No One Expects the Pagan Inquisition

Photo by Them Snapshots on Unsplash

by Christopher Penczak, Edited by Tina Whittle

There was a time when those in their birth society who were the most educated, engaged, and morally-minded embraced doctrines and actions that we consider repugnant today. They were some of the great thinkers of their time, believing they were right and just, spiritual and correct, as they supported inquisitions, crusades, and doctrines of expansion. They believed they were ultimately doing good, just as modern proselytizing Christians adamant about their religion consider their actions ultimately good since, in their belief system, they are “saving” you from the pain of eternal damnation. They feel it is their moral duty. If you share their worldview, all is good, but if you don’t, their beliefs and actions can range from the offensive to the ridiculous.

I think about that often when I have a fervor for anything that requires participation, agreement, and change from another rather than solely involving my own actions and beliefs. When does my passion transform into something more dangerous? When do I cross the line from thoughtful discussion to unreasonable demand? When am I motivated by good intentions from my paradigm, but behaving in ways that would be offensive or ridiculous to others? If someone disagrees or opposes, am I dehumanizing them, even in an effort to uplift those I feel are more in need or more worthy? When I’ve made someone my enemy or accepted that I am theirs, am I giving up all hope of reconciliation and healing? When is my taking a stand a sign of valor and when is it an unconscious opportunity to be superior, “right,” stubborn, or more valid than others? When am I being just, and when do I think I’m being just, with ego being my real motivation?

For me, it’s often when I’m telling you what to do, rather than simply modeling what to do by my actions. It’s when I’m using words, but don’t have actions and experiences to back them up. At such times, I try to forego the short, pithy quips of social media and off-hand remarks and take longer forms, like this, to work from my community experiences with those willing to discuss the complexities of our current situations with nuance and context beyond the current moment.

I often wonder if we will look back on the things we wished to passionately change—specifically the ways we went about that change—and realize how much comparison can be made to tragedies of the past, as often we don’t realize the tragedies of the present until they are fully underway. I wonder about that in Witchcraft, magick, queer community, and all my sub-cultures and communities where participation is a choice versus the overculture where there is no feasible alternative, and the differences in requirements and behaviors to make change.

In overculture, a baseline acceptable to the majority has to be established, and from that baseline we push for changes. The dynamic can be different in a voluntary subculture. When I treat them as the same, and require agreement in all things, I risk the aspects that do bring us together and increase the fracturing, leading to more and seemingly irreparable fracturing in the overculture.

The key for me is identifying when something is forced or demanded in a place where agreement is needed versus when something based on a long-standing precedent of agreement requires enforcement in the greater overculture. To use an obvious example, murder is bad. Enforcing a no-murder policy in the overculture is necessary, and when such a death happens and an investigation determines it to be murder and not accident or self-defense, the perpetrator is punished to prevent it from happening again by that specific murderer and to encourage others to avoid murdering. Sadly, many get away with murder today with no punishment, but there is still a general agreement that murder is bad and should be stopped.

Requiring someone to use specific terminology is a gray area. In general, having the choice about what to say is considered free speech. In a workplace, there can be agreement about what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable language, but as anyone who has been in any type of workplace culture knows, it’s quite hard to make major changes without greater education and collective shift. This can lead to both overt and subtle social consciousness agreements between everyone working there. Trying to force something by decree does not work. A rule doesn’t change speech patterns or thought patterns.

In modern Witchcraft, there is not one set of established rules, values, or techniques. There are patterns established by groups and traditions, but even in such groups, wide variation exists. Change comes, but it comes organically over time. Change that is imposed through demand or requirement rarely makes a true cultural change. Change by administrative policy can change exoteric behaviors, but not the inner paradigm because the source of the change is external rather than through an inner realization.

Even in the relatively short time I’ve been involved in magick, I’ve noticed that when we think of time in the arc of traditions and movements, there have been tremendous changes from the 1990s to the 2020s. At one point, most people identifying as Pagan, Wiccan, or Witch agreed with the ethos of the Rede: “And it harm none, do as you will.” There was an understanding that a rede is advice and not an ironclad directive or commandment, and that societal justice is not harm, but revenge is. Soon there were informal schisms of thought regarding such things, perhaps revealing divisions that were always there, with many holding an inflexible interpretation of “no harm” and others indulging in personal petty cursing, which became popular (and for some, a norm). The truth of that teaching is actually quite subtle when you try to define harm.

