NEW PALTZ, N.Y. — British Witch Kate West, author of thirteen Real Witches books and high priestess of the Hearth of Hecate, has been spending the week teaching classes, running rituals, and giving readings at the Awareness Shop, a metaphysical store in the Mid-Hudson Valley region of New York. Despite her packed schedule stateside, she found the time to talk some about her work for the benefit of Wild Hunt readers. During that conversation, she managed to transmit just a bit of her wit and charm.
West has been practicing Witchcraft for more than 35 years, and she has been quite public about it; so much so that she provided media relations for Children of Artemis, a prominent British Witchcraft organization. And, additionally, she has also served as vice president of the Pagan Federation.“I met my first Witch when I was six,” she said, adding that she began practicing the Craft in her middle teens. “My father comes from a line of cunning men, but that was never overtly discussed,” because her Roman Catholic mother was not keen on the idea.
West did not find her first coven until she was in her mid-30s, and the story itself reeks of magic. “I was restless at home, and decided to drive around” aimlessly, in the days before smartphones made that an all-but forgotten art. “I was just following roads, and pulled up by an old barn,” which had no evidence that it was anything but private property.
Nevertheless, “I walked ’round, and there was a little esoteric shop around back,” with no sign by the road to announce that fact. She entered and, after browsing the shelves for a few minutes, she worked up the nerve to speak with the proprietor, who invited her to the next meeting of their coven that very weekend. West has since been initiated into the Alexandrian tradition.
Because Hecate is an ancient goddess that is envisioned in divergent ways depending upon one’s tradition, we asked West to describe the goddess according to the understanding of her coven. “She’s a goddess of the crossroads,” West said, and offerings of food are left to her there. Her earlier roots are Greek, but she “found her way up to the Celtic lands,” likely thanks to the Romans.
West sees Hecate as a “working lady” (strong and muscular, or “brawny” in build) appearing old in worn — not tattered — clothes and a dark cloak. “When her horse needs shoeing, I rather imagine she does it herself,” West said. It’s a “jolly good idea” to give this protector of the young and the weak her due and not to trifle with her. “Don’t mess with me and mine,” is the message Hecate sends to the world according to West, whose understanding of this deity’s appearance and personality come largely from pathworking.
While Hecate is what her coven is all about, her personal relationship is with the Morrigan. She was born near the source of the river Raven, hand-reared a raven, and ravens either live wherever she has, or show up soon after she does. Her initials are even “K.A.W,” and it seemed natural for her to seek a raven goddess, and one with close ties to her own Celtic heritage. The Morrigan controls the birds that serve as “nature’s dustbin,” cleaning up after the mess of battle.West remembers a time when the only way to make contact with other Witches was to go to the library with your name and address on a piece of paper, and slip it into a certain Dennis Wheatley book. Presumably, the person picking them up would just show up at the door one day.
“I did not do that,” she said. “The internet age doesn’t know what it’s got.”
On balance, she considers the open access to be a vast improvement over those days, but there have been changes about which she is not so keen. “There is a difference of opinion between elders and newcomers about the word ‘silent,'” she said. “You can’t tell people secrets of the circle, even though it’s cool.”
After writing thirteen books in the Real Witches series including a handbook, a cookbook, and a book of days, she’s allowed herself a hiatus. That last, the Real Witches Year was particularly challenging, because the editor kept changing the size of the pages, meaning she had to rewrite to make the text fit. The series was named by someone at the first publisher, and she’s stuck with that decision through several more in the ensuing years.
For all the books she has written and for all the appreciation she has for internet, West believes that nothing is comparable to learning the Craft in person. “Anyone who calls themselves a Witch can practice,” she said, “but it’s ten times harder when there’s no one to pick up the pieces.”
There are simply concepts that are easier to show than write about, and there’s also the down side of the internet: “It’s harder to avoid the nutters.” She said that “all of the faiths have their own special and unique variety of idiots; Witches have some of their own.” There are also bits of etiquette which aren’t needed by solitary practitioners, like the tradition of the high priestess draining the chalice.
Still, she does what she can by telling stories of her own coven’s foibles as a warning to others. For example, she recounted a time when one coven member believed wholeheartedly in making his own magical tools. West considered this a good idea until he pointed his athame and the blade came loose from the handle, only to stick in the floor at her feet.
Another time, they misplaced an initiate because the individual was told to remain quiet in the dark as they prepared for the outdoor ritual. When it was time to begin, they couldn’t locate the person. “Of course, no one brought a bloody torch,” she said, and while the would-be initiate heard their name being called, it was interpreted as another test, so they became quieter still.
Her media expertise has also gotten her into some awkward situations. During a speaking engagement at a conference, West was recounting a time when a BBC crew was filming a ritual, and one of the producer’s asked, “Can you move the baby a bit closer to the fire?” That anecdote was part of a larger rant on the mistakes that reporters tend to make. At the conclusion of her conference speech, she asked the audience for questions. “The first person said to me, ‘Do you know how many journalists are in this room?'”
If and when West returns to writing, she said that she is pondering a book about starting covens. “It would be ‘don’t do it’ in 55,000 words,” she said.