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Into Darkness

North Bay witches reclaim pagan roots and dispel wicked stereotypes

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Growing up in a religious family that viewed anything other than Protestant Christianity as satanic, Preston kept his interest in magic and witchcraft a secret at home. Often, he'd disguise his library books—Earth, Air, Fire & Water and To Ride a Silver Broomstick—with book covers, hiding them from his family and the church they belonged to.

Preston grew up in a community that was predominantly people of color, many of whom were first- or second-generation immigrants. Religion, he says, was no passive activity, not something one attended only on holidays like Christmas; faith ran deep, and it helped tie the community together.

"It's a source of strength, it's a source of community, it's a source of resiliency," says Preston, who, like many witches interviewed for this story, prefers to use only his first name. "Those ideas of a spiritual path being integral to human well-being were instilled in me at a very young age. So it's not that faith wasn't important, because it was for me in my personal experience; I just had religious revelations and experiences that were outside of the confines of the type of Christianity that my parents were practicing."

Preston's divergent religious path led him to like-minded groups. Around the age of 17, he found his way to the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans, a charter sect under Unitarian Universalism, in his hometown of New Bedford, Mass.

Now some 20 years later, Preston lives in Vallejo and identifies as a witch and a priest-ess—he prefers "priest-ess" with a hyphen because it "allows me some gender fluidity but still calls back on those old and current days of being in witch priesthoods."

HAPPY SAMHAIN

Many North Bay residents are carving pumpkins, scouring thrift stores in search of 1980s threads for Halloween costumes of their favorite Stranger Things characters, or building Dia de los Muertos altars to remember their beloved dead. Meanwhile, Preston and thousands of other witches are preparing for the Oct. 31 pagan festival of Samhain. And, no, the festivities do not include eating babies.

For many witches or pagans, Samhain—an ancient Celtic festival with roots primarily in Ireland and the Scottish Highlands—is recognized as one of the most magical times of the year, a time when the veil between the living and the dead is thinnest. Some prefer the term "witchy as fuck." The number of people celebrating the season and adopting the idea of witchcraft as a feminist alternative to mainstream spirituality is growing. So, too, is the number of ritual participants.

So what does a pagan ritual full of witches look like?

"Actual rituals look like a gathering," says Gwion, a Sonoma County witch and priestess. "There's often a recognition or summoning of the various elements: water, air, fire, the earth. There's recognition of the ancestors that have either walked this land or have walked in our tradition before us. There might be an invocation of the various gods and goddesses that may be associated with the time of year or with a specific witchcraft tradition, and often there is a piece of personal work. Joseph Campbell liked to say that dreams are individual mythologies and mythologies are collective dream work. And that's something I very much believe ritual is."

Sometimes these gatherings take place around a fire or seasonal altar and include symbolic offerings. Sometimes participants dance or sing or are led through guided meditations.

Gwion grew up in England, attending "very buttoned-down Church of England schools" and came to witchcraft after dabbling in other religions through his 20s and early 30s. At one point, he focused on Buddhism, "literally sitting at the steps of a Tibetan Rinpoche for years." It was later, after he married his wife, Phoenix, another witch and priestess, and traveled with her to his native England, that he felt a powerful connection to his ancestral pagan roots.

"She wanted to go to Glastonbury Tor and Stonehenge," says Gwion, "and all of the places I had grown up going to, and it occurred to me, as I'm standing on Glastonbury Tor and being at the Chalice Well and the White Springs, that all of these stories I'd grown up with—all of these mythologies—were alive."

Phoenix came to magic and witchcraft through a different route. Raised without religion, she had her heart broken for the first time at 15 and began searching for a religious belief system to comfort her. She first felt an affinity with a statue of St. Elizabeth but was turned off by the patriarchal elements of Catholicism. She made her way through various religious texts before she came across a book of spells.

"I thought, 'Maybe I just need to do a spell [on my ex] and get him to come back to me. Maybe it's not religion!' So I did try that and it did work, but it was so bad," she says with a laugh. "Then I found another book, [Buckland's] Complete Book of Witchcraft by Raymond Buckland, and it talked about the goddess, and I thought, 'Oh, that's what I was missing."

Preston, Gwion and Phoenix are a part of a large and growing community of North Bay witches and pagans. They're primarily associated with the "reclaiming tradition," which reaches back about 40 years, though it borrows from many pre-Christian traditions. Many other witches in the region identify as Dianic witches, Gardnerian witches, Jewish witches, hedge witches, kitchen witches, druids, followers of the Feri tradition, heathens or Wiccans.

Each group has its own practices and perspectives, but the common core is a connection to the natural world and the cycles of the year. In addition to North Bay Reclaiming, other organizations like Sonoma County Pagan Network and Diana's Grove host rituals and other events that are open to the public.

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