For the first time in her life, journalism junior Helyn Oshrin said she claims herself as a witch — but growing up “Jewiccan,” as she put it, was not easy.
Oshrin is culturally Jewish and was raised Wiccan. She said she lost friends who claimed to be afraid of her mother’s Wiccan religious practices. Classmates accused her of worshiping the devil and made violent threats against her.
Despite recounting painful memories, she said, she tried to see through their eyes with empathy.
“All they’ve had is, ‘Oh, pagans are evil,’” Oshrin said. “And then they run into one. They don’t have a concept of what other things are quite yet.”
At 20 years old, she said she understands this was deeper than bullying. Through a Cal Poly class, The Witch-Hunts in Europe (HIST 306) she is putting the pieces together.
Her fifth grade classmates did not hate her, she said – they were pawns in a system built around villainizing pagan rituals.
“In medieval times, it was Christianity or bust, and if you were ‘other,’ you were celebrating evil specifically,” Oshrin said. “That’s how they were able to do all the persecution and witch hunts.”
The ignorance of her peers can be chalked up to how little information there is available about Wicca as a broad practice.
“Each individual person who identifies as Wiccan will have a slightly different sense of what that potentially means to them,” College of Liberal Arts religious studies and women’s and gender studies professor Anya Foxen said. “That makes it both a really interesting thing to study and analyze, but also a really tricky thing to study and analyze.”
In college, Oshrin said she found more self-acceptance away from her high school and hometown.
For her, spells, crystals and covens are all involved, but they do not have to be.
“You don’t have to know any of [the spells] to be able to practice,” Oshrin said. “You can be whatever you want to be as long as you’re good to other people.”
The golden rule — treating others as one would want to be treated — is one of the few basic principles that make up Wicca. Specifically, Oshrin said, it is that whatever energy a person sends out into the universe, it will come back on them three times stronger.
The other ideal is having respect for the earth, she said, with roots in feminism and women’s life-giving powers.
Foxen said this power for women in Wicca does not come from built-in rules, but rather the opposite.
“Because it’s not an institution in the way that the Catholic Church is an institution, there’s nothing that’s set in stone that keeps women out of positions of power,” Foxen said.
“It’s fun to look at in a historical sense,” Oshrin said. “This was a way for women to gain a sense of purpose, a sense of power and a sense of control over their lives. Claiming myself as a witch for the first time in my 20 years – it was very empowering to me.”
Consent is also a central issue, Oshrin said. Hollywood depictions of love spells do not fly with Wiccans. A witch could perform a spell manifesting more love in their personal life, but according to Oshrin it is not how the media portrays it.
“You can’t be like, ‘Oh, that guy over there, I want him to fall madly in love with me,’” Oshrin said.
In her young adult life, she said she has had to piece together her own coven. Not a “culty coven,” Oshrin said. Friends and roommates have been intrigued, with some of them eventually picking up the practice when they learned more about it.
“I explain it to them, and they’re like, ‘Wait a second, that’s what I’ve been thinking about myself this whole time,” Oshrin said. “I just didn’t know what to call myself or how to explain it.’”
She encounters people with this mindset so often that she’s developed a name for it: “in the broom closet.”
Oshrin’s roommate, communications junior Julianna Quihuiz, just celebrated her first Wiccan ritual with her: making moon water under the full moon. This is a change for Quihuiz, who said she grew up Catholic.
“I really enjoyed [the ritual],” Quihuiz said. “Lately, I’ve just kind of been straying from my faith, because I’ve had a lot of questions with Christianity, but I still feel like I’m a very spiritual person.”
She said she was drawn in by the flexibility of Wicca.
“You find your own footing, so there’s no strict ways of how you need to be, which was something that I had a problem with in Catholicism,” Quihuiz said.
Fully accepting the title of Wiccan has been a slow process for her. Quihuiz tried to open up to her mother about her newfound spirituality, but did not receive the reaction she hoped for.
“I got really bad pushback from her for not wanting to be Catholic or believe in Jesus,” Quihuiz said. “It’s a really hard aspect that a lot of people go through in trying to transition.”
Oshrin said she sees a new wave of Wicca developing, or possibly just the commercialization of it. From Urban Outfitters selling crystals and spellbooks, to people doing more spiritualistic practices like yoga, meditation and crystal work, spirituality is gaining more acceptance in ways most people would not recognize.
Still, Oshrin said she is doing the work of spreading the word on her own.
“They don’t have a bumper sticker for it yet,” Oshrin said.