by Christopher Penczak, edited by Tina Whittle
I often get asked, specifically as a Witchcraft teacher, if I think someone or something is “wrong,” or the opposite, if someone or something is “right”?
Sometimes the question is about technique. “Do you thinking casting a circle starting in the south is wrong? It felt right. Do you think placing water in the east is wrong? I’m on the east coast. Do you think substituting almond for hazel is wrong? It’s what I had.”
Sometimes the concern is more religious. “Do you think it’s wrong to view the Roman and Greek gods as the same? They seem almost the same. Do you think it’s wrong to eat my food without blessing it? I don’t want to be weird when I’m with my family. Do you think it’s wrong to only call upon the Goddess in ritual, no God? I really love the Goddess, but don’t want the God.”
And still other times, it’s more moral. “Do you think it’s wrong to curse my ex-husband? He really deserves it. Do you think it is wrong to cast a spell for my daughter? She wouldn’t want me to, but it’s my way of helping. Do you think it’s wrong to banish my co-worker? She took my promotion.”
And each time, I ask, more or less, for the questioner to “define wrong.”
Likewise, I’ve been involved recently in a number of “Witchcraft is/isn’t a religion” debates in which my own starting point is often “define religion.” While I have embraced Witchcraft as a religion as I might see Hinduism, Buddhism, or Native American indigenous traditions as religions to be protected by law, they are really ways of life with deep philosophical underpinnings to guide that way. They are keepers of the sacred and the relationships between the human world and beyond. Yet in their mainstream forms, they are embraced by their community in ways that ancient Paganism might have been, but that Witchcraft today perhaps isn’t. Some people considered even the ancient forms of Craft an illicit religion. Yet here I am keeping the sacred and modeling a way of life through a Witchcraft temple.
My definition of religion contains the requirement that it uses ritual and trance technology for direct experience, guided by myth and art, but not commandments or divine proclamation. I’m deeply wary of religious leaders of any stripe—but especially Witches and to a lesser extent Pagans, Druids, and Asatru—issuing proclamations, commandments, or moral directives. The point of the practice is to seek your own experience and come to your own conclusions. Be guided by tradition, philosophy, and common sense, but don’t be bound by another’s opinion of them.
Don’t expect anyone to give you the answers whole, for their answers are not your answers. I am equally wary of the lazy student, the lazy practitioner, who expects to receive it all from a single source. Witchcraft is too messy for that. A teacher or tradition passes a thread, but you need to pull that thread. You need to see where it leads, and ultimately you need to weave your own garments from what you find. For a time, you will be threadbare and weave rags, but you’ll weave and reweave again and again. We might wear complimentary outfits and walk together, but we each have our own style and our own path.
For issues of technique, the question to ask is, “did it really work?” Then it was right. Did it fail? Then it was wrong. There is a quote attributed to both Aleister Crowley and Serge Kahili King: “Effectiveness is the measure of truth.”
For issues of theology, we have a religion that encourages direct access for our personal answers—meditate, journey, divine, or engage in community where there is invocation and ask them yourself. Realize your answer is for you and not a mandate to all. Check in with elders to make sure you are making sense, but a good elder won’t tell you your own truth, but will instead let you experience it.
For issues of morals, be guided by philosophy, empathy, and common sense. If the roles were reversed, would you think it wrong? Do your virtues support you? I’ve often found if the choice is between something easy and something hard, hard is often, but not always, the virtue.
As a religious “leader,” (a term I hate, preferring teacher or priest), I want to support people in finding their own answers. We can find ourselves emulating the practice of mainstream religions, pushing specific actions beyond those agreements of civil society. Your High Priest/ess shouldn’t tell you how to do things at home, define your personal relationship with the gods, or tell you who to vote for, but should show you tools to find those things for yourself. If you are rooted in Witchcraft traditions, you’ll be informed by those traditions and virtues, but we will each express them in different ways and with different intensities. You have to decide what is right and wrong in your own magick, practice, and life. Your deep wisdom and your gut will guide you, and a mentor or teacher can pose challenging questions to help you figure out when you are fooling yourself. But in the end, you have to find that internal compass and figure out your answer for yourself.