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Closer to the Garden Once more; an Interview with Sarah Anne Lawless

Belladonna Corvidae                  by  Sarah Anne Lawless

Belladonna Corvidae by Sarah Anne Lawless

.:.Closer to the Garden Once more.:.

An Interview with Sarah Anne Lawless

By Patrick Bertlein

The time of year has come again when skeletons dance and children learn the joy of imaginary humour. Sweets galore and skulls everywhere, Samhain (SOW-in) has been turned into a carnival deprived of the tricksters touch. Behind the curtain, is a celebration to honour the dead that is as old as the dirt our ancestors are buried in. What is perceived is a mockery of the “supernatural”, and various misunderstandings of traditions such as the ‘ol Jack-O-Lantern,. This particular carving of the pumpkins is, in truth, a representation of the Irish leaving decapitated heads on doorways, perhaps as a warning to enemies or malevolent spirits. Another popular image is that of the Witch, an old lady with a big hat, crooked nose, mole, broom, and for some reason or the other, striped socks. This iconic image is created from years of misunderstandings, ignorance, and some downright hateful, and lets face it, misogynistic lies over hundreds of years.

With this in mind, it seems appropriate to be the appropriate time for a discussion with someone who is an actual witch. Sarah Anne Lawless creates various crafts and arts, writes intriguing and thoughtful articles, and works with plants in a way only a witch does; recognizing the essence of the plant beyond the material. Her works have been featured in occult publications such as The CauldronHex MagazineWitches and Pagans, the Hoofprints in the Wildwood anthology, and the forthcoming issue of Clavicula Nox.

Having had a peripheral and, later, active interest in witchcraft for well over fifteen years, it was a pleasure to have many pondering thoughts answered. I shall not create some spooky ambiance or try to subjugate her work to the world of the mysterious, for in truth beyond the myth lies a grounded approach to understanding the world we all live in, one we could all gain from.

Goblin Market Altar for the Dead and the Unseelie Fairy Court

Heathen Harvest: How do you define the term “witch”?

Sarah Anne Lawless: A witch is a practitioner of magic who performs rituals and spells to effect change in their lives and the lives of others. In most historical and cultural definitions, a witch is feared and despised because of their ability to harm others through magic. Witchcraft itself is not black or white, instead it is the heart and actions of the individual witch that can be viewed as light or dark or a mixture of both.

HH: What are your thoughts on Wiccan practices? Do you consider yourself drastically different from those who use this term, or is it merely a title that means little to you?

SAL: To me, Wicca is an initiatory oathbound witchcraft tradition founded by Gerald Gardner in the mid-twentieth century. I am not initiated into a Wiccan tradition such as Gardnerian or Alexandrian, so I don’t call myself a Wiccan. There are many today who follow practices and beliefs that are heavily based on Wicca but without lineage or initiation who call themselves Wiccan. This has resulted in the term being appropriated by a whole new generation and taking on a new meaning usually defined as a neoPagan earth-centered religion, worshiping the Earth as a goddess with a male consort whose adherents may or may not consider themselves to be witches. This is often the accepted definition of governments who have recognized Wicca as a religion.

HH: How do you define yourself as a traditional witch? Was this handed down to you from a grandmother or other relative?

SAL: No one else in my family is a witch, though one grandmother was Pagan-friendly due to her interest in the Druidic, fairy-faith, and animistic beliefs of her Scottish ancestors. There are three definitions of Traditional Witchcraft: the term is used to refer to the initiatory oathbound Wiccan traditions of the British Isles, those who practice witchcraft heavily influenced by the systems of modern non-Wiccan witches Robert Cochrane and Andrew Chumbley, and those who practice witchcraft based on the folk magic and folklore of the early modern period in Europe. I consider myself the latter.

HH: What are your thoughts on the idea that witchcraft/shamanism is just a metaphorical way of understanding existence? Do you see these things as some sort of tangible reality, be it Gods or fairies?

SAL: I don’t personally agree with the popular idea of explaining away magic with psychology. I am not a Jungian, but I have some great conversations with friends who are. For me, the otherworld and spirits are just as real as you or I. Do they have corporeal forms we can photograph and measure scientifically? Unlikely. All we have is a collected body of supernatural experiences throughout recorded history, and there are so many that share uncanny similarities it becomes hard to believe it’s all in one’s head or simply metaphors and dreams. Scientists are starting to discover the realities of magic however, especially in studies related to perceptions of reality, altered states, and quantum physics.

