Copyright © 2005; see bottom of page for full notice.
Retrofitted Revision: Autumnal Equinox, September, 2005
I originally wrote the following polemic for the small practice group of Neo-Pagans I was responsible for helping to start, all of whom would identify themselves as capital ‘W’ Witches; one of whom considers themself Wiccan. [That group has dissolved amicably since the time (October, 2004) I first wrote this article.] Let me clear up a few things before you decide to shoot off emails to me to point out this, that, or the other. I have been a practitioner of Neo-Pagan Witchcraft since 1996. Despite the fact that I prefer to call what I do ‘Neo-Pagan Witchcraft’ instead of Wicca. Most people would not see what the difference is. My choice of a different term is not meant in any way to belittle the influence of Wicca in my life, nor is it meant to detract from others’ use of the term ‘Wicca’. It is merely a personal preference for exactness which means the following:
[Note: A few months ago, I decided to once again accept the term ‘Wicca’ for the sort of (Neo-Pagan) Witchcraft I practice. After much rethinking on this issue, I feel it is the most truthful and valid term. My real reasons for not using ‘Wicca’ as a label for a time had more to do with the rise of the fluffy bunny phenomenon. I have now come to the conclusion that it would be unfair to abandon the term wholesale to the bunnies who seem bent on distorting it beyond any meaning. Even though I again call myself Wiccan, much of this article is still geared towards the idea and perception of (Neo-Pagan) Witchcraft as a whole, while touching upon Wicca where relevant. I have revised some of the text and toned down the language a bit. It will be more extensively revised when I get the time, so please excuse this ‘retrofitting’ for the time being. I would appreciate any comments or arguments or calls to issues I might have missed. Contact me through the site admins at email@example.com if you don’t personally know me yet.]
Now, that said (if anything was in fact said), let me point out that those of you who may be offended by anything that I say in the following should really do your own research. This polemic is intended to spur you onward in your efforts to do so. I recommend that any of you who wish to know the roots and heritage of our ‘Craft’ should consult the excellent studies written by Isaac Bonewits ( Witchcraft: A Concise Guide ) and Ronald Hutton ( The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft ). Both of these studies should be on every Pagan’s bookshelves. Both of them will also thoroughly inform anyone else who is Pagan friendly, or even has an axe to grind or a chip on their shoulder when it comes to the modern Neo-Pagan phenomenon. You can find Hutton’s work anywhere. Bonewits’ work is usually sold at occult shops, but you can also find it for sale at his website, Neo-Pagan.net, which also contains a lot of his other writings.
I chose the word ‘Heresies’ as the title because, if people are to be ‘Witches’ then it is important to stand up and be heretical – to challenge what is the ‘commonly accepted’. The essay is by no means a complete description of what I consider damned lies, just a brief deconstruction of the lies that came to mind recently. I may add to it in the future. Who can say?
Now, go on ahead and read what I have to say and remember, I could be talking about you.
Lately, even I have gotten pissed off. I suppose it was bound to happen sooner or later. I tried to hide in the realms of chaos magic to avoid the inevitable. But here goes…
Thanks to Wicca-lite and other spurious New Age junk, the entire Neo-Pagan witch-identified community is infected with some foul and pernicious life-sucking saccharine crap peddled by a new wave of writers who are trying to capitalize on the search for “Feel-Good-So-Long-As-Nothing-Has-To-Really-Change.” This is pathetic and those who buy such crap may be doing so at their own peril. (Yes. Peril. As in the case of those blokes who bought and read all of Carlos Castaneda’s books, declared themselves shamans, and then went and died because they attempted to replicate what he wrote. Or the time I introduced someone to the beings known in Irish Gaelic tradition as the ‘Noble Host’ (i.e. ‘faeries’) and told them not to mess around with them and to please use my services and experience, freely offered, to guide them. We won’t here get into the disaster that person underwent because they were heedless.) Yes, peril. Not necessarily something as drastic as the above parenthetical examples. Perhaps only the peril of wasted time, money, and effort.
Let’s start with the negative; with detracting some of these filthy lies some people use to lure the newbies into their malodorous fluffy bunny schemes, while taking their money. I will do so by topic. Also in each topic where relevant, I will put forth some suggestions about approaching Witchcraft to make your practice work for you, based on how I have made my practice work for me.
1) The use and practice of magic can make your life better if you put your heart to it.
I know what you’re saying. You’re saying “That’s not me.” And that’s because that is you, slick. How can you imagine yourself solving any problems magically if you can’t even effectively live your life? The most effective magic users are that way because they are effective and decent human beings first off. Find your heart first before you decide you can put it to something.
