by Christopher Penczak, edited by Tina Whittle
A member of our community asked me if I thought our elders sold us out by seeking to be accepted by the mainstream. Essentially, did I feel they watered down Witchcraft to the detriment of us all by working with other religions and the community at large?
I asked him to examine how he and many of his peers came to “real” Witchcraft, and by “real,” I meant effective and operative Witchcraft, not armchair occultism or wishful thinking.
While our first experience with magick and Witchcraft often comes in childhood, with some amazing and undefined experience that starts our quest into the wyrd, we don’t usually find anything helpful until later. Some learn from books, and although there are more “how to” guides than ever before, many discover how to put book knowledge into action by finding a group, a mentor, a public circle, or a class.
In days past, books had less explicit instructions, like the works of Sybil Leek, or too many hardline instructions, like Raymond Buckland’s big blue book. Before Witchcraft was public, you had to know someone who was willing to share and trust. I came in through my art teacher of eleven years, and only after I was eighteen. Simple conversations led to an invitation to her coven and their celebrations and eventually an introduction to her teachers and a greater community.
Yet she, living in the New Hampshire suburbs, found it many years before through the very open and public work of the Salem, Massachusetts community, the Temple of Nine Wells, and Laurie Cabot. Simple but powerful classes and rituals gave her the inspiration, setting, and experience to more deeply develop her own practice, and find and create small and secret community. It started the network of wyrdos and magicians, readers, and alchemists, that continued to inform her practice and her eventual service as a reader, teacher, and shop owner.
Until there is connection and often confirmation of the deep wyrdness of the Witch, people remain book collectors and armchair magicians. There is a transmission that occurs in such contact, a type of non-lineage initiatory experience. I call it “holding open the door for another.” Something invisible but very real is transmitted to those truly seeking.
Without public community, you are at the mercy of fate to find that connection or drum it up from within on your own. Some say that is the way it should be. Fate is our goddess. When the student is ready, the teacher will magickally appear—poof! If it doesn’t happen, you were not meant to come into the fold.
Yet I think of the same process in the LGBTQIA community. At one time connection and initiation into queer mysteries was through backrooms of adult bookstores, behind the bushes of parks, public bathrooms, and in back alleys. Likewise, secrets signs and symbols connected us. Many know the hanky code, but do you know the flower code of green carnations and violets? Do you know about the secret language of Polari? (Such secrets seem like their own Witchcraft!) Then came the evolution of clubs, the social groups and protests, Gay Pride, and eventually even online dating and phone apps. Now we have people living openly and out in many places. Each part of the process has good and bad points, and each still occurs simultaneously. For every couple that assimilates to a heteronormative paradigm, there is the radical polyamorous anarchist collective fighting social norms simply by existing, loving, and fucking. I’m no less queer for not meeting my partner at a bathhouse, and no one is less a Witch for coming to it through a class or public Sabbat.
One of the most radical and subversive things we can do is be out in plain sight talking to people. In this time of global trouble, rather than wait for the village to come to the Witch, the Witch is coming to the village, but bringing her wyrdness and magick.
We keep saying that the Pagan, Earth-reverent point of view is missing from local and global conversation of how human community operates, so we need to be present in some way. We need a seat at the table. My elders had dreams of creating Pagan temples to rival Catholic cathedrals in our cities and of returning rural folk customs to our smaller communities. I do too. Their magickal function in society and in society’s relationship with the land and spirits is important to our collective good, restoring the reciprocal flow.
Those who fear our discourse is too watered down when we speak to other faith groups or civil councils and civic boards don’t realize how the seeds of thought that we plant shift and open paradigms. I had a whole conversation with our town planning board on how manicured, pesticide-laden gardens were against our religion in many ways, and how the wild and sacred, the hedge and the thorn, are holy to us. But just as in the LGBTQIA community, my behavior and conversation at the dinner table with my partner’s family is different than when I’m at a club or in the bedroom. A magician uses the language and skills that will most be effective for the setting. Our ability to shift our shape figuratively (and almost literally) is a part of our authenticity and legacy as Witches. We will use the words and images our audience is familiar with to get the point across, such as the infamous and reviled saying “spells are like prayers.” They are, and they are not.
When the Temple of Witchcraft began the process of establishing a religious organization, which meant obtaining and preserving land and community resources, we had to use the terminology of church, service, liturgy, belief, and congregation to be understood, so every step was not a long explanation of a minor point. As we get more involved with the public sphere, we are now explaining circle, quarters, how people participate through trance and dance and the sacred trees and plants.
We do this because of every meeting place, sacred circle, covenstead, and store community that has gone away when the founder/owner had a life-changing circumstance—moving, going out of business, a falling out in the core group, divorce, and even death. While it’s natural for such entry points to wax and wane, community based in sacred land should have at least a few contiguous points of repeated ritual and celebration that outlast a single lifetime. To do that fairly and cooperatively so that continued success is not solely linch-pinned to the good grace of one person requires a cooperative legal structure accessible to the community.
Showing up to the interfaith council or town meeting is like the wicked queen of the fairy tale showing up at the wedding or baby blessing to remind the community they are still a part of the community, even when shunned. We often have to say what is necessary but not wanted, sometimes simply by our presence alone. We are like the questing knight who claims the empty seat at the round table, the Siege Perilous. We don’t always know what we are getting into! Those who feel that showing up and participating in such over-culture groups is silently endorsing the politics and dogma of other religions or becoming complicit in the crimes of modern society against nature should reflect upon that as they post from their cell phones upon social media, taking part in such global corporate services, networks, and products. We must also recognize that by having us there, those mainstream religions are implicitly recognizing our theology and politics. It cuts both ways.
