A Beginner's Guide to Becoming a Witch

Welcome to W's Witch Week, a celebration of all things witchy. In the
days leading up to Halloween, we'll be boiling up a wicked brew of all
things occult, from pop culture's favorite new witches to the real
women practicing Wicca today.

Halloween is right around the corner, but that's not the only reason that witches seem to be everywhere as of late. Increasingly, they've been consistently popping up everywhere from pop culture—like Luca Guadagnino's remake of the horror film Suspiria, and Netflix's remake of Sabrina the Teenage Witch—to the runways of Fashion Week. (Céline and Burberry were just two of the seemingly dozens of brands that served up witchy vibes this past season alone.) There are also, of course, also deeper things at play: witchcraft and covens have also proven to be a source of solace and solidarity for some in the midst of the #MeToo era, following an increasing association between witches and feminism.

Alas, one doesn't simply become a witch by wearing Burberry and accessorizing with a black cat, or buying some crystals and altering their Instagram aesthetics. (Just ask one of the estimated one million Americans who currently practice some form of paganism.) Get acquainted with some of the preliminary steps for joining their ranks, here.

Know the risks.

Witchcraft isn't just all fun and games; perks like hexes and love spells come with an at times unavoidable price. The infamous Salem witch trials may seem far in the past, but persecution of witches (or those suspected of witchcraft) continues on today. Despite the mainstream's growing fascination, the past few years have also seen, for example, a rise in (at times lethal) child abuse cases linked to suspicion of witchcraft and demonic possession in the U.K. by a whopping 900 percent. There are, of course, methods of protection, like carrying an evil eye. The simplest one, however, is most definitely not going around shouting about your newfound identity.

Choose your path.

There's no shortage of types of witchcraft, meaning there's also no shortage of choices for an aspiring witch. Rather than get overwhelmed, get your bearings by having at least a basic understanding of the terms below.

Paganism: An umbrella term for religions other than the Abrahamic faiths of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, which typically places emphasis on the earth and nature. Its modern-day practitioners are known as Neo-Pagans.

Wicca: A religion that's perhaps the popularized form Neo-Paganism, thanks in large part to the so-called "Father of Wicca" Gerald Gardner, who cultivated his specific ideology, now known as Gardnerian Wicca, in the mid-1900s. Whereas witches are typically thought of as women, Wiccans often don't stand by that notion, worshipping both a God and a Goddess. What was initially thought of as an anti-monotheistic gesture, though, has more recently been criticized for espousing heterosexuality and the idea of a gender binary, which was in part what led to the emergence of Dianic Wicca in the 1970s, for those who chose to only worship the Goddess and do so only in the presence of women—a policy that's also since proven to be problematic, as many of its covens prohibit transgender women.

Ceremonial: The by-the-book practice of placing the highest value in—not to mention expertly executing—ceremonies and rituals.

Brujería: An umbrella term for African, Caribbean, and indigenous Latin American populations for centuries—such as Santería, an Afro-Cuban religion that emerged during the arrival of the Roman Catholicism and Spanish colonization—if not thousands of years, like the West African religion Yoruba. Increasingly, though, the term bruja, the traditional Spanish word for witch, has been reclaimed by Latinx women interested in their heritage—and making it contemporary by, say, using the gender-neutral term brujx.
Solitary: This group is made up of those who choose not to find a coven, but instead operate on their own with the type (or mix) of witchcraft that they choose.

Eclecticism: A more social route for those who choose not to stick to a particular category, but instead mix traditions as they please.

Cher in The Witches of Eastwick (1987). Photo courtesy of Everett Collection.

Learn the terminology.

You can get a more comprehensive guide to definitions via Shelley Rabinovitch and James Lewis's The Encyclopedia of Modern Witchcraft and Neo-Paganism, a good portion of which is available on Google Books. Before that deep dive, though, any beginner should have at least cursory knowledge of the terms listed below.

Initiation: The rites that initially put a budding witch on the path to making things official, by joining a coven after studying its practice, traditionally for a year and a day. The initiations that follow eventually allow the initiate the opportunity to become a High Priest or High Priestess, or those with enough knowledge, experience, and dedication to become the leader of a Wiccan coven.

Coven: A gathering or community of initiated witches, usually led by a High Priest and/or High Priestess. If a coven is Wiccan, their meetings often involved sabbats, which are celebrations of the annual cycle of seasonal festivals known as the Wheel of the Year. (Non-sabbat meetings, such as the observation of a full moon, are known as esbats.)

Salem in a scene from season three of Sabrina the Teenage Witch, with Melissa Joan Hart playing the titular character—and dealing with the repercussions of the insults Salem let loose during an online game of chess.

Familiar: An animal-shaped spirit that serves as a witch's spy, assistant, companion, and protector—the classic example of which is now Sabrina's black cat, Salem.

Altar: A surface that a Wiccan uses solely for activities such as casting spells, chanting, and worshipping the God and Goddess. Typically, the altar is covered in a symbol-adorned cloth, which protects it from ash, liquids, and candle wax, as well as religious and ritual items like incense, wands, chalices of water, and cauldrons.

Pentacle: A magical tool such as an amulet or talisman which often appears on an altar, and is also often confused with a pentagram—a symbol popular in Wicca and, confusingly enough, the Church of Satan, which has pretty much successfully taken ownership of its inverted version. (Inverted pentacles aren't necessarily satanic, though Wiccans have recently largely strayed from using them to avoid that association .)

