The Good Works of the Witch

A pair of legs in rubber boots are visible along with the end of a hoe turning over fresh earth.

Photo by Greta Hoffman via Pexels

by Christopher Penczak, edited by Tina Whittle

In my previous article “Creeds, Beliefs and Faith” we explored declarations of faith and belief in the context of occult tradition and Witchcraft and how such ideas perhaps don’t apply to us as they do in many other religious paradigms. The flip side to faith or belief is work.

Of course we are framing things against a Christian theology, but that is the root of most who come to Witchcraft. I hate the comparisons myself, but I’ve found avoiding them can lead to further confusion because people make a lot of assumptions based on their past religious experiences and ideas. Sometimes the best way to inoculate our communities against harmful theologies and paradigms is to face them head on.

Faith and works are complex topics, taken in the Christian context of salvation. Witches don’t seek salvation, do we? I used to say in my younger Pagan days that Witches have no saviors, but I was actually wrong about that. We have saviors in the Greek gods such as Zeus, Poseidon, Hades, Apollo, Dionysus, Aesculapius, Athena, Artemis, Persephone, and Hecate. Soteira is a Greek epitaph used for many goddesses, as soter is for gods, denoting savior. They did not save you from Christian hell or offer heavenly salvation, but were called upon to cleanse and protect from evil and confer safety. Soter was used as an epitaph for Jesus of Nazareth as his worship spread to the Greek-speaking world.

But this is deliverance from harm, misfortune, or impurity, intercession in our life on our behalf. Is this the same as the Christian concept of grace? Not really. Not having eternal damnation or original sin, we are not seeking escape to heaven’s eternal bliss as the alternative to eternal suffering. Pagan salvation is not necessarily about the afterlife, at least not exclusively. Our mystery traditions teach us how to navigate the afterlife by providing a topography of the underworld, not by requiring us to rely on faith or intersession. Christian doctrine on salvation usually requires both faith and good works, though some only require faith or see good actions as the byproduct of faith. Behavior alone is not enough to get you into heaven, but bad behavior can keep you out of heaven.

So do Witches do good works?

It depends on the Witch.

And this is exactly as it should be, for no Witch should tell another what their will is, what they should and should not be doing.

Many Witches do good works. They see their true magickal will in service to the gods and the community. They focus on the interconnection and interrelated nature of all things and operate from a place of aiding others to create a harmonious world, or at least a more harmonious corner of it. Good works can be for people, for the environment, for animals, or for justice. I remember Laurie Cabot telling a story of encountering someone who didn’t believe Witchcraft was truly a religion because if it were, we would be funding hospitals like the Christians. “Where are our hospitals?” he asked. They could be coming, though we are still working on permanent physical gathering spaces that can outlast a single generation. I’d particularly like to see birthing centers and hospices run by Witches, finding new expressions of the magickal midwife and the keeper of the death vigil, in a way where we as practitioners could have support in offering holistic service and people in need could find us. This is true work of the priesthood of the Witch.

Some good works are paid work. Healing, readings, teaching, counseling, and ritualizing are all professions, and getting paid does not negate the good work for a Witch any more than a surgeon getting paid negates the life saved. The Witch has placed a boundary on the service they do. Some Witches take vows to never do this, and if you’ve taken a vow, then honor it, but if you haven’t, you are not bound by someone else’s vows. And many realize the vow is against initiation into a coven for money, not readings, healings, or general teaching.

Other Witches don’t believe in any form of public service, charity, or good works. It’s about them, their will, and their attainment. Believe it or not, despite the Western misconceptions, many Buddhists are just like this.

