Witchcraft Isn’t ‘Safe’

What You Don’t Believe In Can Hurt You

(CW: suicide, abuse)

I’ve been doing Woo of one flavour or another since my pre-teens. It’s why I find the Discworld Witches from Terry Pratchett’s writing so entertaining, and sometimes very intense. I was Tiffany Aching. I learned a lot through trial and (sometimes catastrophic) error. Paganism isn’t about ‘human archetypes’ for me. It isn’t just mythology dressed up in a religious veneer. I’ve seen too much, and been in too many situations, to merely chalk up spirituality or witchcraft as a form of psychological placebo. My Powers That Be (P.T.B) are as real as you are — and no, don’t ask for proof. I’ve learned there’s only two outcomes for that; the proof scares the shit out of people and they never speak to me again, or they refuse to see it a la Agent Scully (because the proof scares the shit out of them, and they never speak to me again). It never ends well.

Witchcraft is a path of pendulum swings when it comes to belief systems. I grew up during ‘Satanic Panic’ during the 80’s, and my abusive, fundy-Christian parents were suspect of everything from D&D style board games to the logo on a box of Tide detergent. Everything was the Devil trying to get to us. Diasporic traditions took the brunt of the battering due to practices which were truly ‘heathen’ in the dictionary sense of the term, and therefore threatening to the status quo. The movie ‘The Serpent and the Rainbow’ caused so much fervour back then it was banned from theatres in my home state.

Now, the pendulum has swung the other way. Witchcraft is trendy and cool, included in everything from television to fashion. There’s people wearing pentagrams who have no idea what it represents, carrying tarot decks they don’t know how to read, making altars of mass produced tat with all the magickal energy of a paper clip. To these people, it’s fun but it’s not real. You just need a positive attitude and to believe that nothing will harm you, and voila! Nothing will. While it’s now considered rude to attack diasporic religions, the whiff of colonialist self-righteousness is still in the air; I can’t count how many times I’ve heard the neo-pagan crowd say voodoo/hoodoo/rootwork ‘doesn’t work unless the victim believes it does’, along with some disparaging comments about animal sacrifice. Nowadays, P.T.B. are considered merely archetypes; examples of the human condition told in mythological stories. It’s a form of pop psychology, which I suspect is based on the misunderstanding of what ‘the inner worlds’ actually means when it comes to magick work. It doesn’t mean ‘brain theatre’ or ‘active imagination’ but this seems to have become popular understanding.

I’ve never understood witchcraft without spirits. It’s like taking the batteries out of a handheld torch and expecting it to work. Moreover, it’s dangerous. Everything about magick and working with spirits is potentially dangerous — and just pretending spirits aren’t there means there’s an entire generation of pagans out there who are frolicking about in Woo without realising they are attracting attention, and Someone is probably watching.

The problem with a group of witches who believe they can’t be hurt by entities or spirits is, when entities show up, they’re at a complete loss how to deal with them. I’ve attended a coven circle which seemed to be more an exercise in going-through-the-motions of woo for the feel good factor of doing something new and different. One sabbat in particular didn’t end well. The neo-pagan coven priests rattled off a list of spirits in a sabbat because they ‘liked what the archetypes symbolised’. One of these ‘archetypes’ was Oya, a diety who owns my head (and my arse, if I must be frank). I’m well aware through experience of what the Orisha of tornadoes and hurricanes is capable of. When the circle decided to ‘call up the energy of Oya’ I tried to tell them it might not be a good idea, as they clearly had no idea who Oya was.

“Oh, but we’re just calling on the energy, the goddess within ourselves,” I was told in patronising tones, as if my main objection was that chaos energy was scary. I sighed quietly while the white man leading the coven witch-splained my Orisha to me, explaining my culture and religion in love-and-light terms, reading excerpts from a popular neo-Wiccan publication at the time.

So be it, Oya murmured to me. They want me to come, I’ll come. Let me through.

Photo by Ryan Cryar

Within moments of the coven raising power and calling the directions, Oya was in the room. I know when She’s about as Woo for me is rarely pleasant; the air felt leaden, the familiar migraine lodged behind my eye sockets like a railroad spike. I’m used to it, I’ve been dealing with this kind of thing my whole life. The coven? Not so much. The panic was astounding. I’ve never seen so many people lose their shit; shrieking and throwing salt, breaking circle and running for the door, some forgot they were pagan and recited Hail Mary’s. I was eventually the only one left in circle, Oya laughing her arse off in my ears.

But just because the circle was broken and everyone went home, it didn’t stop there. The thing Oya does well is chaos and change in people’s lives. Usually it’s for the best, but it sure as hell is a nightmare until things settle. The coven member’s lives were a mess for months afterwards; job layoffs, forced admissions of homosexuality resulting in marriage breakups. I got the reputation for being a bad influence, my ‘negative energy’ was blamed on the coven’s misfortunes, and I was blacklisted in that area. That these people got exactly what they called in was ignored. The shittiest thing is Oya thinks this kind of thing is hilarious, and as a result I have a habit of being a catalyst for chaotic change whenver I appear in someone’s life. ((N.B. If that’s you, Fellow Dancer, I’m sorry, truly I am, but it’s for the best, I promise.))

That’s just an example of intense energy that, because it isn’t comfortable, is seen as frightening. But what happens when something truly evil comes for you? Something demonic? Something malevolent?

Well, you’re screwed. Why? Because no one believes this can happen anymore. Not pagans, not witches, not even Christian churches. Ask for an exorcism and the request will be met with dubious criticism. True, in most cases there are other explanations; mental illness, stress, chronic illness that hasn’t been diagnosed. Most of the time, bad luck is just life, and a good uncrossing should be fine.

