By Miriah Auth
Anna Lyons hid her practice of witchcraft after being bullied as a child. When her peers dismissed and invalidated her belief in magic, she went into hiding.
Tatyana Johnson was told she was going to hell by a Tinder date when she invited him to a meeting of witches at Arts & Crafts: Botanica & Occult Shop in Garfield.
Je’amour P. Matthews was told as a child to keep their Italian family’s practice of witchcraft a secret to avoid being ostracized by their Catholic community.
These instances exemplify the trials and tribulations of identifying as a witch publicly. Some practitioners are still hesitant to expose themselves as witches in a society that has painted witches as evil through bizarre Hollywood descriptions stemming from inaccurate western interpretations of the old religion.
In reality, witches are just people who intentionally practice rituals and work with energy though a connection to the earth to change the world around them.
Cody Langlier, The Unidentified Witch, Tatyana Jones, Je’amour Matthews, Chris Myler, Anna Thompson, Celeste Neuhaus, Olivia Devorah and Amber Epps share their definition of a witch.
Lyons, a Point Park junior and practicing witch, knew from a young age that she was connected to the earth and its magic. The very first spell she conducted came from a children’s book for witches.
“It [was] a dream come true spell, it was basically just a simple manifestation spell,” Lyons said. “It didn’t involve any herbs, it was just one of those you write down and you burn things and I remember being really fascinated with the idea of writing something down and then releasing it by burning it.”
As a child, Lyons openly displayed her witchy identity by telling her peers she was a witch. She started to hide her practice of the craft after the bullying and ostracism began and a practice, she held so sacred, became trivialized.
“It changed the way that I saw being a witch,” Lyons said. “It was just name calling and being laughed at when I was taking being a witch very seriously. When you tell other people [you’re] a witch and they laugh at you, it just crushes you, it crushes that idea.”
As a queer witch, Lyons keeps her practice of the craft mostly to herself, only telling those she feels will understand. She is a young actress just about to enter the working world and she fears the witch label may hinder her ability to be cast in shows.
“For me as an actor I want to be able to be cast as anything,” Lyons said. “If you have that label of queer or witch, you’re going to be seen as that and you’re not going to get opportunities to play a role or be a character who is none of those things.”
The summer after her father’s passing, Johnson, who was raised Christian, found herself questioning existence and spirituality. One day, she was lost in the rain outside of Arts and Botanica & Occult Shop and one of the owners, who was standing outside, invited her in.
“I was asking her questions and the next thing I know I’m researching things,” Johnson said. “Next thing I know, I’m bringing friends to meet ups and sitting there with witches and they’re like ‘honey what else do you call this? This is witchcraft!’”
Since taking up the craft, Johnson wears her identity proudly and as a result, she has been judged by men she dated who were convinced that witchcraft was evil, making Johnson evil by association.
“I remember I had somebody coming over and I was like ‘do you want to come to this meet up with me?’ and he said ‘sure,’” Johnson said. “Then I said, ‘let me just let you know it’s a witchcraft meeting’ and he was like ‘you’re going to hell I don’t want to be part of any of this.’”
While Johnson embodies her witch identity at school, when living at home for the summer, she has to hide her craft from her Christian mother. She performs rituals in plain sight, using hymns intentionally as prayers through an African Traditional Religion (ATR) called Hoodoo.
“Hoodoo came in handy because you can use Bible verses in Hoodoo and [when] I’m trying to cast this spell and my mom is like ‘oh look she’s praying’ and I’m like ‘sure,’” Johnson said with a devious giggle.
Je’amour P. Matthews
Matthews was raised in an Italian Catholic family that included a number of witches who hid behind the Catholic label in public to avoid being exiled by their community, but practiced witchcraft privately.
“I was taught early on that you keep that (being a witch) to yourself,” Matthews said. “A lot of us used to go to Sunday services and my one auntie used to sit there and say, ‘see, we fooled ‘em again.’”
Matthews despised attending Catholic mass because from a young age, she didn’t believe in the teachings of the church and decided to paint herself as evil to be rejected by the church and therefore free herself from this obligation.