I do believe that folk tales and myths are metaphors our ancestors used to better understand their existence and the existence and purpose of the world around them. Some of the most common myths around the world are those of origins and creation. Many are surprisingly accurate, though told with a poet’s tongue rather than a scientist’s.

HH: What is the importance of the word “hedge”? Are these simply barriers between two worlds, separating one parcel of land with another? Does something deeper exist?

SAL: Its importance comes from a Germanic term meaning “hedge-rider”, referring to what can be best described as a shaman. Its use is fairly modern and still not common. The hedge has become a metaphor for the barrier between the civilized and uncivilized world as well as our world and the otherworld. A hedge is a liminal space, like a doorway, gate, or crossroad etc. Magical practitioners believe that by going to these places, they can better access the otherworld and the spirits that dwell there. Hundreds to thousands of years ago, it wouldn’t be unusual to find offerings left to spirits at such places.

HH: How does one trying to take the first steps down their path find the way? Even with the knowledge of Aradia and such works, how does one “become” a witch?

SAL: How does one become a painter? One studies painting, but then one has to paint and do it often, again and again. Even then, they will always compare themselves to other painters and may not consider themselves one, or a good one, even at death. One can study witchcraft until they are blue in the face, but until they practice witchcraft to the same extent, they are not a witch. I believe that everyone has magic, but few will go the length to awaken it.

HH: One aspect of witchcraft and shamanism I have found throughout antiquity is that these individuals lived on the edge of town, and were generally seen as outcasts. What are your thoughts on this, and individuals who claim to be witches yet are the type to rub elbows with many people and would be seen as popular? Do you think it is necessary to be somewhat introverted and an outsider to be a witch, in particular due to the amount of studies a path like this requires?

Bees and Foxgloves
by Sarah Anne Lawless

SAL: I’ve seen two common answers to your question. The first is more humourous, believing that the shaman was usually the most intelligent person in a community, and it likely stopped them from killing people to live on the edge of town by avoiding exposure to idiocy every two seconds. The second and more common opinion is that the shaman was tolerated for their knowledge and skills, but often feared and misunderstood at the same time due to their supernatural powers and consorting with spirits. It was safer to stay out of sight and out of mind until needed for healing or a ceremony just in case the villagers decided to blame you for a plague, starvation or other tragedies they could blame on your powers.

Most of the witches hung during the height of the witch trials were not witches at all, but folk healers or ordinary people suspected of having the evil eye, who happened to be the scapegoat when something went wrong and villagers needed someone to blame and hang. Today it depends on where one lives whether they will be accepted as a witch or shaman or have their house and business vandalized by fundamentalists. There are still some places in the world where you’d be killed on sight if you openly called yourself a witch. Being an introvert isn’t a prerequisite for being a witch. I’ve found most witches and shamans to be social creatures like anyone else, but there’s always the odd socially awkward person just like in any community.

HH: You discuss in one article a lady you apprenticed under, that did not turn out how you expected. This is a theme I have seen within the world of witchcraft, individuals abusing their power, having an appearance of a leader yet in action being cruel and selfish individuals. Are these ones whom have been burnt by the flames instead of harnessing them? How do you express to others that these individuals, who often are the most known, do not represent all of us?

SAL: Yes, it’s unfortunately a common occurrence, but this theme is also found within every religion and spiritual trend that has priests, teachers, and leaders. Most of the issues seem to stem from ego and selfish intentions. Many can’t handle a leadership role without getting power-crazed or letting it go to their head. It changes people. The problem comes when a community expects its leaders to act like this instead of kind, caring, helpful, and supportive. The best way to show that such persons don’t represent us all is to keep an open dialogue about the issue within our communities and with the public.

HH: I heard a podcast where you talked about the Garden of Eden, and how it was not, as most things are not, originally Christian. Do you care to go further into this, and explain how this is not a Christian story?

Phallic Goat Talisman (blackthorn wood)
by Sarah Anne Lawless

SAL: Many stories in the Bible are actually taken from pre-Christian tales and myths reworked to have only one god and reflect Christianity’s beliefs. Noah’s Ark versus the Sumerian myth of the great flood is a good example. I see the story of the Garden of Eden as a metaphor for how humankind once lived before the dawn of civilization. We were largely nomadic, travelling to where the food, resources, and weather were best. We lived in nature and were a part of it, not separate from it as we are today.

