Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Celebrating the Season of the Witch

As days grow cooler and shadows lengthen, as green gives way to brown and bronze and gold, as crows call and bats wheel against a softening twilit sky, then the witch blood stirs and rises as our season comes alive.

It seems only natural to want to seek our own kind this time of year, a process that, paradoxically, is both easier and harder than ever before. Easier, in the sense that I can, for example, open up my Tumblr and see several hundred apparently kindred spirits; harder, because meeting such people in the flesh is a challenge in an era when it's no longer necessary to leave the house or risk contact with strangers to seek the mysteries. Lately I'm feeling the differences between now and The Way Things Were when I first got in; can curmudgeonly, cat-accompanied croneliness be far away?

Terry Pratchett has famously suggested that the natural size of a coven is one, and most days I'm inclined to agree; still, even the most fiercely independent of us can feel the tug of kinship's bonds, and the sweet melancholy that walks in hand with the thwarted desire to share in such a meeting of minds.

(This is absolutely a topic I plan to pursue further, though perhaps not here. In due time, in due time...)

So what is a lonely witch to do, here in the heart of the October country? Fortunately, the options abound this time of year.

  • Witch up and get outside. Explore the beauties of the natural world so abundant this time of year. Make contact with the spirits of the land. Feel for yourself the shifting of the tides, the thinning of the veil, the turning of the wheel. Most of all, feel yourself as a part of all of these things.
  • Find a festival, sabbat, or group with whom you can guest for the holiday. Particularly at Samhaintide, there are ample opportunities to visit circles and events, from Pagan Pride Days to sabbat-specific festivals. Step beyond your usual comfort zone (though of course keep yourself safe in so doing) and investigate something new, keeping expectation out of it as much as possible. It may end up disappointing you -- or you may end up making a friend or having a memorable experience to treasure.
  • Commune with the ancestors, not only your own blood relations but the blessed dead of your chosen tribe. Honor your elders and teachers who have gone before. Make offerings, visit graves, create shrines, tell stories, keep their names and deeds and memories alive (what is remembered, lives).
  • Do some witchcraft. If you really want to meet like-minded people for future celebrations, why not do some work to that end? Devise an appropriate spell (say, to attract witchy friends, to find a coven to work with, etc.), cast it, then get to networking. Utilize local resources like shops, Facebook groups, Meetup.com, and others to help you broaden your horizons.
Most of all, revel in this, the season of the witch, in all its spooky, magical glory! I have some fond memories of going to my parent tradition's old Samhain gather (and a few other memories that make me mildly stabby to this day). Every year you'd see a lot of people you didn't know and more than a few you wished you didn't, some old friends you were glad to see and, once in a while, new ones you were happy to meet. I'm looking forward this year to celebrating with as many of my current lineage as can manage to get together; and I wish similar happy shenanigans for all of you.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Witches' Bigghes

I remember coming across that odd, evocative word bigghes as a child, though I've long since forgotten just where I first found it. Most likely, it was in one of my cherished weird paperback witchcraft books, the kind I came across on occasion in dusty boxes at Saturday-morning yard sales to which my parents often toted me. (How many modern-day witches owe their early awakenings to the 1960s occult explosion that produced so many trashy-great paperbacks?) I've failed to turn up a provenance for it, even in the reams of traditional materials I've amassed over the years; and if the answer to the riddle lies locked in one of my many books, it may be yet awhile until I'm able to ferret it out. The closest thing I can give to a definition right now comes from Raymond Buckland's The Witchcraft Book: The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft, Wicca, and Neo-Paganism:

The Jewels of a Witch Queen, or a Queen of the Sabbat, they consist of her crown, bracelet, necklace, and garter. They might also include a ring.
 This brief post at Witches and Pagans links bigghes with the Old English béag, a word which refers to a neck-ring or torc (not to be confused with Irish or Scots Gaelic béag, meaning "small"). Beyond that, there are very few references to be found on the internet, save for a couple of dubious mentions from even more dubious sources--one from a notorious "Christian" writer of occult conversion narratives, the other an alleged "ex-vampire" who was also apparently a Very Powerful Majgickyan" or somesuch.

