Abygail Okupsi is a witch. Not a cauldron-brewing, broomstick flying, pointy hat-wearing witch. Okupsi is a follower of the modernized Pagan religion of Wicca.
“It’s just the way I believe. Everyone else has their own beliefs,” Okupsi said. “Create harmony within the world. Don’t try to mess up the balance of what is going on.”
These ideas of harmony and balance are what first drew Okupsi, a freshman pre-nursing student, to Wicca. She was raised a Catholic, but as she got older she grew apart from the church. With the guidance of some friends in her hometown of Seneca, Okupsi decided to convert.
For Okupsi, being a witch means wearing a five-pointed star (pentacle) for protection, burning candles, consulting tarot cards for guidance, praying to the Greek gods and goddesses, and reading from her spellbook.
But not every Wiccan thinks this way. In fact, being a Wiccan and being a witch are two separate things. Wicca is a religion, but witchcraft is the practice a magic.
“You’re supposed to make your religion what your religion should be,” local witch Kerry Johnson said. She uses witchcraft as an outlet for her Wiccan beliefs. Among her many titles, Johnson is high priestess of the Nine Roses Coven and an owner of the local shop Village Witch.
Regardless, the religion upholds one major value as written in their belief statement the Wiccan Rede: do no harm. Wicca is not supposed to be about black magic or hurting people; it’s about creating harmony.
“All of those rules align the same way. Do unto others as you would do unto you. Whatever you do comes back to you. It’s just worded differently,” said Ashlie Christianson, Johnson’s daughter-in-law and the owner of Green Goddess, which is connected to Village Witch. “It’s the same shit. It’s moreso what makes you comfortable, what makes you happy, what gives you that reason for that energy.”
Johnson teaches a number of classes including a series on the basics of ritual. To complete this class, Johnson hosted a ritual in her shop on the night of Saturday, Sept. 15, and with her permission, I was able to attend.
I arrived at Village Witch around 7 p.m. but a couple of members were late so we stood around eating snacks for a bit.
“How can you tell when it is midnight at the witch’s house? The 9 o’clock ritual is starting,” Johnson joked.
There were nine women there, including myself, ranging in age and amount of witchcraft experience. Many of the women came from different religious backgrounds and were just there to learn. Unlike some faiths, Wicca does not actively seek to convert.
“If you’re supposed to be here, you’ll find your way here,” Johnson said.
We were to perform an earth-healing ritual which is meant to send out good energy. According to Johnson, the Wiccan Rule of Three states that whatever energy you put out will return threefold so it’s important that witches expel positive energy into the world.
The women gathered in a circle around a small shrine that held candles, mini pumpkin cakes, wine and two intricately carved statues of a woman and a man.
Wicca is a polytheistic religion, but it traditionally recognizes one main god and goddess called the “Lord and Lady.” These gods can be pulled from any pantheon including Greek, Egyptian, Native American, Nordic and the traditional Celtic. These gods and goddesses can even be mixed — it just depends on the witch.
The room was dark except for a few lit candles and the setting sun behind us. To begin the ritual, Johnson had to cast a circle of protection. She walked around the room blessing the cardinal directions with smoke and a blade. Each direction is represented by a different element: east is air, south is fire, west is water, and north is earth.
After blessing the space, Johnson invoked the Lord and Lady, and then we began the spellwork.
The group circled around the shrine, moving clockwise while chanting a spell about the elements until it had been repeated nine times. After chanting, we ate the cakes and passed around a chalice of wine. Johnson called this a sort of “Wiccan communion.” Regardless of what she called it, I was just happy to be eating snacks and drinking wine.
Once we finished eating, Johnson thanked the Lord and Lady and then uncast the circle. The atmosphere did not feel any different to me, but to the other women, including Autumn Blevins, a recent student of Johnson’s class, it seemed to have made an impact.
“I literally had to move halfway across the U.S. to find something would teach me like this and that I would feel comfortable like with,” Blevins said.
Blevins is originally from Maryland and came to Lawrence for school. Growing up, she was taught that Wiccans were bad people, but as she got older she wanted to learn more. Blevins decided to take the class to find “the truth,” and what she found was a sense of community and freedom like nothing she had ever had before.
“That’s what I’ve been trying to do for most of my life,” Blevins said.
Blevins would like to continue her training and said she hopes to eventually join Johnson’s coven. But while Blevins is drawn to Wicca, obviously not everyone feels the call or believes in magic.
“Can I prove that magic works? No.” Johnson said. “Have I had spells work? Yeah. Have I had spells not work? Yeah. To me, spells are very much like prayers. You’re petitioning a higher power and sometimes the answer is no.”
In Lawrence, most people have been pretty relaxed about her Wiccan beliefs, but both Johnson and Okupsi say that they have experienced some backlash. Johnson has had bibles thrown at her and she’s even had to kick threatening people out of her store.
“It’s the ‘other,’” Johnson said. “We all hate the other. It’s just the way our society is.”
But Johnson said she doesn’t care about what anyone else thinks. She said she believes there is no wrong religion, just wrong religions for you. She’s just happy that she gets to practice what feels right to her.
“Just live and let live,” Johnson said.
—Edited by Nichola McDowell