A Wiccan pentacle, made up of a pentagram (a symbol used for protection and directing magic), versus the original goat pentagram dating back to 1897, which later served as inspiration for the Sigil of Baphomet, aka the Church of Satan’s official signia.

Black Magic: A form of magic used with dark, malevolent, and harmful intentions, commonly associated with Satanism. Spells have been used for a variety of purposes ever since the days since the days of the Magi of Zoroastrianism and Ancient Egypt, but those that are specifically used for negative and/or harmful purposes are known as hexes and curses.

Séance: A ceremony used to contact spirits, including the dead, usually with the help of a medium.

Grimoire: The umbrella term for a magic text, ranging from diaries to textbooks.

Book of Shadows: A Wiccan's personal grimoire, used to store information they need, such as thoughts, recipes, and instructions for spells, rituals, and hexes.

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Study up.

Even if you think you're sure you want to proceed, it's best to find out what exactly you're signing up for. Before paging through your spell books, then, it's wise to do your research—particularly since the modern-day idea of witchcraft has been pieced together by a mix of legends and existing translated historical documents, hence why each of the pros has a slightly different take on the subject. (And no doubt agree with some, if not most, of what's written here.) Going back to the first step of knowing the risks, The Penguin Book of Witches, written by Katherine Howe, a descendant of some of Salem's accused witches, is a helpful guide to witch-related history (and tragedy), dating back to the 1600s. (For a more firsthand—and definitely lighter—read, Stewart Farrar's What Witches Do recounts his experience of being a witch and part of a coven led by Alex and Maxine Sanders, who cofounded Alexandrian Wicca in the 1960s.)

Still interested? If so, start with the basics. (And praise your deity of choice you made this decision after the invention of Google.) For those interested in Wicca, Lisa Chamberlain has become a go-to source; her book Wicca for Beginners is basically Wicca 101, and there are plenty more books where that came from, both by Chamberlain and also on her recommended reading list. If you're interested in other forms of witchcraft and/or ready for a deeper dive, pick up Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America Today by the late journalist and Wiccan Priestess Margot Adler. The first sociology of contemporary Paganism in the U.S., it still holds up since its first publication in 1979, thanks in parts to its three more recently revised editions.

Stock up.

Depending on what type of witchcraft you decide to pursue, you'll likely need at least a few supplies from an occult store, like candles, oils, roots, and herbs for rituals; spell books; tarot cards; potion ingredients; cauldrons; and, for those drawn to psychism, a crystal ball. (Though some supplies won't need to be purchased—the so-called Feces Spell, for example, is definitely chief in that category.)

Practice, practice, practice.

Some places to start are learning how to do a basic candle dressing, trying out some basic rituals, and familiarizing yourself with the different uses of crystals and candles—all of which you can keep a record of in your Book of Shadows.

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I was looking through my photos of last year and came across this beauty displaying a big part of my personal collection. It made me realize that I really need to cleanse and charge them throughly again as it has been a while. I always smudge my grids, altar and apartment on a regular basis but it’s been sometime now that I gave these beauties some serious tlc time. But that really means it’ll take me like a full day or two to collect them from all over my place, cleanse them with smudge and some with water and charge them again preferably with a full moons energy. So I’m hoping for some stormy autumn days to come which always seem to inspire me to start these bigger necessary projects ? On another note I was wondering what your favorite crystals are? And also did you ever connected really well with a crystal? Like heaving intense dreams about it’s wisdom and healing properties or that you noticed subtle changes on physical or spiritual level? Myself I’ve always been an amethyst soul ? It was my very first crystal someone ever gifted me as a child and I now love collecting all sorts of amethysts. Some of my other favorites which I also really resonate well with are charoite, chalcedony, rainbow moonstone, kunzite, azurite, spirit quartz, larimar, rodochrosite and celestine. These crystals I’ve always carried a lot with me through specific times of my life ???✨ #healingcrystals #chakrahealing #witchesofinstagram #gemstones #chakras #witchy #loveandlight #goodvibes #wicca #crystallovers #crystalcollection #witchcraft #pagan #amethyst #metaphysical #crystals #crystalgrid #crystalhealing #starseed #indigochild

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Find your coven.

First off, prepare to have patience; it may seem overwhelming that covens currently abound everywhere across the globe—even in Arkansas—but ultimately, their strength in numbers will help with avoiding being bound by oaths to a coven you're actually not that into. In the New York metropolitan area, for example, there are nearly 80 covens to choose from—not to mention the opportunity to take part in the annual Pagan Pride Day festival. If you'd prefer (and can afford) to do your witchcraft with, say, the luxury of pastel macarons and grapefruit-and-cucumber scented candles, you may want to reach out to the group of rather infamous rich kids whose ceremonies the New York Times has described as "more Beyoncé than séance-y." For New Yorkers looking to go the social justice route—and brave enough to face death threats and Christian protesters—your best bet may be to hit up Melissa Madara, one of the owners of the Bushwick occult store Catland Books, who recently hosted a gathering to cast a hex on Brett Kavanaugh.

Fret not if you're on the shier and more solitary side: the internet has made it easier than ever to get into witchcraft, from podcasts, message boards, and accessible reading lists to Instagram's newfound vibrant communities of a variety of witches, many of whom helpfully offer up tips and psychic consultations. As for which of the so-called "#witchesofinstagram" you can trust, a word of advice: despite widespread efforts, posing for gothic photo shoots and/or taking aesthetically pleasing snapshots of their crystals are not actually rituals—at least yet.

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Related: Five Underrated Witch Movies To Add To Your Halloween Watchlist

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