So, bigghes. Just what are a witch's jewels, anyway? Let us take Mr. Buckland's list and work from there.

In this photo, the Lady Olwen is wearing a full complement of bigghes.

She has a crown, which is traditionally a circlet with a large central crescent moon. In older photos showing trad witches in regalia, you will invariably notice that the moons on the crowns are far larger than those typically found today. (Of course, the crowns worn by our ancestresses were hand-made for them by witch craftsmen, and not mass-produced by foreign labor for cheap resale online.) Silver is the preferred metal, though I have seen brass and copper models available. It can be worn straight across the forehead, or higher up at an angle like a tiara or headband.

She is wearing a pair of bracelets, though one is sufficient, and most common. The distance, angle, and lighting of the photo don't allow us to make out much detail on the bracelets, but these would ordinarily bear the wearer's witch name and/or the sigils of her degree. (My own bracelet has my name in Theban, plus my degree sigils.) 
The photo to the right  of Doreen Valiente shows one of the bracelets made for her by Gerald Gardner.

Both Olwen and Doreen are wearing necklaces. The traditional teaching was that the necklace was to be made of large, conspicuous beads and unbroken by a clasp; here, Doreen's appears to fit this bill while Olwen's does not. Amber and jet (a topic for another time and a post all its own) are favored materials, and very popular today. I have two such necklaces, one gifted to me by my partner and one made by a sister-witch.

The garter is not seen in either of these photos, and of all the "jewels" listed it seems to be the least popular today, at least among certain witches. For those who do not work skyclad, the garter makes the least amount of sense, because who would ever see it or know that you were wearing it? Traditionally, it was made of leather or snakeskin, and had a buckle for each daughter coven that had hived from the witch's own. I have heard very specific rules as to the material and color of the garter, but these are likely trad or even line-specific.

Lastly, the set may include a ring. Most witches I've met enjoy wearing jewelry, and may wear many rings at once. Some trads and lines do specify a particular type of ring for initiates to wear, but this is by no means universal. A lapis ring was our particular custom for many years, but it was our own innovation and not something that was passed to us.

There is, of course, no way to tell by looking at the regalia who is a "real" witch or of what trad (if any) these days; a quick scout of Google will turn up dozens of options for any aspiring Witch Queen's adornments, and anyone with a Paypal account can that easily be the possessor of a parure worthy of the highest of High Priestesses. Typically, however, the bigghes tend to be reserved for ritual wear and occasions of high ceremony; one doesn't go off to the grocery in full drag (unless one is Laurie Cabot, perhaps), and anyone seen swanning around thus at a Pagan Pride Day or pub moot when not conducting a formal ritual should probably be given a wide berth. Doreen was famously quoted as saying that the only Queen she recognized lived in Buckingham Palace, and for most witches today the title of "Witch Queen" is a purely ceremonial one, when used at all. Outside one's own coven (and rarely even therein), it is almost never necessary to descend to the indescribable vulgarity of reminding others of one's exalted witchly status!

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

An Iconoclastic Review of Alex Mar's "Witches of America"

When I learned, through the Wild Hunt blog, of documentarian Alex Mar’s new book release Witches of America, I immediately went to read the linked excerpts; and finding the subject matter relevant to my interests, I got myself a copy and set about reading it over the weekend. During that time, I also began seeing reviews of the book cropping up, among them pieces written by people of the same type of demographic that Mar’s book chronicles, and was bemused by the tone that most of these were taking. Some were right on the edge of vituperative, and I found myself scanning the narrative more closely, looking at particular passages and their contexts while trying, and mostly failing, to detect the implied insults that these readers were seeing.

