Post halloween this year, I was interested in better understanding the real world of witchcraft. We all know of the magic in Harry Potter and Disney films, but what does it take to be a real practitioner of magic? Women in particular have always been illustrated in a certain way when it comes to witchcraft and I couldn’t help but wonder what the real experience is like, particularly for women and how feminism fits into the picture. I had a chat with the wonderful Tara Sanchez to learn more.
KT: When did you start practicing witchcraft? What was it like back in the beginning?
TS: I had a rune reading when I was 16. I was sharing a room with a girl; I didn’t go to college or university like most people did, I had an apprenticeship. We lived in a hostel type place for all the apprentices and the girl I was sharing the room with had tarot cards, runes and all kinds of things. I was fascinated by it but didn’t really know how to take it much further than that.
After that, I was probably around 24, maybe, not long married and my best friend at the time had returned to uni as a mature student. She rang me up one day exclaiming she was ‘dropping out and going to go join this man in a coven!’ and I just sort of went ‘what?’. I remember saying to my husband ‘she’s joined a cult! She’s joined a cult!’ thinking it was unbelievable; she had gotten herself involved with and was giving up her new degree, gotten into debt and she genuinely just disappeared off the face of the earth! I now have contact with her but it took a good ten years for her to come back. She’s actually still pagan, has brought her children up within the faith, married to a pagan man and stuck with it.
Around the same time, my sister started reading some unusual books, Kate West type stuff with the ‘Real Witches Kitchen’. I was quite worried and just thought I had to look into this; my best friend and my sister are all getting ‘culted up’, what is going on?
Anyway, somewhere within the mad process I became absolutely fascinated by it. To start with it was quite an intellectual activity. I had to go through a lot of un-indoctrination: I had to reprogram my mind from the things that we grow up with. Most of us went to school where saying prayers at assembly on a Friday morning is standard. You have to go through a whole bunch of thoughts in your brain; am I going to burn in hell?, is there really a hell?, is there an afterlife?, am I going to reincarnate?. The more I did it, the more I realised it actually fitted by viewpoint of life better than other faiths. That’s how I started basically, wondering why my friend and sister joined a cult!
KT: So, how do you choose to identify; do you see yourself as a pagan, as a witch? Is it okay to say the ‘witch’ word?
TS: I actually nominally call myself a Druwitch as I am a Druid and a witch; I see Druidry as my philosophy and I see Witchcraft more as my spirituality. I say ‘spirituality’ over religion because I see it as being more than that- I am actually a Gardnerian High Priestess and an Alexandrian High Priestess so have been through both sets of the formal British Wiccan training schemes.
A lot of Wiccans will prefer to call it a religion but personally I don’t. I should probably add though; all Wiccans are witches, but not all witches are Wiccans. It’s part of how we identify, so yeah you can use witch anytime you like! Not all pagans are witches either which makes it slightly more complicated. But yes, that’s how I identify.
I started with Druidry, as I said it was an intellectual process to start with so the philosophical non-belief side fitted me better. Then came the craft side of things. You’ll find lots of Wiccan initiates don’t call themselves ‘Wiccans’ and will instead refer to themselves as initiates of the craft. The craft side for me came later.
KT: What are the misunderstandings about the community?
TS: One of my personal bugbears, of late some of the bigger ‘Mind Body Spirit’ publishing houses have really jumped onto the bandwagon of it and without naming names, I have a huge bugbear with a particular author who has basically said that to be a witch, you have to be a woman and you have to have a womb and ovaries. It’s not just trans-exclusionary but also exclusionary for women who may not be gender norm of any kind, whether they’re born with reproductive problems or any of that kind of thing.
KT: Expanding on this further, what part does intersectional feminism play in your traditions?
TS: The thing is, there is a place for things like Red Tents and stuff like that, which funnily enough is getting bundled in with the witchcraft and making things a little more complicated. What you have to do though is you have to be upfront about it and say things like this is a group where we will be exploring miscarriage; if you have not had a miscarriage it might not be the right group for you and not make it about sexual organs or biological birth. Otherwise, in many ways you’re taking the magic out of it. Historically our shamans, our witches and our magicians were all fringed personalities: many of them were intersex, bisexual, anything along those lines. They were on the fringes of society. When you take that out of the equation, it takes away some of the only provenance we’ve got because really a lot of this is made up.
KT: I completely agree with you. It’s so important; when people think of things like witches and witchcraft they think of the commercialised Elphaba character; your strong woman who’s in green but it’s far more complicated than that. I think as well its really interesting that you touch on how it isn’t just women that are witches as I can imagine that it is another popular misconception?
