Witches of Seattle Tell Us About the Appeal of Magic
"I would define magic as the purest form of love and joy and sharing it in a way that is intentional, that thrives."
Photos by Allyce Andrew
Surrounded by sage smoke and honking geese at the base of Mount Si, we spread our arms out like crosses as Aubrey Rachel Violet Bramble, a witch dressed in an elegant white dress, blesses us. "Let the sage do the work," she says. Her good friend Kat Terran, a shaman, opens up the basket of corn muffins and rose tea prepared for tonight as an offering to the spirits—Mother Moon and Father Sky, the god and goddess, whatever you want to call it. In the world of magic, tradition is important, but ultimately, you create your own paradigm. Do what thou wilt.
An elaborate altar is laid out before us on a blanket surrounded by candles. A crystal ball, an antler, a feather, a shell, each object a stand in for an element or a goddess to be praised at tonight's mixed shamanic/pagan ritual. "Needs more Earth," Bramble mumbles, rearranging the menagerie of ornate objects she and Terran brought with them.
"OK, kids," she says, satisfied with the elemental balance of the display. "I'm going to call the circle now." An incantation begins: Perfect love, perfect trust. The circle is open but never undone. Terran and Bramble, each in their respective traditions, invoke and praise the four cardinal directions, the elements, the Great Mystery. The Earth, the water, the fire, the air: return, return, return. Gratitude prayers are offered, not only to the Earth, but to loved ones, to people in need, to ancestors. May all souls be nourished.
Tonight serves two purposes: It's both a late Imbolc observation (the Pagan holiday honoring the midway between the winter solstice and spring equinox) and a new moon ceremony—great occasions for setting new "intentions." As we later learn from the long list of Seattle-based witches and shamans I'll meet, "intentionality" lies at the root of most modern conceptions of magic.
Photographer Allyce Andrew and I are here at this ceremony in Snoqualmie, not far from where Twin Peaks was filmed, because some time in the middle of last year, we realized every other person we met in the Seattle art scene—poets, musicians, event coordinators—was a professed witch or shaman. I met Bramble and Terran through their music. They're both singers in popular Seattle bands (the gothic Golden Gardens and desert rock outfit Wind Burial, respectively.)
A certain level of nature worship is built into the culture of the Northwest. If you live out here and haven't had your mind blown by the beauty of an ancient old-growth forest, you're kind of missing the point. But in the "spiritual but not religious" Northwest, it seemed like many Seattleites were taking that casual reverence to the next logical level.
I would define magic as the purest form of love and joy and sharing it in a way that is intentional, that thrives. —Lily Kay
We entered into this world through art events that kept cropping up—events that often had mystic or pagan undertones. For instance, on the night of the winter solstice, we had two different Yule events we could choose from—a Cascadian metal festival in Olympia, or an electronic/noise showcase in Seattle in a loft called Teatro de la Psychomagica. In April, a mystically-inclined local composer named Garek Jon Druss performed an ambient synth piece in a church, accompanied by a lecture on alchemy by William Kiesel, owner of esoteric book publisher Ouroboros Press. Events like these happen fairly regularly in Seattle, with varying degrees of authenticity.
"An artist or performer can find some seasoning and burn it in a superficial ritual like manner or even dangle some stones of unknown origin and 90 percent of the audience is so hungry for some sort of spirituality or alternative path that it is accepted as significant," Druss tells me, alluding to the recent surge of popularity in all things witchy. This cultural phenomenon is perhaps best embodied by Urban Outfitters affiliate Free People's widely panned Spirituality Shop, which began offering a $68 "Cosmic Stick" (a large stick with thread wrapped around it) and $75 "Dark Mystic Boxes" (a small box with a fern printed on it, containing some sage and a crystal) late last year.
But Druss also acknowledges the Northwest's unusual bona fides in this area: "Here in our community there are so many strong individuals who are true in their actions and [mystic] study—we all benefit from it."
Kiesel says the strong, mystically-inclined population here is just part of the town's history.
"Beyond the Native American roots in the area, in the early 19th century, Seattle saw a Theosophical Society Lodge open downtown [it has since moved to Capitol Hill]. Not long after, an occult organization called the Light Bearers, founded by Eugene Fersen, became active in town. They had a mansion on Capitol Hill across the street from Volunteer Park. While there has always been some kind of occult or witchcrafting going on here [at least since the turn of the century], we seem to be having another renaissance of sorts," Kiesel says.
In an effort to extend past the glut of trendy "hipster witches" in the area and glean some real understanding of what true, modern, urban witchcraft and shamanic practice in Seattle looks like, we interviewed seven such people about their spiritual practices, how they arrived at them, and why they believe the magical community is so strong in Seattle.
VICE: Why do you think Seattle is experiencing a resurgence of interest in witchcraft and shamanism?
Imani Sims: This ground is so sacred. Seattle is a Pisces city, it's really watery and feely and I really want to dig into the things that don't normally happen—that's Seattle, so it's just a good place for that kind of thing. Another theory is that they just started building the light rail and digging up the city to build this type of transportation, and I think that really woke up the ground. I think it started something huge.
What does ritual mean to you?
I think the three biggest things are consistency, connection with your own spirit guides, whomever they may be, and totems—things of significance for you, whether that be images or stones or plants or people. My spirituality is very Earth-based. I'm into stones and the power that they carry, and how that then fuels my life forward.
How do you define magic?
Kat Terran: Magic, to me, is when we get little glimpses of just how big and astronomical this thing is, this enormous experience we're all a part of. It's almost like we can only handle it for a couple of seconds when we see it, because of how intense and how crazy it feels. Anything that opens just enough so we get kind of zapped by it, is what I'd call magic. It's a medicine tool, it's a healing tool. It's ancient technology.
