Places: A witch’s Travel Guide
The most controversial place associated with witchcraft is the cemetery. Among the worst stereotypes propagated against witches is that they desecrate graves. The Classical Roman era equivalent of horror fiction depicted witches (striges) digging up, dismembering and sometimes consuming corpses for assorted reasons, all nefarious. That stereotype survived through the centuries and continues to plague modern witches. However it is nothing more than a stereotype and a false one at that. Witchcraft has nothing whatsoever to do with grave desecration.
And yet, much to the discomfort and embarrassment of many, including some witches, burial grounds have historically been associated with witchcraft. One must explore attitudes towards death and the after-Life to appreciate witchcraft’s associations with burial grounds.
Spiritual traditions aligned with witchcraft tend to see the world as filled with spiritual entities. Although these spirits are usually invisible, they are ever-present.
Birth is the gateway into the Realm of the Living
Death is the gateway into the Realm of the Dead
The cemetery is the threshold or crossroads where the Realms of Life and Death meet, intersect, and collide.
In terms of magical energy, thresholds and crossroads are the most powerful places of all. The cemetery is a place of exponentially charged magic power:
The cemetery is where one can access, absorb, and manipulate this magical energy
The cemetery is where one may contemplate mysteries of death and existence
The cemetery is where one can encounter ghosts and perform necromantic rituals (see MAGICAL ARTS: Necromancy)
The cemetery is where one can commune with spirits, especially those who are guardians of this special crossroads
Just like human magical practitioners, it is believed that many spirits also seek to access the profound magical energy associated with burial grounds. Many types of spirits, such as Djinn, are believed to reside in cemeteries. Other spirits, like sidhe, trolls, and barrow-wights are believed to make their home inside ancient burial mounds.
These magical traditions hew very closely to mysteries of death and the after-Life, a topic many find disconcerting, historically as well as now. For this reason and others (the topic also borders closely on intensely sacred mysteries), these are not aspects of witchcraft and magic that are commonly or openly discussed. There is not even a simple term that defines this type of place: “cemetery” is limited and inadequate, as is “burial ground” which implies interment in Earth. Because death is such a profound threshold, any physical space or location intrinsically identified with it potentially possesses this threshold quality, and potentially generates exponential quantities of magical energy.
These places include cemeteries but also cremation grounds, barrow mounds, mausoleums, groves where the dead are buried, or where once upon a time corpses were hung from trees. Ruins or disaster zones where many people have died, especially violently or abruptly, are also classified among these places. Coffin factories that make traditional wooden coffins as well as funeral parlors and crematoria also generate this type of magical energy.
Trees historically associated with death, including alder, beech, cedar, cypress, elder, elm, hemlock, juniper, pine, willow, and yew, sometimes generate this type of power, particularly if there is a grove of these trees. (Groves of these types of trees sometimes indicate ancient and perhaps forgotten burial grounds. These trees were perceived as portals between realms of death and life and so particularly conducive towards easy transitions between them.)
The modern wooden coffin evolved from ancient spiritual devotion to trees. In some traditions, the dead were simply hung in trees but Neolithic hollowed-out tree trunks in which the dead were laid as in a wooden cradle have been discovered. This practice is reminiscent of the ancient myth of Osiris, whose coffin floated from Egypt to Syria, where it was grounded on tree roots. The tree enveloped and enclosed the coffin. Isis, searching desperately for her beloved’s body finally located it cradled within a cypress tree. (See DIVINE WITCH: Isis.)
Although there are certainly witches as squeamish as anyone, in general, because of affiliated spiritual philosophies, many witches do not find the topic of death distasteful. The cemetery is not a scary place but the place where one celebrates life and the links between those who reside in different realms. Many witches find burial grounds to be places of magical energy: witches venture to cemeteries, not to desecrate graves but to dance, hold rituals, perform divination, and cast spells.
A technique once common to Celtic and Germanic shamanism involved lying down on a tomb, either merely to rest meditatively or to actually sleep, in order to receive spiritual revelations and messages from beyond.
This identification of witches with burial grounds exists not only in Europe but also in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. (In many, although not all, Native North American traditions, the dead are not viewed as benevolent but as possessing an energy that can contaminate and poison the living. Those who spend time in burial grounds thus are considered with suspicion, as only harmful, malevolent energy is available to be harnessed. See MAGICAL ARTS: Healing.)
Among those spirits who live in the cemetery are Kali and Shiva. Shiva, the Cosmic Dancer, is envisioned leading a nocturnal parade of ghosts, spirits, and witches through cremation grounds. See DIVINE WITCH: Kali, Shiva.
Many traditions envision witches convening in cemeteries at night to dance, sing, cast spells, and make merry. Many traditions involve sharing meals with loved ones who have passed onto the next realm. Picnics are enjoyed graveside. These traditions survive in annual festivals of the dead. (See CALENDAR: Days of the Dead.) In these traditions, witches tend not to have negative associations with cemeteries, nor with darkness.
In contrast, from the earliest days of Christian Europe, to be observed in the graveyard, particularly after dark, was to be branded a witch (see FAIRY-TALE WITCHES: Hans Christian Andersen: The Wild Swans). St Basil (c.329-January 1, 379) denounced “shameless women” who rendezvoused in graveyards for nightly revels. They sang, danced, and according to Basil, attracted “a swarm of young men to watch them.” (It’s also possible, although Basil doesn’t suggest it, that the young men were participating in rituals themselves and were not merely spectators.)
Everything that occurs naturally on Earth is believed to radiate some sort of magical energy, including Earth herself. Dirt is a common ingredient of magic spells in many traditions. Different kinds of dirt, dirt from different places, possess different magical energies. Among the most magically charged dirt of all is that within the cemetery.
Graveyard dirt, also called graveyard dust, is a common spell ingredient used for all kinds of purposes, both malevolent and benevolent. Graveyard dirt is a component of protection spells, fertility spells, good fortune and employment spells, as well as hexes. Exactly what constitutes graveyard dirt depends on personal perception:
Some consider any dirt from within the confines of a burial ground to be effective, magical graveyard dust
Some believe it must actually be dug out from a grave
Some perceive that there are different “grades” of graveyard dust. Thus any dirt from the cemetery counts as graveyard dust, however maximum strength graveyard dirt comes from within a grave—ideally as close as possible to the heart of the person buried in there.
Graveyard dirt is not just there for the taking, especially the closer one gets to an actual grave. Payment is usually offered to the spiritual guardians of the cemetery. Dirt taken from an actual grave belongs to the person buried there. One must pay or barter for it. Typical payment includes small cash payments (coins) or libations poured onto the grave, especially alcoholic beverages but basically anything that the deceased would favor.
See BOTANICALS: Alder, Elder, Elm, Juniper, Willow; CREATIVE ARTS: Dance: Dance of Death, Danse Macabre; DICTIONARY: Orisha; FAIRIES: Nature-spirit Fairies: Sidhe, Trolls.