Sarah Anne Lawless is a North-American witch, a herb and spirit worker, the author of articles online and in print and a carver of wood and bones. Her blog is one of the most read in internet witchdom and her online shop, Fern&Fungi, offers a series of ointments, oils and herbal medicines – among witch are some very successful flying ointments. Going through Sarah’s website feels like visiting the home of someone who’s made of witchcraft her own form of art and personal expression, from the way she conjures up words in her written pieces to the visceral nature of her drawings.
In this interview, we asked Sarah about the nature of witchcraft, animism, traditionalism, social engagement and much more. We’re really grateful to Sarah for her thoughtful answers and for her patience.
La Brigata di Notte: What is witchcraft to you, and how is it different from other magical paths?
Sarah Anne Lawless: To me, witchcraft is the practice of magic with the intent to supernaturally effect a person, object, place, or event for good or ill. I’m not talking about the folk magic found in every religion and culture across the world, I’m talking about darker magic therein: lunar magic and earth magic. Witchcraft is when you bind a lover to you so they will not leave you. It is using magic to break up a couple, or making your hated neighbour move away, or your nemesis to fall ill. Witchcraft is cursing your rapist who escaped justice or binding a violent person from harm. Witchcraft is raising the dead from their graves and calling the gods out of the deep, wild wood. The witch haunts the dreams of others, posses beings, and is possessed by spirits. Witchcraft is seduction and illusion, it is love and lust drawing magic, domination magic… it is drugs and sex and drumming. Witchcraft is astral flight, shape-shifting, outsmarting and battling spirits, and a life of offerings and personal sacrifice.
Witchcraft’s ethics are grey and dependent upon the context. Witchcraft is a practice and anyone can do it. There are different levels of depth one can go into it, yes, but it is still all witchcraft. It has a thousand faces and a thousand names. It is not one path, it is practiced in the shadows of every path. It doesn’t matter if you are Catholic, Buddhist, or Pagan; if you have spat and cursed someone’s name, if you have intentionally shot your evil eye with hatred or envy at someone, if you’ve burned your husband’s mistress’ belongings in catharsis to feel rid of her… you have practiced witchcraft.
BdN: What is tradition to you? How important is it to stick to ‘authenticity’ with regards to historical accounts and research?
Sarah: It depends on your definition of tradition. In the standard definition, a tradition only becomes a tradition after it has been practiced by three consecutive generations. This definition excludes pretty much every current witchcraft path except the oldest like Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wicca. There is no such thing as absolute authenticity. There is no such thing as a continuing ancient tradition of witchcraft, and most certainly not from the cultures we all look to for our knowledge of witchcraft — mainly from Europe. We do not live in the past, we live in the present. We cannot travel back in time and we cannot make our modern time be like it was in the past. Let us be realists and modernists but with an eye on history to learn from its triumphs and mistakes. It is better to put your energy into creating your own personal living tradition based on your own beliefs and magical influences as well as the landscape around you. It will be so much more rewarding than all the grimoires in the world, it will foster a very real relationship with nature, the spirits, and the otherworld and it is from this regular interaction that true experience and magical ability are birthed.
It is better to put your energy into creating your own personal living tradition based on your own beliefs and magical influences as well as the landscape around you. It will be so much more rewarding than all the grimoires in the world…
BdN: A witch who’s starting on the path, nowadays, can count on a number of sources: historical documents, personal experience with the unseen as well as books from contemporary authors and, of course, the internet. How important do you think these different sources are, and how do you navigate them?
Sarah: Books are a buffet and no author is perfect or unbiased. Pick and choose what inspires you from an author or historical record, consume it, forgetting what wasn’t digestible, and move on. Do not be gullible and naive, always keep in mind that no matter how fancy or expensive the grimoire or anxient text, or how famous the name of the author, that work is still just the personal opinion and experience of that one author and you do not have to believe them or agree with them. Do not feel pressured to read any books that do not interest you or feed your soul just because your friends or peer group who are on the same witchcraft path as you are all reading them. Life is short, there is no use wasting your time. Be honest with yourself and read what you like, or, alternately, don’t read at all if you prefer your magic hands-on.
BdN: You have discussed publicly some of your experiences with teachers in the craft, both positive and negative. How important do you think it is to have a formal teacher in witchcraft? Can a witch do without one?
Sarah: I think the apprenticeship model we witches seem to be stuck in may be a leftover romanticism of the past when society worked within the feudal system and trades were a mighty industry. We like that romantic image of meeting the old witch or wise man in the woods who teaches us the mysteries of magic, nature, and the spirits… but often modern stories always turn out to be false and this idea truly only exists in centuries old folk tales. Almost everyone I’ve met who’s apprenticed one on one with a witch, has a troubled and emotionally confused tale of abuse to tell. Within the feudal system the master tradesman was literally the master over the apprentices who were often treated as slaves until they worked their way up the economic ladder.
