“The brightest flame casts the darkest shadow”. (George R. R. Martin)
When we examine the qualities of the Old Ways witch, we can see they are not far removed from what some call ‘Traditional’ Witchcraft. The strong connection to the powers of the Night, poisonous plants, interactions with spirits and the dead, and so forth. These are often looked upon as ‘darker’ elements of witchcraft, but they have always been part and parcel of it’s practice. Many in the pagan communities shy away from these things and prefer to focus on the Light, but this only causes an imbalance, as the Darkness is equally important. There is nothing to fear from darkness. It hides, obscures, protects. Regard it as a friend. The darkness holds many secrets. It is both enchanting and mystical. Let it surround you like a veil. Those who dwell in the shadows are a unique and set apart community. Find strength and solitude in the darkness. Appreciate it’s beauty and strange quietness.
Magic is best practiced under the cloak of darkness, by candlelight or the light of the moon. During the very late hours of the night when much of the noise and chatter have ceased, it is then that psychic energies can flow unhindered, and communication with the gods and spirits is much clearer. It is a time for powerful witchery. Dark Magic is often misunderstood to be enchantments that are intended to cause harm or injury. This is not entirely true. Magic is a neutral force, being neither black nor white. While a practitioner may use magic for malevolent purposes, labeling this as ‘dark’ is somewhat of a misnomer. The Dark is not always harmful. The Light is not always beneficial. Malevolent Magic and Dark Magic are not necessarily the same thing. Dark implies that which is hidden, that which is unseen. In fact, this is the definition of the word occult: hidden wisdom. It is knowledge that is hidden from those without the awareness or discipline to uncover it. Dark also implies the aspects of ourselves that we keep hidden from others. Everyone has a dark side. Everyone. Yes, even you. We all have secrets that we keep from others. We all have private issues and problems that we need to work on. Some of them are legitimate problems, and others are not really problems at all, but we perceive them to be problems because of social conditioning. These are our secret fears, guilt or shame, whether self-imposed or wrongly imposed upon us by others. There are many things in our lives that we have been made to feel wrongly ashamed of. Some of these include sexual orientation, porn, alternative lifestyles, pagan spirituality, or even the choice to avoid religion and spirituality altogether. None of these things are cause for shame.
A large part of true dark magic is the process of examining the Shadow Self, a term coined by psychiatrist Carl Jung. He stated “To confront a person with his own shadow is to show him his own light”. Once we acknowledge our darker aspects, we can work on transforming them or integrating them into our lives in a healthy, positive way. What are some of my personal struggles? Anxiety. Depression. Inadequacy. Self-Esteem. These are things I struggle with often, but I accept them as part of who I am. I talk about these issues openly with others. I don’t pretend my life is perfect. To help me deal with these things, I use affirmations, meditation and medication. These and other therapies help a great deal but they don’t take it all away.
There has been so much focus on “Love and Light”, particularly in the Wiccan and New Age movements. There is this idea that ignoring or denying our darker natures will somehow make them non-existent. “No bad vibes” is a popular saying that is actually harmful. We can’t live in a bubble where we pretend everything is rainbows and unicorns, and we can’t expect the same from everyone around us. None of us live perfect lives. We all have struggles, and we must acknowledge that throwing “love and light” at everything does not always provide a solution. There must be a balance of both dark and light, and these are two sides of the same coin. Those who practice paganism through a darker lens find comfort and solace in their rituals. These energies are not evil or malevolent, they merely operate on a different vibration.
By working with these dark energies, we perform magical practices that work to make our lives better and more fulfilled. Some of us prefer to approach magical spirituality through a darker aesthetic. “Dark Energies”, for the purpose of this article, refer to dark stones and plants, the waning and dark moon phases, the Shadow Self, dark aspects of deity, dark animal guides, the allure of the night, and certain kinds of divination.
Any form of magical practice requires us to look within. We examine our motives and desires to see if our magical working is coming from a place of love, or anger, or healing, or revenge. We examine any possible outcomes that may result and adjust our spells accordingly. I don’t consider witchcraft itself to be a form of therapy, however, many practices do require the practitioner to look within and examine themselves. We take responsibility for our spells and enchantments, adapting and improving them in such a way that the result is best for all involved.
Call me a stick-in-the-mud, but I still believe in the Old Ways. We need to be careful what we label as a “modern idea” or even an “outdated” one. There are some bandwagons that I refuse to jump on just because it is the trendy thing to do. Author/Teacher Raven Grimassi spoke of the “momentum of the past”, describing how many magical practices and concepts have accumulated power over the years because they have been done the same way for so long. Altering or changing them dilutes their power. Please do not take magical advice from teenagers on TikTok, or from anyone who is not a well-respected author/teacher that has been around for awhile. There are truthfully only a handful of teachers I would personally recommend, as these are people I have met in person, I have studied their work or I have taken classes with them. I don’t have to agree with every single thing they say, but much of what they share and teach does resonate with me and my practice. I trust their experience, which is something sadly lacking in many self-described “experts” on social media. Having a best-selling book or thousands of followers are not necessarily good indicators of a worthy teacher.
