Change the Story

by Christopher Penczak, edited by Tina Whittle

Despite running a school, founding an organization, and otherwise doing a lot of seemingly structured and orderly things, I tend to be subversive and rebellious by nature. Like many Witches, as soon as you tell me I can’t do something, I want to do it, and sometimes I do. While I have great respect for tradition, I also realize we don’t live in the past. We need to find new ways to go with the old. I like to go my own way, and I think that by the very nature of our craft, if we claim the identity of Witch with all its baggage, we must possess a certain ability to live outside the rules. I wrote about it in a previous article, “I’m a Witch so I’m Exempt” but we must remember we still have to live with the consequences of our rule breaking. I modify my behaviors, despite my nature, based on what serves my Will and the greatest good for the moment. Sometimes it’s being rebellious, and sometimes it’s not. And if you want others to participate in whatever your intention is, you have to make a compelling case to them.

Not too long ago, a friend sent me an article. It was about Venus figurines from the Stone Age and all the academic and moral reasons why they shouldn’t be called Venuses, where the idea came from, and some rather lackluster suggestions on what we could call them now. This was a case of the author being right, yet not creating any change, even among the people who would be agreeable to those points.

Part of the magick in changing anything—including a tradition, practice, or even society—is that you have to change the story. You can’t just ask people to forget the previous story. Once something is out, you can’t put it away, make people forget it if they like it, or otherwise drop it, even if they agree with you intellectually. You have to paint a picture. You have to make that picture engaging and compelling. That is part of the work of the new Æon and the new societies we want to make. By all means dig deep into tradition and root your new idea within it, but then shift it into a new story that serves your vision and intention.

If we look to the past, we see how myths, customs, and traditions are hijacked, subverted to a new cause. While that might sound disrespectful, as a Witch, I propose if you want to change something, particularly something around Witchcraft, you have to subvert the dominant paradigm with something that not only builds upon it, but also turns it in a new direction. This is the crooked path, after all. If you can do it well, not only will you make a change, but people will enthusiastically help spread the word.

For example, one of the most subversive things done in advancing our craft is Doreen Valiente’s and Gerald Gardner’s transformation of the hedge crone into the priestess of the mysteries. In my mind, this change was a restoration of the ancient priestess, but many historians would argue the point. In the end, while historians are important in the halls of academia, we have transformed the modern consciousness around being a Witch by honoring truths that go beyond factual understanding. Those drawn to the strange and eldritch now have a wider, and arguably deeper, palette of colors to paint their life.

Working strictly on an academic or even social level is a Sisyphean task usually doomed to failure. You can be intellectually correct, but that doesn’t change the “momentum of the past” (a term from the teachings of the late Raven Grimassi advocating the use of established magickal techniques and images, which I’m using more widely here) unless you are making a persuasive argument. Most nuanced, culturally sensitive, well-researched arguments are too long and require too much from the listener/reader to make the change. Most people, I’m sorry to say, are lazy.

In the article I mentioned, the idea of a powerful feminine image previously named Venus has empowered women and Witches all over. We use such images in our art and upon our altars and shrines. The replacement term has to be just as engaging, even when we recognize that the Roman Venus, or even Greek Aphrodite, has nothing to do with these ancient works of art and iconography, that this was a name coming from a sexist man emphasizing bodily characteristics.

But while “Female Icon” might be more culturally sensitive, and even more accurate historically, it doesn’t have a hope of catching on, and on a very real level, it disempowers our magickal connection to the imagery. If I had a dream of the Venus of Malta, then it’s like I’m announcing a title of someone and something important when I say, “Venus of Malta.” Is it a Goddess? An ancestor? I don’t know, but it is something alive and real for me. If I had a dream of the Maltese Female Icon A, well, okay. Hmph. It’s not such a living thing to me. It has no vitality, even if it’s the same piece of art of the same associated entity.

I think in making powerful changes you have to hijack the story rather than try to change something established with nuanced argument. Use the logical reasons as the basis for your change, but realize that to get people to support your new idea, you need a symbol, a name, an image that resonates. Changing the name of something someone had a deeply personal relationship with feels like an attack. Unless you have an alternative that is alluring enough to distract from this feeling, the response you get will be anything from subtle resistance to out-and-out retaliation. Every modern Witch or priestess who loves describing their Venus of Willendorf statue to a new house guest is not going to start describing their treasure as the “Female Icon found in Willendorf which may or may not necessarily be a goddess because we don’t know if the creators believed in goddesses per se or saw her simply as a female spirit or the representation of a human woman with no spiritual overtones.” Hijack the concept of Venus as a name if you don’t like what you believe it stands for now. If you can’t, be prepared to offer something more enticing.

To me she is Venus Luciferia, Queen of the Venefica and Great Green Earth Mother. That is both true to my practice and would give an alternative view to those Witches who question if it should even be called Venus. These are all iconic expressions of her, so why not call them Venus? Calling them Female Icons keeps them rather sterile, while the Venus title can make them come alive, like the many forms of Tara or any other divinity. Were they all really Tara? Was Tara misapplied to some figures out of zeal? I don’t know, but there are many Taras now.