(I have a long history of being flummoxed by others’ perceptions of things, to the point where I often find myself wondering if I’m reading or watching or hearing the same thing [the answer to that being, of course, that we’re all experiencing the same thing from different vantage points, but that’s secondary to the subject here at hand]. I can remember once attending a screening of Gone with the Wind with a friend, thoroughly enjoying ourselves discussing [quietly, of course, we’re not complete boors] the historical context of the film, anecdotes about the production thereof, the general social milieu of antebellum and reconstruction-era America, etc.—then being surprised when the lights came up to find ourselves in a theatre filled with mostly weepy middle-aged white women, and noting aloud that we were perhaps getting something from the experience that they were not. I was reminded of that experience as I read Mar’s book, and the reactions to it from various corners of the online pagan community.)

The first thing I noted was multiple references, in reviews and comment threads, to remarks Mar made about certain older, heavier pagan women’s “pendulous breasts.” I re-read the relevant passages, and failed to find any implied insult or value judgment in what seemed to me to be merely descriptive writing—not to everyone’s taste, apparently, but not outwardly hostile. If the description was not especially flattering, neither was it particularly critical; but if we’ve reached the point in our discourse where only obsequious flattery is permissible, then we’ve put the stake through the heart of not only free speech, but creative writing as well.

Learning that Mar came from an Ivy League background helped to explain some of the antipathy she was garnering from certain critics, as well. Not all of us came from backgrounds of obvious privilege (and I hate resorting to that overused and overloaded word, but it’s the most appropriate), nor have the ability to jet all over the country in pursuit of enlightenment, and the fact that this author does can’t help but rankle. I too tend to be very wary of the wealthy, the elite, the 1%, and have to struggle with the impulse to stereotype and dismiss people on basis of their social and financial standings; but I also recognize that as being as limiting and dangerous as dismissing those at the lower echelons of wealth and power, and try to give people at least the opportunity to prove themselves to be worthy (or not) of respect. Obviously, some readers feel that Mar has proven herself, on the negative side of that balance; for the most part, I thought differently.

In this book, Alex Mar openly explores her own ambivalence and skepticism toward the very spiritual and esoteric subjects that also beguile her; a struggle that is very immediate and relatable to me, as I wrestle with these issues continually even after over two decades as an initiate and most of a lifetime of fascinated study. I can’t help but wonder if that openness is part of the problem some pagan readers are having with her. It may be that the author’s voice at times sounds too uncomfortably close to that little voice that some of us carry inside us, the one that questions, endlessly, the validity and the purpose and the reality of our spiritual experiences and pursuits. Certainty is a luxury that many of us lack, but even admitting that to ourselves is sometimes more than we can comfortably deal with. Like Toto pulling back the curtain to reveal the not-so-great-or-terrible Oz, Mar lifts the veil that separates us from the myths we tend to create around ourselves and our paths. It’s surely unnerving to some to see (or be forced to admit seeing) that the powerful witch priestess can also be a struggling single mother, or that the dark necromancer started down his left-hand path in the wake of youthful romantic disappointment. But if we (as pagans, witches, occultists, magicians, whatever label we choose) can’t accept and reconcile these seeming dualities, these apparently opposing qualities in ourselves and our acquaintances, what does that tell us about ourselves, or our level of awareness? If our self-created emperors are as naked and blind as we are, where does that leave us? That’s a frightening territory to map, and it’s the terrain Mar leads us into in this book. It’s not always a comfortable read, but it’s an important one, and in the end leaves us in much the same place as the author: with no concrete conclusions, no tidy wrap-up, only a host of new questions to join the ones we came in with. That’s a rare sort of fearlessness, and I can’t help admiring her for it.

Mar goes places far beyond what you’d expect of a journalist scratching the surface of a subculture for salacious copy. This is a work that spans years of study, travel, and expense. This is no Rex Nemorensis redux, no shill going amongst the pagans to run a hatchet job in the press later; either Mar is genuinely seeking something among her subjects, or she is a most brilliant and convincing sociopath. In reading of her experiences, I marveled at her willingness to throw herself into things that would’ve had me balking instantly: hundreds of dollars spent on monthly witchcraft lessons, hundreds more on weekend retreats, multiple days spent camping in a goddamn Louisiana swamp with strangers, awaiting an unknown initiatory fate! This speaks of a dedication to ones’ craft above and beyond the ordinary. And while I can see the questionable ethics involved in sharing swathes of personal correspondence, if Mar was upfront with her subjects about her intention of writing about her experiences, then everyone involved should have known that anything they said or did could potentially end up in print. She did take pains, so far as I could see, not to reveal anything she was asked not to reveal, including peoples’ mundane names, oathbound material from the traditions she studied, or specifics of locations mentioned in the book. I’m not sure what else can be expected of a journalist.

