Although one must admit that it’s a subtle declaration, you have been referring to yourself obliquely as a “witch … from New England” on the title page of The Witches’ Almanac since its first publication in 1971. How did you come to define yourself as a witch or associate yourself with witchcraft?
My parents and other members of our family practiced the Craft. All of them, in one way or another, taught me. The training was informal. You learned as you grew, selecting or rejecting whatever came into your scope. Speaking from my own experience, magic is something that is learned day by day in an indirect fashion. It can’t be formally taught. And because there is no dogma, you evolve your own pattern.
That would place you in the somewhat controversial camp of hereditary, family, or traditional witches. Since authenticity is often called into question for those with this background, would you mind sharing some information regarding your lineage?
I was an only child; the only child on my mother’s side of the family. I grew up in Providence, Rhode Island, on the East Side.
My father’s family, the Peppers, came to this country in the sixteen- hundreds and there were English, Welsh, Scottish, Irish, Dutch and German surnames on the family tree. I gather that at least one member of each succeeding generation had an interest in or displayed an aptitude for witchcraft. The trait surfaced again and again. My maternal grandmother was Spanish Basque. She met and married my grandfather, an Anglo-Irish sculptor whose specialty was gravestone angels, in London. They immigrated to America, settled in New England in 1887 and raised seven daughters and one son. I think it’s unusual for an entire family to follow a single occult path, but my mother’s did. Six of my aunts lived within walking distance. Each one had a particular occult interest or talent. The mainspring of Craft traditions as I know them comes from them.
I think it is safe to say that growing up with an entire family that practices witchcraft is a rather unique experience that would place you in a minority among today’s witches. Looking back on your childhood, what would you say are some of your greatest lessons or favorite memories?
It was fun. The Craft educates the heart and the spirit as well as the mind. Imagination is constantly encouraged and stimulated. I learned to recognize how commonplace things could be touched with magic. I have so many lovely memories — like being given my first kitten or watching the full moon rise for the first time. These were like sacred ceremonies, very solemn occasions.
Can you describe some of the magical work that you did with your family?
Dark of the Moon was the time for healings and forming rings of protection. Tide Turnings, that’s changing a run of bad luck by ritual, took place after the first quarter of the waxing moon. If someone had a near accident, a close call, and was haunted by it, the group would get together to remove the fright at full moon. Something was always happening— a disagreeable boss giving trouble, a love affair that wasn’t working out— we’d concentrate to make it right, turning negatives to positives.
How old were you when you were allowed to participate in magical workings?
As soon as I could comprehend the nature of the problem to be solved or turned right, even in very simple terms, I joined my mind with the rest. Young children often bring a surprising amount of mental energy to the case at hand.
You say that the training was informal, unstructured, and that there is no dogma. If all of this is true, how does one come to define oneself as a witch? Is there an underlying moral or ethical code that you were taught to follow as a member of the Craft?
The first thing that comes to my mind is the deep and abiding love for animals. This is the one attribute every member of my family, all their friends, every single person we knew and associated with shared in common. I feel it is central to the recognition and practice of witchcraft. I realize that this is a sweeping statement, certain to provoke dissent. However, I’m absolutely convinced of its truth. Second is a sense of humor. It’s like a balance wheel. We should be serious in our work, or Craft undertakings, but not pious. “A witch isn’t self-righteous” is the theme. Third – there is always a third, which is a tradition in itself – you can never refuse a cry for help. And when a gift is given or a favor done, the recipient is expected to pass the goodness along – not to necessarily repay the giver but to respond in a similar manner when the occasion arises. Other than that, I can only say that I think witchcraft is far more mysterious than anyone realizes.
You are far too engaged in the world around you to be accused of remaining aloof and unaware of the resurgence in witchcraft during the last five decades. How would you compare contemporary Craft to the Craft you were taught as a child?
Much of the lore and flavor is similar. Religion is far heavier a focus today than the Craft I grew up to know. That is not to say our work wasn’t considered sacred, for it was very serious indeed. The structure of beliefs and ethical considerations were of an entirely different framework.
Elizabeth, you have always chosen to keep your personal life private. You’ve always denied having students, stating simply that your teaching is done through your writing. You have no coven and you claim no initiates. You choose instead to be who you are and practice the Craft as a way of life, in the same manner that is was handed down to you. Why then, do you expose yourself to public scrutiny by publishing The Witches’ Almanac?
I wanted to rid the Craft of its reputation of evil, horror, chicanery. I wanted to make it elegant; present its beauty, gentle nature, deep wisdom and simple good sense. I wanted to show that the Craft, like the Tao, is a way, an attitude toward living.
Finally, do you have any parting thoughts or words of advice?
Witchcraft fills a need for beauty, faith, romance, and a sense of the larger pattern. It’s as simple as this — a sense of witchcraft is as elusive as a sense of humor. It can’t be defined or taught. But if you’ve got it, you know it. You’ll know if you belong to us. It’s a lovely world full of joy and surprises, rewards beyond imaging.