Most of the time.

But not always.

There’s a fine line between cautious and paranoid, careful and fearful, when it comes to doing Woo. To do this Work, a balance needs to be struck between worrying about everything as a potentially bad spirit, and thinking nothing bad can possibly happen. It is useful to have someone who can give you a ‘reality check’ from time to time in order to make sure you are not jumping at shadows and thinking you’re being attacked at every turn. I encourage this for everyone who works in the World of Woo; have a fellow witch who can be consulted whenever you need a more objective point of view or a second opinion.

But, while mental illness might be an attributing factor to hearing voices and seeing visions, it isn’t always the reason someone experiences hauntings, possessions, spiritual attacks or harassments, and dismissing these manifestations is dangerous. The past few years I’ve cringed at the sheer amount of the god-bothered who have shouldered the requirements of spirits and P.T.B who claim them. These people expound on how they are loved and cherished, but in the same breath describe the perpetual bad luck which seems to batter them on a regular basis. They’re inexplicably anaemic, unable to cover medical bills, and can’t find work. The description of their UPG with their spirits would be considered abuse if we were talking about the mortal plane. Still, with blind determination, people continue to put their energy and time into these P.T.B without question, because their P.T.B surely love them, even though said powers show absolutely no signs of doing so in any real way.

So why is this? Is it because the spirits themselves don’t exist? It would be easy to say these visions and experiences are the symptoms of a disordered mind, but here’s my take…and it isn’t pretty:

Firstly, here’s an uncomfortable truth: spirits lie. Contrary to popular belief, spirits and P.T.B are not bound by rules, codes, or strictures to tell us the truth. They can claim to be a spirit with certain name, but they might be something else entirely. They can make promises they have no intention of keeping. They can gaslight, they can claim to be ‘misunderstood’, they can give you a clever rewrite of their history with only a gram of truth to it. Ancestors don’t always automatically gain wisdom after death. Some are as vicious and abusive as they were in real life, if not more so because they’re no longer bound by mortal laws of right, wrong, and repercussions.

So just as there are spirits out there who are benevolent, there are those which latch on like parasites and feed — always demanding more devotion, more energy, more time. Why do spirits do this kind of thing? Perhaps to feed off your energy, perhaps to strengthen their own praxis base to feed from. Perhaps they just think human ignorance is amusing. I have no idea. I just know that some spirits do it, and there are people out there who let it happen because they have learned that spirits are always gentle, kind, honest, and compassionate. Or, they believe spirits don’t exist at all.

I’ve met a few demon-hounded people, some suicidal because of the hell they were going through. The harassment took many forms: recurring nightmares, inexplicable ailments and bruises, screaming voices that kept them awake for days at a time, pets killed in brutal ways, emotionally and mentally drained people with dark circles under their eyes, utterly exhausted as these spirits chipped away at them a piece at a time. Every one of them told me they’d tried to seek help through pagans or witches, and every time were told that it was all in their heads. They received no support from any of the love-and-light crowd other than murmurs of mental illness, suicide helpline numbers, and patronising lectures on how spirits don’t really exist.

These people needed experienced help; help they were denied because the modern incarnation of witchcraft doesn’t believe there are Bad Things in the universe. Help they didn’t receive because modern witches think throwing a bit of salt will banish all spirits instantly. Help they didn’t get because pagans think all P.T.B. are ‘archetypes’ and therefore can’t harm you.

When these cases came round to me, I performed my ‘reality checks’ and found that no, it wasn’t mental illness (though depression and suicidal idealation certainly shouldn’t be ignored by anyone). The recurring nightmare was a malicious spirit, the poltergeist activity was the ghost of an abusive parent. One case was the most demonic I’ve ever dealt with, and I had to call in a rootworker friend with more experience and knowledge as I was out of my depth.

These people weren’t witches or pagans. One was a staunch atheist. They didn’t need to believe in what was happening to them — we did. We had to be the ones to take it seriously enough to do something about it. I shudder to think what would have happened to these people otherwise.

So, while this all sounds terribly dire, does this mean one must always be on the alert? Alert, yes. Fearful? No. I paraphrase from my beloved Pratchett: ‘A witch ought never to be frightened, Granny Weatherwax had once told her, because she should be sure in her soul that the most terrifying thing in the forest was her.’ Self-confidence, discernment, critical thinking, a good reality check system, and a few cleansing practices to get rid of any spiritual parasites on a regular basis is usually all anyone needs to do. Remember, we humans have free will; we don’t have to sign up for any job we don’t want to take, and we don’t owe a spirit anything for free. I don’t care what P.T.B tell you; you don’t have to do anything they tell you. Know your price, establish the rules from the start, and you’ll usually be fine from anything that tries to get you to sign up to them by writing your name in blood on a contract.

If pagan practice is a form of yoga and introspection for you, and you call upon no spirits or P.T.B, then fair enough. Not everyone needs to be a priestess or a spirit-bothered (I would even argue that no-one ever has to be those things). But just because you don’t acknowledge spirits and P.T.B as being real doesn’t mean they don’t exist, or that they will leave you alone. In our haste to try and shoehorn ourselves into a spiritual path, we can’t just erase the bits that make us uncomfortable and hope it sticks, and that includes believing in things we can’t see. Spirits don’t need you to believe in them to royally screw up your world if they wish to.

There’s no such thing as ‘safe’. The sooner we all remember this, the better.

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