Along with the Rede, there is the Law of Three, which is equally dismissed now, often due to the perceived mathematical imprecision or lack of immediate personal evidence. The core concept, however, the bedrock of occultism, is that actions have consequences and that these forces (results and consequences) eventually return to their source. The simple lighting of a green candle can result in the energies returning to you as money. Our bodies come from the materials of the Earth and return to the Earth. The cosmos emanated from a divine source, and our spiritual longing is part of the quest to return, but with a complex experience of manifestation. To distance themselves from Wicca, other Crafters would say that one must “pay the coin” in their magick, but it’s a poetic form of saying actions, magickal or otherwise, have consequences.

I still hold to the ethos of harm none and do as you will, live and let live, and generally treat others as you wish to be treated. And this includes the ways in which you approach community change, consensus, and control. I believe, based on my experiences and understanding that my actions have consequences, that patterns repeat, and things return to their overall origin. This ethos sets one up for personal responsibility and internal change in a subculture setting. Lack of it encourages the zeal of the “converted.” I think these simple ideals were the initial reasons why Paganism and Witchcraft appealed to so many seeking to escape religious dogma. The simplicity of these two core ideas gets us to a bedrock that has been lost by most, even in the traditions where the foundation is based on loving thy neighbor as yourself and loving the creator.

As we become more recognized as a religion in the world, participating in interfaith—and now intra-faith—work, we must keep in mind that the meaning of “religious” that most of us were raised with is not the same as the Pagan religious view. It’s hard to break the Abrahamic mold. It’s easy to apply Pagan symbols to, say, Christian theology and call it Paganism, Heathenry, or Witchcraft. Sadly I see Pagan groups becoming more “churchy” in the sense of recruiting others and preaching belief or morals. And I say this as someone who has co-founded a Witchcraft 501c3 nonprofit church to gain the same religious protections and rights as those more traditionally accepted religions in the Abrahamic model. We often get the critique of being too churchy, and sometimes I’m the one making the critique. It’s a fine line.

To me, we have always been a mystery religion of direct experience and experimentation, not a prophetic religion of belief. We have not necessarily been about a collection of values and the declaration of them to the world at large. We are naturally scientists and explorers plumbing the unseen mysteries of nature and spirit firsthand. While some see us as tribal, harkening back to the archaic human civilization as our roots, we transcend tribalism, while firmly inheriting the spiritual currents of the Western occult tradition.

There has been a disturbing trend in Pagan traditions to define things in terms of beliefs, morals, and values. We share a technical and philosophical lexicon of terms, but we define them all differently between us. We rarely reach a universal consensus of meaning. Ask anyone who teaches magick frequently and they will tell you that you have to define terms as you use them because groups use the same word in different ways. Sometimes the difference is subtle, and other times more overt.

I remember Raven Grimassi teaching me that when I was public speaking to say things like, “Take your athame, a double-edged, dark-handled knife, and use it to draw a circle…” because you could not assume—not even in a group of self-professed Witches—that we all mean the same thing for “athame.” Now try to get the same agreement in such subtle terms that describe beliefs, values, and morals. Even when we agree in meaning, that doesn’t mean that such meaning and specific language is agreeable to everyone in a group/organization/tradition. Trying to codify such beliefs leads to a potential Pagan Council of Nicaea, and that is a place I have no intention of going, for I think such a thing would be detrimental to our magickal culture. I think, despite the confusion, that individual interpretation can be a good thing. I love how the American Council of Witches came together in 1973 to address specific issues of harm in the community, drafted some common points, and then disbanded in 1974, not seeking to become a body to control all Witchcraft traditions. We should remember that always!

Yet those looking for a sermon, looking for “churchy” religion while still identifying as Pagan, are seeking the simplicity of being told what to believe, what to think, and how to act, rather than exploring those questions for themselves. There are those seeking a community of Paganism, but not actually the life or practice of it. There are those seeking the aesthetic, happy to go along with whatever. And there are well-meaning segments of our magickal community that are happy to tell you what you should think, how you should speak, and what you should do, rather than offer an idea or model their way. You can see the difference in social media posts from spiritual teachers telling you how it is rather than inviting you to explore a concept. They could, however, share with you how they came to such conclusions as a Witch, Pagan, or magician. As magicians, we must discover our own True Will rather than have a will imposed upon us by another. Thankfully, while the Pagan philosophers wrote and taught a lot on virtue, by the very nature of it, one must explore the meaning of virtue personally as the laws of society could not impose the divine virtues. If they could, the world would be a very different place.

