Friday, September 13, 2019

Defining "Classic Witchcraft"

It was not that long ago that I reached the realization that at no time in my life have I ever known witchcraft that was wholly divorced from traditional Wicca.

When I first became fascinated by the concept of witches and witchcraft, I was a child growing up in the 1970s. It was so long ago, and so much has happened since, that I couldn't say for certain how or when that fascination truly began--but begin it did, however it was triggered, and if I try to think back the earliest images that come to me are those of the familiar Halloween figure. Solitary, immeasurably ancient, black-clad, cat-accompanied, hideous and yet somehow appealing rather than appalling. Stirring a cauldron, stirring a potion, stirring up trouble, she was a defiant and transgressive figure, one not to be trifled with, the wielder of powers unknown and highly enticing to one so powerless as I. My first source materials were, naturally, children's literature and fairy tales, joined as I grew older by encyclopedias and books specifically on the subjects of witchcraft and magic, the occult and the paranormal; and all of those were very much products of the 20th century and the sometimes dubious scholarship and spurious claims of that century's witchcraft promoters.

Thus, I was early on introduced to such key concepts as "the Old Religion," the "Book of Shadows," even "the Cone of Power" and "the Burning Times," and of covens of witches performing their circular rites by the light of the full moon. I was not an exceptionally critical reader as a child; I read voraciously and indiscriminately, absorbing all sides of a thing and then letting the information simmer until my brain boiled over from the cognitive dissonance, demanding I sort it all out. I've since done so, of course, only to discover to my chagrin that what I always knew as witchcraft is indelibly, inextricably enmeshed with the trappings of the 20th century neopagan religion of Wicca (along with the borrowed elements of other systems that form parts of its composition).

Knowing this, how, then, do I define Classic Witchcraft? As an aesthetic as well as a practice, for one, because atmosphere can make or break a ritual. Bats and cats and the occasional pointed hat. Cauldrons and candles, owls and serpents. Skulls and bones. Incense and bonfires. All things eldritch and uncanny. Once the scene is set, the practice itself can take, well, almost any form that suits the situation. It could look like a fairly standard Wiccan ritual with a cast circle and all the trimmings, or it could be as spare as a steady silent gaze into a candle's flame. It might be performed robed, or skyclad, or in street clothes. Elaborate ceremonial with a lot of prep time and research, or completely off-the-cuff at a moment's notice. Indoors or outdoors. Better it be when the moon is full, unless it isn't.

What Classic Witchcraft is not is rote and regulated. The classic witch, that enduring figure that has never let go of my imagination, is not a person hemmed in by rules and restrictions or a lengthy list of Things That Must Be Done to make the practice "valid." The only real test of validity for the classic witch is, did it work? What works is what is key, and it will vary from one witch to the next, and it can only be discovered through experimentation. One witch can share ideas and experiences with another, and practices can (and should be!) handed on from one to the next; but those practices will likely look quite different from one generation to the next, and I've come to see that as not lamentable but laudable. A practice that isn't adaptable (which does not mean that it cannot also be grounded in tradition) is ultimately as relevant as a set piece in an old roadside museum: interesting, perhaps, but not very useful in practical application.

I am a traditional Wiccan; it's taken me years to not only accept but embrace that fact. I am also a classic Witch. This craft to me is the sum of the materials and practices that have been passed on to me through the tradition in which I was trained, with my own stylistic touches and my personal interpretations and methodology. But it's also conjurings by candlelight, a cauldron bubbling on a stone hearth, a full moon shining through October leaves, a black cat's silent passage, an owl secreted in a hollow tree. It's incense and starlight and all the mysteries held within a dusty tome, a stone, a bone. It's brooms and bats and pointed hats. It's everything I thought witchcraft was before anyone ever told me differently--and, having come full circle at last, I realize that I knew in my very bones what it truly was all along.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Full Circle or Downward Spiral

It’s always around this time of year that I feel the most nostalgic. It was just after Lammas that things began ramping up for me, leading up to my initiation in the fall: doing rituals, attending my first trad gathering, the excitement and anticipation of the Samhain season itself. And so I remember all of this, and both nostalgia and melancholy come in equal measure as I remember the young woman I was, and all that came after. Those ended up being very challenging times as I floundered about navigating the intersection of multiple new roles that I was entirely unprepared to take on—times when I came to understand that the bit about “suffering to learn” was nothing less than the literal truth.