Buddhists seemed to know how to take the story and work with what was there already. I think of the transition of Avalokiteśvara to Quan Yin or the welcoming in of the Tibetan deities and sorcery into the practice of traditional Buddhism that had shed deities in its philosophy when it took root in Tibet. I think of how Buddhism takes the form of Zen Buddhism in Japan and how Buddhism in general forms all these different cultural branches. Today we would look at the merging or transformation of Avalokiteśvara/Quan Yin as cultural appropriation, misgendering, and generally problematic, but it preserved and even made more popular a figure that could have otherwise been wiped out by one sect over the other.

I think the winner of the tale, as an entity, is the surviving Quan Yin, perhaps using their own agency to navigate human culture and stories and assume such a popular and beloved role all over the world. Are other entities responding to such things, and are their wishes independent of their creators or even their seeming benefactors? Can the entity disagree with their publicly recognized spokespeople, with a vested interest in controlling the imagery, icons, and ultimately the theology around themselves? Are the entities ultimately free to leave the culture of origin on their own accord? How would they do that, if not through the hands of others?

You can still love someone—even a culture, religion, or tradition—and want to grow beyond it. If we give ourselves the freedom to do that, do not our gods and spirits have the same rights? If we are Pagan, Witches, Polytheists, or Animists, we have to realize regardless of what we think is correct, the entities have their own agendas, needs, and motivations that are non-human, and anthropomorphizing them, assuming our motivations are theirs, our causes are theirs, and our methods are theirs, just creates another dogma. How many practitioners who are deeply devoted to a deity—say Hecate, the Morrighan, Odin, or even Jesus Christ—lose themselves in that devotion and start to assume their personal will, opinion, and direction are god-given? They go off the rails in the eyes of a more balanced practitioner.

In the end, I don’t care that much about the names of the Venus statues. If consensus offers us something better, so be it. Until it does, I think of them as various archaic Venuses. For now, with everything else going on in the world, it’s not a burning issue for me. But I think about this idea in a much wider range of societal change, both in the Craft and in the greater world. I can understand the perspective of how something smaller like this can contribute to the overall forces of patriarchy and colonial attitudes, but I also think we have to address what we are building while we are deconstructing. I fear the consequences of robbing language in general—and magickal language specifically—of its vocabulary in whatever worlds come next, in relegating certain words by certain people to taboo. Isn’t the role of the Witch to transgress and to embrace the taboo?

Societal Change—Challenges and Consequences

I think conversation is powerful and great, but often progressive change to the world, the ushering in of a new Aeon, is stymied by those trying to have long, subtle, nuanced conversations with people who don’t care or aren’t currently capable of having those nuanced conversations. When you try, it can come across like an attack. Then we get frustrated that we are perceived as attacking when we are not, and we shut down the dialogue all together. There is no clear suggested narrative.  But the people who don’t want to discuss social justice, inequality, climate change, COVID-19, gender studies, human rights, Black Lives Matter, or any of the many issues urgently needing change and beneficial action do like stories. They like to tell a story, and they’ll often listen to a story if it engages. They like media. They like movies. They like songs and television. So how do we change the story? What symbols can be used to engage them, to move them toward more subtle conversations? Many of the changes already underway have come about by learning the tragic stories of the people involved, speaking their names, and bringing awareness to a real and tangible level. That is part of the magick right there.

I think about how we learn about Christian conversion of the Pagans, in the adaptation of Pagan symbols and holidays to the Christian calendars. Some gods became saints and those that couldn’t be accepted were demonized. Greek Neoplatonic hierarchies of gods and spirits became Christian nine choirs of angels. Qabalah became a fusion of just about everything to preserve the mysteries in times and places hostile to all mysteries, whether they were Jewish, Christian, Islamic, or Pagan.

But when we become too purist, or break into too many opposing camps seemingly with the same goals, we can’t change the story in a meaningful enough way. Imagine if the Christian church had said they couldn’t change the birth of Christ to the Winter Solstice time, that it would have been problematic. Yes, true, but then would Christianity have been the story across the world that it has been? How necessary was Christmas and Easter to Christianity? As the things practiced by most Christians and celebrated (or at least acknowledged) but most non-Christians, they have become a necessary part of our supposedly secular but nonetheless Christian dominant society. Even the things that are not true, linearly and chronologically, have a bit of mythic truth to them. For good or ill, they created a bridge that changed the story in their favor, making the world the way they wanted it. While I might hate the results, I have to admit that was good magick.

We can argue that Christianity should not have risen, and that they shouldn’t have appropriated the holidays, but they changed the story from what they felt was genuinely harmful—pagan godlessness—to what they thought was truly helpful—salvation. What they did with the story as things progressed is another matter entirely. While we don’t want to emulate their results, or propose one belief system and theology for all, I can’t help but notice so many Witches today seeking to go “deeper” and diving into the folk mysticism and magick of Christianity and the practices it has merged with over time. When we look at those practices, they have changed some of the story, with heretical non-canonized saints like Expedite and Santa Muerte.

