In her earliest days of practicing witchcraft, Diana Helmuth gathered a number of recommended supplies—a special dagger called an athame, many candles, a pentacle. She also carried with her a number of expectations. For starters, she would trace the historical origins of modern witchcraft; this would ground her practice in a knowledge of its roots. She expected to find it structured like many organized religions: a set of rules and doctrines, a built-in community and moral framework—and the security of knowing what happens when you die.
But the practice had its own plans for Helmuth. “Witchcraft was quickly revealed to me to not be that kind of path,” she tells BookPage.
In The Witching Year: A Memoir of Earnest Fumbling Through Modern Witchcraft, Helmuth tells the story of dedicating 12 months to learning everything she could about what one fellow witch calls “the crooked path.” Living with her partner and two cats in an apartment in Oakland, California, Helmuth performs solo spellwork at a cardboard-box altar in her office nook (naturally, the cats are intrigued) and participates in Wheel of the Year rituals in the company of fellow witches. She journeys to Stonehenge in search of a connection with her ancestors, and spends a week at a camp for witches in the woods. Her research takes her deep into the tangled beginnings of Wicca, which emerged around the 1940s and was more or less an attempt to package witchcraft into something resembling that familiar box of midcentury Western religion. (Scott Cunningham’s Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner remains a widely respected text for aspiring witches.)
Throughout the year, Helmuth consults a number of witches who also happen to be some of her closest and oldest friends. (Her friend Lauren, a key mentor in the book, nudged Helmuth toward this project in the first place.) Now living on the Washington coast, Helmuth acknowledges that at one point she counted among her friends and acquaintances more witches than people of any other belief system aside from atheism. She attributes this to her northern California upbringing. “That’s where all the hippie buses broke down. And that’s where we came out of the yurt and said, ‘We’re bringing goddess culture back.’ ”
Helmuth has an easy wit—her first book, a beginner’s guide to backpacking, is cheekily titled How to Suffer Outside and is full of both practical advice and hilarious commentary. In a way, the same can be said of The Witching Year. Her wry perspective keeps the narrative deeply entertaining. But it’s also an endeavor with ample heart, rigorous inquiry and an extensive bibliography. Comedic tendencies never eclipse Helmuth’s genuine curiosity about, and respect for, her subject matter.
“I didn’t want to punch down,” she says, “despite the fact that I knew I had massive internal skepticism.” When she forced herself to look closely at the impulse to crack jokes, her personal journey really took off: “Deeply interrogating this urgent need to make fun of something is, occasionally, where the book deviated from a comedy into something far more serious, and I think richer,” she reflects.
Helmuth ultimately found that modern witchcraft in America is largely self-directed and not confined to any set of top-down, codified methods. This could, she admits, feel challenging at times. She found that the practice was “more about the discovery and healing and nourishment of the sacred self. So effectively, it’s therapy. And that work is hard and never done.” She adds, “I don’t actually think it’s particularly enjoyable work.”
The Witching Year contains candid chronicling of the challenging emotional endeavors her practice requires. “There are several parts in the book [when] I was like, ‘I want to get off the ride,’ and I couldn’t,” she says. Ultimately, the year included “really profound moments that absolutely changed my life in good ways and bad ways.” In the book she discusses the delight of feeling deeply interconnected with others: “Experiencing the sensation (while sober!) that we are all made from the same star stuff . . . is perhaps the greatest way this year changed me,” she writes. About communing with the goddess Isis, she reflects, “I had no idea this level of joy was this accessible to me on my own. In Witchcraft, people talk about shadow work, justice, self-help. . . . Rarely do I hear anyone talk about bliss.”
And as a defender of wild spaces and a staunch environmentalist (which many, but not all, witches are), Helmuth gains perspective—but again, maybe not what she expected. To her surprise, the spirituality she’d always sought in the backcountry could be accessed closer to home. “I realized I didn’t have to hike 20 miles into the wilderness to have a deep connection with nature,” she says. “I can go down to the oleander under the freeway overpass and stare at it for 60 seconds and meditate on its perfection.”
Now for the big question: After a year’s journey, does she call herself a witch? Not exactly, she concedes, partly because the term is so loaded. How one answers largely depends on who’s asking. She would like to see modern witchcraft cast as less rebellious and more friendly to the mainstream. The enormous number of books about magic and witchcraft in the marketplace, I point out, suggest that this might be happening. “I do ultimately think it’s a good thing,” she says, “because it’s about self-empowerment. And the more people who are self-empowered, the less miserable they’ll be. And isn’t that just a nicer planet to live on?”
Photo of Diana Helmuth by Rob King