by Christopher Penczak, edited by Tina Whittle
There’s an old saying, “Witches don’t believe. We know.” Like so many other statements, it’s a double-edged blade that can help or harm us.
The first interpretation is that we are not a creedal religion. We are experiential. In the modern age, most of the mainstream world equate creeds, statements of belief or faith, with religion. Sincere belief is a core part of the US Supreme Court’s interpretation of religion. Yet in most religions, while they had some sort of baseline belief, such as belief in intangible gods and spirits, there was not a codified statement of beliefs separating one sect from another. Differences were in practices and philosophies which could shift over time. Religion was a way of life. Nothing was secular. Ancient Egyptians didn’t really have a word for religion as we know the term today, despite being a deeply religious society by our understanding.
In the ancient world, religion operated—and can still operate today—on many levels. You often had a national religion with a unifying paradigm, such as those focused on a leader like a Pharaoh, Caesar, or other high king or chieftain. There were regional gods and regional festivals that made up part of the national landscape. Each region might celebrate something different and host a variety of visitors. To this day certain churches celebrate larger events of the feast of their name saint and do not massively celebrate other saint days. All might celebrate the major holidays of the religion. That was the same with regional gods, their local temples, and the festivities appropriate to the area. Households had household religion and the veneration of gods big and small within the home as well as house spirits and family ancestors. Individuals had their personal practice, prayers, and magick with the gods, often done in private, or private moments within the larger landscapes of the home, region, and nation. Individuals might have a distinct relationship with one or more gods. And you had initiates of the mystery cults and philosophy schools. One didn’t have to necessarily proclaim one belief over another, though mystery cults might require vows of secrecy or the study of particular ideas or practices.
There was theology, myth, metaphysics, and ritual as the ideas and arts that help one interface with the divine, but no statement of absolute belief was required to join or be excluded from anything. Witches today embrace these Pagan patterns, and everything is a potential idea to help us experience or understand the divine beyond the simple statement of belief.
Witchcraft—and occultism in general—is a science to many. Belief can get in the way of the search to learn and know. The theories and philosophies formed during our metaphysical quest then inform the art of the Witch and the religion of the Witch. Beliefs, like opinions, can change. Over time our philosophical paradigms can change and grow, but as a culture, it does take time.
When I began my journey in the 90s, few Witches talked about the triple soul despite Starhawk introducing it in the very popular and now classic Spiral Dance in the 1980s. And while I did read it, it wasn’t until the three souls were reintroduced to me through New Age Huna that the concept stuck with me. Soon we saw the growing popularity of the Anderson Feri traditions, Starhawk’s source of the teaching, as well as other faery traditions and comparisons of the idea in Voudou, Siberian Shamanism, and modern psychology. The basic ideas were found in New Thought, Hermetic Qabalah, Egyptian and Greek philosophy, and alchemy, but until we reached a critical mass, there was still an emphasis in the popular dualistic body and single soul paradigm. Now many consider it a basic default teaching for beginners, but there was a time you had to work up to it because it conflicted with previously learned beliefs and paradigms.
The second interpretation is arrogance. What do Witches know? We have ideas and experiences and draw conclusions from them, but in the highly subjective world of spirituality, we can’t say we know objective truth. What we know is our personal truth, and it’s open for reexamination, just as it is for any seeker on a path, Witch or not. A wise one of any tradition realizes it’s a mystery. For even though in life there is never absolute knowing, there is an aspect of the unknowable to the divine. To think otherwise is hubris and leads to the calcification of beliefs into dogma. Yet a mystic might say absolute reality and ordinary reality are one, not divided, and we experience the absolute in everyday moments. I agree, but even that is a belief, not something that can be quantifiably proven to one who does not agree. Logic won’t get us there any more than blind faith.
The difference is that some focus on the belief and seek experiences to confirm it, while others focus on the experience and then come up with beliefs that explain it. Most seekers are a mix of the two. We often start with some baseline assumptions or potential assumptions to begin. I started as a skeptic, but I had to be open to the theories, the possibilities, to have any success with the technique. If I logically answered and linearly challenged everything at every step of the process, I would never have achieved the trance states to have a direct experience. I had to temporarily suspend disbelief to bridge the gap and then analyze later.
Others are seeking to replace one faith with another when they come to Paganism and Witchcraft. They are not looking for metaphysics, philosophy, or occultism. They are often not even looking for disciplined practice or nuanced theology. Instead, they are seeking the basics of religion in the form of statements they can believe in. I find this very dangerous for magickal religions because it can easily bring all the problems of monotheistic religions into Paganism and Polytheism. Not being raised in a true Pagan worldview, it is easier to swap one set of beliefs for another but keep the same behaviors and prejudices of your past orthodoxies. Otherwise you would have to radically alter your worldview and approach to life. Declaring faith in old gods doesn’t do that. It’s more fundamental than that, and often such practitioners simply make the change of outer behavior and outer culture, and not the inner, even though they are convinced they have, because they renounced Jesus and swore an oath to Odin, Zeus, or the Dagda. The key to understanding Paganism/Polytheism is in the poly, the many, not the mono, the one way of doing, thinking, or believing.
Witches have the Witch’s Creed, a beautiful piece of poetry by Doreen Valiente, but it is not a universal doctrine of belief for all Witches. It is not the Nicene Creed of the Christians, the required statement of belief of many denominations, frequently repeated like an oath. The Nicene Creed sets a standard of theological thought against which others are judged as heresies if they do not agree. In Witchcraft, we may disagree, but we have no concept of heresy for we have no absolute doctrine applying to all Witches, let alone all people.
If Witchcraft is something numinous, then our ritual poetry sets a tone and establishes the flavor of a tradition. Ritual writing inspires feelings and can transmit ideas of the culture, but does not draw the same lines as the Christian creeds. It helps transmit a quality shared between groups and practitioners that can unite them in spirit, yet leaves so much to the personal journey.
The Witch’s Creed
Hear now the words of the Witches,
The secrets we hid in the night,
When dark was our destiny’s pathway,
That now we bring forth into light.
Mysterious water and fire,
The Earth and the wide-ranging air,
By hidden quintessence we know them,
And will and keep silent and dare.
The birth and rebirth of all nature,
The passing of winter and spring,
We share with the life universal,
Rejoice in the magical ring.
© Copyright The Doreen Valiente Foundation
Doreen’s work has a beautiful spirit that many are connected to, but many others are not. They might find inspiration in Andrew Chumbley or Silver Ravenwolf. Between those ends, there are many other possibilities. They might seek older works like the Orphic Hymns or the Prose Edda. What inspires you? It might not be verbal, but visual art or sculpture.
Our holy works are not the words of the gods or the statements of absolute truth, but interesting ideas that guide the way. Like the Buddhist teaching of the fingers pointing at the Moon, we can’t mistake the guide for the true experience. You can’t mistake the fingers for the Moon. The fingers only help us find the Moon. We can’t become focused on the fingers, or otherwise we won’t experience the Moon. While they point, the fingers don’t explain the Moon or teach you anything, other than where to see the Moon. The Moon must be experienced for itself. Believing in the Moon—or worst yet, believing in the fingers—doesn’t help you actually experience the Moon. Beliefs can be helpful tools, but do not mistake the statement of beliefs for the reality of the Moon, your life, or the divine.
Our scripture is the holy book of nature, spanning from the depths of the Earth to the furthest stars and all things in between. The poetry, books, symbols, and rituals point to the holy. They can open a door to the holy. Some are even expressions of the holy given form by humanity, but they shouldn’t be elevated above the experience of the holy. We must each seek and find the holy. Only then do we know and not just believe.