The Holy Grail of Nuance

by Christopher Penczak, edited by Tina Whittle

I am on a quest for the Holy Grail of nuance in a wasteland of hyperbole and bravado. I seek a holy cup bejeweled with sensitivity and sharing, and I find a cup filled with salt and fire.

No, I am not talking about a deep and powerful pathworking through otherworlds, but my experience on social media this week. I have become That Guy, the one who argues with people, even though I have mostly avoided that behavior over the years, so much so that when arguments happen on my pages, or on pages I help manage, I’m often stunned. Sometimes I reflect deeply and sadly for a time; sometimes I react.

The current situation started in a community forum with a pretty meme with the following written on it:

Not all Witches are Wiccan, Nor do they follow a rede.
Not all Witches believe in the Law of Return, Many hex and heal.
Not all Witches follow the Moon or the seasons; Witch is NOT synonymous with Pagan.
Not all Witches are women, and the men folk are not warlocks.
Some Witches are Satanic, this is a fact.
There are no rules in Witchcraft, anyone who tells you differently is ill-informed.
If you think you can put us all in one box, then you are gravely mistaken.
And if this offends your sensibilities; witch, please—deal with it.

Following the instructions at the end, I dealt with it first by simply ignoring it for a week or so, until a wonderful community member essentially said, “I mustn’t be a Witch then, because I do all those things!” Generally I don’t post contrary comments on other people’s pages if I don’t have a relationship with that person. I’m more likely to private message and say, “What’s up with that? Can you explain to me a little bit about what you meant by that, or why you posted it?” But in this case, I felt the need to address our community member who commented. My edited response:

I don’t think it’s a particularly good meme. I think a lot of things today on social media are very reactionary, and it’s hard to address a topic with nuance or complexity in a social media graphic. Many people don’t want to be pigeonholed, and I think that is great, but I’d be far more interested in what a Witch is (especially if that perspective is different than the major factors most think of in terms of Witchcraft) than what a Witch isn’t.

Not all Witches are Wiccan, that is true. And not everyone agrees on what the definition of Wicca is. British Traditional Wicca? Many BTW folk refer to themselves as British Traditional Witchcraft. Solitary Wicca? Eclectic Wicca? Many BTW folks wouldn’t consider those Wicca.

While not everyone uses the phrase Law of Return, most who are involved in metaphysics understand basic Cause and Response principles. Many non-Wiccan Traditional Witches call it “Paying the Coin.”

Many who follow the Rede will still hex, for a Rede is simply good advice, but another good piece of advice is “A Witch will not suffer an injustice.” Some call a justice spell a hex and vice versa. Usually the more personal it is, the less it is justice and is instead a response/reaction to someone mirroring something we don’t like about ourselves. When you heal someone from cancer, you are hexing the cancer.

While there is no requirement to “follow” the Moon, the Moon influences the astral tides, so if your Witchcraft includes magick or psychism, the Moon is following you, even if you are not following it. Likewise with the seasons. You don’t have to care about them, just as you don’t have to personally care about gravity, but gravity is there influencing you nonetheless. It’s not optional.

In theological terminology there traditionally has been the idea that Pagan is the larger term, like Christian, and Witch and Wiccan are both specific terms within the greater whole. In years past, one could easily say that not all Pagans are Witches, but all Witches are Pagans, meaning of the land and/or old pre-Christian religions, meaning anything from the Pagan Romantic Revival in literature and art to the more modern Neopagan revival. Kind of like Pagan is to Witch like Christian is to Catholic. And different sects of Witchcraft—Gardnerian, Alexandrian, and even Temple of Witchcraft—are like different orders in the Catholic Church (Franciscan, Dominican, et cetera). Non-Witch Pagan traditions would be like Protestantism, with all its various groups and complexities.

Today there is a large group of Witches not wanting to identify with the word “Pagan” based on the current Pagan culture and behaviors, feeling they have more in common with mystical traditions of other persuasions. I can’t swear to it, but I think we’d find the modern roots to this idea in Robert Cochrane and as Trad Craft grows, so does that idea. Trad Craft often has heretical Christian elements to it, so folks can feel they have more in common with Christians than what is considered Pagan today. I highly disagree, but I see their point and often empathize with it. I’ve landed myself in a place of love of those who practice whatever form of Paganism they call upon, and just like the word “Wicca,” I don’t shy away from it, but I also need a deeper conversation about those words if you want to walk away without assumptions. Today it’s easy to declare yourself a Witch on Twitter or Facebook, but back in the day, you had to gingerly broach the topic. You understood that you could lose your job, your children, and your family by being too open, or even have a brick through your window. This concern was not so far away for me and those who taught me. And if you look around, I think it is still closer than you might think.

