10. Traditional Wicca and eclectic Wicca are basically the same because all the rites have been published and/or Traditional Wiccan authors published a book about Wicca that has rituals!
It’s certainly true that many a number of Traditional Wiccans have published volumes on Witchcraft and Wicca and I certainly would never suggest that these Elders of our Craft are not experts or pioneers deserving of the name. However, there are at least two problems with this argument.
In the first, one must remember that Traditional Wicca is a living tradition and an experiential praxis. It cannot be replicated with rubrics and texts. It would be not unlike suggesting that one could know what it is like to experience one’s first orgasm simply by reading about others’ experiences, impressions, and analyses of the experience. It simply cannot do it any sort of justice, let alone approach any meaningful understanding. What’s more, the experience of the cult can vary greatly from coven to coven in many regards and any attempt to reduce and replicate those varied experiences into a book would be doomed to failure.
Secondly, Traditional Wicca has neither a centralized authority nor a single spokesperson who can encapsulate all that Traditional Wicca is and package it for the masses. There is not nor has there ever been a Wiccan Pope who could “authorize” a version of Wicca fit for public consumption.
9. Traditional Wiccans think everyone should do what they do!
Absolutely not! There’s a common belief amongst Traditional Wiccans that those who are meant to be among us will find their way and those who were not meant to be will either never find the path or will not last very long. Many Traditional Wiccans recognize and appreciate that this particular path is not for everyone and, conversely, not everyone is a fit for this particular path! Traditional Wicca is not messianic; there is no desire amongst Traditional Wiccans to convert the unsaved masses to our cult.
8. Traditional Wiccans want to stop non-traditional/self-taught/bootstrap Wiccans from using the word Wicca!
Granted, in recent years, there has been a lot of discussion and debate about the use of the term “Wicca”. There are certainly people, initiated Traditional Wiccans and not, who believe that the term Wicca only applies to Traditional Wiccans. But likewise, there are Traditional Wiccans who believe that the term can apply to any number of related Witchcraft traditions. But the idea that those in the former group want to actively prevent people who are not Traditional Wiccans from using the term is hyperbolic. Discussions and debates on the matter tend to incite passions and spirited arguments but I have yet to witness any concerted effort or campaigns to stop others from using the term.
7. Traditional Wiccans don’t recognize the validity of other traditions or persons calling themselves Wiccan.
You will find that many of the aforementioned discussions and debates on the proper use and matter of who is entitled to use the term Wicca is based on semantics. It is a matter of terminology, not validity. No one can determine the validity of another’s spiritual practice and Traditional Wiccans are not in the business of arbitrating on the matter any more than Druids or Unitarian Universalists. Questioning the authenticity of someone’s choice in label is not the same as questioning the validity of someone’s spiritual path; the label is not the thing.
6. You can be a Traditional Wiccan and not a Witch.
Quite frankly, no. While great pains are made in modern Pagan circles and communities to make it clear that not all Witches are Wiccan, the inverse is not true. Traditional Wicca was the first Witch cult of the modern era and before Traditional Wiccans no one identified as a Witch. To practice the rites of the Wicca is to practice Witchcraft; a Traditional Wiccan who is not a Witch is an oxymoron. But, a more detailed and far more humorous analysis of this can be found at our favorite Gardnerians blog.
5. Being a part of Traditional Wicca means that every ritual is exactly the same; there’s no room for innovation, experimentation, or novelty.
Nonsense. While you may have seen it said many times by Traditional Wiccans of all stripes that we share a common praxis as an orthopraxy, that does not mean that every ritual is exactly the same in every respect nor does it mean that Traditional Wiccans do not innovate, experiment, or try new things. In fact, the coven setting is the perfect place to do all of those wonderfully enriching things!
4. You can’t be LGBT+ and a Traditional Wiccan.
Again, more nonsense. In all fairness, many of our early leaders did make statements to such effect and claimed that the “Curse of the Goddess” would be laid upon them. But as clearly stated above, there ain’t no Pope in Wicca and what any Elder, even the Father of the Movement, said in the past is neither binding nor a timeless truth. In reality, I have yet to meet a living Traditional Wiccan who shares this sentiment and find myself in a community not only accepting and welcoming of LGBT+ persons but one populated by many, many proud LGBT+ persons! And for that, I am thankful.
3. Traditional Wicca forbids harm to anyone or anything.
This has been addressed many times in various different outlets but I repeat it here because it is one of the biggest and most common misconceptions. Traditional Wicca is largely regarded as an orthopraxy that offers little in the way of hard rules and proscriptions. Perhaps my favorite piece to address this misconception is by Deborah Lipp here.
2. There are no more secrets.
Untrue, though there is no good way to write exposition for why this is untrue, so I must—if you’ll forgive me—rely on anecdote. Prior to initiation, I was very well read on all things Wicca, both eclectic and Traditional and I steeled myself against the possibility that I would be very disappointed with what I would learn upon and after initiation. Suffice it to say that despite how voraciously I read (and I’ve read just about all of it), I was amazed at how much I did not know and well-kept the Mysteries are!
1. Traditional Wicca requires sexual initiation.
Traditional Wicca requires a lot of things of its adherents. It challenges us, it makes us uncomfortable at times, especially at first, it forces us to deal with things we would rather ignore, and it makes demands on us. But you should never be asked to have sex with someone as a requirement to join a coven or for initiation. If someone tells you that you must have sex with them, run away–run far away–and alert as many friends and Elders as possible.