2) The Gods and Goddesses really do care about you, if you just let them into your life.
3) All one needs to do to become a witch is to declare oneself a witch.
4) Witchcraft is a religion of nature.
Don’t get me wrong. I personally am concerned with nature and the colossal fuck up our species is hell bent on creating through its abuse of the planet for a few pathetic comforts and some entertainment. But I am not deluded enough to suggest to myself that paying respect to natural forces is going to change the society in which I live. Nor am I deluded enough to think that practicing a form of Neo-Pagan Witchcraft is going to help redress the environmental wrongs. The environmental situation is a bit more complex and needs attention and action on so many fronts. A religion, even it was ‘nature-based’, would not be enough to redress the problems.
But the main reason I object to Witchcraft being called a nature religion (in case you survived my tortured attempts to explain myself above) is because the phrases ‘nature religion’ and ‘religion of nature’ mean absolutely fuck all. And we don’t venerate nature. If we do anything to-or-about nature, we venerate life together with it. There’s a difference. And nature is simply what’s around you. Not some bullshit stereotypical fantasy about primeval forests and agrarian revelries. My own altar contains various found objects that you would find on any city street. My own magical practices utilize many supposedly ‘mundane’ and technological objects that you’d never guess could be used for such purposes. I don’t go in for all that pseudo-agrarian folksy stuff. Nor do I go in for all that damned fake-feathers and crystal-type pseudo-tribal junk either.
5) Humans need mystery in their life.
By all gods! If everyone needed mystery, we’d all be mystics or poets or artists. Some people are just not interested in things they can’t explain via cold or hot or even lukewarm logic. There’s nothing wrong with this. I believe the problem here is one of semantics…i.e. Some of you out there assume that mystery equates with ‘meaning’ or ‘depth’ in terms of quality of life. But that is simply an assumption. I am sure that an investment banker is just as enthralled with her trade or profession as a mage is with certain occult practices. Hell. Some investment bankers, or mechanics, or police, or football players, or engine-lathe operators may even show up at your next coven meeting to become ‘dedicated’. But that doesn’t mean that all people need mystery. It just means that some people don’t find ‘meaning’ or ‘depth’ in what they are doing and are searching for it in other places. Likewise, many people who adhere to Wicca, Witchcraft, or some of the other Neo-Pagan traditions, because they feel they needed some mystery, will then discover otherwise and move on to other things. This, again, is not such a bad thing in and of itself. We each have to find what is meaningful for us, and it is not necessarily mystery.
I myself, love mystery. I love occult lore. I love magical experiments…you know, crossing the abyss, meeting and getting past the inner demons/judges, the shadow, astral projection, spiritual allies, divination and a whole lot of other strange things…but then again, maybe I am just a little weird. But I don’t expect anyone else to be interested in any of it. Not even mystery. And you’d never know it just by looking at me. That’s right. Aside from my recent couple of years of wearing a pentacle openly, nothing on me could give anyone who didn’t know me well a clue as to what I have been up to as far as magic and mystery are concerned. Another practitioner of magic might, if they ‘read’ me well, but that’s about it.
(Okay, I have hit you over the head enough times on this already. If you don’t get it yet, I’ll beat you with a frozen trout, you silly slacksucker!)
6) Witchcraft is the Old Religion.
7) The Burning Times were a period when the Church persecuted the Secret Pagan adherents known as ‘witches’ and killed millions of them.
The main truth of the so-called ‘Burning Times’ is that none of the people executed for the crime of ‘witchcraft’ were actual Witches in today’s modern Neo-Pagan sense of the word. Many of them were skilled in using ‘witchcraft’/folk magic—i.e. what would now be called birth-control and contraception—and healing. Some of them were probably a little too loud with their free-thinking. But most of them would have thought of themselves as some type of Christian. If you are going to identify with just this one group of victims of oppression, and yet ignore all the others, you are ignoring the full dimensions of the atrocities inflicted upon the people of Western Europe by the dominance of Christianity.
Looking at the causes for the Witch Hunt, we have the usual suspects. Greed: Many ‘witch-hunters’ benefited from the expropriation of material wealth from accused witches. Competition: The Church and much of the European elite were absolutely scandalized that there were people (mostly women) who had knowledge that did not come from either Church or Authority. Also, everyone was a bit paranoid about heretics and the like, especially after the schism between Protestants and Catholics. So Christian and secular authorities alike were interested in gaining an upper hand before the situation got out of control. Malice: A good way at getting back at someone who was not liked or someone who didn’t do what you wished was to accuse them of witchcraft (especially those ‘uppity’ women who believed that they could be independent of men). Hysteria: Once witch roasting started, everyone wanted to get in on the fun, if only to prove that they themselves weren’t witches or heretics. And remember that the Great Witch Hunt really took off as a movement during the violent fighting that occurred after the Protestants split from the Catholics. So there was a lot of anxiety for people to prove how loyal they were to their local authorities who themselves were anxious to not be accused.