There are old creation myths around the world telling of how we were born from trees, from nature, from the ground. These are quite different from more modern creation myths where we are created as a race separate from nature by a god from another world and given dominion over nature. The story of the Eden has elements of both, but in the second part God tells us the world is our oyster instead of telling us we are a part of it and should take care of it, resulting in us having destroyed the world. We’ve been kicked out of the garden, but it was we who did the kicking. We’re desperate to get back to nature, but many of us are lost as to how. Not seeing the world as a resource to be harvested, but instead a home to be taken care of is a start. Viewing animals, plants, land features, and resources such as water as deserving of respect, fair treatment, and conservation will get us even closer to the garden once more.

HH: How important is a connection to Nature within your practice?

SAL: It is very important to me. I’ve done my best to learn all I can about the local fauna and flora of the Pacific Northwest where I live down to the smallest insects. Knowing the importance of each creature and plant is essential to understanding how a healthy ecosystem works and what is missing when it stops functioning. Land stewardship is a big part of my path as an animist. If witches and pagans are going to claim to be lovers and worshippers of nature, then I think we should put our money where our mouths are and invest in the conservation of our local wildlife, forests, and marshlands. This could be as simple as volunteering to clear out an invasive plant species, clean up a salmon stream, plant native trees, or even create habitats in our own backyards with indigenous plants to provide a home for local wildlife who have been ousted by suburban development.

HH: Is animism only limited to the creations of Nature, such as stones and trees, or does it expand to the technological world, be it cars or computers?

Greenman (cottonwood bark)
by Sarah Anne Lawless

SAL: I believe every individual animist will have their own take on it. Some will believe everything from nature is alive, but man-made inanimate objects are not. Others will believe that everything has a spirit and that there are technological spirits. I’m inclined to believe that everything from Nature naturally has its own spirit, and that our man-made creations are given their spirits by us and the energy we put into them – almost as if we’re creating spirit fetishes out of our cell phones, laptops, and cars.

HH: Years ago you wrote a piece called “The Cosmogeny of an Animistic Mystic”. With this is a picture, graphing your conceptual piece, that has the Autumn Equinox in the East, and so on. Why this change from the traditional East of Spring/Air, etc.?

SAL: That drawing was done very quickly to explain my cosmogeny to a couple friends, and I didn’t realize until later that I’d aligned it wrong. I’ve been meaning to redo it more elaborately with proper alignment of the equinoxes and solstices. I do not personally view the elements as corresponding with directions or seasons.

HH: What influence has the Feri tradition, and the Andersons, had on you?

SAL: The writings and teachings of Victor and Cora Anderson are an excellent resource for anyone interested in a more shamanic and folk magic based form of witchcraft as I am. Theirs is one of the few non-Wiccan traditions founded in North America by Americans. If one has been searching for American folk magic, they are a great place to start. Victor’s poetry is also wonderful and contains many hidden mysteries for those delving into mysticism. For anyone interested in the Andersons, you can visit their website, an excellent resource that was created by a group of their direct initiates, here.

HH: Do you study Physics or any other such subjects to find a correlation with your beliefs?

SAL: Physics and astrophysics have always been a bit beyond me, but I do study subjects that relate to my beliefs such as ethnobotany, ecology, agriculture, ethnology, anthropology, and history. I believe it’s important to study subjects outside of your spiritual beliefs but which are related to them to better educate yourself and add another dimension to your belief and practice. Sometimes, if we focus too narrowly on one subject, we can completely miss the bigger picture. I’m also a big supporter of cross-cultural comparative religious study.

HH: Joseph Campbell once wrote an article on schizophrenia and shamanism. What are your thoughts, if any, on this relation? Does this negate shamanism, or does it show the possibilities in the psychological field of working with the mentally insane?

