by Christopher Penczak, edited by Tina Whittle
Dissolve and coagulate! These are the mysteries of the ancient alchemists, and as the oldest and wisest of the alchemists is Mother Nature herself, continually transmuting herself, it is the wisdom of the Witch as well. But what does it mean?
Many quote the words as an important teaching, but fail to apply them. They are two processes, overtly chemical but also operating on emotional, mental, and psychological levels, and by psychological, I harken back to the psyche as part of our soul complex and not a modern concept easily dismissed by many practitioners. These processes occur internally in our relationships, and seemingly externally in our communities and societies.
To dissolve means to break down by a solvent. That which is distinct and solid is broken down in a liquid, becoming undifferentiated. Salt in water is dissolution. Esoterically water embodies our emotions, so often our emotions are the solvent, the acid, with our distillation of unconditional love, Perfect Love, as the universal solvent. That which will not dissolve needs further purification through either a different preparatory process or a stronger solvent; otherwise it must be discarded.
To coagulate means to bring together to a solid or semi-solid state from a liquid. In alchemy it refers to the virtues of being between, having flexible traits of both the solid and the liquid in a purer and more rarified form. Coagulation is a state of union, a return from dissolution.
Our path as Witches is one of continually unmaking and undoing with simultaneous remaking. Things are built up, and things are broken down. We wax and we wither to wax once again. While it might appear as simple repetition of a pattern, there is a richness that grows over time, like a musician who becomes a virtuoso through repeated practice. Through a seemingly prescribed pattern, great artistic expression is found.
Many of us come to Magick and find empowerment, building up our identity. Many of us find that identity by shedding an older one. It’s a process. For some, the shedding of a previous religion is freeing, and the first exclamation of “I am a Witch” is a spiritual medicine to the soul.
I had the opposite. Shedding my Catholicism for a nebulous agnosticism for the sake of explaining myself, I was hesitant to claim the title of Witch. I didn’t want to be limited by something else. Yet paradoxically, without those parameters I would not have had access to the teaching and experiences that were so freeing.
I had a coming out process to myself as a Witch. Like many of my generation in the queer community, there was an initial hesitancy to say, “I’m gay.” There was the phase of not wanting to limit or define my sexuality by any parameters, to not be “locked in” by any expectations or agreement, to float nebulously between the lines. And while some do that because it’s truly their viewpoint, there was a foundation of fear for me. It was only when I entered into queer community and released that fear that I found the emotional and social support and the role models necessary to progress towards greater happiness and health. And I was later able to offer that in return.
Then there comes a time when you hold too tight to an identity or a specific manifestation of it. Through it, we unwittingly cast a binding spell of comfort and certainty upon ourselves, on a path that is meant to have times of discomfort and uncertainty. That binding prevents growth and change, so we struggle and rage against our self-created bond, consciously or not. Consciously we then have the crisis or ordeal, which allows us to choose. Unconsciously we will see the stagnation or change in others and act out, creating unnecessary drama to give ourselves the illusion we are not bound, but vital.
Today we have very specific identities. In the effort to capture more nuance and subtlety, we sometimes do a disservice by placing too fine a set of limitations on ourselves. We don’t give ourselves permission to broaden; instead, we become even more specific. We see it socially, in terms of gender and sexuality, but also culturally, medically, psychologically, and in terms in our hobbies and interests. Much of our social media has us leading with these labels, and it can be initially quite helpful to have the words, and people, who relate to us and our experiences. But once we not only identify with something, but represent it to others in person and online, we can create a bit of a trap for ourselves. It becomes entwined with our ego, but we couch it in the idea that we are being of service as educators, being open, transparent, and modeling healthy vulnerability. But are we?
And we see it in the Witchcraft world.
Witches often deeply identify with their tradition, so much so that they might block learning a perspective or teaching not overtly found in their tradition, dismissing it as unnecessary and not even realizing they are doing it. No one tradition has all the answers, and learning new perspectives can inspire new truths.
Likewise Witches will also run from their root traditions in an effort to seem wider, deeper, darker, or more important without giving respect to where they have been and who and what opened those first doors to them. How many of the anti-Wiccans out there would be a Witch without those public Wiccan authors and teachers they disdain? Just because something is not a part of your practice doesn’t make it worthy of contempt.
Today Witches will often overly identify with their favorite, or easiest, form of Magick, encouraged by online memes with little depth: “What kind of Witch are you? Crystal Witch? Astro Witch? Faery Witch? Dark Witch?” I was speaking to a seeker asking for help for a specific problem, via messenger, and I suggested a fairly simple herbal candle spell as an effective solution, and was told, “No, I can’t do that. I’m a Crystal Witch. I only work with crystals. That wouldn’t work for me.” I then asked, “How do you know it won’t work? How do you know you are only a Crystal Witch? Couldn’t you be a Crystal Witch and a Candle Witch? What does this even mean?” I got a very upset response rooted in the fear I was challenging her identity and right to be a Crystal Witch, because once she found who she is via an online questionnaire, no one was going to take that away from her.
The path is one of challenge and questioning. We face the guardians of the mysteries continuously, and they often wear the faces of friends, mentors, coven mates, teachers, social media connections, and particularly those you specifically ask for advice with your craft. If a question can take it away from you, it was not really yours to begin with, and you might be better off letting it go. That’s not to say some Witches are not deeply connected specifically to crystals or plants or the cycles of the Moon, but we are all vastly complex and multifaceted beings and can’t close down to other possibilities and ideas for the false certainty of a two-word label.
I know on my own journey, I feared that I was leaving the identity of Witch behind as I explored deeper healing techniques than those I learned originally in the Craft. I got into the Theosophy of the light workers, reiki, herbalism and holistic healing. That led me deeper into both shamanism and ceremonial magick, which brought me full circle back to Witchcraft. I had to be willing to let it go to find it again and really embody it on a new level.
Even today, while firmly identifying as a Witch, I often find myself having more in common with mystical Christians, Yogis, and Sufis than many of my fellow Witches, but it’s the fellowship of experience and the ability to see and live the universal while simultaneously living a specific tradition and lineage. There is the common bond between us. You have to consciously go through a few cycles of dissolution and coagulation to get that perspective.
I think of the Wicked Witch of the West and the cause of her untimely end in The Wizard of Oz: water. “I’m melting, melting!” she cries. The end, and Dorothy makes her way home. The Witch melted, dissolved in our collective consciousness to return again, coagulated and redefined as the hero Elphaba in Gregory Maguire’s novel Wicked and the musical of the same name. When one identity is released, something greater can rise out from the process.
Make holy water for purification, be it for your altar or a lustral bath, and when you do, remember that you are repeatedly called to dissolve and later coagulate. Sprinkle the salt into the water and consecrate it for purity and blessings:
Spirit of salt I call upon as a creature of earth.
Spirit of water I call upon you as a creature of the seas.
Together may you both bring purification and blessedness, and may we remember we continually rise and return to the primordial waters of the deep.
Give some thought to what identities you might be called to sacrifice as time goes on. How does that make you feel? What thoughts does it generate? Explore the possibility now, so in the future, it will not be a shock.
We must dissolve and coagulate, fluctuating between the universal and specific, to turn the cycle and grow richer in experience. The path demands sacrifice, which doesn’t mean to kill, but to make sacred by release, by giving it away to the divine. A good magician goes through many deaths and rebirths when following the cycles and seasons. The path offers continual opportunities to unmake, unwind, and undo ourselves and all we have been holding onto, and to then remake, reinvent, and grow ourselves anew.
Dissolve and coagulate. If we hold too tightly to any one identity and can’t find the universal in it, we stagnate.