Gypsy Ahmyo kisses her two-year-old son on the forehead and sends him off to watch TV so she can clean the bones that were delivered to her that morning without distraction. The bones are from a snake and the spinal bones coil together in the bowl next to her sink. Her kitchen cabinets are filled with plants and herbs in varying bottles and containers that Ahmyo has been collecting for when she needs to brew something. An altar with crystals, bones and dead flowers are present in every room of the house.
Ahmyo is just like any other person living in the heart of Athens, Georgia. She prepares food for potluck dinners. She kisses her significant other when he gets home from work. She smiles while talking about her son’s obsession with sharks. But unlike most people in the Bible Belt region, Ahmyo identifies with the two percent of Georgians who categorize their religion as “other.” She’s a witch.
Hunted for centuries. Misunderstood for longer. Living next door to you. The formal definition of a witch is a woman thought to have magic powers, especially evil ones, popularly depicted as wearing a black cloak and pointed hat and flying on a broomstick. To the people who still practice the ancient art of witchcraft, this definition is more of an offensive caricature than a reality in 2018.
Witches have always been a lively character in pop culture, whether it be the spunky teenager portrayal of “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” or the terrifying and dopy witches in “Hocus Pocus.” It seems like the occult is everywhere, even over 400 years after the Salem witch trials. But what do you really know about the witch living next door? The woman who burns sage and recites incantations, desperately willing good into the world. Most people know very little about the strangers they spend their lives living down the block from and even less about the people who believe in a magic that most people lose as children.
This is a story exploring groups often misunderstood. Witches, pagans, eclectics, but mostly it is about the person who you pass every day and don’t know a thing about.
Where are the witches?
On a rainy afternoon, Gypsy Ahmyo, a 25-year-old witch, brews tea at her home in Athens. Unlike a lot of Americans, Ahmyo doesn’t pull out a pre-made tea bag from her pantry, she makes her tea using a mixture of ingredients in her cabinet, some she even picked from her backyard. Ahmyo’s magick of choice is herbal concoctions.
From the outside, Ahmyo’s house looks like all the other houses that line up down Hancock Avenue, but the inside tells a different story. Every room in Ahmyo’s house contains an altar adorned with trinkets such as stones and snake skins, her son watches television with a picture of the horned god next to it and in the kitchen, there is a fully preserved owl’s leg still clutching a rock. Unlike the negative media portrayals that often depict witches as scary, Ahmyo is a gray witch, which means that she only does magic for herself and doesn’t do magic to help or hurt anyone else.
Ahmyo shows off an owl's leg in Athens, GA. (Photo/Caitlyn Richtman, caitlynrichtman.com)
Ahmyo was raised in Florida and didn’t grow up with religion prominent in her life. Something that always sparked her interest was the Lilith, a figure popular in many forms of mythology. In Christian lore, Lilith is thought to be Adam’s first wife and the snake in the Garden of Eden. Ahmyo sees the apple in the Garden of Eden as “the knowledge of how powerful and intuitive women are.”
Ahmyo pouring tea in her house in Athens, GA on March 1, 2018. (Photo/Caitlyn Richtman, caitlynrichtman.com)
Ahmyo has only considered herself a witch for a few years but has made many friends in the Athens area witch community. Ahmyo along with her fellow witch friends run an online store, Necrodestination, that sells products for witches such as smudging spray for clearing negative energy and altars shaped like the symbols for the four elements.
She doesn’t worry too much about what other people think about her witchcraft. It’s something she does for herself that makes her feel more in tune with the world around her.
Sammantha Aus, self-chosen name Faye, is another 20-something witch living in Athens. Aus, 28, “wouldn’t be who she is” without her craft, citing that it’s in everything she does from saging her home to making a pot of coffee. Aus’s journey to witchcraft was more of a straight line than Ahmyo’s journey. Aus was raised by a Wiccan father who cleared homes of negative energies and a mom who was a psychic and energy reader.