SAL: I believe that those with a mental illness such as schizophrenia can be in touch with something more, be it spirits or the otherworld, but many are not functioning well enough to be considered a shaman and most have no control over the connection. I’m sure there are exceptions, however. A favourite anecdote of mine comes from the 1950s. A white man went to visit a Native village in my region and saw a half-naked man with very long hair talking to himself and acting a bit crazy. The shamans here were known for their long hair and outsiders believed they were a bit mad, so he asked the villagers if the man was their shaman. They laughed at him and said “No, he’s just crazy. The shaman lives on the other side of the village.” The moral being that an outsider couldn’t tell the difference between a crazy man and a shaman. Sometimes the line is very fine, but I was always taught that if you are going to be a magical practitioner who will be teaching others or offering your services to others, you should only do so if you are firmly grounded in this reality with a good grasp of your sanity. To me, this doesn’t mean one can’t have a mental illness and be a magical practitioner, it just means that they’d need to be honest with themselves about their condition, be managing it well, and taking good care of themselves to pull it off and have the trust of others.

HH: Is the feminine superior to the masculine, vice versa, or do they have equal validity in the creation of being (I use this term in a multi-faceted way)?

SAL: Neither is superior, both are equal and, I believe, present in all things. I don’t view femininity as strictly female or masculinity as strictly male. I see both woven together so as to be inseparable and taking on many forms. Many modern Pagan traditions hold the Goddess and the feminine as superior, but I believe this is just as unbalanced and harmful as holding a male God and everything masculine as superior. Nature is both masculine and feminine and contains every gender and combination thereof in existence – so why not our deities and ourselves as well?

HH: I appreciate your words on shape shifting, recognizing this is obviously not a thing that flesh and bones can do. What are your thoughts on other such beliefs that various Witches, Shamans, and other such practitioners have?

SAL: I have met some who believe they are an animal in a human body and who identify as “otherkin”, but I’m much less inclined to believe them and more inclined to think they are confusing themselves with an animal they’re obsessed with, or a familiar animal spirit, or their fetch. Many aren’t familiar with animistic beliefs or shamanic traditions, so I can see why this trend has started. Many animistic cultures believe that anyone and everyone can have one or more animal spirits that they bond with and who help them throughout their lives. It doesn’t make one a shape-shifter or a were-wolf, but just means you have a relationship with that animal and may have qualities related to its own. A fetch is the part of a magician/shaman/witch’s soul that can transform into an animal when it leaves the body. It is the part of your soul that still retains its connection to the earth and your animal nature even if the body and mind have forgotten. It doesn’t mean they are that animal, but that their soul can take on that animal’s form. A fetch is more in the realm of shape-shifting; a skill belonging to those with the supernatural ability to leave their body and have their soul either change form to an animal or possess a living animal. I’ve found it to be a rare ability in the modern shamanic, witchcraft, and Pagan communities, but one that is real enough for those who practice it.

HH: You begin an article saying “my gods are the powerful spirits of the wild, horned and antlered, of sharp tooth and claw.” So do you not believe or worship any specific deities, such as Hecate, or Odin?

SAL: I am purely an animist, meaning I do not worship any deities. I believe in the existence of deities, but am more inclined to view them as ancestral spirits who reached apotheosis after decades and centuries of ancestor worship or as personifications of nature and elemental spirits as many of the more ancient Greek gods were once viewed (i.e. the Titans). I do not take myths of deities literally, though I know many Pagans do. I work with nature spirits, ancestral spirits, and supernatural spirits (often compared to fairies, elves, hidden folk, etc., in their more ancient form as wild, powerful, and fearsome beings rather than the sweet winged things of Victorian and modern folklore).

HH: Is there any particular ancestral path that is of interest to you, be it Celtic, Norse, Hindu, or Native?

SAL: I largely focus on studying pre-Christian Scoto-Scandinavian beliefs, lore, traditions, and history as it relates to my own ancestry and piques my interest the most. A lot of lore found and used today in modern witchcraft actually comes from Scotland, so my research conveniently ties into my witchcraft practice as well.

HH: Your article “how to create a genus loci profile” seems to be based on the ideas of bio-regionalism. How important is the area you live to your practice? Does this create difficulties in regards to your ancestral path?

SAL: Bio-regionalism is very important to me. I think it is so very much more critical to have knowledge of the medicinal, edible, and spiritual qualities and benefits of the plants in your own backyard than it is to put an emphasis on the exotic and trendy. It may be more tempting to study the plant knowledge of the land of one’s blood ancestors, but that knowledge will not be practical as those plants could be thousands of miles away rendering you unable to directly work with them. Working with dried plants imported from another country is not at all the same as working with live, indigenous plants as you can much more easily learn their seasonal growing patterns, interactions with other plants, animals and insects, what and when to harvest, how it smells, how it feels, how it affects you when prepared from fresh plant matter, etc.

