I Spent a Year Trying to Turn Myself Into a Witch. Here’s What Happened.
We are in a Witch heyday. Witchcraft has been the fastest growing religion in the US for at least the past 10 years. One peek at TikTok and it seems just about every teenage girl in America is pretty keen on her future as a swamp-dwelling sorceress, feeding strays, communing with vines, and offering potions to passersby.
I am not a teenager. I am a white, middle class woman in her mid-30s, trying to gracefully endure Gen Z’s accusations that I am helplessly uncool while also trying to make peace with the fact that I will probably never own a house.
But the charms of Witchcraft do not have their appeal for only one or two demographics — they are for all of us. In a time where so many people feel at the unhappy mercy of powers far beyond their control, a religion that claims to teach you how to influence your life with little more than your thoughts and a few candles has obvious appeal. Witchcraft feels deeper than the bath bubbles and cottagecore memes of the Self-Care fad. It’s flavor always struck me as more authentic, due in large part to what I can only call its primitivism. Witchcraft promises to connect us to places and peoples from the time before Emperor Constantine painted a red cross on his shield; the ancestors who knew a different way of life than the one we know now. The offer of Witchcraft is the offer to discover forgotten magic, your magic, magic that has been locked away inside of you, patiently waiting for you to find the key to let it out (and start making your life perfect).
So I tried it. For a year and a day, I chased the question “could I be…a Witch?” I kept track of my progress in a journal, which I then for some reason also thought would be a good idea to publish to the entire world. (Witches are known for solving problems. Not necessarily having good sense.) I gulped down my skepticism at the idea of the trees having eyes and/or my firm belief that everything in “The Secret” was little more than grifter gab, and tried to turn myself into the supreme captain of my own spirituality. I bought a cauldron. I cast spells. I tried to summon a demon. I hexed Putin. I moved out of state because of a tarot card reading. I communed with the primordial Goddess forces of the universe. Or, I tried to anyway. Whether or not the benefits of the entire year were little more than self-delusion remains an open question — perhaps, for the readers of the book to decide.
(And one quick aside before the cultural purists come for my throat: when I’m talking about Witchcraft, I’m talking about Neopagan Witchcraft, primarily derived from Wicca, the midcentury, reconstructionist folk religion brought into the world by an enthusiastic English nudist named Gerald Gardner. Together with his coven, the work of PhD historian Margaret Murray, the quixotic occultism of Aleister Crowley, and some skimming of various religious texts from Asia, Gardner became known as “The Father of Modern Witchcraft .” It must be repeated that this is not Satanism, but rather, a religion with a capital G-Goddess, as well as a God, a mission to save the environment, and clear instructions on how to connect to the divine through your own means, rather than through an intermediary such as a priest. While many (dare I say, most) Witches today don’t identify as exclusively Wiccan, or even know Gardner’s name, Wicca remains the bedrock of the modern Witchcraft movement in the West, and thus was the bedrock of my year).
What did I learn doing that year? Here’s a small sample:
Witchcraft is self-directed. This is what makes it hard.
If you are an autodidact who revels in rebellion with no trouble letting the opinion of others roll off your back like water off a duck, Witchcraft is perfect for you. On the other hand, if you, like me, need accountable learning spaces, crave community, and don’t want to disappoint your mother, Witchcraft is going to be hard. Really hard. In fact, I spent the first three months hardly able to get started, because I couldn’t figure out who — among the zillions of scholarly voices on my bookshelf, my mentor list, and my Instagram page — I should actually be listening to. All advice felt like it was hitting me at once, sometimes contradicting itself. It wasn’t until a mentor, Lauren Parker, told me “you need to stop worrying about making an invisible teacher happy,” that I could finally even get started. And I’ll be honest, I hated that the only affirmation that I was heading in the right direction had to come from myself. It’s hard to follow the wisdom in your heart at the same time you are actually discovering it. Or, when you hit that moment where you realize following the wisdom in your heart might actually lead you away from the people and places in your life you once relied on to feel normal.
Witches are sisters. Which is to say, they hate each other.
In such a modern, self-directed, personal religion (in fact it’s up for debate whether it’s a religion at all), it’s natural that there would be some infighting. Witchcraft social media is an ocean of “um, actually”-s and “you forgot about”-s. Witches bash each other’s character and catapult judgments of “uninformed,” “misguided,” and “complete idiot,” at each other like archaeologists at war over a new theory about the development of agriculture. Evidence overwhelmingly suggests they hate each other. It is all the more amazing that they are constantly trading gifts, offering free emotional labor, and lending each other power. Truly, there has never been a better example of sisterhood. Don’t join unless you know how to scream at someone and then share a box of macaroni and cheese with them ten minutes later.