In opening dialogue with other faiths, you may find you have more in common that you thought. There are a number of Christian denominations working deeply for environmentalism, and others using the language of physics to bridge the gap between scripture and the modern world. Outreach and dialogue do not water down what we do. One can’t look at the interfaith work of the Massachusetts community Earth Spirit, with their work in the Parliament of World Religions, or talk to any attendee of their Twilight Covening Gathering and not see deep, powerful magickal work. One cannot look at the global mix of faiths in Glastonbury—and the amazing life-changing experiences at the sites and events there—and dismiss it as not real or deep because of the commercialization of the metaphysical shops. I’ve known people to return from Glastonbury utterly transformed by the magick there.
For a while, the work of figures like Traditional Witch Robert Cochrane, in its free poetic wildness, was used to diminish both Traditional Wicca and eclectic Wicca, yet his mysteries had much in common with the Christian mystic and traditional Qabalistic magician. As occultists we continually do the cross comparison between traditions and paradigms, seeking truth. Ironically, despite his public disdain for Gerald Gardner (such as coining Gardnarian as a pejorative to separate them from what he considered “real” Witches) one could say that Cochrane’s work has inspired both the formal traditions of Trad Craft and a wide swath of eclectic practitioners of it, not unlike formal and eclectic Wicca.
An elder friend of mine was down on popular simple books, specifically Scott Cunningham, whose work I happen to adore. He feared that it watered it down too much and lost the mystery. While I understand his point, I look at it as a gateway, holding the door open for others. I read those books and went deeper. “Yes, but mostly people don’t,” he complained. So what? If we can get more people to see the Earth as alive, populated by spirits and gods as well as humans and animals, if we can encourage them to appreciate the reality and value of the magick of nature rather than hold a grim Christian paradigm of salvation, sin, punishment, restriction, and apocalypse, I would rather have that. The collective world would be a better place. The deep mysteries will be there if and when they are ready.
With that magickal paradigm interwoven more deeply, we can more easily have a civil society with sane environmental justice and health. I think we forget the underlying collective paradigm seeing humanity and the world as sinful and how that idea has unconsciously poisoned policies and attitudes throughout major parts of the worlds. The further mechanical and materialistic division of the modern world exacerbates the problem, and the holistic philosophies of our ancient Pagan past, our occult traditions, and the practices of indigenous peoples can be potential cures for shifting our worldview.
I am grateful for our elders who came before us and those who are still doing this public work. I am grateful for Gerald Gardner and Doreen Valiente for opening and sharing despite conflicts between them. I am grateful for Alex and Maxine Sanders and the vast trail of publicity surrounding them. I enjoy the books and films documenting them. I am glad for Janet and Stewart Farrar for sharing so openly. I am grateful for Robert Cochrane for providing a different view of that time period. I am grateful for all the TV show appearances done by Sybil Leek, along with her books. Likewise I am deeply grateful to Laurie Cabot, and the work of all early shop owners establishing the first of our community and education centers.
There were more than you think quietly representing in the days before the internet.
I am deeply indebted to authors such as Raymond Buckland, Scott Cunningham, Silver Ravenwolf, Dorothy Morrison, and Raven Grimassi for making ideas known and accessible. I am grateful for the work of Starhawk, Oberon Zell-Ravenheart, Lady Rhea, Z. Budapest, Carl Llewellyn Weschcke, and the continuous and tireless efforts of Selena Fox and Circle Sanctuary. We are all grateful to Fritz and Wren who created the pioneering Witch’s Voice, and all the publishers, authors, bloggers, podcasters, and group leaders who run gatherings, conventions, festivals, Sabbats, Pagan Prides, covens, circles, moots, and book clubs.
Just because you see their public work and one level of participation, you might have no idea what goes on at other levels. What you think is simple can be the public face of something more. I’ve been surprised at the homes and altars and libraries, and most importantly, the conversations with those I thought were “simple” public Witches. I have no fear of our craft being diluted as they have also created the space for us to have more connection, more resources, and more safety. They took the bricks through the window and faced death threats and lawsuits so that we don’t have to (as much). What we do now lays the foundation for what is next. If you want it deeper, take it deeper. Set the example and challenge others to go deeper still. All those things can now have the space to happen concurrently. Just as LGBTQIA community still ranges from outdoor hook-ups to marriage ceremonies and everything in between, so does Witchcraft. If you just want to attend big Samhain and Beltane, you can do that more easily. If you want to be solitary but have access to more books, videos and even online mentors and peers, you can. Interested in joining an oath-bound initiatory coven? You can probably can find the right one for you more easily. Seeking an in-depth program of study? There are a few. Work in community as a healer? There are lots of us now—welcome! Build bridges with other faiths and communities? Great! Practice a non-modern Trad Craft? More options now. Just do whatever the hell you want to do? Go for it.
While it was fun for a while to feel like we were in a secret occult club, we can’t hold it from others anymore. The days when you couldn’t speak openly, when a sly smile and a subtle “blessed be” told you that you were with a fellow, are over. That exclusive club mentality was selfish and childish and based on ego. That is not the paradigm of the new aeon. Let it pour forth. Let us share and talk and experience. We can all be part of the secret club. We can’t control how others will express it. Everyone is unique, and everyone is connected. There will always be people with whom we disagree or who express things in ways that we wouldn’t. I’m confronted with them all the time online, but I have to encourage what I think is truly magickal and holy for me, and let others find their way as I find mine.
Hold your virtue responsibly and engage with it to the best of your ability. Encourage others to do the same. And when you have the chance, hold the door open for someone else and let them in from the cold. Share your fire and food and allow them to do the same.