In those days, my partner and I sometimes joked about being the Mulder and Scully of the Wicca, but there was more than a little rueful truth about that as well. Despite having grown up as a consistently bullied kid, I was still terribly innocent of the types of intrigues that people in groups could get up to, and even my devoted X-Files viewing didn’t quite prepare me, though it did at least give me some small comfort—after all, bearing the brunt of an admittedly ugly witch war still wasn’t quite as bad as being infected with alien viruses and forced into hiding from the entire corrupt US government. Just like Mulder and Scully, we exiled ourselves in the aftermath of a negative situation, and went on to live our lives and do our things with varying degrees of success. (When I sit here now and think about it, the parallels are so close as to be disturbing. We never broke up, though, in spite of some peoples’ efforts, perhaps because we didn’t have Chris Carter scripting us. Thank the gods.) Still, the nostalgia never quite left me, though at times it lay dormant as other things took the fore.

Our mutual practice evolved, but never strayed so very far from the root stock, even though at times our focus shifted elsewhere and led us down different paths of inquiry and exploration. I’ll admit now that even skeptical as I tend to be, I have come to believe in the power of initiatory experiences, and of the bonds we form by our rituals and our oaths. I can find no other rational explanation for the persistence and the tenacity of my attachment to a system of working that ought, given the scope of these past negatives, to fill me with revulsion. (The thought of certain people absolutely does; the system, no longer. Despite my early antipathy to dualistic thinking, I’ve also come to the realization that there really are positive and negative aspects to nearly everything, and that walking the line between them is my natural state. I’ve also realized that people can do bad things for seemingly good reasons—and that some people are simply utter shitlords.)

This may be another function of getting older, but despite years of raging at sundry machines, I’ve had time to rethink some of my earlier positions and arrive at a more nuanced view of them. Seeing recent outpourings in the blogosphere that remind me of where I was so long ago have certainly been at least a partial catalyst. Some of it I can see now as the end result of where I started, and while some of the shifts that I see are absolutely to the good, others seem to me to go too far. (I’m being deliberately vague because this essay is already in danger of turning into a dissertation.) Some of these seismic changes are going to be a threat to some of the older ways of doing things—a good and a bad thing, to my mind. Good, because in this era of #metoo and consent culture, the more egregious abuses will become harder to pull off; bad, because some ways of doing things will be unfairly and unnecessarily given negative labels when they are merely one way of working among many, suitable to some but not to others. A part of my nostalgia is now for some of those older ways of being and doing, things that still hold value, things perhaps in danger of being tossed out for lack of understanding, or for being seen only for their potential negatives and not their potential positives. (I’ve been there, after all, so I recognize it when I see it.)

I have come to believe that it is entirely possible to adhere to the letter and the spirit of the law while still remaining ethical and respectful. I’m starting to believe there may be others who agree. The public writings of newer-generation BTWs are awakening new hope in me, that this form of Craft may ever survive, and thrive, in a modern culture that expects things like respect and tolerance and consent. I’ve come to believe that it’s possible to honor the past while living in the present, and without fighting the future. But I’m older now, and I’ve had a lot of time to think.

I’m pretty sure I could have handled things better in the past, had I possessed deeper levels of understanding and wisdom and maturity. All of those things come only with time and experience, and back then I had neither. Perspective may be the greatest gift of age, and it’s a damned shame that it takes so long to acquire it. I still don’t know that I’ll ever again want to train and initiate people, into any of the systems I have that right and ability in—I’ve lost quite a lot thereby in the past, and I’m gun-shy now—but I won’t rule out the extreme possibilities. The fact that I’m here writing all of this would have been a near-impossibility at one time, maybe not even that long ago. Change truly is the only constant in life.

