When the broader public thinks about paganism (if they think about paganism), most likely they think of magic and spells. I know I did: my first exposure to paganism was through a pair of Wiccan coworkers in the late 90s, right around when The Craft came out. And so even as I curiously picked up a copy of Vivianne Crowley’s Wicca: The Old Religion in the New Millenium and read Crowley’s calm explanations focused on personal transformation and self-exploration, I always saw Fairuza Balk’s crazed, too-eager eyes whenever Crowley said anything about a spell or incantation.
I don’t think I would have become a Wiccan even without The Craft floating around in front of the whole thing — I was devoutly Catholic at the time, and had no reason then to explore another religion — but that movie, for better or for worse, had an outsize influence on my feelings toward magic. It seemed silly to me, trite, focused on superficial personal needs rather than deeper truth or meaning. My understanding of magical practice has evolved since the 90s along with the rest of my intellectual development, but I’ll confess to a lingering prejudice: “magic’s fine for other people,” my brain seems to say, “but that’s not what I do.” That was, in fact, part of the attraction of druidry as a path: compared to many of the other pagan paths, druidry places a relatively low emphasis on magic. And so I was a little surprised to realize the other night that I was making a spell.
I’m getting over a round of sickness. This isn’t really something to be surprised at, since both the chorus I sing with and the department I work in have been passing around a handful of maladies for the better part of a month, but still, I’d hoped I might squeak past this one unscathed. Sunday night, though, as I was laying down to sleep, the cough I’d been nursing finally started sounding wet, my head started aching, and I was very, very thirsty. I went to the medicine cabinet for the cough syrup, of course — by and large I’m a fan of modern Western medicine — but I also went into the kitchen to pray.
And this is where terminology gets really slippery. Was I praying? Well, yes: I sang the chant I wrote in honor of Brigid and I asked for her aid in overcoming this illness. As prayers go, it was a fairly straight-forward supplication. But I wasn’t just praying. I removed a small cup from the cabinet and mixed another sort of cough syrup, talking as I went:
May this honey, bees’ entanglement of the fiery sun, soothe my throat with its sweetness. May this lemon, fruit of bright trees in the hot south, carry with it the lightness of health. May this whiskey, water of life, bring with its bite the fire of your healing.
It wasn’t until the next day that it occurred to me that this was, in its way, a spell. More freeform and spontaneous than the stereotype, but no less a method of using ritual words and objects to focus the mind on an intention. And in fact, when I ponder further I realize that, considered in that way, there’s a magical quality to the rituals of my Catholic childhood: crossing myself with holy water, receiving the Blessing of St. Blaise, watching the priest embed grains of incense in the Paschal candle at Easter.
I still have a good deal of trepidation and intellectual doubt toward magic as a practice, but I think that it is, perhaps, time to get over myself. I suspect meditative and verbal prayer will continue to form the center of my practice, but it seems shortsighted to ignore a range of spiritual expression. And there would be a homecoming: I grew up surrounded by holy magic, even if I called it prayer.