The most glaring yet often ignored reason is the relatively low population of European peasantry in the early modern period due to the demographic disaster of the Black Plague. (Between 1348-9 alone, one third of the population died.) The relatively lax sexual codes of the medieval period allowed a certain leniency for birth control as the peasant population had recourse to very efficient methods of contraception, contrary to what many modern people believe. (People of modern industrialized nations have assumed wrongly that effective contraception wasn’t possible until the advent of modern medicine, in plain ignorance of pre-modern European societies.) The Church and other elite populations of Europe were seeking to repopulate their lands with serfs, and as mercantilism became common more people were needed to work the mills, etc. They needed a surplus poor population to keep labor costs low. They found ample justification for the suppression of birth control methods in old-time Christian doctrine which forbade it. Thus, the people (mostly women) who held native medical knowledge of contraception and abortion were persecuted. Europe subsequently experienced the greatest population explosion of any place on earth in the next few hundred years. (It also became the most violent, miserable, and poverty-wracked area of the world. It stayed that way for some time. It even exported this misery to other places of the world.)
The ‘true Burning Times’, at least referring specifically to the destruction of Pagan religions and societies, did occur during the first thousand years of the Church’s expansion. Read up on your Greek and Roman history to see what Christianity did to the Pagans in what was left of classical Europe. Hundreds of temples and centers of learning were destroyed. Paganism was legally banned on the pain of death. The collapse of the Roman Empire in the west halted some of the destruction for a while (incidentally, it was a bunch of Pagan Germanic invaders who finally put a stop to the ritual slaughter in the Coliseum which the Christians had allowed to continue when they took over the Roman government) but the Church eventually won out over its rivals and proceeded in its ‘conquest’ over the rest of Western Europe. By the end of the eleventh century, the native Paganism of most of Western Europe had been eradicated. In Greece (the Byzantine Empire) the last Pagan Hellenic temples were destroyed in the 800’s CE.
Either: The Burning Times account needs to be reworked to include all of the victims of Christianity in Europe, and subsequently in places Europeans conquered, whether Pagan in the earlier periods, or as ‘heretics’ in the latter periods. Or: The account, if only meant to specifically refer to Pagans, needs to be back dated to the 4th through the 12th centuries CE. I favor the former revision which includes all victims of Christian intolerance over the past 1600 years (Pagans, Jews, Christian heretics and free-thinkers, Africans, Native Americans, Gnostics, Muslims, atheists, etc.) since I am a human being first of all. Maybe: Some synthesis of both.
8) What you send out always comes back to you.
9) Hexes and curses are bad for you. Don’t do them.
10) Witches need to use magical tools (athames, etc.) and follow the correct rituals.
Now, some of you Wiccans will object and point out that Wiccans will need some ritual items for basic practice. This is true depending on one’s tradition, but if you really need to, you can pretty much do most of the rituals without any tools. Remember the point of the tools in the first place. No one should feel like they have to run out and spend money they don’t have. Save your money for your food and your bills. The tools are of secondary importance. Besides, you can always ask others to help you acquire things if you feel you really need them. Wiccans are not as cheapskated as some make them out to be.
So, no. You don’t have to memorize long lists of correspondences and tortuous kabbalah-like meander, unless that sort of thing appeals to you. Hell. Some people say that a good way to study magic is to take a look at quantum physics. There may be something to that. But anyway, if you are the witch you say you are than all you really need is your mind-body and whatever else gets the job done.
If you want to change the four elements around to fit something more useful to your own circumstances, do so. This goes for any other ritual practices. Or you can invent your own. I use my own correspondences in my own work and practice and you should use your own too. The ‘traditional’ rituals, tools, and correspondences are just that…traditional…bound to a specific time, place, and group of people. While it’s good to know where things came from, it is better to modify them to suit your own needs.
11) Witchcraft is an ancient Celtic religion/system?
Now, the Celts have always had people who could be described loosely in English as witches, but that has been in the Celtic cultural milieu which is still largely Christian and has been for the last several hundred years. (Before Christianity had displaced or destroyed the native spiritual learning, people who were recognized as having abilities that ‘witches’ are claimed to have had would receive a formal and exacting education to become a part of the professional classes.) Also, a large body of native magical and occult lore has survived to the modern times within Celtic contexts. A lot of that occult lore is folk magic and traditional methods of healing (which were extensively practiced in Celtic societies struggling for survival right up to modern times); some of it is part of the eclectic Hermetic-influenced occult systems of Europe; and much of the rest derives from the remnants of the older Pagan times. But none of it comes close to Wicca, or the modern Neo-Pagan Witchcraft derivatives of Wicca.