For me, the same applies to indigenous fauna. It is more important to get to know the local animals and insects you are constantly surrounded by than it is to focus on ones far away simply because the mythology on them is “cooler”. They are the ones you have to live with, interact with, keep out of your garden and trash cans, stop from eating your plants, and figure out how to live harmoniously with them instead of hurting them. This is something we are very out of touch with, especially in cities. We kill bears who are too close to schools or who rummage through garbage instead of foraging in the woods. We don’t realize or care that a suburban neighbourhood used to be a forest only 5-10 years ago and that we are the ones invading their territory.

This doesn’t cause conflict for me with my Scoto-Scandinavian ancestry as many of the plants and animals in the Pacific Northwest are either the same or similar to those in Scotland. Both have orca whales, dolphins, salmon, seals, eagles, owls, hawks, deer, foxes, otters, and plants that are too many to list. I know I am lucky in this, but even if it weren’t the case, my focus would still be on the flora and fauna local to my bioregion rather than that of my ancestors. I still study the plant lore of my ancestors, but it is more academic than practical aside from my work with flying ointments.

Corvid Talismans by Sarah Anne Lawless

HH: What are your thoughts on working with the local spirits, in particular for those of us whose ancestors did not come from this region?

SAL: I believe it is very important to honour local spirits as it shows respect and good intent. Much power comes from the spirits of the land beneath your feet, so it is well worth it to build a good relationship with them. I live where I was born (in the Pacific Northwest) and so I feel a stronger connection to this land and its spirits rather than of Scotland and Ireland where my ancestors are from, but where I have never set foot. I don’t think it’s a good idea to try to appropriate the faiths of those native to North America unless you share their blood, but it is important to learn their traditions when it comes to interacting with spirits so you don’t upset them with offensive offerings or behaviour. Luckily, many of the traditions regarding interacting with spirits are universal, especially within an animistic framework, so it can be relatively easy to avoid misappropriation. To gain a good standing with local land and nature spirits my practices usually involve clearing out nasty invasive species, practicing and teaching ethical treatment of plants and trees, creating habitats for indigenous fauna, and leaving elaborate and heartfelt offerings in the forests I wild harvest from twice a year to say thank you and to appease the spirits.

HH: I’m interested in the use of flying ointments, what this experience is like, and in particular how one could create their own ointment, say from Belladonna (a plant I am particularly interested in). I read a bit of your words on the subject, and am wondering how one begins the journey down the “Poison Path”. I understand as well the importance of being trained and having the right knowledge before going down the path, but not everyone can afford to be trained by a professional herbalist. With that in mind, is the Poison Path simply the chthonic plants of herbalism?

SAL: From all the feedback I’ve gotten from rituals, customers, and my own use, everyone has a different experience with flying ointments. Some only have a physical experience with the brain and body reacting to the alkaloids in the plants used (many are pain killers and some were once used as anaesthetics by ancient doctors). Some have very spiritual experiences, leaving their bodies to journey to otherworlds or receiving visions and messages. Others have no reaction at all which can be linked to their constitution, medication they may be taking, or having a history of heavy drug or alcohol use resulting in an abnormally high and unsafe tolerance level. It is unfortunately against my policy to give out dosages and recipes to the public for two reasons: first, there is no one dosage for everyone as plants effect each individual differently and each plant’s potency will depend on what conditions the plant grew in, when it was harvested, and what part is used; secondly, because people can and often do hurt themselves trying to use such information to “trip ballz” instead of using an ointment within a spiritual context.

The making of an ointment itself can be quite simple – most are herbal oil infusions blended with beeswax and a preservative to create a salve. The dosage and preparation of the plants used is the tricky part. Roots and seeds will always be much more potent than leaves and stems. My best advice for working with the traditional plants used in flying ointments is to start with the smallest, gentlest dosage possible and work your way up, knowing that whatever dosage you find works for you will not be the same as everyone else. If you are someone with a very high tolerance, you may want to avoid plants such as those in the solanaceae family as an effective dosage for you will likely be a toxic dosage that could result in severe illness, permanent damage, or heart failure even if you don’t reach an altered state. Those interested in belladonna need to be aware that they should not use it at all if they are allergic to morphine and related opiates as they will have a severe allergic reaction and need to visit the ER.

