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3 share their paths to practicing witchcraft

As a projected ghostly figure pours a cup of tea on a background screen, the witches raise glasses of absinthe to toast their health during a celebration of the Halloween season on a recent Saturday evening at the home of Lady Ocalat and her husband Bill Couture in Duluth. Clockwise from left: Sonna Olson, Joshua Stern, Kat Rose, Tom Grassinger, James Mullen, Sarina White and Ryan Haugen. Bob King / Forum News Service1 / 9
Lady Ocalat sits the altar (left) in her bedroom in her home in Duluth as she describes what witches believe and practice. Bob King / Forum News Service2 / 9
Joshua Stern of Duluth (center) holds hands in a circle with the other witches to encourage spirits of the deceased to give them a sign of their presence. Bob King / Forum News Service3 / 9
A box with an inlaid pentangle and a mortar and pestle sit ready by Lady Ocalot's altar in the bedroom of her home. Bob King / Forum News Service4 / 9
Jade Williams talks about being a witch. Behind her are some of the items she uses. Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service5 / 9
Jade Williams shows her tarot cards. Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service6 / 9
Ryan Haugen (right), also known by his witch name of Lord Auriel, of Rice Lake, does a taro card reading with Sarina White, a.k.a. Ravenessa Moon, of Duluth, during the Samhain celebration at the home of Lady Ocalat on a recent Saturday night. Bob King / Forum News Service7 / 9
From left: Bill Couture, Lady Ocalat, Sonna Olson and Joshua Stern toast their health with glasses of Green Midori, which they call the "Green Fairy", during a celebration of the Halloween season on a recent Saturday night. Bob King / Forum News Service8 / 9
A glass of Green Midori liquor, called a Green Fairy, smokes with dry ice during the witches' celebration. Bob King / Forum News Service9 / 9

DULUTH, Minn.—For witches around the world, Monday marks "the most magickal time of year," said Lorene Couture of Duluth.

On a recent Saturday, eight witches, including Couture, gathered at her home to celebrate Halloween, Samhain or the Witches' New Year. Guests of Couture and her husband, Bill, sat around a table in their candlelit dining room.

On the agenda: verbal offerings, divination (runes and tarot), feasting and absinthe. "Van Gogh and Picasso, they used this to release their creativity," Couture said of the absinthe. "It's a ritual."

Sitting at the table, Joshua Stern of Duluth raised a glass of melon liqueur. Stern said he and Couture like to think that everyone's a witch, but they just forgot. "A lot of people don't realize how powerful they are as humans, spiritually," he said.

Stern, 41, has been a witch for about 18 years, he said, and his journey to exploring Wicca as a religion and witchcraft as a spiritual practice began by studying mortuary science in college.

"You work every funeral, and you see every religion," he said. He was having trouble reconciling his studies with his religious background. "I'm also a scientist, so trying to balance that with my spirituality" was difficult, Stern said.

He began looking into Native American spirituality, which has similarities to nature-based Wicca, he said. Then during a difficult time in his life, he met Couture. By studying and having a sit-down with her, he was on his way to the craft, he said.

Today, Stern does spellwork, which is "prayer with more punch," he said. The most common stereotype is that witchcraft is devil worship, he said, and that's completely the opposite of the craft.

'Ineffable love'

Stern's practice emphasizes that there's no middle man necessary to access spiritual energy. He said he very much has a connection to the goddess or god.

"I don't see God as a man on a throne judging people. I think it's this beautiful, incomprehensible, ineffable love, and I can relate that more to a woman than I can a man," he said.

Wicca affirms both male and female deities, and many witches work with particular gods or goddesses in their spellwork. Stern said he most looks up to Jesus and Brigid, a goddess of reiki.

"I also have a relationship with Buddha ... with Muhammad," he said, noting that his practice is a conglomeration of different religions that he's found truth in.

A space where he practices witchcraft is at his altar, which is a leaning bookcase in his bedroom. There are crystals amethyst and quartz, a tiny cauldron, two daggers that aren't for cutting anything — an athame and a bowline. A straw broom rests nearby, and a crocheted scarf his relative made hangs from one corner of the bookcase. Branches and greenery rest near the top.

Jars of dried lavender, blue corn and other herbs sit on an adjacent case. He said he'll grind and burn herbs because "it really helps with my meditations and my prayers." And a staple: "always sweetgrass."

An example of a simple spell for Stern is: "You wake up in the morning, you clean your house and you have your music blasting, and literally just that motion is almost a spell in itself. You're cleaning out the bad energy in your life ... it's symbolic," he said.

He always brings a specific intention to his spells, and visualizing what it will feel like when that outcome happens is important because spellwork is about asking, he said. "You're asking the universe, and you're asking the goddess, but it feels like your heart is more into it."

"I'm praying, I just have altar prayers," he said.

Most of his spells are for healing, centering or protection, such as "repulsion spells, if you feel like somebody's really trying to be intrusive in your life, protection from thieves," he said.

Stern is not part of a coven; he practices by himself at home or in nature, which is a big factor to his spirituality, he said. "If I find God in anything in life, I can find it in the Boundary Waters, I can find it in the lake, I find it in kindness and in honesty.