Witches of the Old Ways are deeply connected to the powers of the night, and to various herbs and plants, many of which are quite toxic. It is only in modern times that witchcraft took on a lighter, more sanitized tone. Witches of the Old Ways do not turn the other cheek, nor do they ascribe to the Wiccan ‘harm none’ philosophy. There are times when banishings, bindings and even curses are absolutely called for. I have always believed that witches are meant to be respected and feared in equal measure. To provoke a witch is to incur consequences. The ‘threefold law’ is another Wiccan invention, and is one that we do not see played out in the real world. If one watches the news regularly, we see many instances where harm is caused without punishment, threefold or otherwise. Modern Wicca has sanitized the image of contemporary witches, who many view as docile and harmless New Age hippie folk who surround themselves with pretty crystals and scented candles. This is not an accurate picture. It is unfortunate that as witches we are not approached with the same trepidation we once were. In the old days, those seeking solutions to their problems visited the local witch as a last resort when all other efforts had failed. Witchcraft in today’s society has become incredibly commercial, with anyone and everyone calling themselves a witch and charging exuberant prices for their services. Many of these charlatans have no idea what it really means to be a witch, and some of the younger folks have foolishly attempted to redefine what witchcraft is.
The practice of witchcraft is not as simplistic as some people try to make it seem. It is not “whatever you want it to be”. It is not “picking up a rock” or “looking at the moon”. It does seem at times that younger pagans find witchcraft too boring, they want something more exciting, so new ideas are introduced, many of which only detract from rather than add to the practice of witchcraft. Some have said “Just because something is old doesn’t make it better”, but I have to disagree and say that just because something is new doesn’t make it necessarily better either.
Many modern books about witchcraft present a Disney-fied, watered down version to make it more acceptable to the masses. The Wiccan Rede and the Threefold Law are modern inventions that did not exist before Gerald Gardner and Doreen Valiente. Before Wicca, most witches were simply witches, who lived by their own ethical codes and moral standards. The Wiccan Rede has become somewhat of a disclaimer, as in “Yes, I’m a witch but that’s okay because I follow the Rede”. They don’t want to be thought of as “that kind” of witch, one who banishes and curses, yet these are also part and parcel of witchcraft. It is commonly known that not all witches follow the rede, but this does not necessarily make them “unethical” witches. Witches who do not follow the rede are sometimes called “Traditional” witches, but this term can be confusing as it implies one who follows a tradition, such as Alexandrian or Gardnerian. Both Traditional and Old Ways witches are sovereign, meaning they are self-ruled and self-governed, unbound by redes and ‘threefold’ laws. When I tell someone I’m a witch, they often say, “But you’re a good witch, right?” To which I reply, “If you’re good to me, I will be good to you”. This is usually followed up with, “But you don’t put curses on people, right?”, and I reply with a smile,“Only if they deserve it, and sometimes they do”. I actually like the fact that this makes some people apprehensive. It means they know to show me respect.
I have to question the spiritual maturity of gatekeepers, those who attempt to police how other people practice. These are people who say, “You’re not authorized to use this practice unless you’re…(insert culture or tradition here)”. Cultures have borrowed from one another for centuries. There is no culture that has not been influenced in some way by another. ‘Cultural Appropriation’ is an expression that gets thrown around a lot these days, mostly by people who do not fully understand what it means. There is nothing at all wrong with engaging in practices from any culture, as long as one understands the importance of that practice to the culture which it belongs. Becoming acquainted with the history, language, symbolism and folklore of a particular culture is also recommended for those who wish to use magical practices from another culture or tradition. Examples of real cultural appropriation would include the person who wears Native American dress but is not themselves a true Native American. It would include dancers at Celtic festivals who wear those fake “Irish curls” in their hair to give the appearance of being Irish. Cultural Appropriation occurs when elements of a particular culture are used in an exploitative or stereotypical manner.
Social media is rife with people sharing information that is completely untrue. Here are a few of these myths:
- You’re not a witch unless you’ve been initiated by another witch.
- Covens can only be formed by a 3rd Degree High Priest/ess.
- Tarot is a closed practice, it is only for those of Romani descent.
- You can only honor deities from the culture you were born into.
- Only Native Americans can have animal familiars.
These are all false statements. Rather than getting magical advice from strangers on social media, it is better to do your own study, getting information from well-respected authors and teachers. Read, read and read some more. Take a few classes if you can afford it. Another person’s magical/spiritual practice isn’t “wrong” just because it is not how you learned it. I share what has worked for me and encourage others to try my methods, but if they don’t feel right for someone there is nothing wrong in that. In the end, all that really matters is that you do what works best for you, and turn a deaf ear to those who say otherwise.
I have to scratch my head at those who seek an academic study of witchcraft, as this would be rather difficult due to it’s experiential nature. Witchcraft is a mystical practice with many aspects that cannot be backed up with footnotes and references. A magical system that works well for one practitioner may not necessarily work the same for another. Add to this the subjective nature of symbols, and the fact that many witches have unconventional abilities that they discovered quite by accident, abilities they did not learn from a book or a teacher. Such things cannot be “researched and vetted”.
Many people consider things like healing and personal growth to be associated with the lighter aspects of witchcraft, but it is also true that a person can find healing and personal growth from the darkness as well. It is important that we embrace the darkness as much as we embrace the light.