For those looking to step foot on the “Poison Path”, I recommend much reading and research first as well as growing the plants before using them to better understand them and to have access to fresh and potent plant material. I have a recommended reading list available on my website here.

The Poison Path is mainly the domain of those who considered themselves to have a shamanic bend to their path and who use entheogens to aid them in travelling between worlds as well as for seeing and talking to spirits. Such persons often use far less dosages than those looking to get high and have the intention of using them to access a waking dream state rather than full-on hallucinations. The plants worked with on the poison path are often chthonic (associated with the underworld and the planet Saturn), but are also some of the most important and commonly used medicines in the world. This path is also a healer’s path. As Paracelsus once said “In all things there is a poison, and there is nothing without a poison. It depends only upon the dose whether a poison is poison or not.

HH: Have you considered offering apprenticeships at all?

SL: Right now I’m happy teaching others through my rituals, workshops, and writings. When one starts taking on students, one becomes in danger of creating their own dogma and tradition which I’d like to avoid as I believe everyone’s path and beliefs are different and should not be dependent upon someone else’s. Though I don’t follow his teachings, I’m with Aleister Crowley when he said: “I do not want to father a flock… or be the founder of a faith whose followers are content to echo my opinions. I want each man to cut his own way through the jungle.

HH: When is your book going to be released?

SAL: I get asked this a lot – I’m working on it! I’m hoping to have something out there within a year, but that’s all I can say for now.

Toad Specimen by Sarah Anne Lawless

HH: What is the interest with toads in witchcraft?

SAL: Toads are a classic witch’s familiar from early modern witch lore in Europe. Pretty much any animal viewed as repulsive or Pagan by the Church became a witch’s familiar and toads aren’t exactly pretty and fluffy. Reasons could be its once extensive use in folk magic and folk medicine for fertility and protection, the use of toad skin in flying ointments for its psychoactive properties, and its association with poisons and poisonous toadstools.

HH: I can tell your work is well-researched, which is something I do not find in witchcraft that often. Do you feel this is an element that separates your work from others that appear to be on a similar path?

SAL: I think a lot of modern magical practitioners are very well-educated today due to the vast amount of resources available to us now that we didn’t have access to before. It may just be that I happen to read and research more different subjects than others do and avoid books I classify as belonging to Pagan pop-culture. My focus is more on folklore, anthropology, and history, which may be why I often get classified as more academic than other writers and bloggers.

HH: Many witches today talk about the Goddess, in particular from a perspective formulated from the archaeologist who is called the Great-grandmother of the Goddess movement, Marija Gimbutas. Yet, she has largely been discredited in academic fields since. Not to say the Goddess is not relevant, but knowing the movement itself is based on a misconception, how do you perceive this movement? Has it, within its role of supporting Feminism, caused more damage than good considering it’s not academically sound?

SAL: There was a lot of goddess “fakelore” propagated within the modern Pagan community from sources such as Marija Gimbutas, Margaret Murray, and from Robert GravesThe White Goddess. Aside from creating the rare matriarchal fundamentalist such as Zsuzsanna Budapest, I think it has done more good than harm – empowering women who felt forgotten or subjugated by a male dominated society by presenting a spiritual alternative. The main issue I see today is that the fakelore has lived on and continues to be taught despite having been discredited. This results in many goddess-centric Pagans coming off as uneducated, giving a bad name to other Pagans and also resulting in the disillusionment of the younger generations who may turn away from valid and beautiful forms of goddess worship because of it. One of my personal favourite books covering historical goddess worship in Europe is Roles of the Northern Goddess by Hilda Ellis Davidson.

HH: What do you think is the meaning of “selling your soul to the devil”? Is it a metaphor of sacrificing everything to attain your wishes? An attempt at reaching the ultimate power in life, with the ultimate sacrifice?

SAL: I think it is a metaphor for knowingly harming others to get what you want. We often use this term for corrupt businessmen and politicians who hurt countless people or the environment for the sake of money and power. If a witch thinks they need to sell/sacrifice their soul to attain power, then they are after that power for all the wrong reasons and it’s likely to end badly.

HH: Your article on the man in black seems to suggest he is disguised by the evil image created by Christianity. In your work, do you feel there is a malevolent aspect as well, in spite of the ignorance of others in emphasizing those parts? Is devil worship merely worship of night and nature?