Techniques in training are fine, but not required adherence for all time, as properly-learned techniques ultimately encourage experimentation once the initial training is complete. From this experimentation comes new growth, and if it sustains and is accepted, the new growth organically enters into the body of tradition as a new practice.

As we grow as a spiritual tradition and expand our diversity of voices and magickal cultures, there are the areas I think we need to be mindful of and transmute:

Proselytization—Witchcraft and Paganism are ideally traditions that do not proselytize, meaning we do not seek converts. Ideally, we do not believe our way is for everyone, and while I’d like to see a broader Pagan ethos in the mainstream overculture, what I really want to see are humanism and environmental ideals centered in the overculture, not belief in godforms or the magick of occultism. I had a priestess involved in social justice within our community tell others that we should be on the street corners telling folks about Witchcraft being a better religious choice, competing for the hearts and minds of the public. But if we did so, it would be a huge break with the ethos of both the modern occult revival and the greater Neopagan movement. You as a seeker must approach the threshold. We can put a sign over the door. We can open the door, but you must approach and enter. Entry into the Mysteries as an act of Will is critical. Otherwise nothing will take root and teaching becomes indoctrination rather than exploring and training in direct experience. Being a seeker is a necessary step. I think of the occult traditions that require you to ask three times to make sure you are really certain you want to join. We don’t believe our way is superior for all. Those not interested often have their reasons—intellectually, culturally, and most importantly, spiritually and karmically—as to why they are involved in the traditions they are involved in, if any at all. Even those born into a Pagan household have to ask to seek the training of priesthood and magickal initiation. The household magick can consist of the folklore, the holidays, the spells, and the concepts, but there is a deeper level to explore. We can’t assume our children want it, and I’ve seen the problems when one follows such a path to simply comply with the wishes of a parent, rather than have true interest and in-depth involvement. Pressuring someone to walk an initiatory path is a form of abuse , as you are forcing someone to confront things in the psyche and soul that they have not freely chosen to confront. In an effort to diversify and widen the demographics of our traditions to be more welcoming and supportive, there can be a desire to lean into proselytizing techniques to entice new people, and this would ultimately undo what makes the magickal traditions special. Can they and should they be open and available to any who knock on the door desiring to learn and experience? Absolutely, though the nature of some teachings and groups are more public and others less so. But something goes wrong when we seek to entice, seduce, or even drag people through the door. The quest is a part of the initiatory process. The seeker does not have the answer handed to them. Failure to recognize this short-circuits a necessary magickal process.

Coercion—We are a highly individualistic tradition, in any form of group gathering from coven to nonprofit organization, and even when we agree on the ideal, we disagree on specifics of language, symbol, and emphasis. When one person or a small group makes statements not on behalf of themselves as individuals, but for the whole group, large or small, even as leaders of a group, we create a great tension in the group mind of the magickal work. When we say anything that starts with “we believe” or “we are dedicated to” or “we endorse” and not everyone believes or is dedicated to it, we create dissonance in the group. If you join an organization or tradition under one set of simple principles—or really none at all beyond common technique and myth, as we are not a tradition that has a creed or statement of belief that one must say or agree to, to explore, experience or join—and then new things are stated as absolute belief without education and discussion, there can be a sense of unfairness or even betrayal, even when we agree with the overall ethos. To our minds and ears, the language may be too strong or not strong enough, but when we are not consulted in the process, there is a problem. When suddenly there is something new, and you didn’t get a vote in it—or even if you did and you disagree with the result, but the organization didn’t have a previous history of such changes—suddenly you have to ask, am I in harmony with this tradition anymore? If not, do I leave? Or do I create a bigger group within it to disagree with the first, win the new “vote,” and dominate the conversation? Suddenly it’s all politics not of the polis, of the people, but of winning to get your way. If the statements fall outside of the original parameters of the group, it plays havoc with the spirit and energy of the group, where perhaps the solution would be to form a different group for such goals and inter-group support. The desire to keep it together fails and ultimately forms schisms of thought, social structures, and theology. Being attached to technique rather than theology, it’s something that Witches hope to avoid, but as we grow in theological terminology and social presence, we probably cannot. So we must be wise in picking these debates and how we handle them.