A popular blogger, Sarah Anne Lawless, re-posted a version of her article “Breaking Tradition…” she initially wrote two years ago with additional comments. It’s an interesting read and she is undoubtedly a talented writer, so I invite you to read her post before reading mine. However, with all due respect to Sarah Anne Lawless, while it provides an interesting insight into the perspective of another Witch (and thereby to some parts of the Witch/Pagan community as well) her post demonstrates some problematic and inaccurate perceptions of traditional paths and those who follow them. In fact, I found her post expressed a very myopic view of the matter and suffered greatly from an issue with numbers.
The Many “Many”
The first problem with her post is her frequent use of the word “many” when describing the needs, wants, and experiences of “the younger generation” of which she focuses much of her post. I, as a member of this younger generation she discusses, take issue with how she speaks to our experience as if hers defines it, even if she tries to couch it with broad adjectives like “many”, no matter how many good friends and Elders she’s spoken about this with in-depth. I found her use of the term to be intentionally nonspecific while simultaneously and obviously implying a real and appreciable quantity of the Witches of my generation agreed with her opinion when, in fact, a more accurate quantification (without actual statistical data) would be more appropriately phrased as “many of the Witches SHE knows/has spoken to.” This is the sort of generalization that gets circled in red-ink on a college paper with the notes “HOW MANY? WHO? SOURCE?”
Now while this might, at first glance, seem like minutiae, when part of her premise is founded upon the idea that traditional spiritual paths have become unappealing to an entire generation en masse, it becomes a rather important detail. Without actual research (something she bemoans later on in her paragraph about “fakelore”), we only have anecdotes and can only speak to our own experiences and those with whom we’ve shared discourse, which is what I do herein; not an entire generation or even a trend.
Results Not Typical
Case in point, my experience and “many” of those of my peers (with whom I’ve discussed this topic) has been the exact opposite of what she describes: we have found this “evolution” of witchcraft to be lacking and unfulfilling and have instead sought out these so-called “outdated” traditional paths. In stark contrast to hers, it has been my experience that a lot of young people are coming to traditional paths having found insurmountable limitations to what is freely available and published on witchcraft. And as a member of one of these traditions, I would characterize the current growth of these traditions as driven by the renewed interests of my generation. As a matter of fact, every serious seeker and almost every new addition to our numbers that I am personally aware of (and there are quite a few each year) has been a member of my generation–this “younger generation” Sarah claims is “not interested.”
YMMV But Are We Even on the Same Road?
The most problematic parts of her post, though, are her completely alien (and inaccurate) descriptions of these traditions. I do not know Sarah’s background beyond what she has published here, which does not indicate any sort of initiation into a traditional Wiccan coven, but the way she writes of these traditions leads me to the conclusion that she isn’t personally familiar with their practices.
There is nothing to prevent one from being a participant in a traditional path and also experiencing “personal gnosis, mysticism, direct ecstatic experience, and spirit initiation.” She frames these things as if they are mutually exclusive; they are absolutely not.
She talks about “ecstatic ritual … full of nudity, body paint, drumming, trance, possession, and ecstatic dance” as if this doesn’t or couldn’t happen in traditional groups; it does. Hell, in my experience it happens to a greater degree of frequency and intensity than it does in a “non-traditional” group, or, to borrow her phrase “informal group”.
She refers to an elder of a “well-known and well-lineaged witchcraft tradition” who only taught and practiced “… controlled external rituals, not wanting anything to do with internal process or personal gnosis.” I do not know this elder or what tradition (s)he practices but it sounds unlike any traditional Wiccan praxis I’ve ever experienced or heard of. Nor does a praxis that requires “the same ritual format for every type of ceremony performed in the group…. the same ritual at every esbat and sabbat rite, every spell-working for the coven, and every handfasting and baby blessing…” or one that only ever does a circle-casting.
The only thing Sarah seems to hit on the nailhead is that traditional covens require that its members devote the time needed to do the Work. But while she clearly sees this as a drawback, I would frame it as a boon. The Work is serious, it’s deep, it’s life-altering (sometimes shattering, by reports), and it requires its pound of flesh. Not everyone is in a place in their lives to make such a deep and intense commitment and our traditions not only survive but thrive because only those who can actually do.
All about That Fakelore
It only makes me wonder more how familiar Sarah is with the inner-workings of traditional covens that this should even come up as a point of contention. Certainly, there are many people in these younger generations “who know that the burning times, ancient Wiccans, ancient matriarchal goddess-worshipping cultures, and the maiden-mother-crone are modern myths….” but there are just as many, if not more, I’d dare to say, in the older generations. (For evidence, go jump into any pagan or witch forum on the internet and talk about “NVR AGAIN TEH BURNING TYMES” and see the composition of the age make-up.) And what’s more, this “fakelore” that concerns her so much is not really native, let alone integral, to the practice of traditional Wicca.
And, as an aside, I’m not sure what Elders Sarah is using as reference for her comments but they are surely unlike any of the Elders I know. None of the Elders I know “simply stopped reading and researching new material after a certain point along their spiritual paths.” Paired with her earlier comment that many of the Elders she knows are “horrified” at the goings-on at a pagan festival make me ask what these particular Elders she’s familiar with have been doing all these years while the Elders I know not only continue to research, learn, and innovate but can recount lascivious stories of a bygone era that would make even the most sex-positive, leather-clad, freak-flag-waving queen blush.
