If Laurie Cabot sends you a crow feather in the mail, you've done something very, very bad. But don't worry—she's much more likely to offer you advice on how to use spell bottles or try to fix your air conditioner.
Dubbed "Salem's Official Witch" by former Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis in the 1970s, the 81-year-old Cabot is also perhaps the most famous living witch in the world. Although she closed up her famous witch shop a couple years ago, Cabot is keeping busy by writing new books and educating people on her brand on witchcraft.
For decades, Cabot has presided over the town's local celebrations during sabbats, or pagan holidays, the most significant of which is Samhain (pronounced sow-en). Originally a Celtic harvest festival that celebrated the changing of the seasons, it was the pre-Christian precursor to Halloween.
I called up Cabot at her home in Salem, where she was preparing for this year's Samhain festivities, to ask her how witches celebrate.
MUNCHIES: Happy Samhain, Laurie. How are you? Laurie Cabot: I'm sitting here making some magical items. I make spell bottles.
What do you put in the spell bottles? I put all kinds of things in the bottles. I have a leaf that was given to me by NASA from the moonseed, a seed that was taken to the moon and brought back, and they grew a tree. It's wonderful. I use pieces of that when you need a little moon magic. I have things that all my witch friends in England send me, things from the fairy woods—the magical places.
You had an event earlier this week in Salem in which you spoke with the dead. How did that go? Well, it was quite amazing. There were over 40 people there. I would say that at least ten different spirits came through, which was amazing. So a lot of people did get to hear from their loved ones, which was really exciting. I just use my psyche and listen, and a spirit will say to me, "See, I'm chopping wood. I'm chopping wood because I want to start a fire in my fireplace," and then I can feel in the room the area where that person is, and I'll say, "Who knows someone that chops a lot of wood, like for a fireplace?" A man spoke up, and I said, "You're moving, right?" and he said yes, and I said, "I see construction," and he said, "Yes, that's my uncle redoing his house." And he built a great big stone fireplace, and he loved to create and sit by a fire. It was very pointed and very exciting.
Tell me a little about Samhain. It's our New Year. We do dress for the holiday, but we dress as what we want to become in the future, and not in horror costumes. That's not acceptable. Another thing is that people don't understand that the symbol of the skull is not horrific to us. It has something to do with the housing of our spirits and our ancestors, so we do revere that. When we do our circle for the New Year, we honor all the people that have died for our freedom, which are the people here that were persecuted and accused of being witches, whether they were or not.
And you have a feast? We always have a feast because it is a harvest. We do pumpkin pie like everybody else, and also apple pie. Usually, for people who do eat meat, we might have a roast beef or ham or turkey, or all the three! The gathering this year's probably going be over 200 people, so we would have one of each. Of course, we would have a lot of vegetarian dishes for people who wouldn't eat the meat.
Historically, Samhain was the final harvest—the meat harvest before the winter, right? It is the meat harvest, absolutely. But we also still have all the root vegetables and the squashes and the pumpkins and things like that. It's always a really good feast that everybody looks forward to.
I'm sure you have amazing apples this time of year, too. Oh, yes. There's a place nearby called Brooksby Farm and they have apple orchards. We go there all the time because they allow us to pick up apple branches off the ground to make apple wands. In the fall, they make their own apple pies, and they're outrageously good. We put apples all on our altar, too. If you cut an apple in half, you'll see a pentacle. The seeds form a pentacle, and around the seeds is a circle, so it's a sacred symbol of a witch. It's interesting, isn't it? Apples are also in the shape of our heart, so they're a heart medicine.
Tell me a little bit about how Samhain differs from Halloween. You've claimed that trick-or-treating is a witch tradition originally. The harvest lent itself to sugary things, so that was the treat for people for behaving—especially children. But there was never any trick. It wasn't part of it at all. That's sort of a Christian idea to make it seem a little not good. Harvest was a treat.
How else has Halloween strayed from its roots in Samhain? It's a mess. They're making everything about our holiday horrible. It's awful and deadly and frightening. Putting a cackling witch on a broom? That's demeaning our elders. They're either horrific or laughable. Two thousand years of propaganda against us!
