Modern witches: two students find spirituality in Wicca

JESSICA RUF
jnruf15@ole.augie.edu

Below the sun streaming through their living room windows, an altar draped with a purple cloth holds candles, crystals, tarot cards and incense. Among the countless books overflowing their shelves are some not found in most people’s homes—books on the history and practice of Wicca.

Having a longtime curiosity for the pagan practice, Augustana seniors Jef Thormodsgard and Cheyenne Chontos, began practicing Wicca almost a year ago. Considered a modern form of paganism or witchcraft, Wicca grounds itself in magical practices and a deep appreciation for nature.

“Witchcraft is an international thing, it’s pulling in these ideas involving zen, Buddhism and Hinduism […],” Thormodsgard said. “It’s that zen—one with everyone and everything.”

Chontos said it’s mindfulness and connectedness that has attracted her to Wicca. She said performing some of Wicca’s rituals—burning incense, lighting a candle or carrying a crystal in her pocket—have provided designated time for meditative reflection in her life.

“The thing about Wicca that I think people don’t quite get is you don’t have to literally think that this candle is going to create real magic,” Chontos said. “The powerfulness of it is that you, as a human being, are setting a purpose and thinking about a goal. You’re focused on how you can change and affect the world.”

Sparkling on the altar are some of her crystals. Depending on the day, she will carry either purple amethyst which, she says, promotes calm and balance; pink rose quartz which reminds her that she is loved; clear quartz which brings abundance and happiness; and a black and white, “rainbow moonstone” which promotes intuition and sensitivity.

“I love crystals because they’re a little reminder in your pocket of what you need to focus on,” Chontos said.

 

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Purple amethyst and incense on Cheyenne’s altar. Photo by Jessica Ruf.

 

However, with no central authority to Wicca (such as the pope in Catholicism), beliefs and practices can vary among Wiccans. For instance, even Chontos and Thormodsgard’s altar is split down the middle.

“Even though we live together and we are partners in every other way, we actually don’t practice together,” said Chontos. “Jef is very by the book.”

Thormodsgard’s practice of Wicca grounds itself in the Hermetic Kabbalah tradition, which believes that there is no strict separation between humankind and divinity.

“It derives itself from a Judaic Christian background and is kind of considered a backdoor into spirituality,” Thormodsgard said.

The Kabbalah, also known as the “tree of life,” forms an ancient, hexagonal map that attempts to understand the nature of divinity and how divinity manifested itself as the universe.

Thormodsgard’s practice focuses specifically on how tarot cards help navigate the “tree of life.” The tarot cards and their images, Thormodsgard explained, correspond with the 22 paths in the tree and the 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet.

 

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Cheyenne shows her kitty-themed tarot deck. Photo by Jessica Ruf.

 

Even though they both practice different forms of Wicca, Thormodsgard and Chontos still celebrate the eight Wiccan holidays together. Each one, Chontos said, serves a different purpose.

Mabon in late September celebrates harvest and gratitude; Samhain on Oct. 31 celebrates those who have passed before; Yule in late December celebrates the winter solstice and thus, “a newborn sun”; and Eostar in late March celebrates birth and renewal.

If these holidays sound similar to Christian holidays, it’s because, Thormodsgard explained, most Christian holidays have their roots in pagan holidays. In effect, pagan traditions don’t stray far from Christian traditions.

For one thing, Cheyenne says, “Witches love baking bread.”

After being raised in Christian families and attending Catholic school themselves, Thormodsgard and Chontos said Wicca has provided a path for them to get back into spirituality after they both withdrew from Christianity, disagreeing with many aspects of its teachings.

“I didn’t feel like I was being served by Catholicism, and I didn’t feel like I was serving it either,” Chontos said. “And fundamentally, I just don’t believe in a lot of the things that they believe in. I disagree with their stance on gay marriage, women’s rights, abortion and all those big topics. I just knew it wasn’t a good fit for me.”

On the wall of their living room, a satirical painting of a glowing Jesus reads, “You must be guilty of something.” The picture represents one of the reasons they left Christianity.

“I think it reflects our current society in that the ideas that we were raised with in Christianity and Catholicism are hurting us now in certain ways, or we’re finding fault with them,” Chontos said. “And so I feel like I’m rebelling, but also doing what I think is ethically right.”

While Christianity places power in a single god, Wicca places power and divinity within people. It’s this reason, Chontos said, that she thinks Wicca is not as socially acceptable as Christianity in the West.

“Historically, it has been looked down upon or feared because [in Christianity] we’re not the powerful ones, but in witchcraft you are,” Chontos said. “And if you don’t feel you are powerful, but here are other people who do, then that’s a scary thing.”

“It’s a modernist take on that power [people have],” Thormodsgard said. “Why would you blame something else, why say ‘god is making all these hurricanes happen because there’s gay people?’ Why not just remove that and be responsible and really hospitable to others?”

Aside from questioning their childhood faiths, both Chontos and Thormodsgard are free spirits who have shared a lifelong interest in supernatural themes. At Thormodsgard’s senior formal, for instance, they both dressed up in matching skull jewelry.

“As a kid, my parents made the great mistake of getting me this witch book called the “Book of Wizardry,” said Thormodsgard. “It’s actually a kids book, but they sneak in elements of astrology, spell casting, sigil work and all sorts of things that I had always been interested in.”

Jef holds the book that introduced him to Wicca and witchcraft. Photo by Jessica Ruf.

In high school, Thormodsgard expanded his curiosity by reading books by British occultists Aleister Crowley and Dion Fortune. From there, his interest grew.

“It’s that building of spirituality and learning something new every day and striving to know other people and striving to know the world’s beliefs around you,” Thormodsgard said. “I mean, there must be some sort of truth, or lack thereof.”

Thormodsgard and Chontos aren’t the only ones who’ve grown increasingly interested in Wicca. Having risen in popularity since the 1950s, about .3 percent or nearly one million Americans practice Wicca or paganism, according to a Pew Research Center study conducted in 2014.

Chontos said people can be as “witchy” as they would like to be.

“If someone wanted to have a totally normal home life and have nothing except for a couple of candles and rocks, that would be just as valid as someone fully embracing the witch stereotype,” Chontos said.

As with any religion, however, Thormodsgard said there are always two radicals that can fall anywhere on the political spectrum, whether it’s Wiccans who curse and cast spells on Donald Trump, or alt-right Wiccans who worship Nordic gods as the embodiments of white supremacy.

But it’s safe to say most Wiccans are like Thormodsgard and Chontos—regular people who find meaning, connectedness and divinity in Wicca.

“It’s like any other religion,” Thormodsgard said. “It’s making sense of the chaos.”

 

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Jef Thormodsgard and Cheyenne Chontos embrace their “witchiness.” Photo by Jessica Ruf.

 

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