by Christopher Penczak
Among Old World Witches, we talk about Witch’s Honor. I had an occultist friend who said the Witch’s Honor gesture from the popular television show Bewitched was a real thing, at least among the California lines of Craft, before the TV show hit the airwaves. Endora would look you in the eye, then place the index finger of her right hand beneath her right eye and middle finger beneath her left to indicate the Witch’s word is her bond. Some traditions compare Witchcraft to a chivalric code of honor, like the Knights of the Round Table, but in the end we know there are no true rules, only responsibilities and consequences.
Truth and honor are no different to a Witch than anyone else. We are not special just because we put the W word in front of those terms. Yet we hopefully understand the binding power of words and therefore seek clear communication with ourselves and others because we know the universe listens to what we speak aloud. With practice, our voices gain power. We hopefully know the consequences of our actions. I say “hopefully” as I realize so many do not, but if we are truly doing magick, abusing our words is a learning experience. Magick is in every thought we think, every word we say, and every action we take. We must be clear in our actions on the mental, verbal, and physical levels, for all reverberate in magick. Simple acts by an initiate or adept can cause great reverberations in the magickal world, often with unintended consequence. Are we in “right action” on these levels and in the world, even if we cannot predict the magickal, or even personal, ramifications? If we behave our best, our most honorably, in as many moments as we can, then that is all we can do to be in accord with/ what is “right.”
Honor is simply doing the right thing. Pagan and Heathen traditions talk a lot about honor—honoring the ancestors, honoring the gods, and honoring the Earth. All are noble concepts, but we are often divided on what we think are honorable actions. Honor comes from ethical and integral actions, but we can define our ethical systems differently.
In tribal and clannish groups, honor hearkens back to what is good for the group, and dishonor is generated by actions that are bad for the community’s overall good. Helping harvest is an honorable fulfillment of duties. Stealing from the community supply is dishonorable. Bravery and individual heroism can be honorable, particularly in protecting the group, though martyrdom for your own glory is not, for it is selfish. Expressions of skills and talents developed over time bring honor. Inaction when action is necessary is often considered dishonorable.
In many traditions honor is deeply tied to personal and family name. Honor lives on in your descendants, much like “luck” and “fate.” Honor is your reputation, though historically Witches have bad reputations. We are naturally the outsiders. Many of us do not pass on family names, or even carry our own in favor of a chosen name, a magickal act of self-identification and recreation of the self. It is your reputation among other Witches, within the illustrious order of our nameless art, with many faces and no rules. We recognize our own, even the ones we don’t like, but even that too comes into question. And in these days of illusionary media presences and seemingly mutable truth upon a public stage, one could potentially have a wonderful reputation and be a horrible person, or have a horrible reputation and be a very honorable person.
As a dedicant to the goddesses of fate, I do what I believe is necessary. The Witch’s actions can run contrary to mainstream ideas of honor, but are still held tight. Honor is adhering to what is right even when it’s not the easy thing to do. As Witches are often antagonists to normal society, what is right for the Witch’s honor is not always what is expected in community. We often have to do the seemingly opposite thing or offered unexpected and unorthodox paths for ourselves and others. The new and different offer possibilities of regeneration to the whole that could easily get stagnant, orthodox, and ultimately dogmatic. Our communities and lives are living, breathing, organic things that often take unexpected turns, and when we prevent that, we get sick on multiple levels. Standing on the outside, at the edge of the village, can look like dishonor, but it’s also about what we personally bring to the path. I think a lot about the magickal concept of true will, our soul’s purpose, not our personality’s desire and needs.
I think about the Age of Aquarius paradox. Aquarius calls us to social consciousness for the greater good. Aquarius also calls us to be our unique, unorthodox, and rebellious selves. One seems contrary to the other, as rebels are disruptive of society, and we often feel we have to put our own needs down and conform for the greater good. Aquarius says, “No!” It calls us to serve the greater good of society only by being our unique self. Copying someone else won’t do it. Only we can bring our unique part to the greater whole. To follow someone else’s expectation rather than our own soul’s calling will fail. Part of the Witch’s honor is about this, and that can be hard to observe on the outside, for someone going against a community expectation would often be considered dishonorable, so we have to reevaluate the ways we evaluate our own and other people’s honor.
While I am all for our individual sense of honor as dictated by how we interpret our true will and place in the world, a generalization of these themes has led to a sense of permissive “anything goes” in regards to spoken words and actions, and I am disheartened when I see that attitude among the Witchcraft world. Our words and actions still mean things, and while there are always times to reevaluate your commitments and bonds and renegotiate our agreements with ourselves, each other, and the spirits and gods, it has become too easy to disregard commitments and our given word when it becomes too hard for us. When challenged, it becomes easy to cite either self-care or personal sovereignty. Part of self-care is participating in the interconnected web of community. The main (and often missing) aspect of sovereignty is not simple self-determination, but rather being an interface for the land, spirits, and community. The sovereign doesn’t simply do as they desire, but does what is necessary. Heavy is the head that wears the crown, as in the traditional Book of Shadows initiation rite where the initiate is bound and this line is spoken: “Feet neither bound nor free.” The concept of an initiate being neither bound nor free, yet both, is part of the paradox of the mysteries no matter what symbolism you use. Relationship requires a certain level of agreement, exchange, and responsibility. One of the primary messages that spirit workers get from the non-human world is the lack of trust that otherworldly beings have for humanity because the old accords, even unknown to most of us today, have been broken and forgotten. Even though it’s hard to do in modern society, we need to build better trust with each other and then with the spirit world. Then we can truly be honorable. It’s hard to do in modern society. Participating in this work creates impacts everywhere, but dividing ourselves from it prevents any meaningful changes to it. Being honorable is challenging on many levels, which is why many are not, or simply pretend to be.