“One Sunday, when I was 7 or 8, I waited until the vestibule was full and I went over to the holy water and I slipped in a whole roll of Alka Seltzer and when it bubbled up I just put my hand in screamed [that] it burned,” Matthews said with a reminiscent chuckle. “My mother was really pissed off at me, but I was told I need to not come back. “
Now, at age 60, Matthews is the Head Organizer of the Pittsburgh Black Hat Society and a high priestess and elder in the Pittsburgh community. She is fully out of the broom closet.“At my age, I don’t care if anybody knows I’m a witch,” Matthews said. “I’ve been with the news; I’ve done TV, radio [and] I don’t care if anyone knows. If you want to take my life, that’s the worst thing you can do to me, but for now, I’m here and I’m happy.”
Society’s View of Witches
While some feel empowered to profess their practice of witchcraft, others fear being associated with the witch label because society views witches as evil.
“My family never talked about witchcraft or anything like that because it was just like ‘you know better,’” Emoni Jones, Johnson’s roommate and fellow practitioner, said. “My mom found my tarot box this summer. It was under my pillow and my mom asked if this was black magic.”
When Leif Sudorn, a ritual artist, healer and witch, told her mother she did not want to be confirmed, her mother said that “she couldn’t let her child become a witch making potions in the woods.”
“I was hurt and flabbergasted,” Sudorn said. “It was so much in the way she said it, full of disdain and fear and anger. It set me back on accepting witch as a word for myself for a long time.”
These dramatic misrepresentations of witches are derived from a combination of Hollywood imagery and the teachings of organized religions.
“Religion, such as Christianity, has put negative images in peoples’ heads, particularly [of] women who don’t conform to the norms and Hollywood has taken that and turned it into visuals that we see like in the Wizard of oz,” Amber Epps, co-owner of Arts & Crafts: Botanica & Occult Shop in Garfield, said. “We have the Wicked Witch with the wart on her hook nose who flies on her broom with her monkeys flying behind her doing all the bad in the world.”
The inaccurate image of the green hag of Halloween that we associate with those that practice witchcraft stems from torture.
“Of course they had a green ghastly hue to them because they were beaten and bruised and of course they had gapped teeth because they [had] ripped teeth out,” Matthews said. “Of course, their fingers were gnarled because during torture they had broken fingers.”
Society’s skewed view of witches has been informed by popular culture’s interpretation of a witch that is rooted in the teachings of monotheistic religions, Christianity and Catholicism in particular.
“Formal religion used their teachings as a way to scare people away from things like nature, women who love nature with crazy hair who don’t follow the norm or just things that happen naturally in nature that we don’t understand,” Epps said.
In some cultures, like that of the Unidentified Witch, who is Puerto Rican, mysticism is still very alive and well within the Catholic religion or just adjacent to it.
“My mom knows and she’s Catholic and she’s like ‘whatever,’” a witch who chooses to remain unidentified said. “She knows I worked with a Voodoo priest to get pregnant. She finds it all so fascinating I think because where we’re from there’s a little bit of a weird gray line between Catholicism and magic.”
Matthews lived in a very historically Mexican area of Las Vegas when she was a professional dancer there in her youth. She was brought gifts once her neighbors realized she was a witch.
“I didn’t know but they clocked the rituals I did, they realized I was the local bruja (witch),” Matthews said. “They used to bring me food, offerings or babies to bless and at first I didn’t know what the hell they were doing or why they were offering me food, but it was like you appease the local bruja.”
According to Sudorn, the root of the word “witch” can be traced back to a root that means “strong and lively.”
“A witch is one who is so full of life and connected to life that it brings them strength in the material world,” Sudorn said.
Since a witch is empowered and stereotypically feminine, witchcraft is heavily intertwined with feminism. The teachings of organized religions suggest that a feminist is a witch because both identities describe femininity as strength. This idea empowers women and threatens monotheistic religions that are rooted in patriarchy.
“There’s a sense that you’re this rebellious woman who plays by her own rules, makes her own standards and doesn’t fear shit in the universe,” Johnson said.
Witchcraft is painted as Satanism by religious institutions such as Catholicism. Witchcraft is not the practice of Satanism, although popular culture and religion have reinforced this connection.
