Halloween, for most of us, is all about trick or treating, ghost stories, and costumes. But for witches, or those who practice witchcraft, it is much more meaningful.
While they do get to enjoy the holiday’s more secular festivities, to many of them, it is “Samhain,” or a day to strengthen their faith in the craft by mourning and communicating with the dead, while also celebrating life. It’s a Gaelic festival marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter or the "darker half" of the year.
It’s a time when the veil between the living and the dead is at its thinnest, so their connection to the spirit world is much stronger, giving witches a chance to connect with spirits and ancestors.
Samhain used to be a strictly Gaelic or Irish pagan ritual, which was adopted by contemporary Wicca in the 40’s, but today, a lot of neo-pagans and other witches who don’t identify as Wiccan celebrate it too.
There are now hundreds of thousands of people in the world who practice witchcraft, including many in unexpected places like the Philippines. VICE talked to two of these Filipino witches to find out what it's like to live in a deeply Catholic country, and if their spook night celebrations are anything like the broom-flying coven meetings we see in pop culture.
Writer and photographer Michael Rebuyas, 27 years old, has been practicing rituals for 3 years.
“Basically, we ‘recharge’ on Halloween or Samhain since traditionally, that's the time of the year when nature's energies are at their very peak,” he told VICE.
To do this, they usually give food and offerings to the spirits.
“I burn food, which is symbolic of this year's harvest or blessings. The act of burning basically sends the blessings I received, back to the greater Source — the universe,” Rebuyas said.
Inka Magnaye, a 30-year-old voice talent and events host who has been practicing witchcraft since she was a child, has her own rituals.
“I would light some incense and bring out my cards to talk to my spirit guides, to touch base and write down the things I want to let go of and things I want to attract in my life. I burn that piece of paper and burn it in my sand-filled cauldron. Then, I let the candles burn down,” she said.
These rituals, usually calm and relaxed, are nothing like what most people probably imagine witch practices are like. No eating of children to make meat pies or sacrificing animals involved. Really, they’re totally “regular” activities done by people who are not green-skinned or warty.
Like most Filipinos, Magnaye was raised Catholic but said she never felt any connection with it.
“I liked the rituals, but the powers I was praying to didn’t really connect to me. I connected more to nature. I thought that that [Catholicism] was it, but then I learned that witchcraft wasn’t this evil thing,” she said.
She was “called” to the craft in 1999, when she was 10 years old, but struggled to learn more about it due to the lack of resources available. Catholicism prohibits these practices, so most schools in the Philippines don’t carry books on witchcraft in their libraries. There were also hardly any websites discussing the topic on the internet. She even recalls a time when a classmate warned her to close her notebook where she drew symbols, out of fear that she would get expelled.
But witches don’t always denounce other faiths. Rebuyas, for example, is still a practicing Catholic.
“I still pray to Jesus and I still invoke some of the saints, but what I would say is that it augmented my faith. I would consider myself a polytheist,” he said.
For both these witches, practicing is simply an exchange of energies — a give or take.
“For witches, it comes back to you three times over, whether you wish good or bad intentions on a person. We believe in karma,” Magnaye said.
Rebuyas adheres to the following rules in his practice:
“1. Harm none. We believe that the Divine is present in everything and everyone in nature so as much as possible, we avoid intentionally harming others.
2. Karma. While most Witches don't adhere to the concept of sin, we believe that whatever we put out to the universe will come back to us.
3. Responsibility. Everyone is responsible for the results of their own actions, whether magical or mundane.”
And, despite the taboo placed on witches in the Philippines, witchcraft is actually part of Filipino culture. Small towns often have their own albularyo or shamans who use witchcraft to heal and exorcise demons for money.
“Filipinos, even if they deny it, are actually practicing a lot of rituals which have roots in what one would consider traditional witchcraft: praying to saints, offering food on All Souls Day, etc,” Rebuyas said.
Both he and Magnaye encourage people to learn about witchcraft because there are so many misconceptions about it. They said the only accurate portrayal of their practice is from the 90’s classic The Craft, which consulted a high priestess during production.
“Educate before you judge, you don’t have to practice it to learn more about it,” Magnaye said.