hat is magic? What makes a witch a witch?
Often when I begin teaching a new class at Witch School, the first question I ask my new students is “What is magic?” So, I think it’s the perfect question to kick off our monthly conversations. You can answer this for yourself by grabbing a pen and a pad of paper. Then sit down, close your eyes, and begin to follow your natural breath. Hold the question, “What is magic?” in your mind and heart, then allow your breath to find a place where an answer stirs.
One of my teachers, Betsy Bergstrom, will encourage us in these moments by saying, “Notice what you notice and how you notice it.” Allow the question of “magic” to answer itself as you breathe intention into that place where magic lives inside of you. There is no right answer for this. There’s your answer; and this answer is the foundation on which we will build this conversation.
What did you notice? How did your body, your mind, your heart—your magic—respond to this information? Take a minute to make notes on your experience as this wisdom is more important in answering the above question than anything you will ever read, or anything I will ever tell you—although that doesn’t mean I don’t have a few thoughts to share!
I’m often inspired by the teachings of Jiddu Krishnamurti. In answering the question of magic, I remember the spirit of his teachings: Anyone who attempts to tell you about how you are to be, or who you are to be, is actually just wanting to tell you about their own nature. I would say that this is true of the defining of magic, of witch. There are common characteristics, cosmological views, that we all agree are the foundation by which “magic” and “witch” are defined. But how you define yourself as witch, how you develop and practice your relationship with magic—this depends solely on your relationship with yourself and your work in the world.
Magic is commonly agreed to be the sentient forces of nature, embodied in the natural world as trees, herbs, animals, people, fire, water, weather, etc. Magic is sourced by the primordial elements of Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. Though we understand that there are more intricate elemental building blocks of life, these four represent the universal embodiment of creation. Magic is commonly seen as the chaos through which these forces arise, and the order that comes from their union. Magic is the moving from universal source into form and the inevitable return of form back to universal source. Different traditions will further define these principles through belief systems specific to their practices.
Universally, however, to practice magic is to cultivate an intentional relationship with this ebb and flow. “Witch” is just one name for someone who practices magic. For me the witch understands their relationship with and impact within this natural cycle of chaos and form. They seek to make use of these relationships to craft a beneficial impact on the world, be it through healing work, counsel, building shelters, or redefining systems.
I also believe that magic is remembering. Remembering our connection to the natural world and what has arisen out of the natural world. Magic connects us to our wildness and the chaos of creation. Magic is the potent, sensual pulse of the elemental forces that move through us in moments of inspiration, grief, anger, passion, stillness. Magic is the hunger and the sustenance of life. It is the fierce and indiscriminate compassion of the wild. In this, magic is our relationship with what is remembered and the force of action that moves through these relationships.
The witch is someone who is born called to this remembrance, someone who wakes to the crashing of thunder and knows they are home. Magic is a tradition of devotion; a personal devotion, without religion. I believe that magic is too vast, too foundational, to belong to any one particular practice or religious system. Yet there is magic in the faithful heart of all traditions.
I grew up Catholic and was so often overcome by the magic of their rituals. In fact, my love of the Catholic Rites is what prompted me to begin studying witchcraft and the vast customs of magic in the first place. Magic is the faithless devotion to the natural soul, that part of us that understands we are all intricately connected; the knowing that all of us are weaving this world in kind. It empowers us to be honest in our relationships in life. The practice of magic can strip away all the illusions that distract us from acting in these ways.
There is no one tradition that is “magic,” nor any single “right way” to be a witch. There are as many different ways to express magic as there are dreams in your heart. Some witches hex, some heal, some do both. Some are massage practitioners or lawyers or nannies or single-parent artists. Witches are people of color and queer, trans or non-binary. They are heterosexual or pansexual or asexual. They practice in groups or on their own. Witch is a name for those who walk in the craft of the Earth and in relationships with the elements. Magic is the gift of nature, and it moves through all traditions. Magic is channeled by the witch through their practice. There are many traditions of witch and thus many applications of magic.
Where you are called home is just one place to begin your search; be it through the ecstatic traditions like Feri or eclectic traditions like The Solar Cross Temple. Perhaps you channel your magic through social justice like the work of T. Thorn Coyle and Crystal Blanton. Perhaps you show up to active service as a witch, offering your support to movements like Idle No More, Black Lives Matter, or The Icarus Project.
You may choose to follow a Wiccan path and seek guidance through The Reclaiming Tradition or private covens rooted in Traditional British or Welsch Wicca, like Blue Moon Wicca. You may opt to begin your journey through the study of traditional/elemental magic such as I teach, or through the power of alchemy and herbalism.
I would refer you to the wisdom of Cowichan Elder,Della Rice-Sylvester, or the magical teachings of Evolutionary Herbalism. You may be drawn to magic through the rituals of fertility and reclaiming the Goddess nature such as through the work of Lauren Herold. Into Astrology? How about permaculture and food sovereignty? How about the fierce power of Black Witch Magic? There are so many ways to open the gates of magic, and you get to decide and follow the guidance of your wildness. I will always encourage beginning your journey under the guidance of a teacher you trust as there can be much to sort through.
Witches see all of life as relatives and understand that life and death, just as shadow and illumination, night and day, hold equal power. We honor the brightest day and the deepest night with the same devotion and reverence. We understand that magic is as compassionate and indiscriminate a love as the wildness that summons it. The lion doesn’t despise the antelope because it devours it—I would argue it is devoted to the antelope because it sustains its walk. The earth doesn’t begrudge the tangle of roots that churn through its heart. It opens to receive the blessings of nourishment that the tree yields.
From this perspective, the witch isn’t really aligned to the concept of magic being “good” or “evil.” In fact, I would argue, that magic is amoral—having no affinity outside of what lies within the heart of the practitioner. We can see this in all traditions through which magic seeks to express itself. There are many spirited people who practice a kindhearted faith, and there are many who channel the magic of their traditions into the application of violent rhetoric—be them witch, of Abrahamic faith, New Age, Eclectic, or any other tradition.
There are more preferred ways of practice for some witches. I myself would shield and strengthen sovereignty in the presence of oppression rather then hex the source of oppression. Yet this doesn’t stop me from using magic to counteract or combat the negative impact of systemic violence. I just prefer to go about using curse breaking techniques on those larger systems rather than putting more cursed energy or bindings into those systems. This, however, is a conversation for another day.
Today, I want you to know that magic calls us home. It fills us up in the place where we stand, where we are called. It calls power to the place where we stand, so that we can act in solidarity for those who suffer under the weight of injustice and cruelty. Cruelty is an intended violence against another. Nature is honest and kind, and though at times vulgar and violent, it is never cruel.
So, what is magic to you?
Email your burning witchy questions to firstname.lastname@example.org to have it included in this column!