by Christopher Penczak, edited by Tina Whittle
I was recently asked a question that sparked a greater reflection within me, one I have perhaps always intuitively known, but not necessarily expressed before. It started someone asked if they could take classes and participate in the Temple of Witchcraft, a question I get often and still find surprising. As much as I love the romance of the secret society, we are nonetheless a public organization, with many open events and applications with set policies. While I prefer the idea of the romance of the past—the image of the old Witch in the hut or the secret knock to be admitted to the lodge—I think the transparency of the present and the future are vitally important. I do believe in a magickal world, and that while perhaps Witchcraft is not for everyone, magick can be, and one of the many roles of the Witch is to be of service to the greater community if that is your path.
With this transparency come things that can often be a drag—policy documents, record keeping, board meetings, and the like—but these are necessary if we want to have resources to support traditions that will not disappear with the retirement or death of charismatic leaders and wealthy patrons. I know many a covenstead, temple, or Witch House that was abruptly removed from community because there was no shared responsibility in its ownership and maintenance. So we work in the legal structures of the world at hand until those structures change, or our society does, creating our own internal patterns that support the spirit of what we do as Witches while operating in the world of the overculture.
However, what my questioner was specifically asking was if they could participate in the Temple of Witchcraft as a practicing Hellenic Polytheist. “Of course,” I answered, as we are open to everyone. We have had students who began their journey as questioning Christians and who never gave up their personal Christianity. We have had others start rooted in all sorts of previous traditions and religions, from formal magickal initiations to mainstream religious groups. People often ask if they can maintain membership in two traditions, and I explain that we have no problem with it as long as their other tradition does not. If you are joining a certain level of training, we require you to do the training to the best of your ability, and time commitments or personal conflicts with another group or tradition are not valid excuses to not do the required work here, but if you can work it out, we are fine with it. While some traditions do require you to either break from, or take a sabbatical from, other groups and traditions—and over the years, there are moments where I truly see the wisdom in that—we are a tradition of self-determination and self-responsibility. You must make the best decision for yourself around your spiritual commitments and groups. I do, however, find wisdom in rooting yourself in one and then exploring, as starting too many new things at once is often not productive in the long run.
I began as a questioning agnostic, and probably a bit of an asshole, never satisfied with the answer, the exact sort of student a teacher like myself shudders to see coming. Nonetheless, I have a certain level of compassion and understanding for those troublesome students, since that was where I once was. So I certainly can’t tell anyone who is coming for training in the traditions I’ve helped co-create that any specific statement of belief or a professed Witchcraft identity is required. I didn’t have it. Unlike when I began, when there was much less availability of information, teachers, and community, today I often see very versed students, at least academically, and my goal as a teacher is not the introduction of outlandish concepts such as magick, spirits, and the ancient gods, but the encouragement of a beginner’s open mind to experience rather than expectation. New teachings will often challenge both your skills and your preconceived notions. Otherwise, you are simply training to affirm what you already know.
We often say the Temple of Witchcraft is a tradition of technique, and not of belief. Though we enjoy the legal status of a religion as we fit the government definition, at heart we are an order of occultists seeking the mystery of consciousness and relationship with spirits before maintaining any creed. We explore and serve a community in order to better experience and test our theories. You can have a pretense of peace and tranquility alone in your room, but when it’s challenged in the cauldron of community, you really see how evolved your consciousness has or hasn’t become. The community becomes both mirror and mentor.
Part of the world of the occultist is the continual evaluation, revaluation, and refinement of our ideas based upon our experience. We see Witchcraft as an art, with creative expression, as well as a religion that builds relationships with the gods, land, and people, but to the occultist, it is a science. Having too strong of an attachment to a belief system or identity, including that of the Witch, can hinder evolution. We obviously need words, ideas, and images to communicate, but as one enters the mystical realm more deeply and encounters direct experiences of consciousness and the spirit, one often opens up to greater possibilities and broader definitions of self and others, including the identity of the world “Witch” itself.
Recently it was reported to me, ironically at a Pagan Pride where different groups should be coming together, that one particular culturally specific Pagan group was disparaging Wiccans and Witches because they “felt nothing” at those rituals, so therefore those groups were not valid. They believed their own rituals had power and feeling, so this cultural deconstructionist group pronounced them “valid,” forgetting the key words: “…for them.” As we attune to currents, we feel them, and those currents we do not resonate with will not carry the same energetic charge. I know when I’ve participated in that specific group’s rituals, I didn’t particularly feel much, as they were simple drinking ceremonies. I am, however, very moved by Witches dancing in a circle, which could equally be critiqued as simple dancing ceremonies.
Therefore the occultist tries to seek the mechanism behind all such phenomena. Our Craft and Order transcends the idea of any one religion, for while we magically work with and honor the gods, we are actually interested in the power behind the powers, to commune with the gods on such a level that we can look at their eyes behind the mask and perhaps see who and what is found there. We are seeking the gods who made the gods we know.
Occult teachings will often break you down, unravelling the pattern for you to see the parts. We seek not only what is behind the masks of the gods, but behind the many layers of our own masks, to find the god within. Our heads are cracked open to new possibilities of the universe and the self. Our own image of ourselves and how the world works often changes. Our hearts are cracked open, and our wounds from childhood and adulthood are exposed to be examined and healed. And for some, even our bodies are cracked open as we become teachers through illness and injury, through pain and pleasure, and we explore the link between thought, feeling, and health. Mystery schools offer a path of purification, of unmaking, returning you to a place of potential.
Occult teaching encourages you to remake yourself, your self-image, your identity, for some even your very name, from that place of potential. We take responsibility. We claim power. We balance in love and in wisdom. We learn. We do. We become. We are made by ourselves at the same time as we are unmade. This is the path of unmaking and making that the Witch walks, the left and the right hand, the crooked road of being and non-being, standing between. Our balance is cyclical and processional, not static and eternal, but our source is found in the eternity behind the process as we experience it.
And with that I grow concerned for my Hellenic Polytheist. The Greeks and Romans were not always predisposed well to the Witchcraft of their time. If the experience of the mystery leads away from the hard polytheism of reconstructionism into the softer occult monism of ceremonial magick, alchemy, and modern Witchcraft, what will you do? If the gods and spirits of another non-Greek culture come knocking, will they be welcomed? Will you see the parallels of world wisdom between your ancient theurgists and the mystics of other times and places, and if so, how will that change your practice, your worldview, your identity as a Hellenic Polytheist? Some can hold onto many strands at once, in paradox. Others learn synthesis. Yet more give up one for the other. Many of our Christian Witches and colorful agnostics who are not willing to be open to change leave us, and many stay because they can hold many things as truths, without a need forthetruth. Both are good.
Sometimes when we step through the gate of mystery, we need to be willing to look at, and often release, our attachment to our certainty of how things will be for us. We can’t be certain of anything, in occult philosophy or in life. Things can change in a moment, without any notice. Acceptance of that leads us to the possibility of releasing our attachment to our identity, or at least our sense of it, to be open to how we shall change. Who I was when I began my occult path is nothing like who I am today. Even esoteric ideas I had about being a Witch, about my astrological sign and chart, my gender and orientation, have all been challenged over the years, giving a greater sense of how my essence is expressed. On the deepest level, we must be willing to let go of everything to gain everything, as that is ultimately what we all do anyway. Unmaking is like death, a letting go of who we were. Remaking is like rebirth, a becoming of something new. The training on the path helps prepare us for it, doing it consciously in life so that we may do it consciously in death, the heart of the deepest mysteries.