All in All
The only thing Sarah and I seem to agree upon is that many in my generation have sought or are seeking “a spiritual path that would challenge them on a psychological as well as spiritual level, heal them, and help them face their fears and demons.” But despite her arguments to the contrary, “many” of us have found that in traditional paths.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
I’ve read a number of great posts for Pagan Blog Project on this topic. Kylara at Kylara’s Musings provides her thoughts on initiation as a marker of accomplishment or progress and Lee, the Chaos Witch, discusses The 5 Steps of Initiation. But, I want to approach the topic from a bit of a different perspective.
Allow me to start off a bit contentiously: I do not believe in ‘self-initiation’; I think it is a contradiction in terms. There are, yes, two meanings of the verb word “initiate”. The first, relating to sundry matters, simply means “to cause to begin” and this is the definition used by many to justify the cacophonous pairing of the word with the prefix “self-“. The second, which is specific to group dynamics and of particular relevance to spiritual traditions, refers to a process by which one is brought into a group by another. With respect to spiritual traditions, I exclusively use the latter. There are a number of reasons for this and perhaps I’ll discuss the issue in more detail in a subsequent post (maybe “O” for “oxymoron”), but, in brief, one cannot induct oneself into an exclusive group. One can certainly “cause to begin” a new, solitary spiritual journey but the use of the word “initiate” in this context seems to intentionally attempt to obfuscate and equate this use with the one that applied to group dynamics. Else, other more appropriately colloquial terms would be used to describe something that’s really rather common, i.e., the start of a new endeavor. For example, we don’t say “I have self-initiated myself into nursing studies.” No, we say, “I started to study nursing.” But, like I said, a topic for another week.
We often read great insights about the process of initiation, the types of initiation (e.g., spiritual, fraternal, vocational, etc), and the practical purposes or meanings of initiation (e.g., the ritualistic commemoration of a new phase). But we don’t read too much about the spiritual purposes or significance of it, of which there are a number and which I believe to be the primary motivations in many initiatory traditions before all other considerations like commemoration or recognition of progress and standing. So what are these primary spiritual purposes of initiation?
To Bond. Initiation connects and bonds (and binds) the initiate to their peers, their community, and their spirits and gods. The ritual act of initiation not only inducts the neophyte into the group as discussed above but forges and solidifies a very real spiritual bond between him-/her-self and his/her peers, community, and spirits/gods.
To Change. The initiation not only binds the newly-made initiate with the other parties but it then therefore must also change him/her. Oftentimes, the change is not only spiritual but mental, emotional, and even physical (as in a change in the physical universe [e.g., job change, marriage, divorce, etc.] not like growing a literal third eye)!
To Reveal. In many initiatory traditions, the non-initiate is kept at an appropriate distance. It might be to protect the mystery of the tradition or to protect the non-initiate, him-/her-self. Secrets are passed and knowledge is given, both of which are a form of power in their own right, which brings me to my final purpose of initiation.
To Empower. In addition to being bound together, the initiate is also empowered by the tradition, peers, and spirits/gods. Whether one is empowered as a priest(ess), a non-clerical initiate, a witch, etc., the ritual will have granted the new member powers or abilities not previously retained.
To bond, change, reveal, and empower: these are, in my opinion, the primary and most important purposes or functions of initiation and ones that I also personally find to be the most meaningful.
I have weird dreams. They’re not often poetic or make much sense but I find myself compelled to write them down. Disclaimer: I’m also not much of a writer.
It swelled and thinned, wound along narrow corridors and truck-wide streets.
Walking amongst the vibrant-colored hair, wild outfits, and the outlandish behavior of the performers, drag queens, and fetishists, she was completely inconspicuous. After all, she was hardly out-of-place in such company. And yet, everyone could not help but notice her. She was dressed in a gossamer, silver gown made of a soft see-through fabric that hugged her shoulders and followed her curves from breast to hip to ankle. The gown skated the ground as she walked but there was not a single blemish on it to be found—dirt dared not to stick to it. Through the gown, her undergarments could plainly be seen: black lace underwear and top.
The crowd was exceptionally large and, as usually happens, most people were not paying attention to where they were going or into whom they were colliding. But with more grace than would seem humanly possible, she navigated the chaos of the crowd without being hit by a single partier. Walking through the crowd barefoot as if she were walking across lily pads, she had a serene expression that more often than not found itself changing into a warm smile.
It was the smile that was the most amazing thing about her despite her unusual dress. Those in the crowd who happened to catch her eye found themselves instantly filled with warmth and possessed with the irresistible desire to bow their heads in gratitude and respect for some reason even they could not articulate. Those in the chaos of the crowd who noticed her made it their utmost priority to clear a path for her as she walked by. Regardless of the unusualness of these occurrences, every single person who had laid eyes upon her would never think to give their behavior a second thought; they were paying her the proper honor they knew, intimately and instinctually, she deserved. But just beyond this immediate crowd an something unpleasant connected with her.
“’If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable!” The man, balding and gray of an impressive stature, grasped a bullhorn in one hand and a homemade sign in the other that read: REPENT! SINNERS! ACCEPT JESUS! He would occasionally point out to the crowd of those who stood by and watched him with bemused expressions on their faces as he gasped his proclamations. “Turn away from the hell-fire; turn away from the brimstone and eternal damnation, brothers and sisters! Cast off your sin and come to the One True God!”