The Church of Satan practices Satanism, or devil worship, but The Satanic Temple fights for a separation of church and state and religious freedom for all.
In a world of religious freedom, witches should be free to practice publicly without fear of persecution. If witches choose to identify witchcraft as a religion, they are granted the same religious freedoms as practitioners of every other monotheistic organized religion.
“I think the status is important government wise and in our military services,” Matthews said. “They mind the fact that there are witches and heathens in the military, and they should be honored and respected just as much as the Muslim or the Christian and that only came through activism.”
Personally, Matthews doesn’t define witchcraft as a religion.
“I think it’s more spirituality and when I hear people say religion, I think of things that are very organized and have boundaries,” Matthews said. “When you look at the neo-pagan path, there are no boundaries. You can expand as far as you want to go.”
Retired Squadron Superintendent for the military, Cody Langlier, was raised and baptized a Mormon. After retiring from the military, he now openly identifies as a witch but not under a religion of witchcraft.
“I didn’t fall into the Wiccan religion just because it felt like it was pretty rigid again when it came to what you were supposed to and not supposed to do,” Langlier said.
Types of Witchcraft
There are many different pagan paths from Wicca to ATRs like Hoodoo, Voodoo, Santaria and Palo Mayombe.
“I think there are specific religions within what western culture would refer to as witchcraft,” the Unidentified Witch, who practices chaos magic heavily rooted in ATRs, said. “What we’re seeing a lot of is people picking and choosing what they’re attracted to and those people, I would associate with spiritual practices.”
Chris Myler was born into the practice of pagan rituals. He is a Native American Shaman and his gift was passed down through his family’s bloodline.
“I’m from the Shani tribe,” Myler said. “My grandmother, my great grandmother and my great, great grandmother were all midwives and spiritual advocates. It was more something that I grew up with than anything.”
The Unidentified Witch began practicing ATRs when she was contacted by her African ancestors.
“I’m from Puerto Rico and my great grandfather was African,” the Unidentified Witch said. “I always thought it was going to be Sanitaria and I started feeling a crazy pull to learn more about the ATRs and I had no idea why. Once I found out I had an ancestor that was black, it all started making sense.”
While some witches are born into the craft, others stumble upon it, intuitively practicing magic without knowing what they’re doing. Anna Thompson’s earliest memory of practicing magic was when she was in Catholic school.
“After my first communion in third grade, I got this communion candle that I would light every night and I would try to control the flame with my energy,” Thompson said. “I thought [I was] being a good Catholic girl lighting my candle and I didn’t realize that wasn’t something people in that religion did.”
Rituals Spells and Intention
Witches perform spells or rituals to change the world around them and this idea has been dramatized by popular culture adding to the mysticism and misunderstanding of the craft.
“Most people when they hear about people doing spells or rituals, they get this Hollywood imagery, but people don’t realize [that] our life is full of rituals,” Matthews said. “You get up you take a shower, that’s a ritual. You make your breakfast, get your coffee that’s a ritual, there’s a way you do it.”
Witches like Sudorn embed ritual into their every-day life.
“There’s witchcraft in the food I make to the showers I take, rituals for changing seasons and life phases and a constant observation and respect for existence,” Sudorn said.
While rituals are done frequently in praise, spells are conducted with a higher concentration of intention. When Matthews started practicing wish magic, she found that intention plays a large role in enacting any spell.
“It’s like making a wish, but the only difference is you have to clear your mind and you have to be of pure intent, your intentions have to be pure because it doesn’t work otherwise,” Matthews said.
Johnson used a hex, which is a form of a spell, with the intention to protect her roommate and fellow practitioner, Jones, while Johnson was gone for the summer.
“We had an issue last year with a neighbor who would harass us and who would harass our roommate and it got to the point where she was threatening Emoni [Jones],” Johnson said. “I had a black candle in the shape of a woman, and I think the hex was more of a trap, so if she were to cross this line, if she even had the intention of hurting Emoni [Jones], it will come back to her.”
Sometimes, no matter how pure the intention, spells can backfire, like when Epps did a spell to help a friend of hers get pregnant.