Many male Witches, like Storm Faerywolf, use the term “warlock.” In an age where we emphasize self-identification on so many other levels, like orientation and gender, we should be open to people identifying with this word if they so choose. (I had a hard time with that, but after a talk with Storm, I’m on-board even if it’s not my word.)

Some Satanists identify as Witches, but are they Church of Satan, Satanic Temple, or even Temple of Set? Each of those groups looks at things very differently. I find few Witches I know identify as Satanic so much as Luciferian, and a good argument could be made that a Luciferian Witch is not a Satanic Witch. In strict interpretations, Satan is not an angel who fell, and is not equated with Lucifer. Some would say the Temple is Luciferian on some level, or at least Promethean, but we are not Satanic, nor is it a part of our ethos. Light-bearing, however, is.

There are no rules beyond what is effective, and what is effective for you might not be effective for me. We might even have different measures of what constitutes effective. Yet there are some underlying principles, patterns, aesthetics, and experiences that I have found cut across Witchcraft in many forms. I’ve been blessed to meet a lot of Old World and secretive Witches, New World and open Witches, dark and light and everything in between in terms of aesthetic, but I’ve found if it’s really Witchcraft, there is something in the Witch Soul that recognizes each other. There are things that flow through the spirit of Witchcraft itself that connect and interweave in all its forms. Some like to claim the word, but often disregard and disrespect what has come before them—I think that too can be part of the path of the Witch. Maybe they will find resonance, and maybe they will not. I think Witchcraft itself is like an orientation to the world, and we go through many “coming out” and self-discovery processes. This meme can embody one, but it’s not the only one, just as how you looked, what you said and did and thought when you were twenty at, say, LGBTQIA Pride (if you are queer) are very different than when you are thirty and more immersed in the experience, life, and community, and are again different at fifty. Witch is a process that does not end.

If you think otherwise, you are not gravely mistaken or ill informed, you’re simply in a different place and having a different experience. And that’s okay too.

From that I was struck by the line:

“Witch is a process that does not end.”

Rarely do I write something and go, “Huh. Where did that come from? I should remember that.” I posted my comment and got an immediate response on my personal Facebook Page from a reader who has been practicing since the 1960s. This person stated that Wiccans are not Witches, that they are encased in dogma and have no room for spiritual growth.

There was the assumption that I agreed with him. I didn’t. I felt his response was potentially insulting to those who identify as Wiccan, and just seemed contrary to my experience. I have a problem when people are insulting on my page, even if they think they are simply being honest. While I don’t shy away from the word “Wiccan,” it’s not my favorite descriptive, so I didn’t feel offended for myself, but I want places where I post to be welcoming.

This comment was also derogatory to those who identify with religion, implying there is no room for growth in any recognized religion. As someone who learned from my teachers, particularly through the work and life of Laurie Cabot, that Witchcraft is a science, art, and religion, simultaneously, and considering my own struggle to reclaim the word “religion” from dogmatic institutions for community and legal reasons, I felt the need to speak up.

I responded by suggesting that he meet more Wiccans and Witches as many Wiccans I know are deeply involved in the mystery, and while traditional, are not dogmatic. I also explained that I’ve met some people who identify as Witches with very little tradition, but who nonetheless come across as completely dogmatic. The new voices of Traditional Wicca are wonderful, and folks like Jason Mankey and Thorn Mooney are doing wonderful things in community, and as Wiccans, are not dogmatic in their writing, teaching, or experiences.

I outlined my own work in a recognized religious order, assuming if someone was commenting like this, then they didn’t know my background. Our understanding of the world “religion” is ever-changing, but I always go back to the root of “linking” and look at it much like the root of the word “yoga.” I responded that there is a mystical side to many of the mainstream religions, and those mystics are growing and learning on their path as we are.

As you can imagine, the discussion devolved a bit, listing credentials, history, and accusations of being coy or passive-aggressive, but before it got too much, I asked for us to disconnect. Perhaps that was too aggressive, but if a more gentle boundary holding was considered passive-aggressive, I figured a request to stop was unambiguous. Yet there was still more contact after the request. There were obviously bad feelings there about those who identified as Wiccans, and while I’m not doubting the personal experience, I was expressing a boundary that this was not the place to lecture about it. When discourse reaches a place where someone being combative apologizes that their “honesty” is offensive, they embody the passive-aggressiveness they were previously complaining about, and there is not a lot that can be done. I’ve learned this is one of the “cues” indicating that it is time to disengage online. Very little good can continue from this point onward.