It was very hierarchical and I still see this stark division today in modern witchcraft traditions and teacher-student relationships. I do not personally think it is a healthy model. There are exceptions, yes, but absolute power always corrupts and we witches give our teachers far too much power. The best teacher I ever had told me that he wasn’t my lord and master and that he was expecting to learn just as much from me as I would learn from him. I think our best solution moving forward is to focus on community and what we can all individually contribute to the greater witchcraft community and body of knowledge rather than continuing to create a cult of celebrity out of our witchcraft authors and teachers. It is why I wrote my article on Open Source Magic.
BdN: You speak abundantly of witch flight. Your flying ointments are an international success, and your article ‘For fear of flying‘ is one of the most shared pieces in the internet witchdom. Could you give our readers your definition of flying? What is the most common mistake you see people making when attempting the flight?
Sarah: I think we all need to have our own definition so we do not let other people’s opinions effect our personal practice. It looks so different for everyone. At the core you are somehow transitioning between the worlds and interacting with the world of spirits. Some people experience it as lucid dreaming or dream walking. Others experience it as astral projection where they can feel themselves flying out of their body and see their body below them. Traditional witches influenced by shamanism tend to see it within the perception of hedgecrossing or shamanic journeying which can feel more like a guided visualization or waking dream. More people still view it as a part of trance work and include within it varied levels of altered states achieved with and without entheogens. Are these examples inner journeys or outer journeys? Does it matter? Both are valid, both are real to the person experiencing the journey. The most common mistakes I see people making are not realizing they’ve already done it, and not believing they can.
BdN (from Venafro) : From your blog it transpires an approach towards spirituality that is strikingly animist. You also seem to be ‘allergic’ to anthropomorphic deities that are very common in contemporary paganism. Is there a reason for it?
Sarah: Allergic implies that I am against working with deity, but I am not. I believe in their existence, in the validity of the experiences of the people working with deities and I have had interaction with deities, but I do not worship deities or put them above myself. The world is full of spirits and we often forget we are spirits of power too. To me deities are spirits; some are apotheosized ancestors and heroes, some are natural forces or celestial bodies, and many others are local gods of place whose worship spread so far that their small origins became lost to time. I am fascinated with the meaning and origins of gods, what part of the world they came from, what their names were, if they started out as a lake, a mountain, a forest, a dead hero, the moon, the stars… It fascinates me to strip away the stories and the mythology surrounding gods and try to look at what is left behind, what they were at their core in prehistory. Some people find holiness in God, in Buddha, in Zeus or Odin. I find holiness in trees, in the wilderness, in the magic of an ecosystem in perfect harmony, and in the mundanity of everyday life. This is what makes me an animist. Being able to stand up to mighty spirits, to not always believe what they say, to say no to them, is part of what makes me a witch.
BdN: Over the past couple of decades, we’ve witnessed a resurgence of the ecstatic and shamanic side to witchcraft. Shamans, historically, performed a social role, and their spiritual relationships were bound to the wellness of the community. What’s the social role that modern witches can have in their communities? Is witchcraft still relevant for the spiritual health of societies?
Sarah: Within modern indigenous cultures and historical cultures with animistic beliefs and shamanic healers, the shaman is a medicine man and witch doctor. Their job is and was often to identify practitioners of witchcraft, hunt them, and kill them. I wish this was an exaggeration. Witches are not shamans, we are their prey when we go too far and too dark. Witches are the fringe dwellers, the moon doctors, and workers of taboo magics. We have not always been evil, but we have often been anarchists and scapegoats. The shaman is the healer of the body and of spiritual ills. Some are bone-setters and hands on healers, some are herbalists, and others only deal with spiritual afflictions. The witch is the peddler of abortion, euthanasia, curses, necromancy, fortunes, love and lust magic, and poisonous psychoactive herbs to ease physical and emotional pain. These services are not evil, what matters is the context of their need. Communities need the witch as much as the shaman, but whereas shamanism has always been on public display, you visit the witch in secrecy.
Witches are not shamans, we are their prey when we go too far and too dark. Witches are the fringe dwellers, the moon doctors, and workers of taboo magics. We have not always been evil, but we have often been anarchists and scapegoats.