Those of the Bodhisattva school of thought believe in foregoing nirvana until all sentient creatures can also attain it. Some vow to save everyone as a regular practice. Despite having a bit of a savior complex for others, they don’t have an expectation that another Buddhist will save them. They are responsible for themselves. Other sects of Buddhism think the greatest service you can do for the world is achieve nirvana yourself, ending the cycle of rebirth. Good works for others will slow you down, distract you, and entangle you in karma, even with the best of intentions. Interestingly enough, while faith in one being is not emphasized by most Buddhists, as there are many buddhas, the idea of escaping the world through transcendence is a theme for both Buddhists and Christians, be it heaven or nirvana. Mystics of both might point out the error of such thinking as it is all one in non-dual consciousness. Sects of Zen Buddhism might embody this best with the idea that there is nothing to do, nothing to learn, only the realization that nirvana is samsara and samsara is nirvana, and while the realization helps, it doesn’t essentially change anything. Everything is as it should be, unfolding.

Many, despite an essentially good aim, have bad underlying intentions and ruin things because they are selfishly motivated by attainment for the self while professing compassion for others as the sole motivation. You can enthusiastically do both, but don’t lie to yourself.

Some project the need for change in their internal world into the outer world, demanding others conform to the beliefs and behaviors they feel are just, good, or right. It happens to Witches by outer society but also by other Witches and Pagans. We all must be in guard for the simple mechanisms of projection. Example and conversation make true change, not decree or force.

I love the refreshing honesty from Rosaleen Norton:

“I do not wish to propagate any cult, even the Witch Cult, change society, or establish a better world for others — These things leave me entirely indifferent. I have what I prefer to describe as “a function”. The function is that of Focus and Catalyst. And this function is best served by my performing my own personal Will, and not caring a damn about the effect good or bad on other people.”

So much I agree with and so much I personally disagree with, for me, at least at this time in my life. She’s not wrong at all. She is 100% right, for her and many others I know. Yet many Witches who do good work are appalled when hearing that quote. Remember she is not you. You are not her. She’s dead now anyway, so she won’t even argue with you and most likely wouldn’t have argued in life because she was too busy making art, exploring sexuality, communing with Lucifer and Pan, and being her Witchy self. That’s the whole point of the quote. She is a great example of how to live your own true will. She is a horrible example of you trying to live her true will and not your own. Yet she gets something deeply true about “a function” and it’s in the realization we might all have different functions. I think many Witches are a “Focus and Catalyst.”

Today many will tell you what you should do, how you should be, what you should be passionate about and how best to act upon it in the world. They will have codes for your behavior and standards to live. In short, they will seek to impose what they think is their will, and what they think should be everyone’s will, upon you. Often those most unclear about their own work and will are the most confident in telling others what to do as a means to compensate for their uncertainty rather than be honest about it. Projection. Others can’t confirm your own true will by doing it with you or for you. These measures come from all sides, including other Witches and Pagans, and even some of the most heinous ones are well intentioned, although distorted. If you agree with such advice or direction, then do it. If your authentic will takes you elsewhere, go there. Follow your own crooked path and determine what is right for your will in the world.

Just because it’s not your focus now doesn’t mean they might not have food for thought or good ideas, but beware the demands for your attention and requirements for your behavior beyond simple safety for everyone. You can’t do all things all the time for everyone. You shouldn’t try. Listen to others and observe yourself, your shadowy unconscious points, but in the end, you bear the final choice and ultimate responsibility.

Our good work is our true will. It won’t look like anyone else’s will. We each have a thing to do. We each have many things to do. Really those things are just learning how to be. We find our being-ness in our creativity, our play, and our passions. Doing can help us be. Being can lead to doing. We each go about it in our way. Some wills intersect and form group work. Many wills of the Witch are solitary. Some are seemingly ambitious. Some are seemingly lazy, funny, or don’t look like work at all. It’s easy to judge others and be completely wrong. Fulfilling our will in every thought, word, and deed as much as we can at any given time is the best work we can do in the world. One could argue it is the only work we can really do. That is the only good work we should ever need.

Your challenge: What is your will to the best of your knowledge in this moment? Go do that work … if you want to. Your decision to do it, how to do it, and even not do it is as much of the process as anything else.

Temple of Witchcraft