Performance Statements—Building upon the problems of group coercion, even when you agree upon an ideal or stance, there is a difference between declaring something and acting upon it. Ideally, the two should go hand-in-hand, because if you are truly enacting something, the less you will have to tell people you are doing it. They can see it. When you spend more time announcing something than doing it, it creates a dynamic of hypocrisy, even when the intention is to do it. It’s the follow-through that matters. If it’s a new and necessary policy, simply inform and then enact it. We live in a world where religions, organizations, and individuals speak loudly of their ideals, but fail to follow it up with anything meaningful. The difference in dynamic—not telling you what to believe, what values you should specifically have, or what to do—is the draw of magickal traditions, even those with complex esotericism and rituals. In terms of organizations, one can easily find themselves in the position of having to make policy statements on every situation that arises in the community and in the world, even when it falls outside of the mission statement of such a group. Soon the mission becomes writing statements everyone can agree on, a task worthy of Sisyphus, and the original intention, a magickal spirituality, is lost in favor of administration and public relations. Ideally, the work should lead to personal realizations, and those realizations lead to actions, individually and collectively. But the work of one Witch’s realization is not necessarily the work for all the Witches in their group, even if they support the ideal.

Privacy—Occultism is a private matter historically. Individuals and small groups worked the material. In some groups in times past, you wouldn’t even know other people’s legal names or addresses, just Craft names. Many would have no socializing outside of the magickal setting, for both safety and some magickal training reasons. Times have changed. People are free to share as they like, and gather as they like, but no one is required to do so. In our extended trainings, we now ask some pointed questions about mental health support once we realized it was a mistake not to ask such things, that we needed to have everyone properly prepared. But otherwise if we don’t need to know something, we don’t ask. Organizations focused on tracking more and more details of members can easily lose track of the magick and the individual while getting lost in the minutiae of demographics and their evaluation. This lack of information can admittedly cause some shocks. When you find a fellow initiate in a group holds widely diverse political opinions, it’s quite jarring. They have the option to not share, as you do. In some groups in times less polarized than today, it was required to never share such information due to the impact it had upon group consciousness. Yet some groups naturally fall to one end of the spectrum over the other, and our views can change over time. During its heyday, Theosophy was considered a bastion for liberal ideals on gender and individual freedom, but today is reviled by many modern practitioners for not being liberal enough. Often one is not looking at current policies, but the literature of the late 1800s and early 1900s. All the metaphysical giants of ages past had clay feet, just as we will to future generations no matter how progressive we are today. When the expectation is deflation of private ideals, identities, and views, we can tend to impose an ever-shifting litmus test upon others. We see political motivations and messaging as well as identity requirements in mainstream religions. It’s part of what turns off people and can close the door to true and helpful change. Yet we are seeking to connect to those of “like mind” and will make conscious and unconscious litmus tests. And I admit I’m tempted myself, but it’s the ever-shifting nature of such tests that stops me. If we believe magick is change and that one studying and practicing magick can grow and change, do we kick out those who do not conform to our ideal at this moment? Or do we give them space to change, as we change? Are these teachings a school for the soul? I’ve had amazing conversations with quite a few deeply conservative members of our community and been a small part of their choice to change towards things I think are more helpful, but writing them off would have created great harm and conflict with my own role in the community. I simply approached them with the statement that such support directly harms people, looking at harm as the start of the conversation. How are we to be in a spiritual community together if you are espousing views that harm people in your community? Some people approach a magickal spirituality for different reasons, and while you might deeply disagree with one aspect of their life, they might be there to first heal childhood wounding. A review of sociopolitical identities could come later. Are you going to deny them their focus by requiring disclosure of ultimately private matters? If they reveal something and purposely pick fights with members, that is another circumstance entirely, but if they are quiet and private, where do we draw a line in respecting privacy and being engaged in their personal life? Over time, situations can arise, and addressing them in the container of community can lead to healing. As you delve deeper into the mysteries, you learn more and more how impersonal it becomes while still being so deeply personal.

