Maya Pascal: Switching gears from the first part of this interview, why don’t we dig into the witchcraft situation? How did you get into it?
Haylin Belay: My family doesn’t have a particular lineage of witchcraft, but there is what would be considered by most Americans to be witchcraft or magic in folklore and urban legends in my family’s culture. I don’t think that my mom would ever be comfortable knowing that I identify as a witch, because she still identifies as Christian, but my mom also told me stories about when she was a kid and she used to have prophetic visions.
So the idea of magic was always around.
Yes, but I don’t think I saw it as a serious avenue for a spiritual practice until much later in life, when it became clear to me that Christianity specifically—but just in general, organized religion and theology—was not working for me.
[But eventually] I was like, “well, it would be really nice to have some kind of organizing principle for the world; there is a lot of stuff in my life that I can’t explain. So, how can I have an organizing principle of the world that also incorporates these things that are beyond science and rationality, and things that are measurable and observable, and objectively true?”
I started burning incense. And then I got really into astrology, and using it as an organizing principle of my life, and of my relationships. Still with that kind of thread of skepticism, though. I think that my practice deepened when I was able to let go of the attachment to, “is this objectively true?” And kind of focus more on, “is this useful? Is this benefiting my life? Making me feel better?” And the answer was always yes.
So, this was a turning point for you.
Yes. After that I got into tarot. And tarot was really the big moment for me where I was like, “okay, I’m gonna let go of my reservations and start actively identifying as a witch.”
Part of the reason I started practicing witchcraft in the first place was because I liked that it was a spiritual practice that gives control and authority to you as an individual. The whole practice of magic revolves around utilizing your personal energy, which is a fraction of the universal energy, the universal divine. And so a big part of what I get out of being a witch is honoring and respecting and trusting that divinity inside myself.
What does your practice look like?
Honestly, it looks a lot like most people’s self care: I do a lot of ritual baths. Burning incense; cleaning rituals: whether that means physical cleaning, or literally cleaning my room, or doing a cleaning ritual that has to do with purifying and cleansing the living space.
Is there any advice that you would give to someone who’s interested in getting into witchcraft and doesn’t know where to start?
Do a lot of reading. There’s tons of blogs; I recommend finding a book, or more realistically, multiple books. The joy and the burden of witchcraft is that there’s not really a canonical history of neopaganism.
Find the keywords and the things that you’re interested in: tarot, bath magic, etc. Look at what you have in your kitchen cabinet, and be like, “I’m gonna Google ‘magical properties of basil’ or ‘magical properties of rosemary.’”
I’m giving my perspective as an intuitive witch. If you wanted to learn a particular tradition of witchcraft this strategy would not work, but if you’re just looking to make your life a little more magical, read a bunch of everything, and just pick the one that feels the most right to you. And obviously subscribe to my newsletter, My Feminism Involves Witchcraft. It’s a really amazing resource for novice witches. [laughs]
On that note, how do you see witchcraft as interacting with feminism?
The name of the newsletter obviously suggests that I see some kind of connection between the two. I see the power of witchcraft, for me, as a Black woman, being a huge opportunity to reclaim my personal power that on a daily basis is taken away from me in so many different ways.
I think being a Black woman in America means being gaslighted on a massive scale. Every day that you go outside, you’re experiencing some kind of harassment. Every time you look at the news, or you open up a book, there’s some kind of erasure that you’re experiencing. And just on a regular basis, in macro and micro ways, interpersonal ways and societal ways, you’re being told that you shouldn’t trust your instincts, you’re wrong about everything, you have no authority over your own life, or anything outside of your own life.
And so, the number one thing that I get out of my practice is the feeling that I can trust myself. That I have power, and that I can choose to channel that power in a way that feels good for me. I think there’s nothing more feminist than that sentiment.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
*Lead image photo courtesy of Haylin Belay