“Up on their brooms the Witches stream,
Crooked and black in the crescent’s gleam;
One foot high, and one foot low,
Bearded, cloaked, and cowled, they go.”
he metaphorical witch’s broomstick is forgotten in the back of an old closet, covered in cobwebs and shrouded in darkness. No one has touched it in so long that it has forgotten its purpose. Those who have not touched it have forgotten how to use it, have even forgotten why they would ever want to. You could break your neck after all, falling from a broomstick oh so high in the sabbat-black sky. Thus the broom is often grounded and most of today’s witches no longer fly. Let us open that forgotten closet door a crack and let a beam of light shine in. Let us illuminate a past much more interesting than our present.
If today’s witches no longer leave their bodies in the ecstasy of soul-flight then it is fair to say they also do not believe in the soul, in hosts of spirits, in old gods, in other worlds, or in magic. Without such beliefs and first-hand experience of them, witchcraft becomes a farce of empty rituals with empty words performed in crushed velvet robes. It all becomes a role-playing game no more real or impressive than a group of acne-faced teens rolling dice in their mother’s basement.
Witchcraft is not neoPagan goddess worship, it is not secular weather worship, it is not tree-hugging, and it is not New Age fuckery. Witchcraft is not safe. Witchcraft is not good and kind. Witchcraft is the domain of the trickster, the outcast, the wanderer, and the crooked. It belongs to those who know every light casts a shadow; who have looked into the depths of darkness in their soul and accepted what they’ve seen along with all that is good. Witchcraft requires cunning, manipulation, self-awareness, adaptable morals, and a dash of madness. Witchcraft is sharp pins pierced into a waxen image of an enemy, a lover’s hair plaited with one’s own, a Saturnine root harvested at midnight, blood spilled for hungry spirits, magical pacts made with daemons, a handful of dried henbane leaves burned and inhaled to talk to shades, an ancient incantation sung to become a wild hare, and witchcraft is sabbat wine imbibed while dancing wildly, intoxicated in the woods on Walpurgisnacht.
What is a witch without a host of familiar spirits? What is a witch without knowledge and experience of the otherworld? What is a witch who has never changed form? What is a witch who cannot reach ecstasy? What is a witch who cannot fly? Some would say no witch at all.
If you want to be a witch, you first must die. Just like the child you were dies when you become an adult, your human self must die to become Witch. The initiated are half alive, half dead. We are souls stuck in between – not quite spirits and not quite human. We shapeshift between forms – now human, now animal, now spirit, now elemental force, now otherwordly being. We drift between past, present, and future knowing that time is a non-linear illusion and all is accessible. We travel between worlds knowing they are all one and we are present in all of them at all times. We are possessed by spirits and the ones who possess others with our spirits. We are the dream-walkers, shape-shifters, psychopomps, seers, mediums, mystics, visionaries, and miraculous healers. We see the unseen, hear the unheard, travel to unreachable places, and experience the impossible. We dwell in paradoxes within the suspension of disbelief. We dance on the dagger’s edge between life and death, waking and dreaming, magic and insanity. We are unnatural. Supernatural.
So few today achieve such a state with fear being the number two reason, coming after ignorance. We are afraid to fly because magic might be real. We are afraid to fly because it might not be. We are afraid to fly because we think the methods to achieve it are all dangerous. We are afraid to fly because we are afraid to die. Sleep is like death, a slight mimicry of death. Soul-flight is the little death. Your body lies as if dead, dead to this world, while your soul travels to frightening or wondrous places. Have you ever woken from vivid dreams exhausted, unrested? Perhaps you weren’t dreaming at all. I have heard the practice aptly named death walking and have been called death walker myself. I simply call it travelling. I leave my body, each time knowing that there is a chance I may not make it back – that my soul might get lost, stolen, trapped, eaten or collected by something or someone more powerful and dangerous than myself. I do it anyway. Sometimes of my own free will and other times I am taken places by spirits. It is always worth it and the more it is done, the easier it becomes, and the easier it is to remember your adventures and visions.
