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And Never Once Was There a Athame Near My Chalice: My Very Sheltered Occultist Upbringing

Everyone loves to trade early Occultist/Pagan stories.  The corrupt teachers!  The Chthonic beings you summoned just because you could before you could even hold an anthame!  Ostracization for petty crimes committed in your youth!  In fighting!  Coven drama!  Sexism!  Racism!  Getting your car keyed!  Illicit sex with elders and barely legals!


Oh it’s just so scandalous and juicy!  I love hearing all of it!


And then there’s me.



I’m a Generation X/Y cusp so there were legit Witch shops in the mall and acquiring occult goods such as stones, Ouija boards, Enya and Loreena McKennit cassettes  and Tarot cards were indulged by my mom.   After, she was in her twenties during the time when Stevie Nicks was just about one of the coolest chicks ever and she dressed in flowy clothes, vaguely periodically claimed to be a White Witch and loved whomever she wanted to love with great impunity.   If I wanted to emulate her, so what?  Stevie Nicks had the best solo career out of all of Fleetwood Mac after all.


So I played in this safe little sandbox while dutifully going to church for a few years and then my mother made the mistake of sending me to college.  I was determined to go to Douglass College and pinned their brochure that proclaimed it was “Where Women Really Learned to Lead!” to my wall.  I managed to get in despite failing precalculus to the point that my teacher said privately to me, “You know how sometimes there’s a wall that can’t be jumped over in academics?  No matter how much you study or try?  This is your wall in math.”  You would think, an all girls school, a feminist curriculum, sexy dorm room circles wearing next to nothing calling up all sorts of spirits would happen in under five minutes, right?




My roommate was a politically conservative sorority girl type who invited me out with her to party but I was still far too much of a good girl to go.   My friends from home (most of whom were still living a tantalizing half hour away) were a bunch of weirdo queers (roommate friction!) and my dad had just died not even six months ago so I was in no way shape or form ready for the big leagues.   My freshman year, I was trying to adjust to going to such a huge University system and cling to everything familiar.


By sophomore year, I had adjusted somewhat to school and had a job, the ground felt a bit more stable underneath me.  Catholicism wasn’t making sense to me after my dad’s death so like the Hermione Granger I still secretly am, I decided school would be the only way to fix that since going to church on its own was not doing it.  Old Testament classes and Women and Western Religion it is, please!  


By then, Wicca was sort of known.  <i>The Craft</i> was out, I had Wiccan acquaintances but it never made a whole lot of sense to me per se or interested me too too much besides the cool powers part which I was quickly told were mostly movie special effects.  


I was reading a little about Goddess worship in my Women and Western Religion and finding that the Old Testament class was raising more questions than it was answering.  I did learn about the concept of Women’s Space* which I initially thought was an antiquated notion.  One of my assignments was to go to a religious service that was not part of my home religion.  


My friend introduced me to her stepmother who had a Dianic Wiccan circle.  So, I went to that first circle not to rebel against The Man or because I had always felt pulled towards earth based religion but because it was part of my school assignment.  Just . . .really sit with that for a moment. 


Anyway, I found I liked the company of my sisters and that God could be a woman which was a foreign concept to me at the time.  Lest you think it was all easy-breezy lemon squeezy from that point, trust and believe that my mother flipped out about this when I came out of the broom closet to her.  The phrase “you’re turning your back on hundreds of years of familial tradition” was uttered though no priest was called.  Mrs. Castellano could be cool about gaming and dabbling but she was not trying to hear anything about my spiritual growth that didn’t involve Popes.  Eventually, when she saw it wasn't a phase, we were both able to make peace with our differing beliefs and practices but that took a good chunk of years to get to.


During these early years, it was the late 90s.   People were still getting their cars keyed and the pentacle (or other magical symbol) was definitely something to be worn under the shirt.  Everyone had to be carefully felt out before talking about my beliefs but if someone had a general idea of what I was talking about, I could cautiously a very vague generic view of my practices and generally no torches were being thrown at me.


I was starting to feel that I needed more than what the safe womb of my circle offered me though.  Of course, in true college form, there was a boy involved.  I was dating my ex-husband (whom Mrs. Castellano also most assuredly did not like.  My early twenties were very trying for Mrs. Castellano.  I will grant her that she was right about my ex-husband) who was also Pagan.  He couldn’t come to my circle because he identified as a boy and I wanted to see what the bigger occult world had to offer.  


It was pre-Diaryland (which was pre-Livejournal) and I was sort of anti-social in my own secretly really shy way so I only went to my University’s Pagan Alliance a few times (I’ve been there way more to speak than to learn, come to think of it).  So I went to Grove of the Other Gods, which is an ADF Druid Grove because my friend was going there more than she was going to circle.  I joined the dedicants’ program with ADF and became an initiated priestess with my Dianic group.  


While my personal practice would take me many places outside of those groups in the decade and a half that followed, working in a group was really helpful in honing my magical critical thinking skills.  I also got my two spiritual mentors who I still see and talk to regularly well over a decade later.


S. is a second wave badass who has done amazing things for feminism and is a total radical.  She was always supportive of anything my mom was not in favor of which was important in my twenties so I could grow and evolve.  She was a social worker for many years and worked for the state in the HIV/AIDS education unit and has done a lot for Planned Parenthood, NOW and the ERA.  She really helped me deal with a lot of my personal issues and helped me come to terms with them.  She helped me find my center of power and taught me both how to be organized in ritual work and how to fly by the seat of my pants if something didn’t go according to plan.  Like the “other mother” she is for me, she really taught me to stand up for myself, believe in myself and my capabilities and she always believed in me and what I could accomplish.