There could have been understanding, however, if the response had been any of the following:

  • What do you think I’d learn from meeting more?
  • What have your experiences been?
  • How are we both defining Wicca?
  • May I share with you what happened to me?
  • I thought we both agreed. Can you explain to me how we are disagreeing?

There could have been healing around the feelings and situation. It was so odd to have someone advocating less dogma and more free experience become so locked down into their own opinion, rejecting the greater inquiry that would yield a new experience or understanding.

In retrospect, perhaps I should have asked him questions, though my first impulse when someone comes into my space and starts being insulting is to get them out of my space. When I see such language, I imagine if someone replaced the word “Wiccan” with any other group. If you placed Jews, blacks, queers, or immigrants in this situation, would it be acceptable? I realize one’s religion/spiritual practice is considered to be a choice, and the others are not, but one could easily hold such a truth as their personal experience and likewise not be open to any other. But perhaps I lost an opportunity for greater understanding on my part there.

There was also a complaint that I was trying to validate my “wrong” opinion on my page by coming onto my page and reacting when it was clear I was not in agreement. He said I had “joined the ranks of old school pagans” and complained about Wiccan hypocrisies. Ironically the meme that generated the post he was commenting on went out of its way to disassociate Witch from not only Pagan, but also Wicca. My combative commenter and the original creator of the meme are in process, for Witch is a process that does not end. I’m in process. You are in process. They are in process. Witches, Wiccans, Pagans, and People are all in process. Even when we think otherwise. It’s all good.

My commentator ended on a civil, perhaps even positive note between us, and for that I am thankful. I’m sure he has a totally different experience of the exchange, just as the meme creator probably has a totally different experience of their meme, and most likely got lots of validation and re-shares by those who wholeheartedly agree.

So does it really matter? In the long run, no. Yet for me it illustrates the need for nuance, question, and a deeper form of communication that is often neglected in online communication. Fun memes that are what the kids today call “salty” can also be hurtful. We often post without thinking, simply to express ourselves, and don’t always realize who is listening and watching. Online, the mode to empower the self is often to pick on the other, to disassociate and distinguish yourself from what you are not. I am much more interested in hearing what you are and why than implications or insinuations that one is better or worse than another. You are welcome to dislike, discard, or find another practice more useful, but when you complain simply just to rail against it, you are not deepening the conversation or education.

When communicating, you have a duty to communicate clearly. It’s easy to use a meme that absolves you of responsibility by arguing that you can’t be held responsible for people committed to misunderstanding you. We had a teacher in our school whose constant refrain was to say, “It’s not my fault if people don’t understand me” and then shrug her shoulders. When 1-in-10 misunderstand you, it’s them. When 5 out of 10 misunderstand, it could be you and perhaps you should commit to clearer communication skills before speaking publicly. That teacher is no longer with us as she could not do that.

I’ve been blessed to have mentors who had their start in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, who not only have helped me see things from their generational perspective, but have also asked me about mine, and about what has come after me. Some are Wiccan initiates in several traditions, and they are open and honest folk deeply committed to the mysteries. I wish my commentator and meme creator could have met them. I have wonderful friends and students in younger generations who will take time to explain their perspective to me. Sometimes we all get together! We often all disagree, but we are talking, sharing, learning, and experiencing things from a new point of view. I don’t think there is any Witch I agree with 100%, even my favorite authors and friends, and don’t want anyone to agree with me 100%, though we have an underlying ethos of the Witch Soul that connects us.

Along with our lists of “12 Things All Witches Do” or “7 Things Never to Do in Witchcraft,” we must not absolve ourselves of thinking more deeply or behaving better simply because an internet meme sympathized with our plight and gave us permission to be sassy, bitchy, and tell off those who otherwise hold us responsible.

So I continue to seek that holy grail of nuance, bejeweled with sensitivity and sharing, so I can better embody it as much as receive from it. Though I have a sneaking suspicion I’m more likely to find it when looking into your eyes and hearing your voice than between the keystrokes, where it will keep hidden like the roebuck in the thicket.

Go outside. Talk to people. Ask questions. Seek the Grail.

Temple of Witchcraft