“Being free of mind, believing in magic, kind of like the movie the karate kid, Kung Fu is in everything we do, being a witch and spiritual is like that,” Aus explains.
Aus has moved around for most of her life and the drifting lifestyle on top of her non-traditional spiritual beliefs hasn’t always led to being accepted by the communities she’s lived in. She remembers having rocks and drinks thrown at her at different points in her life, but she wouldn’t change a thing about her identity or her life. As for being a witch in Athens, Aus doesn’t have many complaints.
“Athens is pretty accepting,” Aus says. “Also having a goddess, Athena, for its namesake definitely gives it some elbow room to grow and live how I want.”
It’s not all broomsticks and cauldrons for witches anymore, now witches are less traditional and more eclectic. Ahmyo and Aus are examples of a new kind of witch, a “new age” witch who pieces together their witching practices from many different sources instead of following the strict traditions set by older witches. Both of the women referred to their identity as “eclectic.”
What’s a pagan?
Candles at the Athens Area Pagans spring equinox ritual on March 20, 2018. (Photo/Caitlyn Richtman, caitlynrichtman.com)
Another group who can only be described as “eclectic” are the pagans living in and around Athens. By definition, witches can be nestled under the umbrella term of pagans, but not all pagans are witches. The term pagan was first used as a way to identify people who held non-orthodox beliefs in the early days of Christianity and hasn’t really evolved into a solid definition even by people in modern day who identify as pagan.
Jeff Patterson is a former member and current advisor of the Pagan Student Association at the University of Georgia. He’s also a graduate student at UGA in sociology and wrote his thesis on Wicca covens, popular aspects of paganism.
“I would call it an eclectic collection of religious beliefs, most of which are polytheistic and nature worshiping,” Patterson says.
Through Patterson’s studies he’s noticed that pagan is viewed by outsiders as anything from just another religion to a word synonymous with “Satan worshipers” depending on how “conservative” the region is. Patterson goes on to clarify that he doesn’t mean conservative in the regards to politics, he means it as whether or not the dominant religion is extremely strict in beliefs or if there are varying forms of beliefs that are accepted.
The current president of UGA’s Pagan Student Association is Chris Dial, a 25-year-old anthropology major from Athens. Originally a southern Baptist, Dial is an agnostic pagan and found out about the organization he now leads and knew he wanted to be involved with it. Although a lot of members of his organization do believe in deities, he just doesn’t. Another example of the eclectic nature of this category of beliefs.
The group meets once a month to discuss a specified topic, recently they had a meeting on “Magic 101.” He’s experienced some “satanic panic” involving his beliefs but hasn’t had many issues because he’s learned to stand up for his beliefs.
They are often in contact with the Athens Area Pagans for Pagan holiday celebrations such as Yule dinner and Ostara, the Spring Equinox.
“It’s not how pop culture portrays it. It’s not this big ritual. It’s very easy and accessible to everyone. It’s very carefree for me,” Dial says. “You just do what you do.”
According to a survey about religion done by the Pew Research Center, the “other” category of religion increased from 1 percent in 2007 to 2 percent in 2014. Eclectic religions are growing for maybe the same reasons Dial was originally drawn to becoming a pagan – freedom. A person can pick and choose aspects they believe unlike more traditional religions who offer much less flexibility.
Leonard Martin, a professor of social psychology and part of the behavioral and brain sciences program, at UGA says that all forms of religion have psychological benefits.
Martin traces religious practices to ingroup/outgroup dynamics that helped people gain trust with others based on beliefs, but the other half of that coin is determining who not to trust based on religion which is one reason that paganism has negative undertones surrounding it – because it was one of the “outgroups” of early Christianity.
He emphasizes the importance of sanctification or “distinction from the mundane.” There are psychological benefits to taking mundane things and connecting them to something bigger. That “something bigger” can be the belief in a monotheistic Christian god or worshipping nature deities, psychologically there’s no difference.
In the future, the “other” category of religious identification may increase to a bigger percentage, and maybe then people will know that a witch lives next door.