“I won’t that do again because it personally impacted me,” Epps said. “She gave me her period right after I got mine and I gave her the baby and I was like I’m not doing that again because I don’t want to bleed all the time.”
The Unidentified witch conducted two major spells in her life. Her first spell, although conducted subconsciously, had a negative outcome. She learned from the aftermath of this spell and renounced magic that was intended to harm.
While some witches perform spells that command a great change, others use mild manifestation spells. Sam Guido was raised Catholic [and] did candle magic and wish magic to manifest in his youth. As he’s learned more about the craft through conversations with Matthews in the Pittsburgh Black Hat Society, his view of ritual has shifted.
“Everything you do is a ritual whether you want to admit it or not,” Guido said. “As long as nobody’s doing any harm to anybody, I’m not against it or anything.”
Different branches of witchcraft believe in different laws. Wicca has the Threefold Law that dictates whatever energy you put out through spell work comes back to you, times three, but practitioners of ATRs don’t always follow this same mindset.
“Say I hex someone; I’m going to catch it if I believe in that law,” Johnson said. “Magic functions on the basis of whatever your intention is, that’s what comes to fruition and that’s what you manifest. For us, we didn’t feel that way.”
Matthews views witchcraft as an eclectic practice. She studied Buddhism in her youth and believes in Buddhist Karma more so than the Wiccan Threefold Law.
“Karma is more like a bank, you slip up a little bit, you take a little out of the bank and as long as you don’t slip up too bad, you won’t be too bad off,” Matthews said. “I always tell people give more than you take.”
Seeking Out Witchcraft
The Mylers’ Occult shop has been seeing an increase in people interested in the intersection between metaphysical and spiritual. They recently had to move their Culture shop to a bigger building in Bellevue in response to a higher demand for their goods and services.
“People had an interest in metaphysical goods reiki, astrology, in readings, and the demand was so great that we needed more space,” Tiffany Myler said.
Crystal healing particularly has gained mainstream popularity.
“Back in 2017, just as we were opening the shop, we were taking the kiddo back to school shopping and we go into Spencer’s and there’s this crystal healing kit and it was $20 for these 5 garbage crystals and it’s like when did this become a thing?” Tiffany Myler said.
People gravitate towards crystals because while witchcraft may be deaminized, crystals are associated with healing.
“It’s nonthreatening,” Tiffany Myler said. “Crystal healing doesn’t make you subscribe to a faith base it says here’s this magic rock and it improves your life in this way.”
Rabbi’s Assistant Olivia Tucker started incorporating ritual based in nature into their practice of Judaism when they were at a Queer Jewish retreat.
“We collected fragrant plants and put them together in a cloth and inscribed it,” Tucker said. “We read the text that we had been learning and brought together the earth, the fire and the air and immersed it in the lake, bringing together all four elements and that felt really witchy.”
Tucker is intrigued by spiritual rituals because of their experiences in Judaism.
“Sometimes it feels like a spell when you have these prayers so when we get to a private moment of prayer I’m ready, I’m cleansed enough, I can really sink into this moment of just being in my own head and my own heart,” Tucker said. “I feel like I’ve never been in a prayer service that let that moment live long enough.”
Some people, like the Unidentified Witch, decided to move away from the church and towards witchcraft because of the atrocities the church has committed.
“I have a lot of feelings about the hurt that the church has done historically from the inquisition to the conquest of the Americas to the sexual abuse cases,” the Unidentified Witch said. “I just couldn’t commit to it anymore.”
Langlier gravitated toward witchcraft because he wanted to avoid the limitations set by monotheistic religions.
“What drew me in was that I could find an outlet for my spirituality and not really have to conform any set religion per say,” Langlier said. “I could do it the way that I felt was right for me.”
Fear of Persecution
Although we live in a time where society is becoming more open and accepting of the other, some witches still fear the witch label.
“There are people who will still get death threats [to] this day,” the Unidentified Witch said. “There are people that will be harassed at their homes and their children will be harassed and they will be ostracized. It’s really dangerous to say that you’re a witch in parts of Latin America. People will roll up to your house and pull you out and string you up, they really will.”
According to Tucker, there are pros and cons to identifying with any label.
