are practicing it, it is not something you are born into. It's something you choose to be a part of. And I think people tend to make fun of it in the mainstream. They think it's goofy. They think it's silly. They think these people are delusional. And really, these are just people who are trying to be more comfortable in their own skin. And also, you know, they're adopting a spirituality that centers the Earth and personal growth. And I think those are two very good things, and we should not be making fun of them.

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HELMUTH: I wanted this book to be something of a permission slip. Like, it's OK to explore this stuff and feel like you don't know what you're doing and feel like you're probably doing it wrong and still have that journey be valid and worthwhile.

CHANG: That was writer Diana Helmuth talking about her new book, "The Witching Year: A Memoir Of Earnest Fumbling Through Modern Witchcraft." It's out now.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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