I’m involved politically and socially. I fight for LGBTQ+ rights, awareness, and justice through political action (e.g., grassroots political organizations, protests, monetary contributions to LGBTQ+ allied candidates, etc.) as well through social action (e.g., being involved in my local LGBT+ community, supporting LGBTQ+ organizations and events, living out & proud).
But I feel a need to also do something spiritually.
I’ve been planning an LGBTQ+ shrine. It would serve not only our LGBTQ+ ancestral heroes (e.g., activists) but those who were taken by tragedy and malice (e.g., victims of hate crimes, AIDS epidemic) but also serve as means to focus power towards living victims as well as towards social change. I would plan a monthly and/or yearly ritual aimed towards honoring our heroes, mourning our fallen peers, and powering change.
But I also wondered if such an effort could be adapted to a larger group on an international scale and indeed if at all others would be interested in such an endeavor. The international group of Witches, Wiccans, and other magically-inclined folks would conduct a ritual at the same time and date at the same regular interval.
I’ve seen other Pagans do similar things as devotionals to particular Gods but I’m not aware of any that are geared towards LGBTQ+ ancestors or change.
So, the questions I submit to you are three:
Our friends and family who do not identify in whole or in part with the gender identity that society attempts to impress upon them have made great progresses in society and so, naturally, issues of gender variance and gender identity are often topics of public discourse. Trans* visibility has increased with women like Laverne Cox and Jazz Jennings becoming household names and men like Ben Melzer making history as the first trans-man on the cover of Europe’s edition of Men’s Health and Aydian Dowling winning first runner-up in the the US counterpart’s cover contest. But along with the great gains made, so too, have there been terrible sorrows. Violence continues to disproportionately affect trans-men and -women, like the 20 who have been murdered in the United States as of August 10th. Therefore, it’s no surprise that gender identity would also become a focus in both greater Paganism and Traditional Wicca with increasing frequency. It should also be no wonder that I would find myself wanting to deconstruct the flawed and illogical arguments made by a few in Traditional Wicca to advocate for the lack of room for our trans* and gender-variant friends. And by deconstruct, I mean completely destroy three of the most pervasive.
The Tradition has always been about cis-gendered identities!/It’s Tradition!/You are fundamentally changing the tradition!
This argument reveals that the person expressing this point of view suffers from a fundamental lack of understanding of sex, gender, and identity.
Sex is the word used to describe the physical difference between males and females (but there are also intersex individuals). Sex describes one’s secondary sexual characteristics and in fact that’s what is used to determine sex at birth. Whereas gender is the social identity of “man” or “woman” (or other variances like non-binary, non-conforming, transgender, etc.) that describes one’s social role, behavior, manner of dress, and self-image, among other things. Despite what some misguided folks will claim, gender identities are not universal. Each society has very different ideas and ideals regarding what is masculine and what is feminine, who is a man and how to attain or demonstrate manhood, and who is a woman and how to attain or demonstrate womanhood. Gender identity has no litmus test; it is a social construct and therefore no more inherently natural than money or religious identity.
Therefore, to suggest that one must be born of the male sex to be a man and that one must be born of the female sex to be a woman (that is, everyone must be cisgender) is reflective of your own personal belief in Western society’s imposed binary gender construct. It is not something that is demonstrable in practice as evidenced by the myriad gender constructs and expressions we find throughout the world’s cultures across both time and space. And Wicca, as I was taught, is an orthopraxy. This means that Wiccans are bound together by a shared practice and not a uniform belief. Accepting trans* and gender non-conforming identities has nothing to do with our Tradition and everything to do with your beliefs on what is or who can be a woman or man.
Well then, it’s not about gender, it’s about sex!/Ours is a fertility religion that celebrates the mystery, polarity, union, and procreative power of the male and female sexes and so one should act in the capacity defined by our Tradition according to sex!
The tradition I learned does not prescribe behavior according to sex (male and female). There are roles and functions for men and women (gender) but the Tradition does not define who qualifies as a man or woman. Further, by suggesting that the sex of a person is paramount and must determine their role, you are suggesting that there is something inherently necessary about having male sex characteristics to be a man and female sex characteristics to be a woman. You are equating a person to their sexual characteristics, reproductive anatomy, and procreative capacity. Therefore, if the physical characteristics and procreative ability of the sexes are the foundational definition of what it means to be a woman or man in the Craft, then by that logic:
– infertile males and females must either not qualify as men and women, respectively, or must be lacking
– females who have had their uteruses (and males their testicles) removed or damaged must not qualify or must be lacking
– males who have breasts and females who do not must not qualify or must be lacking
Such is the necessary and logically-consistent result of harboring beliefs that sex must determine gender, role, and ability in the Craft. There is no alternative reading that is logically sound. What’s more, a definition of people relying solely on sex cannot account for the sheer complexity of nature. After all, where would intersex individuals fall in such a worldview? If someone shared anatomical organs with both males and females, how would you decide if they were a man or a woman? Why should it even be up to you to decide on that which Nature has created and that which another person lives?
