Concordia witches explain their faith, Halloween and the supernatural
Geena Papini is just like any other Concordia student. As a communication studies major, she goes to school, does her homework and hangs out with friends. You may have walked past her many times, but there’s one detail you would not be able to gauge by simply looking at her—she is a witch.
“I do practice magic,” Papini said. “Many people think of Harry Potter when they hear ‘magic’ and, while it would be so cool if I could turn a teacup into a mouse, that’s not the kind of magic witches are referring to when they talk about their practice.”
Witchcraft means different things to different people. It can be either a spiritual expression from a variety of religions, or a secular practice performed without religion. According to Papini, it is a customizable craft.
“Witchcraft, to me, is a way to be in touch with the universe, the earth and myself. It is something I came to out of curiosity and out of a desire for spirituality that wasn’t rooted in a specific, rigid religious practice,” Papini said. “For some people, it is a structured thing, following rituals and ceremonies that are passed down from one practitioner to another.”
Witchcraft, when practiced as a part of paganism, is often referred to as Wicca.
“I don’t consider myself Wiccan,” Papini said. “I think there is a misconception that to be a witch, you must be Wiccan. This isn’t true. There are many secular witches who do not incorporate the religion into their practice. There are [also] many pagans who do not consider themselves witches.”
According to wicca.com, Wicca is a nature religion that acknowledges the cycles of nature, the lunar phases and the seasons. For many Wiccans, witchcraft is a spiritual system. While witches do hold rituals and brew potions, their craft mostly involves healing and natural remedies. For them, witchcraft is not a cult—they do not worship Satan, consort with demons, sacrifice animals or people, or use their craft to ‘hex’ or cast spells on others.
“None of us have sold our souls to Satan,” Papini said. “I promise.”
Another Concordia student who identifies as a witch is Raken Howell-Slater. Howell-Slater is Wiccan. She specifically identifies as a hearth witch, which, according to her, means most of her magic is intended to make people feel comfortable and happy in her home.
“I work with internal energies and call on elements [as well as] my Gods and Goddess for help when I need them,” Howell-Slater said. “I deal with mental illness, and I find my faith extremely helpful in combatting it.”
Howell-Slater said she had her first spiritual experience when she was 12 years old.
“I was walking in the woods when I went into a trance state and felt an extreme sense of peace, power, connection and emotion,” Howell-Slater said. “My first taste of something transcendental.”
She began to look into paganism when she was 18. When she first began studying at Concordia, she became involved with the Concordia University Pagan Society (CUPS) to meet other pagans.
“It’s really nice to hang out with a group of people who you don’t have to explain terminology or justify your beliefs to,” Howell-Slater said. “I think it’s still finding its feet, but the group definitely has a lot of potential and is a great place for curious people to get resources or answers.”
According to CUPS’s vice-president Bree Stuart, approximately half of their members are Wiccan and many of them practice witchcraft or magic on their own time. She said most of the witchcraft practiced by pagans revolves around lighting candles, burning herbs or laying out offerings. As for Stuart herself, she said she has always felt a pull towards the supernatural.
“There are few events and places in Montreal where pagans can practice their spirituality and faith, therefore we try to accommodate the broad spectrum of Pagan faiths to make sure that everyone feels welcome,” Stuart said. “As for the Concordia community, I feel our mysticism brings about a different worldview as well as open-mindedness in general.”
On Oct. 27, CUPS hosted an event at Concordia’s Multi-Faith Spirituality Centre to celebrate Samhain (pronounced sah-win or sow-in), the Pagan festival honouring the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter.
“We celebrate the eight Sabbats in the wheel of the year. They’re open to the public, so anyone can pique their curiosity and come celebrate,” Stuart said.
It is widely believed, especially in paganism, that many Halloween traditions are rooted in the Samhain festival.
“Samhain is actually the origin of Halloween,” Howell-Slater said. “It is the Wiccan New Year and one of the two most spiritual nights of the year, when supposedly the veil between this world and the next is the thinnest. I celebrate Samhain by having my friends over and doing a private ceremony in remembrance of my dead.”
Halloween is Papini’s favourite time of year. She encourages people to celebrate and dress up as witches, but warns them to be mindful when donning a witch costume.
“Many negative depictions of witches actually come from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance period, back when witches were thought of as people who had sold their souls to the devil in exchange for power, and are also rooted in anti-semitic prejudices,” Papini said. “The idea of a witch as someone with a hooked nose and green skin […] is something you should be mindful and aware of.”
Stuart agreed, and said she believes there is “no problem in donning a pointy hat and a broom.”
“That’s what I’m going to do,” she said.
To skeptics of her faith and practices, Howell-Slater has one message: “My beliefs and my gods are exactly as valid as any other god or set of beliefs you care to name. Mine just happen to be the ones that work for me.”
For more information about CUPS and their upcoming workshops on divination, herbs and the supernatural, visit their Facebook page.
Graphic by Alexa Hawksworth