SAL: I don’t think I would use the word malevolent, but there is always a darker side to nature. The wolf isn’t evil for killing his dinner and the wind isn’t evil for sinking a ship. The older the lore one finds on such devils as Raven, Coyote, Anansi, Elegua, Odin, Baba Yaga, etc, the more we see that they were perceived as tricksters for the purpose of teaching us lessons about the darkness within ourselves. Today we see such beings as evil because we don’t want to acknowledge we have those qualities of ego, selfishness, jealousy, pettiness, vengefulness, wrath, and so on. So we paint them with horns and lock them away in a fiery hell trying to keep such things external and separate from ourselves resulting in “the devil made me do it” instead of “I gave into my rash impulse and stabbed my friend out of anger and jealousy.” If we kept the tradition of trickster stories, spirits, and deities alive I believe we’d be more capable of letting the shame of what we are capable of wash over us so we can learn our lessons, recognize and control our reactions, and act with honour and integrity instead of hurting others and ourselves.

There will always be a small handful of people who seek to worship and propagate evil for the sake of evil alone, but I personally believe they are creating the evil themselves through their actions and intent, rather than worshiping a real god that is the epitome of evil.

HH: What are your thoughts on the terms Left Hand Path and Right Hand Path, Black Magic and White Magic?

SL: LHP and RHP are very popular terms right now, but I may be one of the few who doesn’t put much stock or thought into them. The most balanced magicians I know work with both hands, knowing when one is needed and the other should be put away. Ignoring one side of magic is just as unbalanced to me as ignoring the negative cards of a tarot deck. A doctor cannot cure disease without first having sound knowledge of disease along with its symptoms and causes and so a witch or shaman cannot heal or break curses without having sound knowledge of black magic and cursing. Most of those I know who work with both hands like myself will not use the left except defensively when they or a loved one are being attacked or hurt in some way… then the gloves come off revealing iron fists. Having said this, however, most magicians will have their own personal code of ethics and few will agree on what is black and what is white, what is acceptable and what is not. “One man’s evil is another man’s amusement park”. There is no one answer.

Sarah Anne Lawless

Sarah Anne Lawless

HH: Your article on “the death of modern witchcraft” mentions the idea of the lack of serious commitment from youth today. One thing I have perceived in Occult/Witchcraft circles is many people maintaining an image, presenting themselves in a particular way, yet when I have talked to them it seems they have little to say about these particular ideas. More so, I know from my own work that it takes time and energy, and a lot of both. It simply is not possible to be an extremely social person and maintain a strong practice as well, perhaps hence witches and shamans always being on the edge of society, the outcasts and the weirdos. What are your thoughts on these modern witches and occultists, filled with glamor and little more? Is this simply being overly critical?

SAL: I think you hit the nail on the head when you said “maintaining an image” – an image, not a reality. With the popularity of the internet and the rise of celebrity culture, the image has become more important than reality. When magicians speak to me about everything that defines their image I will relentlessly ask “yes, that’s all lovely, but what do you actually DO?” until I receive a real answer. This often results in me discovering that some dark, satanic, occultist obsessed with popular grimoires is either an armchair occultist or solely practices lovely garden folk magic unrelated to the image they project. The heart of the issue, I’ve found, is that the younger generation of magicians feels enormous pressure to present themselves in a certain way in order to be perceived as intelligent and cool as their idols instead of just being themselves. Some even get so wrapped up in pulling off this image that they actually forget who they really are and what they actually believe. There are armchair occultists who read but don’t practice and there are lay-Pagans who believe but don’t practice and most of them are found on the internet. The way out is to get involved with a local group or community, kick your own ass into having a personal practice, and get your hands dirty with some magic, racking up experience. I am a very social person and I maintain an active practice that is both personal and community oriented. It is possible.

HH: Do you find your work to be more individual or group based, or a balance? Do you find it difficult to work with others or find others to work with?

SAL: I practice on many levels: I work alone at home and in the woods, I do magic with my husband who is also a witch, I work with a small handful of friends when we need help or want to celebrate together, and I work with my greater local magical community for larger elaborate rituals and events. I often host rituals during the year for 20-50 people from my community and I am also on the board of organizers for the local Pagan festival we host once a year. I find it is balanced as I’m able to do my own thing while still being involved with community at the same time. It wasn’t easy. It took me a decade to wiggle my way into the community, to meet like-minded friends, and, overall, to get where I am now. It was worth the effort. I think the more one works with others and for others, the less difficult it becomes. If a magician never works with other people then they will never learn how to do it well. I think it is important to mix socially and magically with people who follow beliefs and paths that differ from your own. You will learn more, be less insular, and lose prejudice for other beliefs and practices. After all, how are we supposed to demonstrate and practice religious tolerance if we can’t even pull it off within our own magical community?