Luminous and numinous she was for all to see as she slowly made her approach towards the bullhorn-armed man. She had nothing but a warm smile painted delicately upon her features but even still the man braced himself for a close-encounter with which he was obviously uncomfortable. “Ha-have you come to seek Jesus, miss?”
Her smile widened and she took his hand into hers. For a moment, he had an expression of confusion, which quickly turned to terror as she brought his hand to her breast, beneath which her heart beat with a strength he could feel down to his heels. As quickly as it was donned, his terrified expression melted into concentration and then into tear-stained sadness.
“I’m so sorry,” he fell to his knees and grabbed hold of her waist; his tear-soaked face buried within her robe. “I understand… How could I…?” She allowed pallid fingers to reach up and stoke the back of the man’s head sympathetically.
She did not ask him for penance for She did not require him to ask Her for forgiveness. She had no threat of pain or damnation or even of consequence at all to offer him; She had only shared with him another path. And so, She let him cry himself to his own peace until he was ready to begin his new work—Her work.
Different groups in human history have been faced with injustice and inequity at the hands of their one another. Women could be said to be one group that has endured the longest-running prejudice from the male-dominated societies into which they were born. These inequities are often evident within the religious works of the cultures from which the believers derive their ideologies of womanhood and the role of women within the larger society. And, these idyllic roles of women can often be evaluated by the context of three critical factors: the importance of women in the myths, the characteristics of the women, and their after-characterizations. These factors are quite evident in the literature of the Judeo-Christian tradition where the woman is never the central figure of the story being recounted and, even if some significance is attributed the woman, the significance is only granted by her relationship with a man in her life. Additionally in the Biblical tradition, a woman, having no importance of her own, is also often a victim of stereotypical or one-dimensional depictions or is often characterized poorly by her peers or the audience. In contrast, however, these same critical factors shed a different light upon the ancient Egyptians and how they understood the nature of a woman within their stories and within the broader understanding of their culture. The female figures within this tradition are often placed in the central roles of important myths and often have entire cosmologies which evolved from them, they are often multi-dimensional with entire personalities that run the full spectrum of human emotion and individuality and they are invariably characterized by the people and their peers as holy, reverend, and beloved.
Throughout the Judeo-Christian mythos, women were often cast in roles that were none too flattering for themselves or their sex. Indeed, it was rare that a woman would be given a name within the mythos, let alone have an important role to play within the context of the myth. Women were never truly an integral part of the story being told, but were often secondary characters: characters whose significance was especially related to the men in her life; a woman in a Biblical story often served no purpose other than to distinguish the man or men in the myth—a plot device. Lacking any real significance or value to the story or to those to whom the story is being told, women were often portrayed in ways or described with singular qualities that left them one-dimensional without much else to contribute to the myth other than their archetypal behavior or representation. What’s more, these Biblical women would serve as allegorical yardsticks by which real women could and would be judged; these women of Judeo-Christian myths would be roles models without distinct roles to play other than examples to live by or to avoid. Indeed, women of the various Judeo-Christian myths, stories, and parables had very little particular importance as a person unto themselves, were imbued with stereotypical or singular characteristics, or were often poorly characterized by the story-tellers and audience.
When discussing important or influential figures within the Biblical stories, one is confronted by a host of male figures. The list might begin with Adam, the first man, and Noah, who built the Ark; each man important for what he did and who he was: Adam the progenitor of our kind and Noah, a virtuous man chosen by Yahweh to preserve life. The list might continue with other names like Moses, the abdicated price, and Jesus, the savior of mankind; both men sent on a special mission by Yahweh to be performed on his behalf: Moses was to lead the “chosen people” from slavery and Jesus was to free the people from damnation. One could continue and find a long list of other examples, but one would be hard-pressed to create a comparable list of important women. Two of the most likely candidates for consideration would arguably be Eve, the first woman, and Mary, the mother of Jesus. However, it is difficult to ascertain what importance these women have unto themselves, if they have any at all. Though Eve was the first woman, she was created specifically as a companion for Adam, to sate his loneliness as “there was not found a helper like himself”; she is not the central figure within the context of the story (Genesis 2:20). And while Mary is revered by many Christians today as the holiest of saints and the mother of the Christian savior, she has no identity of importance without the context of her son, Jesus. Indeed, it is only because of Jesus’ conception that Mary exclaims, “[…] henceforth all generations shall call me blessed […]” and not because of any particular innate quality and virtue of or deed by Mary, herself (Luke 1:48). These two women, arguably the most famous and oft-revered figures in the Christian tradition, seem to possess little significance that is not related to the men in their lives. The importance of these women is defined specifically and intrinsically relation to the males for whom she is made or to whom she gives birth.