The Lure of Conspiracy

One of the great successes that the New Age movement (rooted in Theosophy and sharing far more than I’m comfortable with in Illuminati Conspiracy Theories) is that they have changed their story of humanity. They have told a worldwide story that is now inclusive of the globe, that stretches into pre-human times and beyond to the stars. And the conspiracy theories get so much credibility because people know there is something wrong with the mainstream narrative, that it no longer works, which creates a feeling of betrayal and a search for truth. When that is not coupled with introspective work and true mysticism, it leads to delusion and paranoia. It’s easy to believe in ancient and modern aliens running things or shadow conspiracy governments because the truth of random chaos seems too crazy, and the official story of continual upward progress seems ridiculous when we look at ourselves as a species. But the highest and lowest expressions of these global stories have engaged people looking to understand what is really happening in a way that includes everyone, for good or ill. The conspiracy theory does that well, though often the “them” is some unknown shadow, but that is still the story, competition.

For those without an esoteric bent to their worldview, the Tea Party and the MAGA hat narrative fills the void of understanding, explaining why the world is the way it is, and creating a divide between us versus them. Those we identify as TERFS recognize this on some level and don’t want the story to change because they feel their story hasn’t come to completion. The introduction of a new element to their story, trans women, feels like a return to an old story, where their needs and rights are put second, so they have resistance and attack. Those who identify as feminists and are not seen as transphobic have worked trans women into their narrative in a way that is inclusive and helpful to all, not frightening. Often the battle to define rights and womanhood doesn’t address the story, and the feelings attached to the story, that all sides have, which makes it hard to create a place where a new story can be created together.

Telling a New Story

While no story is completely correct, each serves a purpose. An initiate realizes all stories are unreal, but that doesn’t mean they are not true on some level. Storytelling, narrative, is a tool for our magickal world view. As initiates we have to reprogram our inner dialogue—the story we tell ourselves about our wounds, trauma and own actions—not to deny it, but to frame that story in the context of our great journey and not become so obsessed with our wounds that we never learn to heal. Likewise, as a society, we have to learn to change the internal collective dialogue and the external interaction between people that is an expression of it. The process is larger and more group-oriented, but essentially the same.

We use established myth and folklore as a tool to remember and to grow, and in the changes of the ages, we have to set the stage of the new myths and folklore. What will it be? I don’t know, but I’m looking at Aquarian imagery: cups pouring forth, holy grails, cauldrons, waves of information, ambrosia, lightning, light bearers, fire stealers, and phoenixes. Unlike the vertical axis of Pisces, Aquarius is more of a horizontal organization, like the twinned Aeon of Horus and Aeon of Maat, Will and Truth, male and female, divine twins acting together.

I am loving the stories of modern new media, but while inclusive, they can also alienate those who probably need to see them the most. Things like Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts, the new She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, Steven Universe, The Dragon Prince, and the two Avatar series are hopeful tellings of a story (can you tell I am a fan of cartoons?) While I love the mythos of Star Wars, it is of the last aeon. The essence of Star Trek is really pointing the way in story to the new age—betterment for the sake of betterment, no commerce, space travel, social ties across the world and across the galaxy with other races and people, and the continued urge to explore, to know and to grow in new and unexpected ways. While these are great examples for the overall arc, we could be better served on an individual level by thinking in terms of the story we tell ourselves and others and the world. You don’t have to have a TV show to think and act mythically.

What story do we want to tell ourselves and each other, and what is the purpose of it? If we want an equitable, just, balanced society, what story do we have to tell to get people moving there? What imagery? What rituals? And how do we get the “buy in” to engage enough people to participate in a meaningful way for real change?

I know that puts the burden on many people already doing a tremendous amount of work. If you can’t do it, don’t do it. But if you expect change and are working to create change, what are the most effective avenues to make that change happen? If we don’t want to change the stories in the way that others in the past have, how can we make a shift in ways that suits our ethics and culture? Many would argue that is not their job, but then spend hour upon hour arguing in the comment section of a post to get their point across, seeking intellectual satisfaction, a win, even though such discourse rarely yields an actual changed mind once things get heated.

How about we put some of that energy into the creative process and try to “out-create” as Tori Amos sings in her Night of Hunters album instead of out-debate? I’m fond of the teachings such as “It might not be your fault, but it is your responsibility.” If you can see the problem and the other cannot, it’s your job to move the situation towards healthy resolution. You might not want to, but your capability to be able to do it creates the imperative. Likewise is the teaching, “If not you, who? If not now, when?” As our own storytellers, bards, magicians, and Witches, we can’t expect someone to tell us the story where everything works out and then tuck us into bed, no work on our parts. We must participate in our storytelling, and within our own lives, follow up with the actions that match the story we are telling.

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