Education on religion and faith, especially in institutions where church and schools are separated, can be scarce, leaving understanding of beliefs that are deemed controversial at the mercy of the thinker. A lack of knowledge about one’s faith, especially one as mysterious as those that fall under paganism, can mean detriment to the one practicing the faith. That is why those practicing paganism, some of whom call themselves witches, seek to create a deeper understanding of their craft to those in the Treasure Valley.
“Unfortunately, most pagan (and) metaphysical practices, while gaining popularity, are still unknown territory,” said Ryan Straub, owner of art gallery and metaphysical shop Altar Egos. “Because of this, they receive negative connotations. These negative perspectives range from being evil to sacrilegious. Personally, (I believe) being educated on these practices would offer new insight to these paths.”
According to Straub, these negative connotations have a long, dark history that stems back to the Salem witch trials, where hundreds of women were convicted of witchcraft. Embracing this backstory, those practicing some path of paganism still urge non-witches to educate themselves on the practices of the craft.
While this education can be supplemented by the university in some way, Straub advises that those wanting to discover the history and learn the craft engage in personal research, including speaking to seasoned practitioners, to ensure the richest possible education.
“Fortunately, there has been a surge in popularity of all the pagan spiritual paths, because of this the amount of knowledge about pagan spirituality has become more readily available,” Straub said. “As for witchcraft specifically, it has both a spiritual and historical significance. Studying the biblical associations, as well as the witchcraft trials can provide a unique perspective to the origins of the craft.”
This historical take on the widespread religion of paganism and its many sub-beliefs is not unlike the perspective of anthropologists who study social science to create theories about religion. Mitchell Brinton, an instructor of the Magic, Witchcraft and Religion course at Boise State, described how witchcraft and magic can be explained through an evolutionary or anthropological lens.
“Magic (or witchcraft) has a communicative effect,” Brinton said. “Let’s say your husband has committed adultery. Instead of getting in their face about it, calling on your relatives to act violently against him or being violent yourself, you might consult someone with supernatural powers that can put a curse on him. You are communicating to your adulterous husband that you are willing to take violent action against him, without actually hurting or killing him. At the end of the day, taking an evolutionary approach to religious behavior allows us to interpret observable behaviors and explain why they worked for individuals thousands of years ago, and perhaps today.”
This claim by Brinton, however, is based on the anthropological definition of witchcraft, which differs greatly from that used by individuals like Straub, who practice magic as a religion. John Ziker, professor and department chair of anthropology, described the way magic fits into the broader definition of religion over time.
“In anthropology, the traditional definition of witchcraft is someone who is claimed to do supernatural evil,” Ziker said. “In the anthropological definition, no one ever claims to be a witch, they’re accused of being a witch. We wouldn’t use the witchcraft definition for people who identify that way, we’d just call it white magic. That’s the general definition of religion, the acceptance of another person’s supernatural claim, whatever those are.”
This communicative effect that comes from witchcraft as a religion, however, isn’t always negative. One subset of paganism, Wicca, seeks to defeat the stereotype of violent magic by witches. While information is readily available at stores like Altar Egos and Crone’s Cupboard, owned by Jeanine Lesniak, the misinformation has yet to be debunked. Lesniak discovered that the stigma has become increasingly present with the current state of the government.
“There are a lot of people out there displeased with the government and wanting to do something negative about it, and that is completely inappropriate for Wicca,” Lesniak said. “It’s not that we can’t get political and have opinions and be active with them, but the appropriate Wiccan thing to do when we are not pleased is to call on the powers that be to bring wisdom and light to the situation, bring healing to the situation. The Wiccan way is not to curse or harm in any way.”
While those practicing pagan paths, like Lesniak and Straub, seek to guide the conversation towards the unearthing of culture and the disintegration of stigmas from the practice, Brinton took a humanistic approach towards religious importance overall.
“Religion and religious behaviors are here for a reason,” Brinton said. “Though the majority of human behavior is secular, many of us owe our existence to people who engaged in religious behaviors. Whether our ancestors joined (and cooperated with) individuals they’ve never met before, who all communicated their acceptance of Joseph Smith’s supernatural claims, like me, or, individually, were part of a group that used magic, instead of direct violence, to solve conflicts, the use and acceptance of supernatural claims is (and) was important to humanity’s survival.”