The Bible is riddled with interesting and fantastic characters. Many of the characters are heroes with fitting personalities and admirable traits, some are reluctant faithful who have their faith tested and are vindicated before their god, and others are well-rounded prophets and messiahs. These characters are fully developed by the writers with extensive backgrounds and are given multiple aspects to their personalities (e.g., faithful, fearful, in awe, etc). However, very few of them, if any, are women. While Moses can be described as “a grand and illustrious personage, of strong character, high purpose, and noble achievement, so deep, true, and efficient in his religious convictions”, very few women within the Bible are described as eloquently or have material about them enough to make such a claim (Reilly, 1911). For example, Mary Magdalene is one of the few named women within the lines of the Bible, but so little information is given about the character. In fact her most important attribute is that as a repentant sinner, especially within the Catholic tradition of Christianity, a role she would be portrayed in even after her conversion “for thirty years she devoted herself to solitary penance for the sins of her past life, which she had never ceased to bewail bitterly” (“The Life of Mary Magdalene”, n.d.). And unlike Job, who was “called the “persecuted one”, that is, the one tempted by (personified) suffering, the one hard beset, the patient sufferer”, Hagar, Abraham’s second wife and mother to Ishmael, is another example of a woman within the tradition that was pigeon-holed into a specific role and given one-dimensional characteristics to simply further the plot of the story (Hontheim, 1910). Hagar was a compliant servant in the service of Sarai who was matter-of-factly given to Abraham to bear him a son and was just as easily dismissed by her master and mistress. She is painted as insubordinate and hostile to Sarai despite the fact that she was pregnant with Abraham’s only heir at the time (Genesis 16). These women, unrepresentative of their real-world counterparts and a distant cry from an accurate depiction of contemporaneous women of the time, are a dime a dozen throughout the various legends and scriptures of the Judeo-Christian tradition and are presented to the audience as nothing more than one-dimensional caricatures of the womanhood.
In addition to the named woman whose only importance is her relationship to the men in her life and the woman who serves as one-dimensional plot device is the woman within the Biblical tradition who is characterized negatively to further the suppression and marginalization of unorthodox models of womanhood. Throughout the Judeo-Christian tradition, women were expected to be subordinate and subservient to their male counterparts, always yielding and deferring to their husbands, brothers, or fathers, but some of women recounted throughout the tradition refused to be relegated as second-class members of society and they paid the price of immortal infamy. The first among these women is the mythical Lilith, Adam’s first wife, made from the clay just as much as he, who considered herself her husband’s equal and refused to lie beneath Adam during intercourse and was punishment for her transgression, Lilith was banished to the desert and destined to become mother to all demons for the rest of eternity (Graves & Patai, 1964). Like Lilith before them, other women throughout the Judeo-Christian tradition who are poised for positions of power or were in positions of power were also had the wrath of Yahweh befall them. Jezebel, Queen of Israel, and de facto ruler of the nation through her husband Ahab and sons, Ahaziah and Joram, was no exception. Though not the titular ruler of the nation as no woman of Israel would be fit in a patriarchal society, Jezebel made proclamations and executed affairs of state in the names of her male relatives (Ecker, n.d.). These women of the tradition, arguably the first feminist figures to stand up against patriarchal injustice and inequity, are painted with colors deep and dark enough to stain their names for thousands of years after they were immortalized in legends and scriptures.
Despite the apparent meaning for the nature of man in his depictions of women as unimportant, one-dimensional, secondary, docile creatures throughout the Judeo-Christian tradition, not all cultures across the globe shared the same sentiments. No less than three-thousand years before the accounts of Jesus of Nazareth, the proliferate literature of the ancient Egyptians depicted and recounted innumerable stories of females throughout their mythic tradition. Many of these depictions cast women in roles normally associated for women, but they also cast women in roles typical of men. Females within the tradition are simultaneously described as nurturing and awesomely destructive, loving and vengeful, mother and warrior, and creatrix and destroyer. Indeed, many of these female characters are deities unto themselves and are far removed from the women of the Judeo-Christian tradition. In fact, the women in the ancient Egyptian tradition are often written into roles that are of the utmost importance, imbued with complex characteristics befitting well-rounded, three dimensional characters, and characterized as awe-inspiring and worthy of reverence.
The traditions of the ancient Egyptians are perfuse with incalculable numbers of important gods within the pantheons without whom the everyday lives of the ancient peoples would be impossible, indeed, life, itself, would be impossible. Among their countless numbers are Ra, Father of the Gods; Wesir (Osiris), the Greatest King of Egypt who brought about the Golden Age of Egypt; Heru-sa-Aset (Horus), the rightful King and heir to the throne of Egypt by his divine father, Wesir; and, Setukh (Seth), the Great Storm God who finds himself embattled daily with the demon of uncreation—Apep. But unlike their counterparts in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the females within the traditions of ancient Egypt are as undeniably equally as important as every male. There is an inexhaustible list of prominent, strong, important female characters within the annals of the Egyptian mythos ranging from Aset (Isis), Great of Magic, whose magical prowess was said to be even greater than that of the Creator’s and who was capable of rebuking—verbally and physically—her older brother, Setukh; Sekhmet, the Terrible Lioness Goddess who was not only a goddess of medicine and healing, but one of terrible destruction as she brought every man who opposed the Creator to his knees and drank his blood; and, Bast (Bastet), the Hidden Claw, who tears the hearts of the Pharaoh’s enemies from their chests and lays them before the God-King (Hart, 1990). These goddesses were not only worshipped alongside the males of the pantheon, but were afforded equal status, reverence, and importance within the myths and to the lives of the ancients, themselves.
