Wiccan altar
Wiccan altar Credit: Jeanine Santucci

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A few drops of clary sage, a pinch of devil’s shoestring, and some fragments of smoky quartz. Five witches sit around a cauldron on a Saturday afternoon in the community space of an apartment building in Silver Spring, Maryland, practicing the art of potion-making.

They are affiliated with Firefly House, an organization serving D.C.-area residents who are members of several different Pagan traditions. 

David Salisbury, a witch who is very active in Firefly and the area’s larger witch community, is hosting the gathering. Every year around this time he gives a potion-making lesson—one of several educational opportunities offered year round to Firefly witches.

Salisbury practices witchcraft and the contemporary Pagan religion of Wicca, but not all those who practice witchcraft are Wiccans, or even Pagans. Some may be part of other traditions, but also cast spells and invoke spirits. 

After giving a brief lesson in herbalism and the history of potions, which extends back to ancient Egypt, and passing around a few staple potion books such as Karen Harrison’s Herbal Alchemist’s Handbook, Salisbury teaches the witches how to craft a brew for purification and cleansing. 

Salisbury explains that the idea behind potion-making comes from the doctrine of signatures, which states that all plant material has a certain property that can be transferred onto another object, person, or place. The clary sage wards off stress, the devil’s shoestring ensures a continually pure environment, and the smoky quartz absorbs negative energy. This potion is meant to be misted on oneself or in one’s workplace to expel a negative atmosphere. 

Salisbury loves Halloween season. His apartment is decked out in spiderwebs, a skeleton, and a spooky doormat. He sits barefoot on a couch wearing a silver pentacle pendant around his neck and his black cat, Olive, weaves herself between his legs. He recognizes that Olive is a stereotype, but says he does just happen to have a black cat. As for the Halloween decorations, Salisbury thinks they’re harmless fun, though not all witches are comfortable with secular depictions.

Beyond spells, many Wiccans are inclined toward activism. Salisbury points to the lore that paints witches as the helpers of societal outcasts, even while being driven out of society themselves.

“I believe that activism, civil rights—all that has been woven into what we call the modern craft for a very long time because the role of the witch has always been the person who is othered,” Salisbury says. “Everyone fears and hates her until their kid gets sick and there’s no one else to help them out. … So she’ll take care of them, and she willingly goes into that role knowing that she will forever be othered. So I think people come to the craft usually from backgrounds where they felt othered in some way.”

Firefly helped organize a coalition of witches that attended the Women’s March on Washington in January, and Salisbury says that witches might engage in activism by casting a spell to defeat a piece of anti-reproductive rights legislation, for example. Every month during the waning crescent moon, witches cast a spell to “bind” Trump. 

Though Wicca wasn’t brought to the U.S. and popularized until the ’60s, it has preceding traditions. In January 1941, almost a year before the U.S. entered World War II, a group of D.C. area witches gathered for a “hex party” where they cast curses on Adolf Hitler.

They were described in a LIFE magazine feature at the time as “respectable residents.” They were regular people who gathered one night to perform voodoo magic on a dummy of Hitler dressed in a Nazi uniform. The event host, Charles Tupper, was reportedly a worker in a U.S. Navy factory, and others were said to have worked for the government. 

Something about D.C. fosters an environment in which witches become particularly engaged, according to Katrina Messenger, a local Wiccan elder, priestess, and a founder of the Dark Flame Coven. Messenger grew up in Anacostia and has lived in the area for more than 60 years. She knows that not all witches feel pulled to activism as she does, but she believes that the spiritual work “has to be paired with something concrete in the world, otherwise it’s just an intellectual exercise, and that’s not what witches do.”

“If you ever spent any time in Southern California in Hollywood, it’s just kind of in the air, you breathe entertainment industry. And then there’s a similar kind of thing in D.C. Even those of us who are not directly involved tend to kind of breathe politics,” Gwendolyn Reece adds.

Reece is an associate librarian at American University and Wiccan priestess in the Hellenic tradition. She has published research articles on the prevalence of Pagan practices in the U.S., the obstacles contemporary Paganism faces, and the idea of stigmatized identity.

“We do have a variety of different types of traditions, so depending on what your interest is, there is a tremendous amount of expertise and support that is available in a lot of different ways,” Reece says. “There’s just a lot of variety and a lot of collaboration, not competition.”

“Certainly we have dramatic overrepresentation of LGBT people. We have significant overrepresentation of women,” she adds.

Messenger remembers when it was much more difficult for witches to find each other. She created an organization for performing public rituals so that area witches could connect.

“So many of the witches in this area in particular and in the Mid-Atlantic in general had a large Pagan presence, but unless you were actually in the know with somebody, you wouldn’t know they existed. They were so much hidden,” Messenger says. “If you didn’t know somebody you would think that nothing was happening, and that wasn’t true.”

The internet changed that. “Now, we’re everywhere,” she says. “There’s people all around, and my view is that they were always here, they just didn’t know where to go.”