HH: I agree with the concept of breaking tradition, while maintaining a knowledge of the tradition one is breaking. Do you feel that the young are too anxious and impatient, and the elders are simply too stagnant and set in their ways?

SAL: I think there are conflicting attitudes out there right now; being too anxious and smashing things with a wrecking ball before even thoroughly learning the magical tradition one is smashing… and alternately being too timid and afraid to change things even if one sees the dire need. I also see many elders who are bored — they’ve done it all, seen it all, and they’re waiting for fireworks – something shiny, new, and explosive.

HH: Are the Dark Moon and New moon two separate things, both worthy of their own commemoration?

SAL: They are indeed. The Dark Moon is when the moon is void of course which occurs when the sun and moon are in perfect alignment causing the moon to become invisible. It is a good time for introspection, cursing, curse-breaking, necromancy, mediumship, psychopompery, banishings & exorcisms, divinatory rites, shapeshifting into nocturnal creatures, the worship of underworld deities, and honouring the ancestors. The New Moon is a time of renewal and endless possibility; a time to start new projects, ask for luck, health, fertility, prosperity, and to stop wallowing and move on to better and happier things.

HH: What is the difference, subtle or grand it may be, between the Occult and Witchcraft?

SAL: Witchcraft falls within the broad umbrella term occult, but the occult itself is not witchcraft. The occult encompasses all esoteric studies, practices, paths, and groups.

HH: Do you find most of your bones used in artwork and crafts, or did you have to purchase some of them?

SAL: I source my bones and skulls from taxidermists, hunters, and bone collectors. Some I have found myself and those are the ones I usually keep for my own spiritual practice.

HH: On a personal note, do you plan on creating another set of Rune prayer beads? Any other crafts you plan on working on?

SAL: I’m afraid I tend to make mostly one-of-a-kind items only, not reproducing past creations. It stops me from getting frustrated feeling like a factory and also sees each patron receive something they know is unique. Right now I have plans to work on a series of bird foot talismans of crow, grouse, and peacock.

HH: How important is creating your own crafts used in ritual to your work? Do you feel these artistic abilities help created a stronger connection with your work? Can others who do not have such creative abilities find ways to be artistic to enhance their practice as well?

SAL: I made my own drum, its beater, my wand, my stang, and my shrines myself. I see them as almost an offering and sign of dedication to the spirits I work with. Using magical tools you made yourself for your magic feels akin to using little pieces of your soul. They are connected to you and filled with your blood, sweat, and tears (sometimes literally). A good friend who is also a witch and artisan often remarks that one’s own tools are often much more simple than the ones we make and sell to others. This is very true for me. With this in mind, I don’t think people who believe their abilities are lesser should let it stop them from making some of their own tools. Wands, staffs, and fetiches/talismans can be incredibly simple to make if one is willing to spend the time to do it. I also support other artisans by buying things I can’t make myself such as a good, sharp ritual knife or the goblet and cauldron made by my potter friend. Crafting gets your hands dirty and gets you directly involved in your practice. It’s also very rewarding to make things yourself no matter how they turn out. I was a terrible carver and pyrographer at first, it took me years before I could make things I was proud of!

HH: I read that you are pregnant, congratulations comes foremost, of course. With the anticipation of becoming a mother, do you feel at times the greatest magic is life itself, in truth very practical?

SAL: Most definitely. As an animist, I see magic in the everyday: in the sun’s rising and setting, in the stars and moon in the night sky, in the rebirth of the earth’s green mantle from winter’s icy grip each spring, in the intricate complexity and harmony of ecosystems, and so very much more. Morning sickness may make it hard for me to remember to see the incredible magic of growing a tiny person inside me, but the awe is still very much there. Magic is all around us and it’s so common we often completely forget to look and see it’s there. I hope to teach my child to always see wonder and magic in all things, no matter how simple and ordinary.

For further information about Sarah Anne Lawless, please visit her website here.

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