By Saoirse Nisbett
Double, double toil and trouble; fire burn and cauldron bubble? Well, not quite. When we think of the world of Witchcraft, we think cauldrons, broomsticks and spells, but they are stereotypes that have been linked to witches from folklore and film. Witches have been, and still are, synonymous with Halloween for as long as the idea of the witch has existed, but they are a lot more than just a costume.
Wicca, or witchcraft, is a Pagan religion that is still recognised and practised today. The religion involves worshipping the Earth and its seasons. It focuses on using rituals to bring about desired changes in life. There are eight holidays or times of celebration in the Wiccan religion: Winter Solstice (19-23 December), Imbolg (1 February), Spring Equinox (19-23 March), Bealtaine (1 May), Summer Solstice (19-23 June), Lughnasadh (1 or 2 August), Autumn Equinox (22 September) and Samhain (31 October). Ireland has a vast history of Witchcraft and Paganism. To this day, there are hundreds of practising witches in Ireland. One of these witches is High Priestess Barbara Lee.
Lee has been a witch since 1980 when she was 20 years old. She is currently the leader of her second coven called Serpent, along with her husband who is High Priest of the coven. She is also Priestess of the Fellowship of Isis, an international spiritual organisation devoted to promoting awareness of the Goddess Isis, a Reiki Master and practices Tarot.
Growing up in a Protestant family with a father who was a Deacon in the Church of Ireland, Lee always felt something was missing in her religious life: “one, the divine feminine, two, the individuality of self- you weren’t encouraged to think, you were encouraged to believe. And three, there was a scarcity of a sense of community or belonging. I didn’t feel like I was part of something else and Wicca provided all of those things for me and more and has let me develop in a way that I feel has allowed me to be, dare I say, happy”, said Lee on why she made the move to Wicca.
Lee spoke of how Wicca found her by chance one day in her mother’s restaurant; “Two witches walked in for dinner, they got chatting to my mum and it turned out we had read a novel that one of the guys had written, they came back and a friendship started to grow. My mum was interested in what they were doing, I wasn’t quite sure as I was still in my teens, but I went up to visit them in the West of Ireland for a couple of weeks in the summer and they stayed with us for about three months when they decided to move back to Dublin. I wanted to know more so I read a lot, was keen to get involved and so I asked if I could come along to a ritual, they said yes and the rest is history because it fit me, and I never looked back.”
“When Lee isn’t leading her coven…you’ll probably find her at home tending to her four cats, three of which just happen to be black”
For Lee, witchcraft is more than the stereotypes of magic and spells, she sees it as more of an experiential journey in which spells and magic play a small part. “[I’ve got] loads of books of spells but a good spell is one you make yourself, tailored to a specific person or feeling,” Lee said.
Baby naming ceremony on the Hill of Tara (right: Barbara Lee) – Credit: Barbara Lee
Lee mentioned two different types of spells; Piseógs, which she described to be like a hex or curse of sorts, and spells made to help or benefit a person.
“Anybody can do a spell once they have intent. Anyone can cook, they might not be a great cook but follow the recipe and you’ll probably succeed,” said Lee.
“Phrasing is extremely important when it comes to spells, every word is taken very literally so always follow the KISS method: Keep It Simple Stupid. Be direct and have a purpose, using a point of focus like candles, crystals or a tight knot is good for focusing energy because if a spell can be misinterpreted, it will be.”
Lee also mentioned that a table of correspondence is also very important to channel the spell, the table can be made up of various symbols and objects relating to the spell.
“If a spell can be misinterpreted, it will be”
The religion of Paganism emphasises the importance of self and making choices that benefit you and the Earth. This means that modern witches are very in-tune with the Earth and respect it as number one in terms of recycling, using its resources to their full potential and seeing the seasons as new beginnings. Any rituals or ceremonies held throughout the year are dictated by the Earth. For example, during Bealtaine, which is seen as a time of cleansing, the herd of cattle would traditionally be lead between two twin fires to rid them of any disease, ticks or fleas.