As a descendent of Celtic peoples and their cultural values (who has also learned and reclaimed an ability to speak, use, and cultivate Celtic languages), despite the massive destruction and assimilation of Celtic societies and population groups by both the English and French nation states (a process that is still ongoing as I write this), I identify strongly with both the Celtic Nationalist movements and the modern attempts at reconstructing or reviving native Celtic spirituality. Thus, I adhere to a position of mistrust towards those people who, for whatever reason, claim to be using Celtic cultural and/or spiritual props and terminology in ignorance of both the actual Celtic realities and the modern situations.
Before you go taking things from other cultures and such, you may wish to actually inform yourself of the various realities and systems of knowledge that those cultures have experienced and are experiencing. If only so you don’t look like some well-off Anglo ass who feels they have the right to take anything from any culture they wish.
12) Witchcraft is a group/coven based practice-spirituality?
Myself, I am a little of both actually. I have been taught by both individuals and groups, but I mostly practice by myself. I do maintain a personal distinction between the sort of stuff I do and practice for myself and the more ‘formal’ coven style so I can maintain a sense of ease in either situation. For myself, beyond my daily magical hygiene practices which have stood me well for years, anything goes. When I participate with others in ritual, I tend to stick to the more ‘traditional’ forms and practices so that all of us participants have a common ground of understanding.
But on the other side of the coin, you can’t just read a bunch of books and then imagine yourself to be a solitary either. You need to actually practice it and engage with the world and society around you at some point in your life. That means, yep, participating with others’ lives at some point. Otherwise, go join a monastery.
13) Wicca, or Witchcraft traditions based on Wicca, or even Neo-Pagan traditions are the fastest growing tendencies of religion today?
According to the latest statistics, people who call themselves Wiccan make up around 750,000 to one million and could very well double in the next few years. While this makes for some dizzying never before imagined changes to be expected for all of us who are either Wiccan or from one of the Wiccan based Neo-Pagan Witchcraft traditions, these numbers pale in comparison to the rise of intolerant Christian and Islamic numbers. Just in North America alone, there are over 40 million Christians who identify themselves as fundamentalists. And their numbers continue to grow, even though other more mainstream and moderate Christian tendencies seem to be slowly declining. Islam, as a whole, is probably the world’s most rapidly expanding religion, projected to have over one billion adherents soon. And while it is hard to get reliable estimates about the numbers of those adherents who are of the more radical intolerant variety, it is clear that they are growing rapidly due to the political and social situations in areas long considered Muslim. My own numbers may be outdated, even as of this writing, so research for yourselves online. I only point out these two religions in contrast to both show that Wicca is not the world’s fastest growing religion and to simultaneously shock you out of ignorance because the two aforementioned intolerant strains of religion can and may have an immediate impact on your life.
14) The Pentagram, as a symbol of wisdom and magic, goes back thousands of years?
Some ancient Greeks used it as a symbol of wisdom and such (and it was considered by some to be a symbol of Hygeia [/hoo-gay-yah/] “wholeness” which was also the name of a goddess), and perhaps that was the inspiration for the early modern occultists and magical orders to adopt it as one of their own symbols. There is also some evidence that the ancient kingdom of Israel used it in addition to their more usual Star of David (hexagram) symbol. (Despite ancient Israel’s usage of the hexagram, it wasn’t really used as the symbol of Judaism until the 1800’s.)
All we really know and can prove definitively is that some time during the renaissance in Europe, the pentagram, like its hexagram sister, became adopted by some magical/occult groups as a symbol of human spiritual dimensions. And that’s about it. Later occult reformers and Hermetic types added the elemental correspondences as we know them today. The Free Masons incorporated it into their own system. Eliphas Levi, just before the Romantic period, synthesized the inverse version of it into the general European occult mix. Aleister Crowley continued the process of synthesizing and refining its value. Then Gerald Gardner, the founder of Wicca, put the finishing touches on what we today think of as the pentagram. But don’t forget that even Christians used the pentagram at various points in history as well. (It was allegedly a symbol of the Knights Templar, but so was the skull-and-crossbones black flag, another symbol used much later by the Free Masons.) So the only thing that is clear about it, is that it has meant a lot of different things to a lot of different people at various points in history.