"It's been really a blessing for me," he said. The craft has been a foundation for him to grow spiritually, he said, and he's found a home in Wicca.

'Solitary, eclectic witch'

"I like witchcraft because it very much can be accustomed to the individual witch," said Jade Williams, 27, of Duluth. It was about three years ago that she began taking her practice seriously, she said, but she was doing rituals long before that.

Williams has been drawn to crystals and gemstones since she was 5, she said. And: "I've always had paranormal things happen to me, too, so I know there's something else out there."

Her spirituality began with a Christian upbringing Williams said stopped resonating fully. She was drawn to energy healing and divination, which is the use of tarot or runes.

"I can't say a specific time or a specific event that made it happen; it just kind of happened," Williams said. She did her homework and studied "Buckland's Complete Book of Witchcraft," and eventually initiated herself as a witch.

Today, her practice includes influences from Buddhism, Christianity and Kabbalah, adding that there are things she borrows from Wicca, but she's not Wiccan.

"I'm a very open and nontraditional ... solitary, eclectic witch," she said.

Williams said she feels akin to the healing properties of the craft, noting a key moment in her spirituality.

"One of the first things I can remember is being in a church, and my brother was premature, and everybody was just praying over him because they really didn't know if he would make it," she said. "I was 5 or 6 and just intending for him to heal and live," she said. And he did.

Today, she practices reiki, and her spellwork heavily involves healing, protection from negativity or asking for more creativity. As far as spiritual assistance, Williams said she works with the same angels or ascended masters and will "call on their guidance for different situations." Her go-tos are archangel Michael, Jesus, Raphael and her grandmother Annibell.

"She's one of my spirit guides," Williams said.

Like Stern, Williams likened spellwork to prayer and meditation. It's just a "more tangible form of prayer," she said. It can be as simple as any spoken word paired with an intention and a specific energy. You could do a spell if you just pick up a leaf and write something on it and throw it in the air, she said.

Williams also has an altar in her home. On it are a spirit board, sage stick and tarot cards.

Anything can be an altar, she said, pointing to an end table. "It's just a place where you can gather and meditate and have your spiritual essence there ... this sacred space."

Williams shares her practice with "witchy friends," and she has a good connection to an online community of Wiccans and witches.

"It's always good to have a group; then you're not alone," she said. "You have people to lean on — a community that supports each other." As for working with a coven, that's something she "definitely wouldn't rush," she said.

Asked about negative uses of the craft, she said of black magick, "There's no such thing.

"Magick is neutral, and it has everything to do with your intention."

'Cabinet of wonder'

Back at the Couture home, guests raised their glasses of absinthe.

"I put a spell on you," Couture sang out; the witches cheered.

Digital animation of ghosts and ghouls projected onto a netted sheet that hung from the ceiling. Instrumental music from "The Nightmare Before Christmas" and more played on a loop. Witches chatted and passed plates of smoked salmon, salami and grapes.

To the right of the dining room is Couture's bedroom. Her altar, or "cabinet of wonder," extends to nearly a third of the space.

Couture, 62, sat at a small table. On it was a cauldron, mortar and pestle, her book of shadows. She lifted a wand; "This is Purple Heart," she said.

Couture pointed to a pentacle, which is a star with a circle around it. "This symbol right here is not evil; it never was," she said. Couture ran her finger along the four points of the star, which represent earth, wind, fire and water. The top point is "the godhead," she said.

"Tools are important for ritual consciousness, but they're not required," she said, noting that her finger could be a wand. "You're the biggest role you play in your spellwork. You make it happen with the assistance of the universe."

She added: "What the universe is made of, I am made of. I'm not God, I mirror the energies of that," and those practicing witchcraft need to be committed to honoring that.

Couture likens her practice to cooking, noting there's always an intention and instruction. A person needs a clean space, purified tools and a clear intention for spells, she said.

To begin a spell at her altar, she said she would light charcoal before preparing the rest of her things. "I would make sure my candles were right, I had the right kind of herbs for what my intention was," she said. She would write out her spell or commit it to memory. She would clean her space before casting a circle, which helps keep raised energy contained, to later be directed to where she wants.

Couture doesn't do magick with just anyone.

While she's very public with her craft, she's very introverted regarding her practice. "I'll show people, I'll instruct people, but I won't do magick with them. They're on their own," she said. But she will practice with her family coven, she said.

Couture grew up in a long line of witches and is proud and appreciative of her roots. Practicing witchcraft was never a question for her, and when asked if she ever struggled with her faith, she gave a precise answer: "Never."

But she has had struggles, she said. When she was a musician on the road, she didn't have time for spellwork as often as she liked. Now, magick is her practice and her business.

In 2007, she opened Lady Ocalat's Emporium, where she gives tarot readings and sells magickal supplies, as well as jewelry, herbs and clothes.

In her bedroom, resting on her king-sized canopy bed were bottles marked with different herbs. She uses them for spells and to make essential oils for the store, she said.

On the wall in the room is a Christian cross; on another shelf sits a statue of Hindu deity Shiva. Couture has bookshelves filled to the brim. She reads everything, she said.

"Knowledge, to me, is how to be close to God," Couture said, before snuffing out the candles at her altar.

Melinda Lavine

Lavine is a features and health reporter for the Duluth News Tribune. 

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