And that was one of the reasons you founded the Witches' League for Public Awareness, right? Yeah. We're still fighting Salem because of the images they often produce. We just have to stand up and show them that's not real, and that's what we do here. We're the witch city, and this is the only city that's known for us. You know, we're out every day. A lot of witches shop here, and they're visible every single day. What they do with their shops—and being commercial, they have to make a living—they're teaching people about herbs and stones and candles and what magic is and is not. That's a wonderful thing. They do not want to promote that here at all, and I think that's very foolish.
You'd think the city would be more supportive! Well, you know, the people of Salem are actually very proud of us and support us. Very few people disrespect us in this town. After the Witches' League for Public Awareness law memorandum, even the police protect us because they know that they have to. We're welcomed here. I've received calls sometimes in the past from hospitals here asking if I can help them. They'll say, "The weather is too hot and we've got a broken air conditioner. Can you help me do something?" Some people think we can do it all, which is not true, but we do help as much as possible.
You've said that charged herbs not only work better potions, but they also taste better. How do you charge an herb? That's part of the science of witchcraft. Your aura can extend into any object that you touch, especially if you lower your brainwaves, close your eyes for three minutes, and your brainwave is in an alpha level. You hold the herbs in your hand and charge them with the intention that you have for their use. Of course, you want an herb that has that type of energy to heal or to help. You infuse your light energy into the energy of the herb.
What kind of herbs and plants are good for Samhain? There are a couple important herbs. Rosemary is about remembrance. It's about remembering your ancestors and those who've passed. Because the veil is open, we carry it or use it in spells so it makes it easier to communicate. Sunflower seeds are another one. You can live off a sunflower plant. The base of sunflower plants has a potato that grows in the roots, and you can eat that. You can't eat the stalk but you can eat the yellow leaves and the seeds, which would sustain your life like apples do. It's for sustaining life on earth where we're still continuing, rather than passing into the other world.
Is there such thing as edible magic? Absolutely. You can charge the rosemary that you put into your cooking. Every herb in our cabinet is usually already charged and fixed so that it doesn't change. The charge is always there. But, if we buy something new, we cast a little circle, light a candle, and charge the herbs before we start cooking. We're honoring the meat as well. It's all sacred to us.
Tell me a little about the Feast of the Morrighan that you write about in Celebrate the Earth. The Morrighan is a protector, of course, and it takes away what is harmful. So we're celebrating the Morrighan and having a feast for her—or them, it's a triple goddess. We're celebrating her ability to protect us and help us. We gather crow feathers when we can find them on the ground. Each person sitting at the table might have their own feathers with them to represent her and her power.
What do the crow feathers do? It's not our job to harm anyone, or to do anything to someone who is evil. It's the job of the goddesses and the gods if they chose to. They can stop someone who is evil, and you can call on the gods by showing a black feather. If someone we know of is evil, we might send the black crow feather in the mail to their house. That way, the Morrighan will know where to go if they choose. It doesn't mean they're going to do something harmful. But usually, if it's very evil, you'll see them being arrested or stopped in some way. The feather just shows her the way.
What's your favorite Samhain dish? I like chicken stew or beef stew, and I love roast chicken. I like to make a corn stuffing for the roast chicken. I also have a chicken soup in a hollowed out pumpkin. One year I decided I'd use a big, big pumpkin for a serving bowl. Then I thought, Since I'm doing that, let's get some smaller pumpkins and make them into the bowls for everybody to eat out of. It became sort of a tradition. It's just delicious. It also looks good when you have the pumpkins all around the table. It really focuses on the season.
What are you cooking this year? One of the chefs there is a witch, in the kitchen, and she's helping us prepare the food for the feast. We have butternut squash and apples, and we have chicken, salad, a cheese platter, fruits of all kinds, and some desserts. That's what it is this year. Oh, and we have to have vegan dishes for a lot of our people.
Thanks for speaking with me, Laurie. Happy Samhain!