Hexing the Patriarchy: A Conversation With Sofya Yampolsky
On November 1st, 2017, my partner and I were invited to our friend Sofya’s house for a Samhain ritual. I’d never heard of Samhain. A quick Google told me it was a pagan ceremony marking the start of winter and the “thinning of the veil” between the living world and the realm of the dead. I was intrigued -- and anyway, I'm a yes-woman -- so that evening we biked the few blocks to Sofya's house. We joined five new friends (i.e. strangers) in sitting around a fire as Sofya created a sacred bubble around us and invited us to call on our ancestors and set intentions for the year ahead.
I left that night feeling calmer, more connected to people around me, and more open to different possibilities in my life. And moreso than the candles or the incense or the way the alter was composed, it was the down-to-earth way Sofya facilitated that ceremony that opened my mind to practices that I’d never thought were for me. I was curious to learn more, so Sofya and I sat down with two glasses of rosé spritzer at her dining room table and talked about rituals and the hard-yet-fun work of accessing truth through witchy practices.
Hannah Colton: How would you introduce yourself when it comes to rituals and witchcraft?
Sofya Yampolsky: I guess I’m a – just a spiritually oriented – well, I guess I’m a witch. [Laughs] It’s a weird thing to say sometimes! I don’t have a specific tradition. I kind of try to blend everything I get my hands on.
So, you’re like a hesitantly identifying witch?
[Laughs]It’s just a very powerful thing to say, like, “I’m a witch!” [Laughs] It’s kind of like people don’t always like to call themselves artists, you know? It’s hard to own the title sometimes.
How did you get started with it?
I grew up next to Salem, Mass, famously where the Salem Witch Trials took place. There was always a lot of occult and witchcraft shops and people practicing, and so I would hang out in Salem a lot as a teenager. I got initiated into this outer order, which in Salem was a big thing. And then when I was in college in Boston, I studied with a high priestess for about a year – actually, a year and a day, exactly – and initiated as a witch then. She’s in what’s called the Cabot Tradition, so that’s the lineage I’m in. But I took about ten years off between being initiated and getting re-interested in it.
How has it shaped your identity? I mean, you sort of walked away from it for a while?
Yeah, I walked away from it for a long time. I mean, it never left my sphere; I just didn’t practice it at all. It wasn’t until I was 29 and I accidentally fell into Buddhism that I turned very directly towards that inward path of trying to understand yourself and your relationships. And Buddhism really dovetailed in a weird way with witchcraft and ritual practice for me, because once you start looking inward, you start looking for other methods and tools to help you. And since witchcraft was a language that felt very natural to me, I started orienting again toward these older practices.
I come from this Midwestern, Protestant, super WASPy background where any mention of witchcraft would’ve been like, at best, ‘those weirdos’, and at worst, THE DEVIL. [Laughs] Actually, here at your house at your Samhain ceremony was the first time I really connected with it, and the time when those rituals have resonated with me the most. So, for someone like me who’s initially like, ‘What the hell is witchcraft?’, what does that practice look like in your day-to-day?
You know, when you were talking it made me realize how much I’ve taken it for granted that I wasn’t raised religiously at all. I’m Jewish, but we’re immigrants from Russia, so I grew up very secular. So none of the occult had any negative valence for me. Witchcraft was always something that was like cool and interesting, but never scary or dangerous.
And then in practice, I’m not a super disciplined person. So I don’t do ritual work every day, much like I don’t meditate every day, because it just requires a level of discipline I don’t have. But right now in my life I’m really focused on learning what grounding means and learning what my body has to say. And I overlay different methodologies. Like, okay, chakras: I’m not from India, that’s not my language, but I understand that there’s energetic centers. So I try, every day, to get a cup of coffee and go out into my yard and put my bare feet in the ground and just, not ask “how am I feeling?” but ask “what am I feeling?” And try to access what my body is saying to me in different areas. And if I just keep listening and asking, I feel like eventually little bits of wisdom will come out.
I also burn a lot of incense and sage, because every time you smell it, you just feel like, “Yes, I am doing a thing! I am burning this sage. It reminds me that I want to get all this negativity and bad vibes out of my house.” And I just believe in it, you know? [Laughs] Just burn stuff every day!
Okay, you’re joking, but like, that is also something that struck me when I was here for Samhain, was just how you were like, “Look, we’re gonna take the masculine and feminine energies of whatever masculine and feminine figures we feel are powerful,” and "we’re just gonna do this so that it speaks to us as a group." And that was just so different from the way I think of traditions being really strict about the vocabulary or the specific figures… I guess I really admired your approach of “If it feels right, go for it.”
I just don’t believe in dogma. I feel the whole point of witchcraft, to me right now anyway, is undermining the belief that just one person gets the authority on what truth is. And so the best way to do that is to create it for yourself. Because who on earth has any authority to tell you what is or isn’t a source of truth for you? It doesn’t mean you just get to have no reverence for sacred work, or anything like that. But it does mean that the energy you take in considering ‘What is masculinity to you?’ ‘What is femininity to you?’ ‘What is good intention to you?’ ‘How do you express this in the world?’ – that is energetic work that you’re doing. And if you really spend the time to think through it and put love into it, then you’re not gonna do it wrong.