TS: Yep, absolutely. We’ve closed down since COVID started, the last time we met as a coven would have been in January. Prior to that though I had as many men as I did women; in fact in initiatory craft the ideal is to have as many men as there are women in the coven environment. It’s supposed to be a religion and a practice of balance. Importantly though, that balance is not predicated on your birth gender, there is actually a lot of movement going on within the initiate communities about that. It’s all about empowerment, that’s the one big thing you’ll find and is why I think the feminist movement has really embraced witchcraft. Have you read any work by Starhawk and Z Budapest?
KT: I have a little bit but admittedly not as much as I would have liked; I’m in the process of reading more. I have heard of them though! I find them and others really interesting.
TS: So Z Budapest is very interesting; unfortunately the order she created is bordering on trans-exclusionary. They will not initiate men and they have a thing with transgender women, so women who were born with another gender. They have started occasionally initiating members but there is a huge morass of bugbear around what makes someone a woman. I don’t think that they are being particularly open about it; I had a neophyte last year who had never had a period in her life despite being born a woman. She covered all the other ‘main criteria’, she had a child who she adopted and was married but under the rules they had she would not be initiated as they have a rule that the women need to menstruate. Wicca though is very much gender oriented, you often find that within craft and also in aspects of druidry there’s a high proportion of gay people.
KT: I had noticed that actually, I think its quite nice the way in which the queer community has joined in a bit- it goes back to what you were saying about people being on the fringes of society have found a way to come together through this community.
KT: So I see you have a Harry Potter mug, in ways I kind of have to ask what you think of the way witchcraft and the community as a whole has been portrayed in things like films? I can imagine it is not close to reality at all.
TS: Nope, not at all! Not at all. Now, I absolutely love fantasy fiction and I would love for that to be real. I really would. I think most of us that practice some kind of magical path probably really secretly would like to be able to go expelliarmus and knock things out of the way. We’d be lying if we said otherwise.
The magic is far more subtle than that; for me its far more internal. A lot of it is about personal development- in fact the Gardnerian strand that I follow is very much about psychology, personal development and spiritual growth over things like love spells. I think we’ve all done them though: we’ve all done love spells, healing spells, we have all had a go at them and some people do make a living out of it so it is not to be sneered at. It doesn’t work like Harry Potter though.
What is interesting though about Harry Potter is that JK Rowling did do her research; I don’t know what manuscripts of grimoire and historical documents she read but there is a lot of interesting lore in her books that bleeds particularly into occultism. Nicholas Flamel for example really was a real person, he was an alchemist. There was a philosophers stone, or at least the idea of it. Padfoot and the black dogs too-there’s so much folklore about that, I’ve actually written about it in my book. Particularly where I live, we have 4 or 5 different types of black dog figures which wander round and people still see them. Formby Dunes for example is renowned for drunken holiday makers who run out of the dunes white as a sheet because they’ve seen a black dog! I’ve been there 1/2/3 oclock in the morning and I tell you I haven’t seen it yet, but who knows.
KT: It always seems that when you’re seeking these things out you can’t find them, but you stumble across them by accident sometimes!
TS: Yeah, that’s the reality. When you look at a lot of fairy folklore, theres a lot of ‘catching something out of the corner of your eye’, not so much when you’re looking at things straight on. It’s not surprising really. Its interesting though, she did a massive amount of research. Lord of the Rings was based on Beowulf, Anglo-Saxon mythology. What else is there? The Craft, the film, there was certainly a lot of closeness to some of the 60s and 70s early neo-wiccan practices that were going around in California for example. I’m trying to think what else we’ve got. Oh! Sabrina! You need to actually go look at Mat Auryn, he writes on Patheos and he did an analysis of Sabrina. Sabrina is absolutely full of grimoire references, they obviously had an occult advisor that’s practising some kind of craft. His analysis is well worth a read, its the new reboot on Netflix, have you seen it?
KT: I absolutely love it! I think its great!
TS: It was interesting actually because the big Baphomet statue that’s in the centre of the Satanic school was the Baphomet used by the Church of Satan in California in the states and they took the Sabrina production company to court to have them stop using that statue because they didn’t want it. There was a massive law case about it. Satanists and Pagans don’t worship Satan by the way. I do call myself Pagan though and I follow Pagan paths.
I don’t know what Pagan really means anymore, I’m not sure Pagans themselves really do. Its a title I choose not to use really. Also, I worked for three years as a Pagan prison minister, going into the prisons in the Northwest of England. It was very interesting work and what I realised is that I became quite liberal. Talking to the Imams and particularly the Anglican bosses who funnily enough was actually Druid as well. Talking to all different faiths I suddenly realised we have more in common than we’ve got disparate. So it was at that point that I thought that I couldn’t use the term Pagan anymore; I identified with that, and that and that. But I still identify with the term witch.
KT: Of course! So your role as the High Priestess. Obviously I have heard about that and the terminology through things like Sabrina but I would love for you to tell me what that entails. The way I see it is through what I have seen in films and television but what is it really like?