At Summer Solstice, there is a custom of throwing an ember from the solstice fire into the field of wheat and, if you could see the ember the harvest would be bad but if you couldn’t see it, it would be plentiful. At Samhain, witches will ‘lay the dumb supper’ which involves setting an extra place at the table to honour those who have past and are in other realms. It is during Bealtaine and Samhain when the ‘veil is thin’ between our realm and the others so during these times of the year those from other realms are honoured and focused on.
Lee dismissed modern theories involving witches and the devil, as she said, Pagans don’t believe in the devil: “[…]it is just a Christian construct to destroy paganism. Pagan gods in the dark and middle ages were described as devils, and yes, Satan existed as the counterpoint to God and he would make you question motives, bringing forth the concept of the Devil’s advocate, but the Devil isn’t part of the pagan mindset. We believe in good and evil as a human trait rather than something that was brought down by some divine influence. We do believe in gods but again, experiences and beliefs are unique. In a coven, everyone will have different beliefs but the commonality lies in their practice. It’s about people being the best they can be as individuals.”
Lee’s coven, Serpent, has eight members and is run out of her living room where they meet for ritual about twice a month. Lee stressed the point that one is never asked or invited to join a coven and that if you’re ever asked, run. Joining a coven is something one has to take upon themselves to decide to do and can only be initiated into Wicca when the person turns 18 years old. Once you ask, you’ll be invited to go to a meet and greet with the coven. This meet and greet stage of the process can take months but is important to see if the coven is a fit for you.
“one is never asked or invited to join a coven… if you’re ever asked, run”
After being invited to three rituals, one decides whether or not they want to progress. If they agree, there is a ‘neophyte’ (new member) ceremony which involves committing to learning, reading and training to gain the knowledge and acquire the techniques needed. After a minimum of a year, you are then initiated into first degree if you are seen to be ready and are answerable to the coven.
Some witches never surpass first degree but those who move up to second degree take on the responsibilities of looking after the first degrees in the coven. At this stage, one also has the ability to start a coven of their own but under the leadership of their parent coven. It isn’t until a witch reaches third degree that they are completely autonomous and able to start their own coven or act freely as an independent witch.
When it comes to outside opinions or hate as a witch, Barbara Lee has encountered almost none; “I’ve never been treated differently. Maybe once by an Evangelical Christian…I never expect to be treated differently…maybe I’m naive.”
“I guess I don’t parade the fact that I’m a witch like I don’t go around in flowing black clothes but the whole neighbourhood would know my house as the witch’s house,” said Lee.
As well as being a practising witch, Lee is also a co-founder of Pagan Life Rights, an organisation which acts as a community for pagans in Ireland as well as actively campaigning for equal rights for pagans. As part of Pagan Life Rights, Lee performs handfastings, which are a type of commitment ceremony, baby-naming’s and funerals. The organisation has also made a major impact in the Pagan community in that hospitals now have Paganism as a religion on registration forms and in the last census, following a campaign to encourage people to identify as pagan in writing, there was an increase of 40% in people identifying as Pagan.
When discussing certain stereotypes that go hand in hand with Witchcraft Lee mentioned: “[…]you’ve got shows and things on the telly that do all the supernatural stuff and makes it out to be very ‘wooo’ which it’s not, it’s very mundane a lot of the time actually, but you do develop those extra senses as you grow within the craft, the same senses you had when you were a child, like seeing things or beings but it being sublimated and being written off as imagination.”
When Lee isn’t leading her coven, being a Pagan activist, hosting pub moots (traditional meetings), doing community clergy work or working in her full-time job as a transcript typist, you’ll probably find her at home tending to her four cats, three of which just happen to be black.
“I couldn’t imagine my life being any different, what we do is to live the best possible life that you can live. I look after myself, my home and my animals and do nothing in excess…except the odd gin and tonic doesn’t go astray.”