Tell me about this business you’ve started.
Several years ago, my best friend and business partner Sarah Becker was suffering from post-partum PTSD and it was really taking a huge toll on her. And I offered to come to her house and do a cleansing energy healing ritual for her, which was the first time since I was 19 that I’d done any rituals at all. So I went to her house in Brooklyn and we did this ritual, and she said that she benefited more from that ritual from any therapy she’d done. So we started thinking, how can we create this experience for others? So that’s where the original idea [for Ritual Goods] came from. It took us several years, but then we finally started developing the products in July. It went live in December.
So you’re selling spell kits? Ritual kits?
We have three kits. One is a sacred space kit, for learning how to create a sacred space, what it means to create energetic boundaries, what to consider when setting up an altar and what might be on it. We have one kit for self-love, because we don’t believe you want to affect other people with your spells – I’ve tried it! It’s backfired! Don’t do it! [Laughs] And we have a kit for changing your relationships with money and finances.
What’s in the money kit?
This is my favorite one, actually! So every kit has a hand-poured candle that my partner Sarah makes. The money kit has a raw piece of clay, a piece of green calcite, and a little five-milliliter version of our special anointing oil called The Hustle. What you do is, among other things, you create your financial demon out of this clay. So you’re like, what is this little gremlin that’s like on your shoulder saying “I’m always gonna be broke! Money’s so hard to get! It’s so hard to just pay my rent! Why can’t this just work out?” That’s the voice so many of us hear! So you make your little gremlin and you do a dance around the gremlin. And then you stomp him out. One of the things that’s really important to us is to involve people physicality in ritual practice. Because you can’t just sit there and read or think about it. You have to actualize your intentions physically.
It strikes me that so much of what you do – like going to your friend’s apartment in Brooklyn, or inviting a group of friends to sit around the fire for Samhain – so much of it is for your community, like building community. Is that something you do intentionally?
Most of the time, witchcraft is a solitary practice. But I think group intentions are powerful, especially for work where people are trying to effect change – “hex the patriarchy” is a phrase that Sarah and I are really in love with. I also just personally love sharing experiences with people and showing them new forms of connecting in spiritual practices. It’s fun and feels good to give.
That 'hex the patriarchy' thing is a good segue, because I wanted to ask: how have rituals helped you cope with this most recent garbage fire of a year, this current political climate?
I think I struggle between my Buddhist inclinations, like, I’ve internalized the idea that at the top of every evil corporation is a CEO who is a person. And that person, I imagine if they could cultivate the compassion that Buddhism suggests, they would make different choices. So all these people collectively making terrible choices for all of us, comes from a lack of compassion and lack of willingness to look at yourself honestly. So I feel like by practicing to become a kinder, more peaceful person, that’s like the-least-slash-the-most I could do.
At the same time, I also studied critical theory and I’m not blind to structural issues and dynamics of power. And I don’t want to be like “I meditate, so I’m excused from having to work on political issues.” But I think Sarah and I agree that our actual ritual work doesn’t really intersect with direct political action. This work is really personal. I think being a good person in the world does a lot in sharing information and erasing structures that privilege colonial modes of knowledge and access to truth. For example, healing practices in all sorts of indigenous cultures are just dismissed as completely irrelevant. So to me, just resurrecting those practices in a respectful way, and referencing them as completely valid forms of access to truth in and of itself undermines a lot of the problems we have.
But in a direct way, when I’m burning incense, do I think I’m maybe changing the world? Not so much. [Laughs] But we do plan on developing a ‘Hex The Patriarchy’ kit in our next run. [Laughs]
What’s your divination? [Laughs] Okay, I barely know what that means. But I was reading a Tarot spread in my house the other day, and my housemate was like, “Oh, Tarot’s my divination too!” And I was like, “What are you talking about?” But does that mean anything to you?
Yeah I see what you mean! Okay, I am really psyched on animal messages right now. For the last six months I have been asking animals to appear to give me signs, and MAN do they show up. I’ve asked for butterflies, alligators, rabbits, you name it, stuff just shows up. It’s crazy. And it’s not always real, physical animals: they can come to you in dreams, or they can come to you in the physical dimension, and for me it’s been really fun and exciting to ask. For anyone who wants to try it, I set a time frame, like, “Within three days, I want to see this animal, and I want it to be unequivocal. I do not want some like, raven I saw on TV, I want it to show up in my space.” And it always happens. You ask the right question, you get the answer.
You said it’s fun, and to me that seems like an important point -- just to have fun with it.
It is fun; I love that your world takes on this magical quality because all sorts of synchronicities appear in your life when you start turning your attention towards them. At the same time, it’s not frivolous. It’s serious work. Once you’ve turned the inward path, you don’t get to be frivolous about other peoples’ feelings, or your own, anymore. You have to take a lot of responsibility for your actions. You don’t get to hide and pretend like it’s not real. It’s like, you’ve opened the door and stepped through it, and now you have to live in that, you know? So it is fun and delicious, but it’s also a lot of work. It’s looking at your shadow self and the parts of you that you’ve ignored and loving them and owning them. And that’s a lot of hard work. So it’s both things.
This interview was edited for clarity and length. To hear the full conversation between Sofya and Hannah, click the audio link at the top of the page.