BdN (from Venafro): Shamans and animists (like the Hopi and Lakota tribes, for example) have been warning us about the changes that happening with the global climate and economy. What do you think of these messages? Should witches be concerned with ecology and politics or, as others say, should we only focus on the ‘spiritual’?
Sarah: My favourite teacher told me what his teachers told him: that to be a good witch I first had to be fully grounded in physical reality. This includes being aware of your environment and how it effects you, the earth, and the future of not just humans, but of all life. We have lost this awareness and have been slowly killing our world as a consequence of our greed and selfishness. Witches have always been anarchists, who but us has the fearlessness and tenacity to fight for the earth and the spirits who have no voice to help themselves? To me there is no separation between the physical world and the spiritual world. Without the physical world, the world of spirits dies too. Discover what you can do on a small, local level. In North America people are protesting oil pipelines being built through fragile ecosystems and bodies of water. In the British Isles there is a constant battle between the government and the locals over protecting ancient sacred sites from development. Scientists in the past decade have been consistently proving the intelligence and compassion of plants and animals and making a very good case for a return to animistic philosophy in our societies and laws which would put life above profit. You can write, protest, clean up garbage, start initiatives, join local conservation groups, become a lobbyist, get involved in local politics… find your own way of helping with the skills available to you.
…who but us has the fearlessness and tenacity to fight for the earth and the spirits who have no voice to help themselves? To me there is no separation between the physical world and the spiritual world. Without the physical world, the world of spirits dies too.
BdN: Traditional witchcraft seems to be living, on a smaller scale, the popularization that Wicca went through in the sixties and the seventies. That movement spread Wicca to the masses, but it also contributed to diluting the original practices and their meaning. Do you see traditional witchcraft going down the same path, running the same risks?
Sarah:Contrary to its name, Traditional Witchcraft as we know it has only really existed since the early 2000s. It is not one cohesive practice and belief system like Wicca, but instead is an umbrella term for many different paths and personal practices. There isn’t anything to dilute, it is simply evolving. Sometimes it looks like Early Modern witchcraft, sometimes it looks more like folk magic or shamanism, and sometimes it can look closer to Neopagan polytheism. It is none of our business if someone who calls themselves a traditional witch doesn’t match your own definition of traditional witchcraft. There is no regulating body and there should never be. What we do have is freedom of religion. I think we really shouldn’t worry about this topic at all, but instead focus on community building: teaching and supporting one another, sharing resources and skills, and talking to people whose beliefs differ from our own in order to foster understanding and tolerance.
BdN (from Plantago): How important is it for you, as a witch, to keep your body clean? I often find myself in a place where stress, bad habits, wrong foods etc get to a point that they weigh me down, both physically and emotionally. What would you suggest (herbs, foods, techniques) to bring your body back to a good, healthy place?
Sarah: What would your grandmother say? She would tell you to keep a clean house, bathe when you need to, and eat good, wholesome foods. She would tell you to go outside. Go talk to people. Go for a walk, a bicycle ride, a swim. Don’t sit still. Get some hobbies. Be too busy and distracted to be weighed down by the dark spirits of anxiety and depression. Charles G. Leland documented a good collection of charms and spells to protect the body and the home from Italy and elsewhere in Europe. His books are out of print and available online for free. Draja Mickaharic wrote a great book on how to keep yourself and your home spiritual clean titled “Spiritual Cleansing.”
BdN (from Plantago): In Italy secrecy is often still a big deal, while this does not seem to be the case in the English-speaking world. Do you think there is still value in secrecy in witchcraft?
Sarah: There is still persecution in the English-speaking world and secrecy still keeps a lot of people out of trouble with their neighbours, coworkers, family, and the law. There is also the opposite and it can sometimes be harmful to our cause. I think we need more open communication between each other as witches, but I do believe we need to tighten our lips about certain beliefs and practices when it comes to the general public.
BdN: Finally, what are three books you would suggest to someone who is completely new to the craft?
Sarah: I would recommend these three classics from the 1970s which each have a different approach to witchcraft but leave the reader with a solid foundation to start with. Doreen Valiente is one of my favourite witchcraft authors and she is often ignored by the Traditional Witchcraft community because people think she wrote about Wicca, but instead she was writing about witchcraft as a whole and the folk magic of the British Isles. Sybil Leek has the same story with modern witches disregarding her as Wiccan, but she wasn’t and the recommended book gives this away more than all of her others. Just ignore Sybil Leek’s terrible homophobic chapter and make yourself feel better after by reading Mastering Witchcraft, written by an openly gay author and tarot deck creator from the USA.
Natural Magic by Doreen Valiente
The Complete Art of Witchcraft by Sybil Leek
Mastering Witchcraft by Paul Huson