Like most budding pagans, I first encountered the idea of witches as people to look up to in fiction—most vividly (since I’m too old to have grown up with Harry Potter) in the form of Morwen, the practical, ginger-haired witch in Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles. Morwen was smart and sensible, had a household full of cats, and didn’t take nonsense from anyone. I loved her. But it wasn’t until I encountered the works of Terry Pratchett, and particularly his books about the young witch Tiffany Aching, that I really discovered a brand of witchcraft that calls to me even as a pagan who expressly doesn’t see herself as casting spells.
Although Pratchett’s witches are sometimes called upon to perform impressive displays of magic, the majority of their work is, frankly, work. They occupy the edges of their social world, and often smooth out the rough edges in the transitional periods of life, birth, and death. They protect the unprotected, serve the poor, and solve disputes through cunning and sometimes blunt application of common sense, and also through ‘headology’ or, when called for, downright trickery and application of ego. With few exceptions they disdain ‘trinkets’ and charms—for them, any stick is a wand, and a pool of ink or water is as good as any scrying stone. And they have an ethic of personal responsibility about everything—if it has to be done and no one else will do it, that’s when it becomes a witch’s job.
They’re also sensible and no-nonsense, and at least a few of them have cats, so that’s all my childhood expectations of witches fulfilled as well.
Witches interfere. They gossip and collect information about the people around them (not at all something I enjoy, why would you suspect that?), and they manipulate people into doing better for the world, whether by cajoling, trickery, or sheer intimidation. In the second book, A Hat Full of Sky, Tiffany is annoyed to discover that Granny Weatherwax has told a farmer who suffers from chest pains that he should walk to a waterfall five miles away and throw a shiny stone into the water to appease a particular spirit that lives there. Tiffany protests that this isn’t true at all, and Granny points out to her that of course it is–a five mile walk every day will do wonders for the old man’s heart, and throwing a stone into the water every time won’t do the least bit of harm, either. As a person who, just like Tiffany, gets very indignant about people putting out incorrect and non-scientific information, I’m forced to look at that logic and just wish I was that clever. If I was, no amount of trouble with family members, clients, or co-workers would ever bother me. But we can’t all be Granny Weatherwax, and, in reality, I’m always questioning, always doubting, and that’s made my life in spiritual belief very difficult. One of the things Pratchett’s witches are good at is recognizing when they’re fooling themselves, and that’s something that’s caught me up in the past, for better and worse. I went through a period of praying daily to my chosen deities, adding candles and perfume oil and a whole practiced ritual rigmarole on holidays taken from the Wiccan calendar, but I gave it up. I felt like I was fooling myself.
“Do you believe in this stuff?” Tiffany asks one of the villagers in Wintersmith when she discovers that they’ve created a shrine around the grave of a deceased witch she used to work with. The woman looks flustered and says that of course she doesn’t, but… “It makes you feel better, thought Tiffany. It’s something you can do when there’s nothing more to be done. And who knows, it might work” (page 253). When I’m very honest with myself, I feel that way a lot.
I don’t have deep wells of faith anymore–a lot of life has happened since the innocent days when I prayed all the time to the gods and goddesses, and this past spring I learned that even the deepest, most heartfelt prayers, the ones you’d cut your own veins for if you thought it would help, often go ignored. I was pregnant, and when we started having severe complications I begged every deity I could think of for help. We lost the baby anyway. It made me feel deeply cheated and alone in the universe, but after a while I started to think about how everyone feels that way at some time or another, and it doesn’t help to sit around feeling angry with the gods for not stepping in and changing things. Maybe they can’t, maybe they won’t, maybe it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t hurt to believe in things that make me feel better, so long as I don’t let it trick me into believing that anyone else, human or divine, is more responsible for me or my actions than I am.
In A Hat Full of Sky, Tiffany asks Granny Weatherwax about another witch named Miss Level, and why Granny had sent Tiffany to learn from her. Granny Weatherwax says she sent Tiffany to her because Miss Level likes people. “She cares about ‘em. Even the stupid, mean, drooling ones, the mothers with the runny babies and no sense, the feckless and the silly and the fools who treat her like some kind of servant. Now that’s what I call magic–seein’ all that, dealin’ with all that, and still goin’ on. […] We all do that, in our own way, and she does it better’n me, if I was to put my hand on my heart. That is the root and heart and soul and center of witchcraft, that is” (page 286). I’m not good enough to do all that. I’m not good with people. But I am trying to get better about it. I’m trying to let the petty stuff wash over me and focus on trying to make the world better in all the simple little ways that I can. Sometimes that means letting the gods worry about themselves, and sometimes it means accepting that I’m human and I want to believe in something that will make me feel better. And both of those things are things that Terry Pratchett taught me are okay.