The earliest evidence of Egyptian culture extends far into the pre-history of mankind and five-thousand years before the supposed date of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. Throughout that time, the Egyptians created, embellished, and evolved their various arts and their myths were no exception. Every member within the ancient Egyptian pantheon was afforded a human likeness and imbued with human qualities, ostensibly, in an attempt to make the unknowable divine more relatable. Each and every goddess within the ancient Egyptian cultural religion has a complex personality that, like a human being’s, seems contradictory at times. They are fully fleshed-out individuals who not only represent a cosmological truth or bear witness as an archetypal character but also exhibit a dynamic quality in their behaviors and their interactions with one another. One prominent example can be found in the goddess, Sekhmet, a powerful solar deity, who was not only a goddess of healing and medicine to whom the faithful would petition protection from disease and plague, but a fearsome war goddess who was set loose upon the face of the Earth to exact punishment upon the men who “’plotted evil plans’ against [Ra]” (Hart, 1990). However, she became so “intoxicated by the smell of blood, got so completely out of control that the king of the gods had to fall back on a stratagem to avert the total destruction of humankind” so Ra tricked Sekhmet into drinking blood-colored beer until she became so drunk she could no longer continue her mission, but upon sobering, she felt embarrassment and sorrow over her own failure and banished herself from the land (Favard-Meeks, C. & Meeks, D., 1996). Exhibiting the full fury of a goddess of divine retribution and justice, Sekhmet terrified the common man with her awesome power and ferocity, but she also displayed emotions of sorrow, regret, and embarrassment. She was a central figure in the myths concerning her as both a goddess of order and as the wandering goddess who leaves her land out of shame for her embarrassment of failure. Typical of the cultural paradigm, she (and other goddesses) displays very natural, human emotions relative to the situation in lieu of being typecast into a constant, static role.
Additionally to being important figures capable of displaying well-rounded qualities of personhood, the goddesses of ancient Egypt were also revered and adored for thousands of years. The deities, regardless of their sex, were much beloved by the people who worshipped them as evidenced by the long-standing culture of piety that began with some of the earliest primordial goddesses like Mut and Het-Heru (Hathor) to the last surviving cult of Aset during the early centuries of the Common Era. Indeed, the favorable characterization of these female figures within the mythos can often be seen in the titles bestowed upon the goddesses. Aset is not only “Great of Magic” but is “She who seeks shelter for the weak people” and Mut is known as “the Great One”. Het-Heru was also a goddess of great reputation whose worship continued for millennia before the culture died out, indeed, Deborah Vischak (2002) remarks:
“Her status as a prehistoric goddess makes determining her origins nearly impossible […] It is clear that she played a vital role in Egyptian society from its highest levels to its lowest, essential to the identity and characterization of the king and a favorite goddess of the general population, who flooded her local cults with offerings and prayers.”
With goddesses of such high reputation and being held in such high esteem with the people, it is clear that the ancient Egyptians held healthy characterizations of the women within their mythos and that, regardless of the divinity or character’s sex or gender, it was the personality and power of the being that was revered, respected, and adored and not some arbitrary attribute associated with a sex organ.
Throughout human history, different groups have been faced with injustice and inequity at the hands of their peers. Generally, women are, arguably, one group which has suffered the longest at the hands of the male-dominated, often patriarchal societies in which they were born. The nature and depth of these inequities are often evident within the literatures of the religious cultures from which the adherent believers derive their idealizations of womanhood and the role of women within the broader society and these idealizations and roles of women can often be evaluated by the context of three critical factors: the importance of women in the myths, the characteristics of the women, and their after-characterizations. These factors are no less prevalent in the literature of the Judeo-Christian where the woman is never the central figure within the context of the story, myth, or history being recounted and, even if some significance is afforded the woman, the significance is only derived by her relationship with a man or the men in her life. And, additionally in this tradition, a woman, having no importance to herself, is also often a victim of stereotypical or one-dimensional depictions or is often characterized poorly by her peers or the audience. In contrast, however, these same critical factors shed a different light upon the ancient Egyptians and how they conceptualized the nature of a woman’s sex and gender within their stories. The female figures within this tradition are often placed in the central roles of various myths and often have specific cosmologies which revolved entirely upon them, they are often multi-dimensional with entire personalities that run the full spectrum of human emotion and idiosyncrasy, and they are invariably characterized by the people and their peers as holy, reverend, and beloved.
Ecker, Ron. Jezebel. Retrieved April 19 2009 from Ecker’s Biblical Web Pages:
Favard-Meeks, Christine & Meeks, Dimitri (1996). Daily Life of the Egyptian Gods. Ithaca: Cornell University Press
Graves, Robert & Patai, Raphael (1964). The Hebrew Myths. New York: Doubleday
Hart, George (1990). Egyptian Myths. Bath: Bath Press
Hontheim, J. (1910). Job. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved from from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08413a.htm
Life of Mary Magdalene, The. Retrieved April 20, 2009 from The Nazarene Way of Essenic Studies:
Reilly, T. (1911). Moses. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10596a.htm
Vischak, Deborah (2002). Hathor. In Redford, Donald B. (Ed.), Ancient Gods Speak: A Guide to
Egyptian Religion (157-161). New York: Oxford University Press.
Originally, I had planned to write about the intersection of gender and paganism, particularly from the perspective of my two traditions: Gardnerian Wicca and Kemetic Orthodoxy. But that’s a really heavy and heady discussion and it’s finals week, so instead I figured I would write about Gardnerian Wicca. Recently, I participated in a book club that surveyed Wicca from a traditional perspective using authors who were themselves, traditional Wiccans, and much of the discussion generated focused on the differences between Traditional Wicca and eclectic or neo-Wicca, so I figured I would continue that discussion here.