What did you mean by "ancient technology"?
They are a little different from place to place, but things like rattling or drum work, these are very consistent, and are what I call "ancient technologies," things people from around the world in many different cultures have used to get in touch with spirit and their own ancestors. That's part of what we're experiencing in the Northwest, people are reconnecting with these tools because they connect us with nature, but also ourselves. Gratitude prayers are also one way of doing that. Gratitude prayers constantly. Being connected all the time to how much there is to be thankful for.
AUBREY RACHEL VIOLET BRAMBLE
Singer in local band Golden Gardens, Owner of Swan Children Apothecary, and Witch
How did you get into witchcraft?
Aubrey Bramble: I grew up in Florida and got really into witchcraft in the South when I was in middle school. There are a lot of Wiccan communities in Florida, strangely enough. It's very Southern Baptist, but there are a lot of swamp people who do witchcraft. In the south they were very traditional, by-the-book wiccans or "Oh, we only do voodoo," but here there is a lot more crossover. The program I'm in now is traditional Eastern European witchcraft and Wicca melded with Native American shamanism and things in between.
How do you define magic?
For me, magic is the manifestation of an intent. Say I have an intent, like... I want to carry myself with more grace or kindness. You use your spell, your ritual. Some people will use candles, some will use herbs, some will use meditation and mantras. Personally, I really like to use my crystal ball. I do a ceremony to charge my crystal ball and invoke its energy in the name of a goddess I admire. I turn to my crystal ball after I've set up my altar and candles and gaze on it, meditating on an intent. I can visualize it in the crystal ball. Perhaps I'll chant. When I complete that, I'm able to carry myself with more grace and kindness after the fact because I've really visualized that intent—that ritual manifestation is magic.
You were saying earlier that science was the biggest influence on your spirituality. How do science and magic dovetail in your mind?
Meagan Angus: For me, it begins in a really fundamental way with astrology and geology, and understanding that all of our life comes from the planet. Understanding these basic biological systems illuminates things on a spiritual level too. The depth of how integrated these systems are. When you switch back to a metaphysical level, you can begin to think about things like "Wow, crystals continue to grow even when you cut them from their source. That's crazy." To me, magic was an extension out of humanity developing awareness of ourselves and our own biological processes. There's a reason Pagan holidays are based on seasons—our systems literally wax and wane with the sunlight.
How do you modernize these ancient practices?
Magicians always have their elements around them. There's always Earth, air, water, fire. There's always the four directions, up, down. Can I go out and carve my protection symbol into a piece of granite? No. But I can go get a "Hello My Name Is" sticker like all the other graffiti artists and slap my sigil up on the electrical box outside of my house and it's exactly the same thing. There are a lot of sticker sigils on Capitol Hill because there [are] lots of people actively attempting to control the reality paradigm in the neighborhood to combat all the gentrification happening here. A lot of witches and magicians have been getting together and saying "We're just going to try and make this building invisible for the next several months so nothing happens to it." It's sort of like magical community activism.
How do you define magic?
Lily Kay: Intention. And seeing the love and connection that exists in this world. I would define magic as the purest form of love and joy and sharing it in a way that is intentional, that thrives. Honestly, the most powerful lesson I've learned is just being open and receptive and trying to be better and more intentional about considering things, like, "Oh, I kept dreaming about blue things the other night. I'm going to remember that." Letting those things guide me.
Why do you think Seattle has so many witches?
I think Seattle is small and there are a lot of fucking freaks. It's fucking freak city. And by no means am I saying you have to be a freak to be spiritual or into witchcraft, but also, I think Seattle is so special. I was talking to my friend earlier, who just moved from Seattle to New York. She was saying there was nobody there like her, she'd go to a party and go, "What intention did you set on the new moon?" and people would be like, "What?" She couldn't even ask people what their signs are. So it's also definitely just cultural here, it's not that abnormal to talk about these things or think like that.
How do you define magic?
Bri Luna: Magic is nature. I don't really think it's a supernatural thing, it's just nature, it's the beauty of our planet. I also believe that your intentions strongly affect what you are doing. Again, I don't think it's supernatural. It's learning to work with your mind and how to create things on this material plane with that mind. Any ritual or practice you are doing, it is about the intent behind it. Magic is energy, and so is intent.
Why is there such a strong magical community here?
I think a lot of it has to do with this area originally being native land. Magic is already in the land from the indigenous people who lived here before us. We also have access to so many beautiful places, beautiful mountains, and forests, so you'd have to be crazy to not want to go and dance naked in the forest.
Why do you think the Northwest has become a hotbed for magical communities?
Mykol Radziszewski: Seattle is a wonderful cauldron from which purpose can take form. There's just such intense intentionality here, and the focus of energy is really powerful. If you look at the lay lines here, this place is full of lay lines—hundreds of energetic veins originate and end here. Some of them correspond with water, some with mineral deposits, some with really interesting nothingness.
How do you actively work to experience or create magic in what you call "shamanistic witchcraft?"
How I would define magic is: a trust in the natural, in our own nature, trusting myself to be accountable to that. I know when magic is present because I wake up and feel like an animal. Magic is whatever wakes us up to the profundity and beauty of life. Magic is a ceremony of remembering. It's a daily thing. Magic and shamanism, these aren't religions, they're not something you practice certain days of the week and then move on from. It's something you also do in the in-between times. Magic is when you do yourself the way spirit made you—that's powerful magic. What does it take to remember that? The work of a witch as a healer, and that's perhaps a shamanic approach to witchcraft, is to help people remember themselves.
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