Mulder and Scully ended up back in the FBI after a long period of exile, a return that brought its challenges and rewards. I can easily imagine both of them, during those years away from their work, thinking and reviewing, considering their paths. I can so easily see Mulder turning his badge over in his hands, wondering if it was all worth it; can see Scully taking an afternoon at the gun range, keeping up her skills just in case (she always was the better shot). I can imagine the fear and hope and hurt and anticipation they would have felt over those years. I’m feeling some of those things now. I have no idea how any of this is going to play out, but I am feeling like making a tentative foray out beyond my comfortable place might not even be the worst thing I could do.

At least, I want to believe.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Why Not Wicca?

You’ll have noticed that I only very rarely use the word “Wicca” in reference to my practice. “BTW,” you may say, “generally refers to ‘British Traditional Wicca,’ doesn’t it?” Well, yes. Generally it does. And what I, and my initiates and their initiates, do, certainly often looks like what you’d term Wicca—at least, of the traditional, initiatory kind.

All this is true, and yet… That word. It bothers me, somehow.

I got involved in this initiatory Craft stuff back in the mid-90s, when witches were pop-culture hot and the word “Wicca” was seemingly everywhere. The bookstore shelves groaned with titles, each progressively blander and less inspiring than the one before it. Wicca! Not nasty old badly-behaved witchcraft but a shiny modern Religion, safe and sanitary and approved for veterans and convicts and suburbanites and teenagers alike! Not some stodgy old hidebound thing with rules and regulations, but a real do-it-yourself Spirituality to be made and remade as your whimsy takes you. Wicca! Easily found on a hundred websites with sparkle text and spinning pentacles, shared by a hundred youthful elders quick to assure you that there was no right or wrong way to be Wiccan. And anyone with a dialup connection and a Geocities account was well on their way to the priesthood. Wicca!

I’ll admit, the word was making me twitch before I was even an initiate—hell, before I’d even set foot in an Outer Court circle. I had some books. They seemed so safe. Colorful and inoffensive and about as mysterious as the local Vacation Bible School. I wanted Mystery. I wanted THE OCCULT. Feel-good fluff had its comforting appeal, but it was not in my nature to be satisfied with the superficial. I wanted WITCHCRAFT, brooms and bats and pointed hats, spooky and special and more like the stuff in those exploitative little paperbacks from long ago in the 60s and 70s. I ended up first as a solitary practicing a half-assed homegrown Egyptian paganism, but I still held out hope for the Craft. WITCHcraft!

I stumbled into it, rather by accident, around the time That Word was exploding everywhere. Wicca! OK, fine, Wicca it is, then—as long as it’s being used more as a safeword for Actual Witchcraft. I got in. I was initiated. And I was Initiated as a Witch, not a Wiccan (I was paying attention!)—that overused and mispronounced term did not appear anywhere in the proceedings. But of course, the two were forevermore linked.

Skipping over the years between then and now, and you’ll find that I’m about as averse to the term now as I ever was, though I’m slowly desensitizing myself to it. (These days it’s also fashionable to be very anti-Wiccan among the skulls-for-your-craefte traditionalists, but that’s not really me, either.) My practice is rooted in the stock that was the early template for all the Wiccas to come after it, no matter how diluted they became. If I told you that I cast a quartered circle, used specific tools, made specific invocations, etc., you’d look at me and say “oh, you’re Wiccan.” Well, fuck it, I guess I am, if you look at it that way; but I will always think of myself as a Witch, and only grudgingly concede the upstart, sanitized term.

You’re going to find the two words used interchangeably, especially by older traditional folk. If you look to my Recommended Reading page, you’ll see both Witchcraft and Wicca in the titles. I can read and enjoy books that use “Wicca” predominantly or exclusively, and I can even see myself and my Craft there. I’m desensitizing. Trying not to come off as a complete asshole while still maintaining the distinction between the kind of “Wicca” that I practice (initiatory, oathbound, esoteric, occult) and the kind that I do not (eclectic, open, exoteric).