So, in short: I found this a fascinating and valuable book, for all the reasons that are making people quite uncomfortable. It wasn’t always a comfortable read for me, either, far from it. And that, I reiterate, is why this book is important.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Secrecy, Mystery, and Transparency

The traditional forms of the craft predate the Information Age and were in no way designed to function optimally in such a wide-open field. If you'll indulge me in a bit of cane-shaking, back in my day when I made my first foray into the wider world of witchcraft and pagan practice, it was very much up to chance as to who you might meet and how and when. Lacking the internet with portal sites and seekers' email lists and Facebook groups, your resources were limited to word-of-mouth, the recommendation of a local shopkeeper, a flyer put out by a brave coven, or a discreet ad in the back of one of the few major periodicals available in the local chain bookstore. Even so, if you managed to make a tenuous connection, you were mostly on your own, with only your own instincts to guide you as to whether or not the people you met were legitimate initiates of X tradition; and your only knowledge of X tradition was likely to come from said people, written material being scarce and hard to come by. It's difficult to seek further information if you have no idea where to look for it, or even what questions you need to be asking. The tide was shifting by the early to mid 1990s when I was initiated into my first trad, thanks to the explosion of popular pagan and Wiccan books, but it was still a very different time. Secrecy and mystery were experienced in a far different way.

Here in the 21st century, information is out there--in books, on web sites, in blogs and podcasts and every other form of social media. Where in older times the prospective initiate was the one who was being interviewed for a position, so to speak, now it isn't at all uncommon to see seekers quite openly checking up on the bona fides of the coven leaders and teachers they meet. There are email lists and open Facebook groups that exist specifically for such exchange, allowing cautious cowans to ask questions about tradition-specific practices and even about the lineages of specific people. When I was new into all of this, such exchange was all but unheard-of, and perhaps in some cases it still is; there are traditions still in which one's initiatory lineage is a secret only discussed with other initiates, where even the craft pseudonyms of one's upline are not mentioned among those outside the trad, but in the free-market of ideas that is our modern age it is only going to become harder and harder to maintain such secrecy. Seekers today are far from the tabula rasa of those from earlier eras; they read, they listen, they interact in a vastly interconnected way, and they come to pre-initiate practice with ideas and understandings their predecessors lacked. The challenges, then, for the teachers and leaders of today are amplified over what their own teachers faced back in the day.

I'll admit that I do not know the best way to navigate these challenges; much of this is still uncharted territory, still changing every day. Each tradition, each group, each person will ultimately decide for itself how much to reveal, and to whom, and when. Because there are no central registries, or for that matter any truly unbiased sources, a vouch is not always going to be available; and some initiates will be unwilling to reveal too much of their background to a questioning stranger. Documents can be easily faked. Ultimately a seeker is left to his or her own instincts as to who they can trust, who they want to work with, whether or not they can ferret out any information about their prospective teachers beyond what those teachers themselves are able or willing to share. In that way, at least, perhaps things haven't changed all that much from earlier times. More information may be available in our age, but more doesn't necessarily equal better. If anything, the technological revolution has made it easier to create and distribute misinformation, lies, and rumors than ever before.

