In a dimly lit cave, a sorority of witches stands around a bubbling cauldron, cackling as they await the witching hour. Their faces are lousy with sores and their breath putrid with death. Behind their abysmally black eyes, the devil can be seen looking back… plotting. The night yields a full moon, magic is aplenty. They’ll need all the help they can get. After all, an unbaptized infant is a delicacy. The midnight bell tolls – time to act. And in devilish accordance, they snatch their broomsticks and vanish into the night.
Although a Medieval foreboding of a witch is a far cry from today’s understanding of one, it’s difficult to skirt the misconception. It has a permanent locale in our collective unconscious. Needless to say, a real witch lacks these stereotypical prerequisites.
Sixty-three-year-old Ellyn Darrah is a witch. In fact, she’s a High Priestess. She writes and orchestrates rituals, dances around campfires and drinks mead. She is not possessed, nor does she eat babies. She’s more like a hip grandmother than a spooky spell-caster. The depth of her quirkiness is immediately obvious as she orders a vegetarian pizza with pepperoni.
Twenty years ago, Darrah began her journey as a witch. It all started in her college years back at the University of Santa Barbara, California, when a poster read “Come Celebrate Mother Goddess” caught her attention.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” Darrah says. “We spent the whole day in this classroom singing and dancing. It was great.”
That first encounter with Wicca had such a positive impact on Darrah that she began consuming herself with the newfound belief. She read books, took classes and attended workshops where she was free to artistically express herself.
“It depends on the individual and their passion,” Darrah says. “Mine happens to be arts and crafts.
Six words govern the decisions witches make. Harm none, do what you will. One word influences those decisions: karma. The repercussion for every action is magnified by three. So, as long as their mantra is upheld, rites and practices can be tailored to fit the individual. This versatility is what originally appealed to Darrah. However, despite her personal attraction to Wicca, it rattled her relationship with her husband. He considered the religion outdated and simple. In the end, it came down to a lack of mutual respect.
“He said he expected it out of me,” Darrah says, about her decision to become a Wiccan. “Like I was stupid. He just didn’t respect me, so I left.”
After that, Darrah made her way back home to Reno. There, she again found sanctuary among a growing community of local witches.
Tortured in the most brutal ways imaginable, witches of the past did not find sanctuary in the religion as Darrah did. They found martyrdom. The 14th century wasn’t afforded the same luxuries enjoyed today. Catchy little phrases like “freedom of religion” and “separation of church and state” weren’t even a brainchild. Instead, conformity was standard and individuality was deemed suspect. More often than not, propaganda took center stage. In the forefront of this propaganda was the biblically-justified witch hunting manual, The Malleus Maleficarum, or The Witches Hammer. Before the invention of the printing press, each persecution of witchcraft was isolated, meaning there was no standard procedure. Colonies set up their own guidelines for identifying and persecuting witches. So when the Gutenburg press started pumping out Malleus, people went loony, labeling anything questionable as witchcraft.
“They took this beautiful herbal woman with soft skin and they tortured her,” President and High Priestess of Children of Temple Earth Church Laura Fitzpatrick says.
“Afterwards, they paraded her around town. That’s where we get the misconception about the appearance [of a witch].”
The Malleus Malleficarum itself presents a catch-22. If a woman refuses to admit that she is a witch, then she must be a witch. If she admits to being a witch, well, she is a witch. Since the authors supported their claims with scripture, no one was in a position to argue. The point was completely and utterly obvious; a witch is something that should be feared.
The pentagram hanging from Darrah’s neck is arguably the most feared symbol among religions. Witches use this as their symbol. It is unlike the pentagram of Satanists, which has two points facing down as the witch’s has only one point facing down . Depending on the sect of Satanism, the pentagram generally represents the inversion of Christianity. Instead of love thy neighbor, hate thy neighbor. The witch’s pentagram, however, represents the five elements needed to maintain life— spirit, water, fire, earth and air—while the encompassing pentacle, or circle, represents continuity.
“It all comes down to the earth,” Darrah says. “It’s about bettering yourself in an organic way.”
When Darrah left her husband to pursue Wicca, she was attempting to better herself, personally as well as spiritually. The religion granted her an opportunity to improve the confidence her husband had taken away. Unfortunately, it also resulted in alienating herself from her family.
“They think I’m crazy,” Darrah says. “I’m just ‘grandma the witch.’ ”
Today, she concedes that the decision to leave her husband was probably a bit hasty.
“I may have cut my nose off to spite my face, but I still smile,” Darrah says.
If she had stayed, then she would still be a part of her biological family. However, if she had stayed, she would not have met Fitzgerald.
“We’re soul sisters,” Darrah says. “I’ve watched her son grow up for the last four years. We write [rituals] together.”
In the Wiccan religion, magic is considered synonymous with prayer. The reason being that many times praying is an attempt to hope for something. The same is true for magic. There are rituals that use magic to heal and there are ones that use it to hurt.
“It gets dangerous when you don’t know how to use it correctly,” Fitzgerald says.
By the same token, white magic is not inherently good, just as black magic isn’t inherently bad. Both are used within Wicca. Like prayer, the outcome depends on the intention. However, when meddling with a form of magic you’re unfamiliar with, even intent can be obscured. Fitzgerald recalls the time her son attempted to contact a deceased neighbor using a Quija board.
“He didn’t reach our neighbor,” Fitzgerald says. “[He reached] a man who had died in a car accident. [That man] possessed him and he was using his body to contact his family. My son got really beat up. It almost killed him.”
Preconceived notions of supernatural elements within Wicca are not without precedence. They’re derived from its bloody past and the perpetuation thereof.
“History is written by the victors,” Darrah says.
Historical fabrications have blurred the line separating fact and fiction. Tales of wart-nosed, scraggly women casting hexes are commonplace, whereas stories of organic woman seeking spiritual guidance though natural means is less common. Darrah is well aware of this pigeonhole. For her, it makes more sense to embrace the stereotypes. In fact, as she pulls away, her license plate frame visibly reads “Why yes, I am a witch.”