That said, whether upright, or inverse, it is today used as a magical symbol and that is all fine and good. Just be aware of assuming that the way you feel about it or use it, is the way it has always been, no matter which author’s words you may have read. This is because, contrary to what many believe, Gerald Gardner wasn’t the last to modify it. There have been many others; some of them masquerading as quantum physicists.
Another thing that irks me about the pentagram issue is that some of you Wicca-lite adherents assume that to invert the pentagram means something evil or satanic. While some Satanists do use an inverse pentagram as a symbol, they got the idea from the Hermetic Baphomet idea which was nothing like the modern Satanic idea. Also, an inverted pentagram is used as a Masonic symbol and it is also used by the US government for medals of honor. Alexandrian traditions of Wicca also have used it to symbolize the “2nd Degree” of initiation. The original occult idea of the inverted pentagram was to symbolize spirit ‘descending’ into matter.
As a modern symbol, the interwoven-lines pentagram, when surrounded by a circle, is the most ubiquitous symbol of Wiccan and most other Neo-Pagan Witchcraft traditions. In this case, many call it a pentacle, since it resembles closely the pentacle designed for use on altars. Oddly enough, much like the ancient Greek conception, Wiccans tend to see this as a symbol of balance and wholeness. As a modern religious symbol, it may or may not have anything to do with occult magic. That depends upon the individual.
There are more such lies and distortions. But I can’t think of them in my present state of vexation. And I have already run out of hot air. My long-windedness can only go so far. I am not a politician for bobsake! The situation has gotten out of hand. I don’t even wear my own pentacle openly anymore so I don’t have to put up with both the fluffy nonsense and the stupid preconceptions. I have no truck with such frou-frou-ness and I don’t want anyone else even thinking that I do.
|-The following was written much later to honor the Winter Solstice holiday, 2004-
Afterword: There is hope.
Now if you have read all of the above and are now feeling disheartened or angry, you really should do some research on your own into this wonderful complex thing that is Neo-Pagan Witchcraft. Especially if you consider it your religion. Since it is definitely not the Old Religion, nor a survival from any postulated underground Paganism, this does not invalidate the religion, or group of religions, in the least. Founders of new religions are always creating myths of continuity due to the poetic symmetry that such myths lend in ‘magically’ empowering their believers. But we need not be chained to arguing over whether such myths of our history are true. We can synthesize a new understanding of who we are. In this new synthesis, we can see Gerald Gardner for the creative genius that he was…dare I say ‘divinely inspired?’
Imagine doing all of the work that people such as Gardner, Valiente, the Farrars, and the Frosts have done. Take a look at how far Neo-Pagan Witchcraft has come in the past fifty or so years. These people’s accomplishments don’t seem like a whole lot, if one approaches the whole thing with the belief that Witchcraft is simply an unbroken practice handed down through the centuries and formerly hidden. It really doesn’t matter if it was made up last year or centuries ago anyway, because creative insight is what makes any tradition valid. And since the whole thing has been created by its participants and their relationships with the Godesses/Gods, what does that say about you, yourself, and the creativity and insights you will have to contribute? If that’s not hope, I don’t know what is.
The Old Paganism was killed off or subsumed under the domination of Christianity, but the old deities, stories, and images have come back to us simply because we want or need them again. There are no Wiccans or other Neo-Pagans who can claim an unbroken link to the Pre-Christian times. But, they don’t have to. Neo-Pagan Witchcraft, like other forms of Paganism, is here. Pagans are once again living and creating. We are finding new insights to ancient sources of inspiration, and we are working out completely novel expressions and insights as well. Western societies have been drifting towards this sort of religious expression for some time now, and it should be no surprise that many visionaries have stepped up to help flesh it out. It should also be no surprise that every year thousands more are choosing to participate in this movement. So what exactly is this amazing development in post-modern Western societies? I’ll leave you with a quote from Ronald Hutton which is as beautiful as it is clear.
Now, if you keep that in mind as well as the points I have raised above in my Heresies, you will do fine if you decide to continue with our religion. But remember that as much as you may feel that it is your own religion, it belongs to the rest of us as well. Some of us won’t stand for any spurious falsehoods, nor do we feel we need tolerate people who replace hard earned insights and experience with wishful thinking. Learn with us, study and practice with us. Eat, drink, and worship with us. And please be as willing to be as openminded as you claim to be when someone who is an elder or more experienced has a few things to say or teach. That’s all.
And therefore, let there be beauty and strength, and power and compassion, honor and humility, mirth and reverence within you.
-Irreverend Hugh (back in the Broom Closet)
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Originally posted 2009-11-10 14:47:42. Republished by Blog Post Promoter