N. is also a radical but more in a “damn the Man” sort of way.  She stressed how important it was for me to take the critical thinking skills I learned in school and to use them in everything, including the occult and my spirituality.  I started to be able to work with gods and spirits in a way that was (as my grove says) “less metaphorical than I would have preferred”.   She also taught me to not be afraid to be aggressive.  I learned how to conduct a ritual for about 20ish people with my grove.


Between the two of them, my circle, my grove, my personal work and being around a large group of peers my age, I learned mostly from other people.  I never had an official teacher, both N. and S. would probably cringe to hear me call them mentors but they’ve been around a couple decades longer than me.  


I made mistakes along the way, of course.  It wasn't all just hand holding and singing freedom songs.  I dated from my local community which is just as awkward as you think it is fifteen years later when everyone still lives in the same general area,  but as I’ve said, I was surrounded by a group of like minded peers.  Falling into bed together wasn’t a big leap after spending so many hours together.  My shyness was often easily misconstrued as nastiness and what can I say?  I wasn’t completely housebroken yet.


I was so busy learning from other people, I didn’t read that many books.  Although now as I’m trying to read more books cover to cover  (publishers love bibliographies), I’m learning more people are skimmers than I had initially thought.


All of this well groundedness means I don’t have very many “oh crap there I was” stories.  Which makes me weirdly sad as I move more into a place where I should (in theory) know better than to do x or y.  With my younger peers, it means I don’t have demon conjuring stories to share or a tale about that time that I asked to be a demi god.  


With my older friends the conversation goes something more like:


S: In some co-ed Wiccan circles, they still have the High Priestess kneel.


Me: For what?


S: For the Great Rite.


Me: Where there’s sex?


S: Not usually.  It’s when the High Priest puts his anthame into the Priestess’ chalice, as a symbol of the Rite.


Me: I . . .had no idea that was even part of the ritual.


S:  . . .are you serious?


Me: Yep!  Never seen it!



N: And Beltane can be really uncomfortable for some people –


Me: Really?


N:  Well, you know.  Gendered stuff, romantic stuff, the getting down after dark –


Me: Wait.  People at a Beltane ritual sometimes pair off and have sex?


N:  . . .what did you . . .what did you think happens?


Me: I dunno, my circle makes it our co-ed holiday so there’s kids and husbands and stuff and grove always gets really twitchy about sexing at Beltane and we’re usually in a public park so nothing exciting happens besides a picnic and a ritual.


N: . . .so you have no idea what I’m talking about.


Me: Nope.  Not even a little.


I’m contemplating some Lillydale style hijinx to get into because that can rock the boat without completely tipping it over but mostly I’ve been very sensible about the spirits and gods I deal with and tend to ask for boring, sensible things.  I don’t have very many Maidenhood regrets, but sometimes, I do wish I was a bit wilder with my magical practice.   


Just think of the stories!  ”This one time!  We totally drank our own menstrual blood and drew down Hera and killed all the unfaithful!”  Mmm.  Maybe a little less exciting than that.


* For the record, I personally think that anyone who identifies as a woman needs to have access to women’s space.  I also completely acknowledge that the trans* movement has changed a lot in the last decade.  The idea of trans* used to be that you were moving towards becoming a woman or a man when your biological body didn’t match up to your soul.   Now there are many people who identify as neither being a man or a woman but as being genderqueer or trans*.  If we were at an event that had segregated events, I personally would want to see there be space for women-identified people only, a space for male-identified people only and a space for genderqueer-identified people only.  I can’t speak for everyone in the world and who would want what and when and why, but for myself, in Occult/Pagan spiritual events like Pantheacon or in Feminist gatherings, I’ve found some experiences are more powerful when shared only with the gender of your own choosing.  Not everyone feels this way, that’s why most events are co-ed in those settings.  Some people, whatever gender they identify as, don’t enjoy single gender gatherings.  And that’s okay too!   I’d like for everyone to have the opportunity to explore that very personal issue for themselves and to experience it and then decide what’s best for themselves.

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Deborah Castellano's book, Glamour Magic: The Witchcraft Revolution to Get What You Want (Llewellyn, 2017) is available: . She is a frequent contributor to Occult/Pagan sources such as the Llewellyn almanacs, Witchvox, PaganSquare and Witches & Pagans magazine. She writes about Charms, Hexes, Weeknight Dinner Recipes, Glamoury and Unsolicited Opinions on Morals and Magic at Charmed, I'm Sure. Her craft shop, The Mermaid and The Crow ( specializes in goddess & god vigil candles, hand blended ritual oils, airy hand dyed scarves, handspun yarn and other goodies. She resides in New Jersey with her husband, Jow and their two cats. She has a terrible reality television habit she can't shake and likes St. Germain liquor, record players and typewriters.


  • Greybeard
    Greybeard Saturday, 11 January 2014

    Gathering in our circles to celebrate the Gods and to promote fertility has been an important part of the survival of our clans and our species for millions of years. The ancient fertility cult is a part of who we are. I am sorry for you that you have missed so much in your circle and in your life.

  • Deborah Castellano
    Deborah Castellano Saturday, 11 January 2014

    As I lean more towards not having children than having children, I have to say I don't really feel like I've missed anything to be honest. It's just not part of my personal practice. I have lots of opportunity to go to circles that have The Great Rite performing, even in a feminist-friendly context. It's just not my bag.

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