It’s the 21st century now, and those spinning-pentacle sites are long gone, replaced by the rabid wolverines of Tumblr and the fabulously photogenic Insta-witches. I’m not sure what the founders of this feast—say, Gardner or Valiente, for example—would make of all this; but I am sure there’s room for all of us beneath the moon-drenched sky, no matter what words we prefer to claim.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Back In My Day, Part One

I came in at a pivotal time in the history of the Craft, in the liminal space between a publishing boom and the arrival of the mainstream internet. Being initiated in 1994, I found myself “between the worlds” in more ways than one. The book blitz of the early 90s was still very much in play and driving much interest and expansion, but there was also the sense of something coming over the horizon, with talk of “computer bulletin boards” and “newsgroups” of interest to pagans. Along with the fashion for witches and witchcraft in popular culture—from Charmed to The Craft to Buffy’s Willow and Hocus Pocus and more—it was a heady time to be pagan.

Still, I consider myself to be among the last generation of pre-internet pagans. My interest was sparked early on in my childhood thanks to the availability of lurid occult paperbacks left over from the late 60s and early 70s. My parents would haul me along to yard sales and flea markets, where I would rummage happily in bins of musty old books and come up with the bizarre treasures that helped fire my imagination and drive me down the paths I grew up so eager to explore. (Fortunately for me, my parents never censored my reading materials.) Once I was old enough to drive, libraries and bookstores were my natural destinations, and discovering that Actual Occult Bookstores existed within driving distance was utterly thrilling. Probably dangerous, too, since I was a sheltered small-town kid with zero people smarts and a certain amount of naievete-induced fearlessness, but for whatever reason I survived my early explorations unscathed. If I had been something other than a conventionally-unattractive Weird Girl, I might have been less fortunate.

I look back on those days now through the rosy tint of nostalgia and feel a bit sorry for today’s newcomers. I wonder if it can have as much of an impact for them as it did for me, and, I assume, others of my generation. There were always two or three shops in town that catered in some way to the pagan/new age/occult subcultures, and regular visits were a given. Seeing new books and statues and tools in person is a very different sensation from just seeing photos of them online. Finding and ordering from catalogs like the old Abyss Distribution/Azure Green was a furtive delight, as well. I can remember very early pamphlet catalogs from bladesmiths and jewelers and the like, passed from person to person and group to group. I remember the fun of going to festivals and gathers and seeing the vendors’ rows set up, seeing the wares handcrafted by magickal folk for magickal folk. Finding out about those groups and festivals was also a challenge and a risk: flyers put up at the shops, ads placed discreetly in magazines like Green Egg or Circle Network News. Phone calls made and public meetings arranged. Chances were that you came into a study group or Outer Court with only the most rudimentary knowledge of what you were in for; there were, for good or ill, a lot more secrets in those days.

Many of those secrets were passed along as multi-generational and barely legible photocopies. I still have reams of such materials, and I can’t even look at their binders on my shelves without recalling the excitement of receiving them, the clandestine thrill of reading through them, imagining how the authors of them felt as they wrote them and ritualized them and passed them on. I remember the fun of long nights at the copy shop, laboriously photocopying hundreds of pages and collating them to be given to a newly initiated or elevated witch. It was a magickal time.

I cherish these memories. For all the backstabbing and bullshit that inevitably came about (people being people, and people in marginalized and factionalized quasi-religious groups being the worst), I still have so many fond recollections of so many experiences. (I hope that you, Dear Reader, have a few of your own.)

If I were to start actively training and initiating people again, I imagine that it would feel profoundly different. I’d be contacting and screening people via email or social media. Meeting them at restaurants or coffee shops instead of witchy stores, as there are so few of them now that everything can be bought online. They would come already armed with extensive knowledge and fully-formed opinions, thanks to the nearly limitless information available for just a few keystrokes. I could send them links to providers of appropriate robes, cups, athames, jewelry, incense. Share suitable books for them to read from my Kindle library. And once they were initiated, I could pass them 50-plus years’ worth of materials as scanned pdfs on a thumb drive, no photocopiers necessary.

I don’t want to give the impression that the internet had no role in my early years in the Craft. I was initiated in late 1994, and got online in 1997, and it was meeting, online, people of other lines and other trads and exchanging ideas and information with them that got me through some of the most difficult and exasperating experiences of my life to that point. The witch friends I made online in my formative years helped make me into the person and priestess I eventually became. I have to think that coming in when I did, at the confluence of these two approaches, absolutely shaped my development for the better, and I’ll always be grateful that I was lucky enough to have it both ways.