Gardnerian Wicca is an orthopraxy; not an orthodoxy.
Gardnerian Wiccans are bound together by a shared praxis. Gardnerian Wiccans share the same ritual system that has been handed down through the generations. Gardnerian Wiccans share in a constellation of common rites and practices that are recognizable by all of their initiates.
However, as an orthopraxy (and not an orthodoxy), there is very little that Gardnerian Wiccans all share in belief. No two Gardnerian Witches will believe the same thing and the system, itself, that is, the religion of Wicca, does not prescribe a particular set of beliefs which all members must share. Indeed, Gardnerian Wiccans who worship in the same rites may have entirely different beliefs on what is occurring, why, and how.
Unlike neo-Wicca for which in any book you can find chapters detailing what Wiccans believe about the Gods, the Universe, morality and ethics, magick, or the Afterlife, Gardnerian Wicca is an experiential religion. Gardnerian Wicca does not teach what to believe but how to experience.
Gardnerian Wicca has two traditional deities.
Gardnerian Wiccans work with two specific deities whose names are oath-bound. These Gods have specific attributes, titles, and lore. They are not interchangeable with other Gods and Goddesses; They are, as Gardner describes Them, “tribal gods.”
This is in stark contrast to neo-Wicca wherein one can mix-and-match Gods and Goddesses from various cultures as one might fancy. The pervasive idea throughout neo-Wiccan paradigms is that all Gods are one God and all Goddesses are one Goddess and as such it does not matter which God or Goddess you invoke in any rite. Also, the common duality of Goddess as Mother and the God as Son and Consort is not Gardnerian.
Gardnerian Wicca does not teach “harm none.”
Those first learning about Wicca, especially from published self-study books (i.e., neo-Wicca), will be very familiar with the concept of the Rede and it is often presented to the reader as a fundamental belief. In fact, it’s not uncommon for it to be written of as law a of the religion to which all Wiccans must or should adhere. However, this is far from the case. While Gardnerian Wicca does feature the Rede, it is not treated as a law.
The Rede (“An it harm none do what ye will”) is an adage, a piece of advice or counsel, which any Witch would be wise to heed. It is not a prohibition that tells the Witch (s)he cannot harm. In fact, the Rede only offers the advice that if an action does not harm, one should go for it. It does not say that you cannot harm. Indeed, the Rede is mute on harmful actions. (But more on that for letter M or R, perhaps!)
Gardnerian Wicca’s “Threefold Law” isn’t about punishment.
The idea of the Threefold Law as a moral belief in which “what energy one puts out into the Universe comes back threefold”, that is, if one puts out bad, then the Universe/the Gods/karma bad will return to individual magnified by three times, is not something commonly found among many Gardnerian Wiccans. In fact, I have yet to meet a single Gardnerian Wiccan who actually believes in this interpretation of the Threefold Law. And, indeed, I, personally find the Threefold Law a bit of ridiculous amorality (read more about how the Threefold Law is not moral here.)
Gardnerian Wiccans don’t celebrate Mabon.
Admittedly, this one is not entirely true. You will find that “Mabon” is not a name that is commonly used for the Autumnal Equinox amongst Gardnerian Wiccans and many, in fact, have a bit of disdain for it. Instead, this holiday is often referred to by its traditional names: Harvest Home or (*drum roll*) the Autumn Equinox.
There are a great number of differences between Gardnerian Wicca and other varieties and the above only represents a small sample of those differences.
It seems fitting that this topic would naturally follow after my last (empaths) because nothing makes me roll my eyes more than when neo-pagans start talking about their half-Betazoid empathic powers or rather plain (even if idiosyncratic) pets as “familiars”.
In European witchcraft lore, familiars were a class of spirits that were believed to assist or protect the witch or conjurer. There were a number of ways to obtain a familiar, of course, and they varied by sources. According to some sources, a familiar will present itself before the witch in times of great need or duress or simply in the middle of a humdrum day while other sources indicate a witch is given or inherits the familiar.
However, you will note that what’s not in the lore: the idea that one’s pets become familiars. How many times have we seen it? A newbie who has just started studying the occult and witchcraft with a hopeful question, “I’ve had Miss Kitty Fantastico for years and I’ve just realized that she’s always doing [X], [Y], and [Z]–do you think she could be my familiar?”
What’s more, traditionally, a familiar was a tutelary or mentoring spirit with whom a witch had a working relationship; it wasn’t a pet who did quirky or circumstantially “witchy” things like walk the circle, lick your athame, or watch intently at your feet while you invoke the Gods. The familiar spirit taught the witch
Oddly, though, there is a type of spirit that fits the traditional mold of a familiar spirit but it’s been couched in terms that have been appropriated from other cultures. Many witches and neo-pagans today will speak of a spirit or spirits with whom they work who guide, teach, and help them in many spiritual or occult matters but they are referred to as “animal guides”, “spirit animals”, or even “totems”.
It would seem to me that these spirits are exactly what tradition describes as a familiar spirit, so why do we eschew tradition for appropriative terms born out of colonialist exoticism? Why do we use other people’s terminology of a concept for which we already have a term in the lore?
Now, I, myself, do not work with familiars (and certainly not “animal guides”, “spirit animals”, or “totems”), so I can’t answer my own question; I can only posit it. So, what say you all? If you work with these sort of spirits, do you by chance refer to them as familiars? If not, what do you call them? If you use the latter three terms (or variations thereof), why?
