by Christopher Penczak, edited by Tina Whittle
Recently I had a conversation with a friend who is re-evaluating his relationship to the word—and to the identity of—Witch. Actually, I tend to have that conversation a lot with friends, all for different reasons. Some are the old-guard traditionalists who have never quite adjusted to the world created by Raymond Buckland and Scott Cunningham. Others are folkloric intuitive Witches, at the edge of the community and setting up their own shops, literally and figuratively. Some are old-world occultists or folklorists who are steeped in magic and their own unique blend of it. Some are healers, artists, advocates, or servants of the greater good in some capacity. Yet they—and we—all go through a phase where the Witch makes us uncomfortable, even amid other Witches.
Some of this discomfort is due to the rise in popularity of Witchcraft. There was a time when the quest was a part of the learning and experience of it all. You couldn’t do everything from your bedroom alone. You had to either go out and meet other practitioners or go out into the woods. Today, however, from the Insta-Witches on social media to a new wave of popular books, it seems that everyone is a Witch. And maybe they are. And maybe they are not. YouTube, podcasts, and infographics make claiming this identity so much easier. But that’s nothing new. That’s always been happening. We could argue that it started with the first interviews and documentaries of Gardner and Sanders, with someone seeing those and then getting naked in their basement with a sword and drawing chalk circles on the floor. Yet I’m sure it happened before that, down to the first Witch gossiped about or slandered, and someone, often a rebellious kid, hearing about what they did and thinking, “I can do that too” and giving it a try to the best of their ability.
People will often pretend to be what they are not, casting a spell upon themselves to become it eventually. I auditioned as a “rock singer” for bands before I was ever in a band, presenting myself as someone who could do it, without any real understanding of what that would entail. And after I got my first gig, I was what I wanted to be. Likewise as a little kid, I read my Time-Life Wizards and Witches book, thinking, “I can do that” and gathering little flowers and roots and stones and mixing them together in what was half pretend but all seriousness. In every generation there is a rise-up of interest, and those who successfully cast the spell upon themselves will go onward, and those who don’t will lose interest. Many in my first circles no longer identify as Witches and have moved on with their lives in other directions.
Some witches raise their hackles at this generality, as “Witch” is a specific thing, but even though we don’t all agree on what that thing is, generally those of us who are open-hearted and open-minded know it when we see it. Are Witches clergy? Teachers? Healers? Shamans? Mystics? I think of us as Keepers of the Mysteries. But we each have a different sense of the mysteries.
A friend would say anyone can be Pagan, but not everyone can be a Witch. Can we have Witch families? Yes and no. I’ve known a few, but in most, the children grow up to self-identify with something other than being a Witch. But does that experience still inform them? Can we even have Witchcraft communities? Some would blame this massive influx on the rise of educational systems, classes, and schools outside the coven structure, particularly those online, such as our own Temple of Witchcraft, building a bridge between deeper magickal training and community service. Should those things be linked together? One of our continual internal conflicts is how much we offer—or don’t offer—to families on the path together. We get many requests, few bites, and yet I think it is an important part of what we do, just not the focus. I don’t care if kids grow up to be Witches, but I love that we might provide a magickal experience or worldview they take into adulthood.
That level of subversiveness is part and parcel of Witchcraft for me. At heart, my intention in creating the Temple as a religious organization was to provide a repository for occult technique and training in a world of growing Pagan and Heathen fundamentalism. Traditional covens hold it one way, and this is another. Can a deeper community form out of it? Possibly, depending on how you define community. I envision the village of Witches, the island retreat where the old and new ways are kept. This vision is obviously an ideal, and the reality will be far messier, but it is an ideal I hold nonetheless. I’d like to see a village of Witches based in the celebration, not the historic persecution, of Witches. Could it be the Witchcraft equivalent of the Spiritualist’s Lilydale or Cassadaga? Of the eco-village Caer Mabon? Of Findhorn? Of Damanhur in Italy?
I often compare Witchcraft to an orientation to life, like being queer. You can use Witchcraft, meaning spell work or meditation, and never make it your identity or life, just as you can have same-gender sexual encounters or explorations of gender and never make that change in your life or sense of self. Others have the same experience, and like an initiation, they are utterly changed. Yet I also think about this analogy in the age where the lines of orientation, gender, sex, and social roles are blending, blurring, and breaking down into something else. What does that mean for the Witch? Does it matter?
Self-identification is important, at least when you start. The identity and separation of “what is” from “what is not” is a huge part of the path of discovery. You can’t do everything at once. As time progresses, you can hold principles dear, but attachment to identity grows less so. As you get older, you realize you’ve already been many people. You’ve changed so much, and there will be more change. Certain words, ideas, and actions become guiding stars. “Witch” is a guiding star for me, and the word is helpful in pointing out that star and then being able to share what being a Witch and practicing Witchcraft is to me. It starts a conversation and opens a door.
I don’t care so much how other people use the word. Things will change and rise to meet the needs of community. There was a time when my views of Witchcraft were unpopular, then became popular, and then unpopular once again. I hold to what it means to me, and how it’s changed for me over time. Just as words, identities, and communities around the LGBTQIA concept changes—adding letters, shifting from social groups and night club community to something new—I still identify as gay as that term serves me. If people want to get into further conversation about being a polyamorous queer with two husbands, we can have that conversation. The same holds true for me being a Witch.
My best vision forward is a world of magick, a land of enchantment, and for that, we need magick and mystery. I don’t think everyone wants to be a Witch, but I see many acting as sorcerers, magicians, and healers, even if some will not know it. That is the beauty of magick. Some will be poets, musicians, shop keepers, baristas, accountants, and nurses. I dream of a world where the inspired traditions of all faiths and cultures are expressed in the mystery of life, in the magick that is a part of being in this world. I think that is the key to being a Witch, and that little slice of witchiness crosses all people, even if you don’t call it Witchcraft. Quoting the controversial author of The Witch’s Dream, Florinda Donner, I take to heart her sentiment, “All of us have a bit of witch in us.” Like the Buddhist teaching that we all have an inner buddha nature, whether we are Buddhist or not, I think we all have a witch nature within us, whether we’d call it that or not. It is the part of us that sees the awe and mystery in all things and acts from a place of magick. We each have a little bit of Witch within us, and our coven is bigger than we think. Our coven transcends any small group of three to thirteen practitioners. Our coven is beyond traditions, temples, and lodges. Our coven is truly our kinship with all creatures. That is our true union in magick. Our coven is the world.