When I Do Spells: Thoughts on Working Magic and the “Craft” of Witchcraft

If witchcraft is a craft (in addition to being a religion, as it is for many of us), then what exactly is the “craft”? And how often do we have to be engaging in that craft in order to really be witches?

For a lot of people–both witches and non-witches–we immediately think of spells. Witches do spells! Of course they do, we think. But what exactly are spells? And how many do you have to do before you know you’re a witch? If someone picks up one of those cutesy turn-your-man-into a toad spell books and tries something once, or writes a wish on a bay leaf and burns it because they saw that meme on Instagram, or blows out their birthday candles and makes a wish, are they practicing witchcraft? And do those spells have to work? What failure rate is allowed before you have to throw in the towel and admit to being a non-witch? What if you never throw in the towel, and you just keep failing at spells your whole life? Is that witchcraft?

…and the questions keep coming.

It gets kind of ridiculous, really, writing it all down. But I think about these things sometimes, and often these are the questions I get asked the most by the witchcraft-curious.

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My Five Favorite Recent Witch Books

AfterlightImageI’ve made a lot of blog posts and videos in the past about favorite books: advanced books, beginner books, books for people interested in taking things in a new direction, classics I think everyone should read, and books that I’ve got in my personal to-be-read pile. But I was recently asked to share my thoughts on which recent releases were important, or would have an impact for people exploring witchcraft right now. In other words, if you couldn’t recommend anything written more than two or so years ago, what would you pick?

We’re lucky today, because there are so many exciting new books coming out all the time. It can often be difficult to choose (and if you don’t have to choose, please read them all)!

I decided to limit myself to four, but then through my own book in at the end as a fifth, because I wrote it to do something very specific, and I believe that thing is important.

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Creativity, Competition, and Community

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One of my thesis advisors in graduate school told me, as I was working up my proposal and trying to figure out exactly what I was going to focus on, that building a new argument is a lot harder than tearing down someone else’s. In other words, don’t use this opportunity to only dismantle something. Say something new.

That struck me hard and has stuck with me into other parts of my life. I’ve been thinking about this early life lesson a lot as the New Year puts down roots.

Creating something—whether it is a book, a new coven, a tarot business, a blog, a painting, a ritual, a song—is an act of sharing one’s self. It’s challenging, and it requires a lot of energy. It’s also a sure way to draw criticism from others, even if that criticism is your own negative self-talk. After every open ritual that you worked so hard on, there is always someone who will whisper, “Well, I think you should’ve done it this way.” Every book gets negative reviews, and some of them will be unfair. If you run a coven or circle, someone in your community will eventually say something negative about it. You might even find yourself the subject of a rumor or two (often at the hands of people you’ve never even shared intimate space with, and maybe never even met at all). People in the audience will talk over you as you play your music, waiting for the next act. Your art won’t sell as fast as you want it to, or even at all. You will at times feel awash in a sea of competition as you set up your business, and you will worry that maybe you just aren’t good enough to be here. Your YouTube video or blog will eventually get thumbs down and nasty personal comments (it wouldn’t be the Internet otherwise).

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If Everything Changes, What Good is Tradition?

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My friend and initiate, Corvus, is in the process of starting a coven, and the other night we got to chatting about what it will mean for her to go forward, both as part of a community and as an autonomous high priestess. What if she does something that pisses off her upline? What if she gets out into the community and decides she doesn’t fit in? What if she has genuine encounters with the gods that take her in directions beyond where she went with me? What if she goes on to initiate someone who everyone else hates, and then no one else wants to hang out and circle anymore? WHAT IF SHE RUINS EVERYTHING.

Clearly, a lot of this is anxiety-driven and not based in our actual relationship. The whole reason she was elevated and given the support to go off and start her own group is because we knew she’d be great at it and would be a credit to the tradition.

A lot of this, no doubt, sounds totally ridiculous to some of you who are not involved in traditional covens, with their lineages and their hierarchies and all that hoo-ha. Maybe this is exactly why you’re not involved. It’s a tricky thing, having to negotiate belonging in a lineaged tradition. It can feel like you’re being watched all the time, and like you’ve always got to answer for your choices. Every one of us has heard horror stories about what happens to people who cause too much offense, stray too far from what’s accepted, or don’t build the connections necessary to ensure that you and yours are recognized at the community table.

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Saying Hello to a New Year

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Hi, Patheos readers! I’m not actually new here, but a lot has changed since I first came aboard back in 2015. I have a tradition that when I start a new journal or book of shadows, I always write an introduction, both to future readers (however imaginary they may be) and to my future self (who has a knack for forgetting details as time passes). Who am I? What am I doing writing? Where am I in my magical practice? What do I hold dear in the moment? It’s a great way to both measure progress and keep my personal struggles and triumphs in perspective. Here, it’s also a good way to let new readers get a glimpse into what they’re in for, and remind longtime readers how much ground we’ve covered over the years.

So hi! My name is Thorn Mooney. I know it sounds like a Harry Potter name, but Mooney is actually a pretty common surname in the American Midwest, from whence half of my family hails. The other half is from the pretty-deep South: Tuscaloosa, Alabama. I’m an Army brat, so I grew up in a few different places (mostly in DC and surrounding suburbs). Now, North Carolina is home, and I think of myself as a Southerner. I like it here, for all its problems. It’s a lot more religiously diverse than people give it credit for, and it’s a great place to be a witch.

When Witchcraft is a Job

I’ve struggled with this in the past, especially when work gets rough. Wouldn’t it be great to just make a living as an author and blogger? Or maybe be a witchy influencer, because that’s a thing now.

And that’s fine for some people, but here I reflect on how my day job–even when it’s crappy–actually informs my witchcraft and keeps it sacred.

The Nature of the Gods

My personal theological position has moved as my Craft has grown and changed, and I find that it loops around. For a long time, I identified as a hard polytheist. More recent experiences make me less sure. But ultimately, I appreciate the paradox that presents itself in so many magical traditions: one can hold multiple positions without being in a perpetual state of internal conflict. Here, I think out loud about the nature of the divine, how we experience the gods individually (and collectively), and why so many of our questions won’t ever get satisfactory answers.