“I think I am an empath! I can tell what other people are feeling just by looking at or speaking with them.”
“I’m an empath. I can feel what other people are feeling.”
I am sure every student of magick, paganism, or the occult has heard the claim. In fact, I have been running one of the largest Pagan-oriented discussion groups for over six years now and there isn’t a month that goes by where I don’t see someone claim to be or question the possibility that they are an empath. Usually, the claim is made by those relatively new to witchcraft or the occult, though that isn’t always the case.
However, I have always remained both skeptical and critical of empathy as an extrasensory perception. What so-called “empaths” often describe as an extra sense has, in my experience, been nothing more than basic, human empathy. Human beings, by nature, are social animals. As such, we need to be able to determine how other members of our social group are reacting, how other members might react, what others might be feeling, how we might feel if we were experiencing what other members were experiencing, what others might be thinking or feeling despite their verbal or behavioral communications, etc.
We are programmed by biology to be able to read other people’s states of minds and feelings and we are programmed by biology to broadcast these states of mind and feelings, voluntarily or involuntarily, to others. In fact, studies have shown that the very same areas of the brain are activated when one simply watches others experience pain as when one experiences pain, themselves. Such phenomena is so essential to human biology and nature that the foundations for this ability are laid relatively early in human development–approximately 2 years-old.
So, clearly, the ability to be able to tell what other people are feeling without their prior communication of their feelings and the ability to apparently feel what another person is feeling is neither unique nor special; it’s, quite frankly, ordinarily human.
Let us not mistake horses for unicorns.
I have been reading a few posts (e.g., Wildhunt, The Lefthander’s Path, The Pagan Grove, among others) around the blogosphere about a discussion that happened at Pantheacon about what’s been (painfully) called “Wiccanate privilege.”*
The discussion centers on the idea that Wiccans and those neo-pagans who practice traditions that have been influenced by or are superficially similar to Wicca (“Neo-Wicca”) have privileges that the rest of the neo-pagan community doesn’t experience. What’s more, the discussion at Pantheacon touched upon a suggestion that this privilege is a symptom of an oppressive power structure within broader Paganism.
Let me first say that yes, there is a “slant” or bias in neo-paganism that does favor Wiccan or neo-Wiccan groups and it is an issue worth discussing, addressing, and redressing. As someone who practiced Kemetic Reconstruction, tradition that wasn’t influenced in the slightest way by Wicca, for more than a decade, I am very much aware of this slant. I know, firsthand, how frustrating it is that the overwhelming majority of publications, websites, and events are intended for Wiccan and neo-Wiccan audiences and participants. I, personally, know how irritating it is when someone assumes: your theology is a polar duotheism (e.g, “What God and Goddess do you work with?”), sacred space is defined as a circle, sexuality is a part of one’s religious ritual experience, or you follow the Rede and Threefold Law. I understand intimately from personal experience how this is inconvenient, unfair, and alienating. But let’s be honest: quite frankly, the assertion that this is privilege is ridiculous.
Yes, as I outlined above, there is a bias in the broader Pagan community towards Wiccan and neo-Wiccan groups but this does not equate to privilege, a very real issue faced by many, Pagan and otherwise. In fact, to discuss the issue of Wiccan/neo-Wiccan bias in modern Paganism with the very same language used to describe the social and political inequities and struggles faced by, for example, minorities of race and sexual orientation creates (intentionally or not) an inadequate comparison. And, what’s more, as both a sexual and racial minority–a person for whom issues of oppression and privilege are a daily reality that impacts my life, I think it borders on offensive.
Privilege is a part of a system of oppression in which the minorities are forced to participate to their own disadvantage. There can be no privilege without a system of oppression and there is no evidence that a system exists where Wiccan and neo-Wiccan groups are oppressing non-Wiccan groups. (Yes, indeed, there are a number of anecdotal examples many of us can recount where Wiccan or neo-Wiccan persons or groups have perpetrated discriminatory behavior but privilege necessitates a systemic problem.) For example, “white privilege” necessitates the system of racial oppression that has marred our history and continues to do so today just as “heteronormative privilege” requires a system of oppression based on sexual orientation. If Wiccans and neo-Wiccans are not oppressing non-Wiccan individuals and groups, then “privilege” is not the appropriate word to use. Instead, a more appropriate word might be “bias”.
The fact that there are more Wiccan or neo-Wiccan events (or publications, websites, groups, etc.) is not an example of Wiccan privilege anymore than the fact that there are more fraternities serving African-Americans than any other minority in the US is an example of African-American privilege. The fact that Pagans of any stripe need to organize their own events in order to be among like-minded peers is an example of (Christian) privilege, though. Likewise, the fact that the a ritual put on by Wiccans or neo-Wiccans is focused on their theology or praxis is not an example of privilege–it’s their event; you aren’t suffering their privilege if you are a willful and voluntary attendee of a ritual they chose to put on.
Appropriating the same language used to describe the hardships and injustices of minorities in larger American society not only fails to accurately describe the issue and adds complex baggage but also detracts from and hurts the already complicated issues of privilege and oppression they face.
And that helps no one.
* As an aside, I also think it’s pretty ironic that a movement that purports to want to spread awareness about marginalization can’t be bothered to use the word the other group uses as a self-identification but instead uses a word so insipid it reads as pejorative.