TS: Mostly doing an awful lot of cooking and washing up! Normally the High Priestess’s word is law; even though within the craft you are supposed to have a High Priest as well as a High Priestess, she gets to say what is what. The reality of it is that covens are slightly less dictatorial than that, so you’ll find that as people are training they will take on different roles so you won’t necessarily always be the High Priestess in a ritual. Your ego goes a lot- you’ve got to make sure that you are providing for everybody else. You normally have to make sure that there is at least hot drinks and a snack for everybody afterwards. You’ve got to organise people too; if you don’t want to end up doing all the cooking, the cleaning, the washing you have got to be able to delegate different tasks to people and be able to manage the situation. You’re more of a manager than anything else.
I would say that some of my joy of magic certainly disappeared after I became High Priestess. It’s a different role that you take on then: you’re responsible for everyone else’s joy. It’s responsible, I think, is the best way of describing it. You get to do some cool things though and wear a cool crown and nice jewellery and things like that but that’s the tiniest part of it. You’ll get people phoning you up when they’re sad, when a family member is sick, when their marriage is failing, when their parents are being horrible to them.
You’ll have situations like I had when I had a neophyte out of the blue just phone me up and demand I make a public statement on behalf of the coven on Black Lives Matter. I did point out that that’s not how the coven normally runs; we tend to keep quite quiet and quite secret and that I was not prepared to make a public statement on behalf of the coven. They then felt that I was being racist and difficult and awkward and I did try to explain to them that I wasn’t, and it was just that the coven did not work that way. He then got very defensive, very angry and eventually I had to sort of say to him ‘You need to go and take a breather’. Within the role you do have to deal with some very angry people and you do sit there and think ‘Goodness, they were in my house’. You do sometimes have to consider whether or not someone is stable, the possibility of them coming to your house and doing something should they want to. Of course he didn’t because he, like most people, is nice but the role does come with a bit of worry.
KT: Being historically an underground community that has to stay secret do you find it is hard to not get involved with more public things, whether its the Black Lives Matter movement or something else. Is it hard to navigate?
TS: Personally, no. I don’t think you’ll find any individual person who finds it a problem. But when you have somebody who isn’t on the inner court yet that doesn’t understand how it works says ‘I need you to make a public statement on behalf of the ‘coven’ you really need to think of the people in the coven who are in the closet still, who’s husbands and wives don’t even know that they practice this. There’s many of them- It’s my responsibility to make sure those people are safe. I don’t know what it is that is going on in their family that means they can’t be open about it. Personally I have no problems making a statement myself but on behalf of the coven and the group as a whole I won’t. I think you’ll find that 99.9% of people will feel the same way. We are very keen on not outing other members. You then can’t make a statement on anything on anyone’s behalf unless you’re prepared to name them really.
KT: Do you think the dangers still exist? I know in years gone by there were things like the Salem Trials and the various witch hunts took place but does that really exist anymore?
TS: Well, to start with you do know that 9 million didn’t die?
I know that was a figure which was banded round which is funny because there wasn’t even 9 people living in Europe at that time. Most of the people who were witch hunted were actually done for heresy, rather than witchcraft. In the UK in fact, let me think of the statistics. In Wales, I don’t think there was anybody who died. In Ireland and England they were hung drawn and quartered, not burned. We didn’t tend to burn people at the stakes.
However, witch hunts do still happen, in their own particular little way. You will find that if somebody is ‘too’ out, particularly to the wrong person, they are suddenly not being invited to things like the mummy’s coffee mornings any more. A perfect example was my husband’s family; we used to keep all my craft books and tools in a locked room, locked from the inside. We had a door that then went through into our bedroom that was hidden in the wardrobe. They then couldn’t ever get into that room and they couldn’t have known that there was a back door for it. I accidentally left that door open one day when they came round to visit and in ways understandably there was a huge to do about the whole thing. After that it put a real strain on the family and I really felt that they almost went out of their way to try and, I don’t know, save my soul? Which is nice, that’s fine for them, it’s okay.
KT: I suppose people like that mean well but it’s hard. I can’t imagine it gets any easier.
TS: You know, when I was working as the Pagan minister I regularly got asked if I was a devil worshipper. I often got asked if I would sacrifice babies too. I had some people who would not deal with me during a bereavement: what would happen in the prisons is whoever took the phone call saying a family member had died would then go and deliver the news to that inmate. There were certain people who would not take the news or let me deal with it for them. They’d sort of say ‘I don’t want to deal with you, you’re the Pagan. I want nothing to do with you’ and you’d have to turn round and say that it was absolutely fine and honour that. It’s difficult though and I know for a fact that when I was teaching I didn’t apply to several colleges and schools because they have rules about what faiths you can be when you teach, particularly in Catholic schools. It was just not a battle that I needed to fight. I don’t even know if they’d get away with it nowadays, but I’m sure they’d try.