CROSS YOUR HEART AND HOPE TO DIE
“I shall say sooth, I shall fly
By horse and hattock
Through the Sabbat-black sky.”
Where does the soul go and what does it do when it leaves the body in ecstatic rites? Sometimes it visits other witches — seeking individuals for knowledge or groups to celebrate in sabbatic revels of intoxicants and passions. Other times it takes up residence inside another person for a hag ride, or an animal, or a tree – for the experience or to spy or to travel by land, air, or water. Who doesn’t long for flight feathers or an eagle’s far-seeing eyes? Perhaps your soul takes pleasure in riding the wind and the lightning instead or maybe it prefers to journey to the underworld to keep company with the dead and their secrets. Other witch’s souls keep company with stars, some of whom will whisper mysteries while others only respond with cold alien silence.
A seer’s soul will travel into the future and sometimes the past. A healer’s soul will travel inside the body of a patient to find the cause of an illness so it may be removed. A shape-shifter‘s soul will possess the physical forms of animals, insects, and plants or their soul will take their form in the otherworld. A dream-walker will travel into the dreams of others to deliver messages, send blessings or nightmares, or to lay a curse. A psychopomp will traverse the path between our world and the underworld, leading souls to the great below and bringing messages back to the living. There are even dark sorcerers who leave their bodies to steal souls, bring them back and bottle them up, bound into a fetiche to strengthen their own power with black magic. Presently such practices largely exist only in folk and fairy tales, unread by today’s witches.
How does one achieve soul-flight? Some have to work at it for weeks, months, or years. Some do it as naturally as breathing, without aid, and simply can’t help themselves. One witch beats a drum to mimic a fast heartbeat and falls into a waking trance. Another sings an incantation faster and faster to quicken the breath and flood the blood with oxygen. A group of witches rub themselves with a flying ointment and dance and sing all night around a fire more and more intensely until reaching ecstasy. Yet another calls her spirits, whispers her intent, and falls asleep under a bear hide holding a rowan wand, leaving her body through the world of dreams.
“Horse and hattock, horse and go, horse and pellatis, ho ho!”
“Thout, tout a tout tout, throughout and about.”
There are words and herbs and postures. There is music and dancing and singing. There is fasting and swaying and praying. Stand on one foot, close one eye, and raise one arm. Eat this mushroom, soak this herb in wine overnight, and infuse this fat with belladonna leaves and mandrake root. Sing these words, scream them, mean them. Beat this drum and shake this rattle until your wrists hurt, until you cannot feel your hands. Dance around the fire until you sweat and sweat, until you forget you are human. Shroud yourself in complete darkness until there is nothing but the world of visions. All these things and more can lead to the little death and transport you to the otherworld’s door.
It all sounds rather romantic until someone loses an eye, or a soul, or their life. Some don’t make it back, some don’t make it back in one piece, but most will never go at all because they fear death above all else. And we should fear it – we should respect death and fear. We should not be fools stumbling in the dark. We should know the danger that lies ahead, the pain that will come, and walk into it knowingly always pure of intent and heart. We should know why we choose to die. Is dying worth gaining power? No, it shouldn’t be about striving for power. We die to serve. Once we die we do not belong to ourselves. Spirit workers are servants to greater spirits than themselves and will always be haunted and hunted. Every spirit serves another and we too are spirits. Erase any romantic notions from your head – this is not about you or being special – you are one of many. Your body is on loan, a temporary vessel. As long as you serve, the vessel is protected from harm and from physical death. If you make it about you or about power there is no guarantee you’ll be safe or come back.
Do you really want this? Is it worth being able to see and hear spirits, to travel between the realms? Why do you want it so badly? Be honest with yourself and the spirits and maybe one day you will die and come back — joining this host of revenants called spirit workers.
STICK A NEEDLE IN YOUR EYE
“Anything worthwhile is dangerous.”