“What do you gain from identifying under certain gender terminology or sexuality terminology?” Tucker said. “A community perhaps, a shared understanding of identity and the ability to advocate together but also you risk being lumped in, being limited and people having assumptions about who you are.”
Philip Gates is a creative who investigated rituals when working on a piece called Terminer that recontextualized the Salem Witch trials.
“I do think of myself as someone with a certain amount of the attunement and the way I channel it and guide others just happens to be through creative work,” Gates said. “In that way, I guess I feel witch-adjacent and so I am interested in the way others practice and work towards similar ends.”
Sudorn, who worked in collaboration with Gates, has melded the craft seamlessly into her practice.
“I’m a clinical herbalist, medicine maker, herbal educator, spiritual mentor, performer and artist,” Sudorn said. “Most of these worlds are open and accepting of my magic.”
Anna Thompson is a Point Park graduate, professional dancer and practicing witch. For her, dance and magic are intertwined as a lifestyle.
Michael J. Morris, a creative, an educator and a witch has melded witchcraft into the very fabric of their career at the forefront of their identity. They share rituals, give lectures and workshops and teach about witches and witchcraft in their gender studies and queer studies courses at Denison University.
“I have traveled around the country and the world teaching dance as a practice of political witchcraft,” Morris said. “I think witchcraft and the figure of the witch is having a moment of real intrigue and interest at this time in our culture.”
With this draw towards witchcraft, Epps, as a professional practicing witch, has experienced a lot of business.
“People come to me with various issues or things they need help with,” Epps said. “They ask for my advice on how to deal with the situations or things they could do or things they could buy here. They ask me to make certain things for them to address the situation and they trust me as their spiritual guide”
The Mylers’ Culture shop attempts to create an inclusive environment for practitioners of all kinds to dabble in the magical arts.
“We’re eclectic, so we try to have as many different spiritual paths and faiths represented as possible,” Tiffany Myler said. “The goal was to open up a wholistic wellness studio where we could do reiki, reflexology, readings, astrology [and] shamanic services.”
Matthews started the Pittsburgh Black Hat Society to help dispel some myths about paganism and witchcraft and to facilitate a platform for discussion for those who don’t follow traditional religions.
“I started the Black Hat Society as a more open discussion group where people of different pagan paths can come together and socialize,” Matthews said. “It’s not [a] one set believe or path, we have people who are Heathen, Wiccan, Stregas; you name it we have it.”
A wave of artists is incorporating the craft into their work, either as a topic for discussion or by performing inclusive rituals for an audience. Lyons uses ritual as part of the creative process of forming a character.
“I don’t necessarily call upon magic or energy to help me with them, but I am channeling things and I think sometimes when I’m giving a performance it doesn’t even feel like me it, I’ve channeled something else that’s helping me,” Lyons said.
Philip Gates worked in collaboration with Sudorn to perform witchcraft-adjacent work and rituals on stage.
“We began each rehearsal at the altar with cleansing and divination practices, and occasionally Leif guided us in group healing work as well,” Gates said. “With the performers, we also invented three original rituals to cultivate three specific energies: Clarity, Protection and Repair.”
Sudorn has held ritual space before, and she was unsure she’d feel safe conducting a ritual on stage.
“Getting to help hold and shape the physical space in a process that not only tolerated but strove to center magic was a pleasure,” Sudorn said. “What we built together left me feeling more safe than I thought I would.”
Is it safe to be out of the Broom Closet?
A witch determines if they’re safe to step out of the broom closet by analyzing how the world views them. According to Sudorn, the safety of witches lands on a spectrum.
“Like other oppressions, spiritual-religious oppression doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it intersects with race, gender, sexuality, culture, where you live, the size of your body and so on,” Sudorn said. “Folks living at multiple intersections are a lot less safe being out and practicing witches.”
Sometimes being a known witch can be safe, depending on the person’s situation and the beliefs of those around them.
“I think in big cities it can be safe if you’re ‘normal’ in many other ways and if you have this practice that’s very casual,” Lyons said. “If you’re very eccentric, I don’t think it’s always safe. There are a lot of connotations to the word witch and a lot of them are negative.”
