BRATTLEBORO—Say the word “witch” and what comes to mind?
Harry Potter? A pointed hat, green face and warts? The crone who tried to cook Hansel and Gretel? Flying on broomsticks? Bewitched? Women dancing around bonfires with the devil?
How about healers? Wise elders? Or a religious tradition dating back thousands of years with “first, do no harm” as its primary tenet?
“There are a million traditions, but ‘do no harm’ is what brings them together,” said Stacy Salpietro-Babb, a 34-year-old hospital admissions coordinator, wife, mother and Strega Witch, one who practices an Italian form of lunar witchcraft.
“People have different paths to the same truths,” she said.
Originally raised Catholic, Salpietro-Babb, describes herself as a “skeptical witch” and said her desire to have her own spiritual tradition brought her from Catholicism to Witchcraft 15 years ago.
The earth-based religion that focused on understanding life through the surrounding world made sense to her — she could see and experience aspects like sunsets and full moons.
“It’s such an old wise tradition, and that’s why I love it,” she said.
She explains Witchcraft as working within the groove of the natural energies that surround us in a very grounded and practical way.
“It’s walking the path of the bigger energies you see,” she said.
And yes, Witchcraft deals with magic, she said. But this magic is not for tricks — rather, it’s about drawing to you what you need.
One of the legends of her tradition says if witches do not turn the wheel of the year, the season won’t change. Luckily, the world has always had some form of witch to keep the wheel turning, she said.
Day outside of time
Salpietro-Babb loves Halloween.
Known as Samhain in her tradition, a seasonal rite, the holiday marks the transition between summer’s end, when the old world dies, and the start of the Celtic New Year. According to Salpietro-Babb, Halloween exists between the old and new years, not belonging to either.
Halloween is “a day outside of time, which makes it possible to view any other time,” she said.
The veils between the worlds thin, making it easier to communicate with the spirit world.
The old rite of leaving food for deceased loved ones is at the root of the current tradition of passing out candy on Halloween. Dressing up in costume was a way for people to blend in and out of the sight of wandering spirits, she said.
She said many Christian rituals have been layered over Sabbats rites to make Christianity easier to sell to the peasants. For example, the Winter Solstice, which symbolized the birth of the Sun God, morphed into Christmas, a celebration of the birth of the Son of God.
“Halloween was the one they couldn’t take away,” said Salpietro-Babb.
Salpietro-Babb said she feels a little “grumpy” sometimes because Halloween is a witches’ holiday, but many people “look down their noses” at the religion of Witchcraft.
“I don’t believe in witches” and “Do you kill babies and animals?” is a contradictory one-two verbal punch Salpietro-Babb hears often.
“I’m tired of answering those questions. They’re hurtful and mean. People would never say that to [someone of] other religions,” she said, noting her mother, a Christian, never had to justify her creed.
Witches are real, she said. They exist, she said, just as Catholics do, and it’s not a matter of opinion.
She said she no longer wears her pentacle, a traditional symbol of peace and protection, to her day job.
A co-worker approached her pointing at her necklace saying, “People have been tortured by people like you.”
Salpietro-Babb shrugs, noting that her co-worker wears a cross on which her savior was tortured and died.
“People forget symbols,” she said.
It drives her “nuts,” she said. If people do something, then they should know why, she said — like understanding that jack o’lanterns were used to light the way for the spirits of ancestors.
But Salpietro-Babb understands the root of her co-worker’s statement. Centuries of bad press have buried witchcraft under fear, hatred and misconceptions. She watches the teens around her strut pentacles as a style, not understanding the way of life behind the symbol.
Doing no harm
But, said Salpietro-Babb, the first rule of witchcraft is do no harm.
She said, most people stop fearing Witchcraft once they realize what it’s about. People don’t need to become a witch to understand the traditions; they just need to respect them, she said.
If someone attempts to hurt another with magic, then they’re not practicing Witchcraft, she said.
For example, Salpietro-Babb refuses to cast love, because for the spell to succeed, she’d have to thwart someone’s free will and go against her spiritual teachings.
One little-known fact about Witchcraft traditions, said Salpietro-Babb, is that spell casting is considered a lower form of magic. Balancing two forces like the sun and moon is considered higher magic.
She stresses Witchcraft, Wicca and Satanism are not interchangeable.
Witchcraft is the roots of a very old tradition with multiple branches, of which one is Wicca. Introduced in the 1950s by Gerald Gardner, after England repealed the Witchcraft laws in 1951, Salpietro-Babb said Wicca focuses more on personal development and a higher power, whereas Witchcraft focuses on a god/goddess entity.
According to Salpietro-Babb, Satanism practitioners worship the power of negativity and do not practice Witchcraft — period. Confusing the two is one of Salpietro-Babb’s biggest pet peeves.
“History’s written by those who win,” said Salpietro-Babb.
Events like the Inquisition and the Salem Witch Trials have taught people to fear witches. According to Salpietro-Babb, the stereotypical image of the green-faced witch with warts on her nose came to modern times courtesy of the Inquisition, or what some historians call “the women’s holocaust.”
An old text used in witch hunts, the Malleus Malicuform or The Hammer of Witches, detailed how to identify witches by the wart or moles on their faces. The green face came from one of the identification tests.
According to www.malleusmaleficarum.org, two members of the Dominican Order of Inquisitors for the Catholic Church, Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger, wrote the book in Germany in 1486. Witch hunters used the text for 300 years in trials.
Investigators fed suspected witches poison. If they died, they were deemed innocent. If they lived with the poison — hence the green face — they were deemed witches and put to death.
“When did witches ever deserve to die? It’s all being a healer,” asked Salpietro-Babb.
The image of a “wicked” hag witch represents a subversion of the Crone Goddess. The final aspect of the triple Goddess, after the Maiden and Mother aspects, the Crone represents a wise healer as well as the end of a cycle associated with autumn and winter.
Salpietro-Babb remembers at 18 hanging out in her hometown mall wearing a pentacle. A little girl smiled at her and she smiled back. The little girl’s mother covered her daughter’s eyes, saying, “Don’t look at her — she could kill you.”
“It feels like the world hasn’t moved on,” she said.
The irony of people’s fear, said Salpietro-Babb, is that we use pagan names and symbols every day without realizing it.
For example, the days of the week are named for many of the old gods and goddesses. Monday translates into “The day of the Moon” and Friday is named after the Norse goddess Frige.
Salpietro-Babb laughs and recounts a conversation with a young boy she called “her little skeptic.” At a recent school fair fundraiser, where Salpietro-Babb conducted Tarot readings, a little boy told her he didn’t believe in magic.
“It means you’re smart,” said Salpietro-Babb.
Salpietro-Babb feels people must discover their path, not just believe carte blanche.
After a while, the “little skeptic” said he wanted to see some magic and asked her to set something on fire.
Salpietro-Babb, feeling the most practical approach to magic is the best approach, said she told her little skeptic that, if she worked hard enough she could light a candle with magic, or, she could use a match and get on with the rest of her life.
When it comes to magic, she added, the better question is, “What is it you need?”
Spells never work how you think they will, so you need to be clear, said Salpietro-Babb.
Salpietro-Babb said many local witches practice independently rather than in communal covens but that the pagan community as a whole is strong. Salpietro-Babb practices with two to three other people but does not belong to a coven.
“This is a great area to be a witch,” she said.