An important question is not how one can fly, but how does one land? How does the witch protect themself during soul-flight and how do they ensure a safe return? Shamans of old would protect their abandoned body with blessed talismans and with a human or spirit guardian who would watch over their flesh until their soul returned from its journey. If there were signs of danger or they were gone for too long, a human guardian would try to rouse the shaman by burning special herbs such as yarrow flowers, by repeating an incantation, or by stimulating the body in the hope that it would cause the soul to return and the shaman to awake. Shamans and witches of old would also have familiar spirits who would travel with them in the otherworld and serve as various lookouts, protectors, and advisors. Disguise is another protection and one still documented in folk tales and myths: ashes rubbed on the face to mimic the dead’s appearance in the underworld, an animal’s hide worn to blend in among its kin, herbs rubbed on the body to mask the smell of humanity among soul-eaters.
Danger doesn’t just come from outside influences during soul-flight – a major challenge one may face is not wanting to return or forgetting to. If the witch decides they do not like the restriction of corporeal form they may knowingly or unknowingly cut ties with their flesh and lose the chance to return. The witch may get lost or trapped, finally returning to our realm to realize they are too late, a century has gone by and their body and all their loved ones have perished. The witch may lose themselves when shape-shifting and forget altogether that they are human and end up a wild hare in a fox’s mouth. When the soul does not return, the body can be left a vegetable, or worse, something else may take up residence inside it if it was not protected well enough.
Souls may be currency in the otherworld, to be stolen, collected, or eaten by more powerful spirits, but bodies are also much desired by noncorporeal spirits. Imagine a long-dead shade who yearns to taste the sweetness of wine and richness of food once more, who yearns to feel the softness of a woman’s breasts beneath his hands and all her other pleasures. Such a spirit may steal or kill to attain his desires. One must not be too trusting in the otherworld and not take spirits at face value or their word for nothing is as it seems. Trust your familiar spirits who have proven themselves time and time again and no others and they will do their best to keep you out of the lion’s maw.
Protect the room or space you will fly from, no, over-protect it. Weave a barrier with spirit traps, witch balls, witch bottles, mirrors, sigils, bindrunes, runestaves, conjure bags, strung herbs, and animals skulls, teeth, and claws. Paint protective sigils on your body or have them tattooed on if you are one who flies involuntarily, naturally. Always wear one protective talisman even if it is as simple as the innocuous ring, pendant, or earrings you wear every day that you have consecrated. When you wish to fly, call your spirits to you and have their fetiches close if they are not wearable so you can take them with you. Hold a wand or staff in your hand to protect your body and to take with you to the other realms. The Gaels and Norse believed Rowan gave one power over spirits – to enter their homes, to stop them from causing harm, and to blast, banish and bind them if need be.
To return from your adventures of witches’ sabbats, shape-shifting, and travelling sing or speak aloud an incantation that acts as a trigger to pull you back to your body. Tap your wand or staff three times. Stop beating your drum, stop swaying, stop chanting – stop whatever action you perform when straddling the worlds. Have someone watch over you and instruct them to touch you gently or shake you if need be to signal you to return from your spirit’s flight. If you are alone set an alarm to go off or play an album and train yourself to return when the music stops. When you return, eat and drink, touch a plant, touch a tree, touch the earth. Talk, laugh, sing. Do something ordinary and of this world to help ground you in the present and bring you fully back to yourself. If you are worried a spirit may have followed you back or your experience was not pleasant, take a bath with herbs and candles and spiritually cleanse yourself from your toes to your head to the depths of your soul and watch all the worry wash down the bathtub drain afterward. Lavender, rosemary, cloves, mullein, sage or yarrow will aid you. If they are not on hand, the needles from the nearest evergreen tree will do in a pinch whether it be cedar, fir, or pine – especially when combined with salt.
One either flies or one does not. It cannot be forced and can rarely be taught. The secret is in one’s ability to let go; to let go of expectations, of the body, of life, of the world you know and the people you love. Can you jump off the cliff into the unknown abyss with faith in yourself and your spirits? If not you will fail or you will fall. Do not leap until you are sure.
Originally published in “Pillars III” by Anathema Publishing, January 2015.
© 2015 Sarah Anne Lawless. Do not copy or use without the express permission of the author, but sharing the link is very welcome.
Featured artworks are by Luis Ricardo Falero, 1878-1883.