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.

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