Metaphysics—Proposed changes to a metaphysical system require adaptations that soundly fit the metaphysical paradigm of the group. If it works on a totally different paradigm, it might be like two different computer languages unable to communicate, creating a metaphysical schism. If it’s based on ideology alone, it most likely won’t fit the metaphysics. In magickal spiritual traditions, every thought you think, every word you say, and every action you take is invested with symbol, energy, and intention. Someone strongly recommended all our rituals and events begin with not just acknowledgement, but ritual specifically involving the ancestors of indigenous people of our geographic area. While a separate ritual for honoring might work well, I questioned the wisdom of this. Local lore includes thundering sky heroes whose enemies are the horned serpents. We work with the land spirits often in the form of horned serpents. The egregore of our tradition often takes the form of a horned serpent. Local indigenous lore defines Witches as harmful, as enemies. We identify as Witches. Our rituals may have sensual, sexual, or confrontational imagery that would not be in harmony with these land ancestors who had very different rituals despite also being seasonal based. When you say something in sacred space, if you know what you are doing, spirits respond. When living in a metaphysical reality, speaking is not just functional or performative, but it creates change. Calling them to rites that would be foreign or even offensive to their context, in which they would have no purpose other than to witness, would probably not be good neighborly etiquette to our spiritual ancestral neighbors. If we were a different group or on different land, perhaps it would be appropriate, but as we are all now, probably not. More subdued, separate, and specifically honoring ceremonies of recognition, healing, and gratitude would be more appropriate. Whenever we get exposed to new information, there is a tendency to want to immediately add it to our whole, but when working in a community we need to ask ourselves if something functions well in what we are doing and consider the short-term and long-term consequences of these changes metaphysically.

Culture—Along with strictly metaphysical considerations, the science of our craft is as important as the art of our craft. While the modern revival of occultism (depending on when you choose to start counting) is relatively young in terms of traditions, if you start in the late 1800s or the 1950s, you can see an evolving culture with terms, symbols, language, structure, and historical context. It’s the duty of each generation to add to it, but it is also the duty of each generation to learn what has come before and consider that history and context before creating too much change. We inherit a legacy and a burden from the previous generation, a vertical download of information from the past to the present, often but not always with an initiatory current. We also receive and share information horizontally with peers on the path in different traditions, philosophies, and cultures, as does everyone. We then determine over a period of time and practice how and where the warp and weft is woven. With each generation it becomes harder as there is more to learn, along with new avenues to enter that often bypass tradition, be it the solitary initiation rituals starting in the 70s and popularized in the publishing world of the ‘80s and ‘90s, or the TikTok, Twitter, YouTube, and Patreon content, graphics, and infomercial videos of today. Many bypass the deeper education, not even knowing it’s there to explore until much later. In a desire to modernize, simplify, make accessible, or seemingly decolonize, subtle lessons couched in metaphor, poetry, rhythm, and symbol are lost. A desire for neutral language to encompass all things results in no thing, neutralizing it all, like adding all the colors of paint at the same time and getting nothing but a dark shade of gray. Cultural history and pioneers are no longer in print, their work forgotten or deemed unimportant when remembered. Major aspects organically grown into the mix over decades are disrespectfully pulled out, and we lack the multi-century level of tradition as found in Hinduism or Buddhism that would allow us to say such changes are misappropriation and disrespectful of the Western occult tradition. Deep study of such long-standing traditions would reveal their multi-regional and cultural influences. Our main difference from them is the length of time existing in an unbroken line and our immediate access to the internet to dissect it rather than experience it from teacher to student as a living thing.

Our challenge of the Aquarian Aeon is the interplay of the individual and the collective, and how we continually manage the balance. These six factors will not have any easy resolution, but will continue to be a part of finding that balance. We will be tempted to “save” the community by imposing our ideas, values, and beliefs, much like a good a Christian might try to save you from hell. Both have good motivations, and both are wrong. We know the proverb that the road to Christian Hell is paved with good intentions. The key to the paradox of individual freedom and collective good is encouraging patterns that explore the virtues of things, the nature of consciousness, the awareness that art and education can bring, and let those realizations lead us from internal transformation to external community shift. It’s slow and hard and imposing oneself on others can seem easier and faster when despairing for the world and wanting to rescue others, but the short-term solution can bring long-term harm. In our passion and zeal for a better world, we must contemplate, divine, and reflect on the results of our actions today as they manifest into the future.

Temple of Witchcraft