Witchcraft taught me to be patient doing things I thought were stupid.
Thorn Mooney, in her book The Witch’s Path, says this better than I can: “Sometimes — especially for those of us who’ve been around for a while and are pretty set in our ways — things make us uncomfortable just because we think they’re, well, kind of stupid.” Mooney is referring to seasoned Witches broadening their horizons with new practices, but I think this applies to novices like me, as well. I am also a West Coast liberal skeptic who prides herself in her critical thinking skills. Yes, trying to become a Witch for a year was my idea, nobody had a gun to my head, but you try telling a group of eyebrow raising atheists that you want to see if you can manifest an affordable three bedroom house in a good neighborhood by lighting a candle and thinking about it really hard. I wish that Witchcraft turned me into some kind of candle-wielding X-man. Instead, what it really did, was teach me to patient with my own desires — no matter how embarrassing. Including if one of them is, say, that no matter how much I wish it wasn’t true, no matter how big of a baby it makes me feel like, I do want to feel like the divine is holding me, and helping me out.
Witchcraft made me want to be a better person
Just about every Witch from the old school Wicca of Raymond Buckland to the 21st century Brujeria of Juliet Diaz has a lot to say about the Witch’s imperative to help heal the earth and serve all her creatures. It’s an informal rule (just like all the rest of them), but it is repeated across the decades with regularity. I’ve always been sure I could be doing more tangible “earth-saving” work than agonizing about whether or not I’m a bad person for buying sauerkraut in a plastic container instead of a glass jar. Witchcraft makes service to the earth and her creatures less of a chore and more of an actual joy. I discovered I liked volunteering. I liked picking up trash with a grabby claw and handing out grocery bags to people going through a hard time. When you spend a lot of time meditating on the interconnectedness of all things, it’s not that helping others doesn’t feel like work. But it doesn’t feel the vapid chore of mandated volunteer hours, either.
It increased my anxiety.
This is probably not something I’m not supposed to admit at the end of an Eat Pray Love-style journey, but it’s true. When everything you see or hear has the potential to be a life-altering symbol, the world becomes… noisy. “Tuning into the universe” felt less like finding a carefully wrapped package with my name on it, and more like standing under the sorting machine at the New York Post Office and getting hit with an avalanche of letters. By the time day 200 rolled around, I was starting to feel outright paranoid. What was I deluding myself about, and what was an actual message from the great beyond? Eventually I connected with the Witch Raven Hinojosa, who told me “I’m not surprised you started to feel this pressure to be in charge of everything, and then got anxious and paranoid. There’s an overwhelming sense of being in control of everything in modern Witchcraft; I see it pressed on new Witches.” Her solution? Commit yourself back to service to the earth and community, and surrender to the flow of things. But this was something I hit at day 365, not day 1.
I am now convinced of the mind–body connection.
During my year, I tried to put my spellwork through some kind of actual verification process. I was dealing with a slipped disc in my low back for most of 2021, and had 24 hour chronic pain (for one whole month, I could not sit in a chair). I saw two medical doctors, two chiropractors, a physical therapist and a neuromuscular massage therapist. All of these degreed healers helped or hurt to various extents, but at the end of the day, the thing that got me the closest to true help was my own mind, and a complete obsession with my own body — the kind of obsession that only comes from Witchcraft’s permission slip to have a brazen dedication to the self. It’s not that I’d never heard of the mind body connection. I just had previously allocated it to the realms of psychological science labs at Stanford, studying why people with terminal cancer live longer if they feel happy. Witchcraft made me feel like this high level theory was available to me. For free. Alone. Laying down on my bedroom floor. Today, I am pain free. To be clear: this is not because I did a spell (I tried one, it didn’t work), but because Witchcraft encouraged me to continue to dedicate myself to my own health (actual health, not vanity). This included being patient with the excruciatingly slow process of healing a damaged nerve, and to believe I am worthy of never giving up on.
On the other side of the year, I am in many ways completely the same. I don’t feel secure, self-assured, or capable of giving sage advice at the perfect time. I don’t even feel particularly confident. I still mostly feel like I did before: an overly emotive, very tall marshmallow who dislikes loud noises and wants people to like her.
But when I am feeling down, or lost in my own mind, I can turn to any object — any object at all, from a roll of toilet paper to the petals of a daisy — and remember that it and I are made from the same star stuff. I’m still not sure I can explain why — I endeavor to do so in the book — but it works, and I am comforted.
Diana Helmuth is the Award-Winning Author of How to Suffer Outside. Her second book, The Witching Year: A Memoir of Earnest Fumbling Through Modern Witchcraft is forthcoming at Simon Element, and is available for preorder at www.dianahelmuth.com