Jones hides her practice of the craft because she doesn’t want her parents to cut her off and therefore hinder her ability to succeed in a world that’s already stacked against her.
“My brother told my family that he’s agnostic and everyone says he’s going to hell, so I’m prepared,” Jones said. “I’m not taking my family off restricted until I’m financially stable and I’ve moved across the country.”
While some witches live in fear of being exiled from their family, other self-identified witches flourish in the mainstream media.
“I think culturally, witches have been having a moment, where “witchiness” is part of a kind of millennial aesthetic as in Lana del Rey, American Horror Story Coven, Stevie Nicks and the resurgence of tarot and astrology,” Gates said
Lyons argues that this hasn’t led to a greater understanding of the craft, but rather an appropriation of it.
“I still think, regardless of people popping up in the media or on Instagram identifying as witches, it’s still heavily misunderstood,” Lyons said. “A lot of young people really want to be witches and they emulate these people they see on Instagram.”
Epps sees a lot of people investigating witchcraft and some of it borders on appropriation.
“If you want to come in here and you’re appropriating witchcraft and you want to burn a candle, burn the candle,” Epps said. “If that’s what’s making you happy in the moment, I’m not here to stop you.”
When author and professor Stephanie Wytovich was granted the Rocky Wood Memorial Scholarship for Non-Fiction Writing from the Horror Writer’s Association, she noticed un uprising of the archetype of the witch.
“The more I read and the more I watched the world around me, I saw the witch burning bright as a symbol for empowerment, rebellion, strength and community; all ideas that I was only too happy to be a part of,” Wytovich said.
There has been a shift towards the craft in the past five years because of the Me Too Movement and the administration’s determination to deny women reproductive rights, according to Wytovich.
“Witches are synonymously attached to reproductive rights, the female body, persecution and one’s right to their autonomy, so when issues surrounding Roe Vs. Wade came up, along with other issues surrounding sexual assault, the witch put on her hat and went to work,” Wytovich said.
Her research led her to teach Point Park’s first ever Witch Literature course.
“I think college is the best time to be having these types of multidisciplinary discussions, and Point Park has done nothing but support me and my students in our efforts to have these conversations,” Wytovich said.
Johnson and Jones, both students in Wytovich’s class, used their magic to banish a spirit that haunted Point Park’s Campus.
“We used to have an entity that hated women and he ran amuck,” Johnson said. “He would touch us in our sleep and watch us. I hope it’s done now that we did what we did. He’s in a bottle buried in Point State Park right now and he’s not made an appearance since.”
Our society has evolved from burning witches publicly, but a threat of persecution still remains.
“I think that we’re in a crucial time right now where the definition of the witch is changing, and while there’s an effort to reclaim and revise what that word and identity means to people, there’s still an unease surrounding it, and as history shows us, stereotypes are hard to do away with,” Wytovich said.
The internet, however, has allowed those in more rural areas who fear persecution or feel ostracized to become more connected with other witches also facing opposition and living in fear of persecution.
“It’s okay to be scared because people are people and they are going to be rude,” Epps said. “They’re going to talk down to you or make fun of you because that’s what people who don’t understand do. I would just say try to find other people to reach out to even if it’s just online.”
Whether it’s in person or using technological devices, (technology is a form of witchcraft that uses crystal energy to record information), finding ones tribe can open up the door to a greater understanding and acceptance of who you are as well as an ownership and embodiment of your own power.
“I would tell a child to try and find your tribe,” Lyons said. “Try to find people who are similar to you, who have similar interests, who can help lift you up and who you can help lift up. I’d also say don’t spend too much time consuming social media even if it’s about your craft. Spend time in nature, spend time writing and reading and watching movies. Find your own path or way of channeling whatever it is that you want.”
Witches are practitioners of ritual who use the materials given to them by the universe and nature to change the world around them and they’re starting to step out of the broom closet and show the world their magic.
“We try to raise awareness and we try to heal the world, so yes I think witches should be out there on the forefront and people need to get over themselves,” Matthews said. “Your next-door neighbor could be a witch, that person that does your hair could be a witch or the next time you go to the pharmacist and you get your medicine that might just be a witch. We’re everywhere and we’re in every walk of life.”