KT: Do you ever wish that you could be open about it?
TS: I’m really lucky in the fact that I am pretty much 95% out. You know, I speak at conferences, I was over at one in America this year. I do online conferences too and really I don’t hide any more. When you spend 3 years working for the justice department as a Pagan Minister you can’t really hide it. I am not necessarily forwards in coming forwards about my faith though. But then, on a day to day basis, who is? You hardly go around to people saying ‘Hi! I’m this!’.
KT: That’s true actually, you don’t!
TS: You only answer if somebody asks you, so that’s sort of where I’m at with my stage in life now. I don’t feel a need to declare myself but if somebody asks I don’t hide it anymore.
KT: I totally respect that. So, I know you’re working on your book at the moment, well it’s done now isn’t it? What do you get out of that?
TS: So it isn’t my first book, its my second one now. The first book, I actually wrote as a devotional piece. I spent a long time working with a particular goddess, Hecate. It felt like a devotional work; this is what I had learned, this is what I have practised, this is what I feel whilst I practise. I basically shared by personal practises, I wanted to give it out to the world. I never thought I would write another book after that, I used to think ‘Oh nope, everybody has one book in them, that’s it, I’m done.’It was a couple years later, and I guess it goes without saying that I am a complete and utter folklore and mythology nut and I started working on the spirits of place and all of the folklore around that and also the importance within human psychology of folklore and myth. I then started doing practical work around that as well as talking to other people who felt as though they were interacting with spirits of place. What I noted particularly was that there was an overwhelming for people to say ‘You need to go to the country; you need to find the fairies in the hills and the fields!’ but a statistic somewhere says so many of the people in the UK live in the town and in an urban environment. I’ve become a bit of a crusader and it became a bit of a thing where I had to prove that you could find as much folklore and mythology inside an urban environment as you can outside of that environment.
I realised therefore that particularly newbies who are trying to find a practice with spirits of place and that kind of thing could actually go out to their local park, find their local holy well or funnily enough in the case of Chester there’s a shrine to Minerva which now is in a car park, would you believe? It’s absolutely ancient, its an old Roman shrine dedicated to Minerva and people still to this day go and lay little flowers which I think is lovely. So yeah, it became a bit of a passion and lo and behold another book was born! I love it; folklore and mythology I think informs our lives in many ways. I’m sure as a literature student you’ve done things like The Heroes Journey and I think that we can find archetypes within our fairy and folklore that can inform our lives in ways that otherwise wouldn’t really think about. It’s worth exploring, whether you believe in real fairies or whether you believe they’re a figment of your imagination, its something you can use as a tool. Either is a valid path.
KT: Completely, I’ve always found it so interesting. So, to finish off: to newbies, like me, who are interested to dip their toes into the craft. What advice would you give? Or perhaps, what would you tell yourself when you were starting out?
TS: The first thing I would say is to not let other people ruin your magic; it is so easy particularly nowadays with the internet with people saying you can’t do things. Ignore all of those. Don’t necessarily read a book and declare yourself an expert and start teaching three months later, but definitely ignore the people who say that you can’t. The best attitude you can possibly have is ‘I can’. Go out there and read everything you possibly can. I’m an exception- I am not the rule. I think that is one of the biggest problems that we’ve got; everybody thinks that what I do, living the life 24/7, is what they should be aspiring to. That’s absolutely not the case- you have to find a practice that works for you and your time. Things like family, work, mental well being in my opinion take precedence over you, I don’t know, dancing naked under the moon with twelve other women. But yeah, that’s the biggest piece of advice. Oh! Read. More than you could possibly imagine, and then more on top. All sorts of things, whether they have witch in the title or not. Read philosophy and anthropology, understanding the various mindsets of different cultures that have had a magical practice helps you understand what has informed western practice. A lot of Western practice comes originally from Yogi practice, Chinese practices, Buddhism or Daoism. Its all been integrated in. Don’t necessarily try and claim yourself a label either, the label doesn’t matter. It’ll come to you in your own time and it may be something which nobody else has, which is valid. Also, don’t be an aesthetic witch. Don’t get me wrong, they’re absolutely beautiful and inspiring but don’t always believe they were creating magic when their instagram pictures were taken. Focussing on aesthetics misses the point; some of the best magic for me comes from burning shit in my garden screaming my lungs out. It’s more primal than picture perfect. The magic is real, you don’t need it to be pretty for it to be real.
NOTE ALSO: THE BOOK IS OUT ON THE 8TH MARCH 2021 AND IS AVAILABLE FOR PREORDER NOW
Header image by Kristoffer Hughes