To honor someone or something is to show them respect. Ideally they are worthy of that honor by the virtue of their actions and what they stand for. Such individuals or group have gained distinction to make them worthy of respect. Sometimes that respect comes with authority, vocation, or age. Others believe a fundamental respect is due all people and then honorable actions can generate more respect and admiration. Personally I’m all for a baseline respect for everyone that then—based upon their actions—grows or diminishes. Respect isn’t limited to people, but can be directed towards divinities, institutions, and even concepts.
Respect often goes hand in hand with admiration. With that admiration can come certain behaviors, arising spontaneously or as dictated by societal custom. Specific greetings—such as bowing or taking off your hat—can be a sign of respect depending on the context. It is through such admiration we are often led to another virtue that causes us problems: loyalty.
Loyalty is faithfulness to someone or something. Such faithfulness can imply that demonstrating faith has requirements, such as support on some level, be it mental, emotional, social or even financial. Some equate loyalty with allegiance and adherence, be it to an ideal, concept, organization, or individual. And it’s there we have the problem.
As an outsider tradition previously practiced in small, secretive groups, Witchcraft can have a familial sense of loyalty. Your initiators are often parent-like, covenmates sibling-like, and we have allegiance to the coven, and beyond that, to the greater family of initiates in a lineage. On one level, it’s deeply personal, and in times past, loyalty was argued to also be a matter of safety for each other, and in preservation of the mysteries. Now that we are not all operating in oath-bound coven-based traditions and are more free to learn as we will and practice as we will, how does this concept of loyalty in Witchcraft play out?
Witchcraft operates on multiple levels, or at least it should. While there is a deeply personal aspect to group work and training, there can and should be an aspect that is beyond the personal, that connects to the greater mythos and body of initiates that transcends any one area, time, or tradition. Our dismantling of factually inaccurate mythos about our origins can disrupt our sense of the sublime timelessness of what we are connected to: a transcendental order, a timeless tradition connecting Witches through time.
While I agree on separating mythos from history, there is a time and place for both. Imagine a Catholic going through the sacraments along with a detailed critique of the lack of historical proof for the Gospels as factual reporting of historic events. While I think all Catholics should have a critical history of the Christian faith, the time to do so is not when they are training to make the commitment to being Christ-like. We need our mythos to connect us to our past so that we may find our future; likewise Witches in this modern era need to seek the sublime overarching mythos in other ways. That is what should guide our sense of loyalty.
Some teachers, not knowing how to operate outside of the tight familial unit, will demand personal oaths of loyalty and service rather than oaths to the gods, higher will, or even the tradition. It’s not always malicious, but it is limiting. You’ll see a tribal, clannish behavior among magickal groups, generating an us-vs-them attitude in an already small overarching community. It makes sense. When we finally find a sense of “where we belong,” we will fiercely defend it, sometimes even irrationally. A Witch has to learn we belong nowhere and we belong everywhere. While we find kinship in groups, we are also beyond groups and are part of a much larger group of the Witch Soul, stretching beyond the bounds of time and space. Our kinship is truly universal, into nature and the unseen realms.
Loyalty is equated with blind loyalty, support of leaders or fellows no matter their behavior or your own questions and disagreement with it. Disagreements erupt into multiple person battles as everyone seeks to be loyal and show support for their side, as if it were a sporting event, but things are often said or done that hold sway in our minds even after the “battle” is over.
True loyalty demands honor and respect, and if someone we are loyal to is asking us to do something we don’t want to do or assuming that we will, it’s our duty to say no and say why. If we think someone is making a mistake, loyalty asks us to speak our truth and heart rather than blindly agree. Kindhearted opposition can be the most loyal move you make. You have to find more effective ways of communicating it, as we live in a culture where this is not the norm and some will not be open to even the most skillful of communication, but this effort is what true, honorable loyalty demands, not just of Witches, but particularly of Witches.
We must learn to transcend the prejudices and irrationality of blind tribalism, for if we stand on the outside and cannot do it, who can? Who will? Each of us must find the part of us that is within the group (whatever it is), the part that stands on the outside of the group, and the part that is of the larger universe. As we look to the three souls, we can see the pattern there. Our tribal lower soul stands in the group, wanting to belong. Our middle soul can use reason and logic to stand outside of tribalism and ask questions. Our higher self is part of the greater timeless tradition of beings, holding it all. As you move through this world, ask yourself if you are behaving with honor, respect, and loyalty in the greatest sense of these words.