So the need for secrecy--though I would personally term it confidentiality--must be weighed against the equally-vital need for transparency, and a balance must be struck. I would argue that there are things that a prospective initiate absolutely has the right to know upfront, things that trump concepts of "it's a secret" and "that's oathbound"--for if your oaths require you to lie to people about what will be expected of them, then that is an unethical oath, and you become an unethical leader by upholding it. (For the record, the oaths I've taken were all rather damnably vague about just what the "secrets" I was to be keeping were; oral tradition, I suppose, with variable mileage between trads and lines!) There are things that people want, and need, to know going in, things that in our modern age particularly simply cannot be swept aside as being degree-specific secrets. A balance between maintaining sufficient confidentiality to neither reveal too much of a trad's practices (thus spoiling the esoteric effects thereof) and allowing adequate accountability so that the seeker goes in confidently aware of what will or will not be expected of them (primarily in those areas about which seekers are always most concerned: sexually, physically, psychologically, monetarily). If your trad works heavily with entheogens, for example, and their usage is expected and required of initiates, then those seeking initiation need to be clearly aware of that upfront; and if they have read of the trad's usage of psychoactive substances and ask you about it, only to have you deny said usage categorically, then you have acted unethically, and betrayed your position as a leader. Denying things that are now common knowledge makes you look untrustworthy when the time comes that the truth is revealed.

Balancing the need for confidentiality, the desire to preserve mystery, and the necessity of transparency and accountability is difficult, but not impossible. It requires discipline, honesty, and integrity, all of which are important qualities in an initiate. You can preserve tradition, preserve the craft, and still be an ethical person, upfront and accountable.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Literary Witchcraft: Geillis Duncan's Spell

I've been re-reading Diana Gabaldon's massive Outlander series, and magick does work its way through the narrative in ways both subtle and explicit. It is expressed most explicitly through a character who takes the pseudonym of Geillis Duncan and is a practitioner of what one might reasonably call the Dark Arts, what with all the killing and such.

In Drums of Autumn, the fourth novel in the series(1), we get a glimpse into Duncan's grimoire, which includes the following spell; I reproduce it here as it appears beginning on page 692 of the Nook edition of the book:

I raise my athame to the North,
where is the home of my power,
To the West,
where is the hearth of my soul,
To the South,
where is the seat of friendship and refuge,
To the East,
from whence rises the sun.

Then lay I my blade on the altar
I have made.
I sit down amid three flames.

Three points define a plane, and
I am fixed.
Four points box the earth and mine
is the fullness thereof.
Five is the number of protection;
let no demon hinder me.
My left hand is wreathed in gold,
and holds the power of the sun.
My right hand is sheathed in silver,
and the moon reigns serene.
I begin.

Garnets rest in love about my neck.
I will be faithful.

This would actually be a workable piece, though if I were to test-drive it I would alter the wording a bit to put it more in line with my own praxis (for example, I'd shift the directional attributions a bit, flipping the West and the South as given above). I like the reference to "three flames," which is then amplified by "three points define a plane"; to me this has parallels with the magician's Triangle of Manifestation as well as the symbol of the first degree initiation (at least within some traditions). The four points boxing the earth could easily be the cardinal points that mark the boundaries of the witch's personal universe. Five are the points of the pentagram, which can be used as a protective device. The gold/sun and silver/moon are familiar enough to be nearly self-explanatory. The garnets about the neck have a specific meaning in the narrative (as do the gold and silver on the respective hands), but the wearing of a necklace in ritual is common in BTW-derived witchcraft.

Tweaked to the specifics of one's personal style of working, this incantation might make a fine opening statement before a working. I may try doing just that.

(1) There are many books in this lengthy series of historical time-travel magical fantasy description-defying sagas. If you have the time and the inclination, I recommend them highly.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

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 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 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 and progressive (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.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

"Breaking Tradition"

This post by Sarah Lawless confirmed for me a number of things I'd already suspected, granted me a clearer perspective, and gave me a sense of optimism (mingled only slightly with a cane-shaking desire to chase some of these crazy youngsters off my lawn). I was fiercely rebellious against what I saw to be problematic within my parent tradition, so how could I possibly resent that same questing spirit in others? I may not agree with, believe in, or wish to participate in everything that falls within the definition of "witchcraft," but neither do I have the right to define or deny those things to others. Evolution is ever the way of things, after all.