This is not how Gerald B. Gardner or other Craft Elders would have thought or done!
Certainly, Gardner and the first generations of Wiccans had their ideas about it and it’s almost guaranteed that they would probably define man and woman using cisgender descriptions. But as evidenced by the fact that several of them would have refused admittance to homosexuals in their day on the grounds that homosexuals were aberrations and unfit or incapable of the practice of Witchcraft, clearly our fore-fathers and -mothers suffered from a lack of knowledge of the reality of sex, gender, sexuality, and the intersections of such realities with identity.
So while it is often wise to refer back to their wisdom on matters concerning the Craft, they are neither infallible nor unquestionable. They, like us, are products of their time. And as products of our time, we have learned much about Nature and Reality since their days and part of those revealed Mysteries includes the dispelling of the beliefs that heteronormative and cisgender identities are the only natural reality and that all else are aberrations, unnatural, and undesirable.
To adopt the anachronistic beliefs of our fore-parents would mean turning our backs on the wisdom and knowledge we have gained in the last six or seven decades. It would be no better–indeed no more wise–than adopting the belief that the Earth is flat because our spiritual forebearers believe it so. And as Witches, many of us are driven to learn more about Nature and Reality (i.e., Existence) and Its Mysteries, not ignore them to imitate the Dead.
If I have missed or not addressed other important arguments against the inclusion of trans* or gender non-conforming individuals or the lack of room for their involvement in the Craft, please share them with me. I welcome further discussion on the topic. Even more importantly, though, I am a cisgender gay man and while I do my best to educate myself on the realities and issues facing my trans* and gender non-conforming peers, I recognize that I may sometimes fail, so if I’ve misspoken or misrepresented something above and you wish correct me, please feel free.
And to learn more about the realities, daily lives, and issues that impact transgender and other gender non-conforming people, check out the following resources:
The Crutch is pretty pervasive among modern Pagans and it comes in many different variations. Some of these variations masquerade as theology (“This is a lesson from a higher power”) or as eschatology (“You must’ve chosen to experience this before you were born”) but it all boils down to the same thing:
“everything happens for a reason.”
This pseudo-philosophical explanation is often paraded out when Pagans face adversities or tragedies, oftentimes as a sort of coping mechanism for those circumstances. It attempts a philosophical explanation for the events to which we find ourselves subject but it fails miserably. It’s not philosophy–there’s no rationale, no reason, and no critical reflection or introspection. In fact, it is the opposite of philosophy: dogma.
Let’s be clear, though: everything does happen for a reason. That is, everything has a cause. Everything that happens to us, every circumstance in which we find ourselves, and every event we witness or in which we participate happened because of conditions set in motion by our own actions or the actions (and inactions) of others. Many of these things began moving long before we were born and many more were set before our grandparents were conceived. But having a reason is not the same as having purpose. That’s what people who espouse the dogma of the Crutch actually mean. They are saying that everything that happens to us has a purpose or meaning and that, if true, is quite problematic in at least three different ways.
It was all planned long ago.
If everything that happens must happen for a purpose, then it must necessarily have been planned and caused by an intelligence intervening in one’s life. If an event that occurred has a purpose for the person (or persons) to whom it happens, then it must have been intended for them for that purpose and the conditions and circumstances which led to the event must have been manipulated and set before the event itself occurred. There are, as one can imagine, thousands of circumstances one must manipulate in order to get just the right combination to lead another into a specific event. We many thousands of choices everyday–turn right or left, leave early or on time, take the bus or a cab, etc–and all of these variables must be accounted for if the right circumstance is to occur to lead one to any particular event. Indeed, not only our own actions and circumstances but every other action and circumstance of our universe–the many billions of threads that intersect with our own–must be accounted for and shaped. And if these variables, the very decisions we all make every day, are being manipulated then we have no free will. If everything that happens has a purpose, then our actions must be planned and our lives predestined.
It’s not your fault.
Following from the first problem: if our lives are predestined and our actions predetermined, then we have no agency in our own lives. No amount of reflection or introspection makes a bit of difference on our choices, ultimately, because our actions were predetermined long before we were born. Having no agency, we must not then have any responsibility for our actions. How can one be responsible for deeds one had no choice in making? How can we be held accountable? How can we hold each other accountable for misdeeds and violations? We can’t. It’s not possible. If all is predetermined, we have no free will, we have no agency, then we have neither responsibility nor accountability for our actions. Nothing is our choice and nothing is our fault.
An unethical and immoral Universe.
If everything that happens to us is not by our own making but by the power and decree of a greater power, then all of human suffering both great and small is by its design and will. This power would necessarily be responsible for personal misdeeds and personal tragedies like the time someone stole your identity and destroyed your credit or the death caused by a drunk driver to great injustices and atrocities like slavery and ethnic cleansing. And all for what purpose? A lesson, a motivation, an experience? There is no lesson to be had in the experience of being murdered. There is no value to being a newborn who dies at birth. If everything happens for a purpose, then we find ourselves in a Universe where those who suffer and die become merely fodder for the lessons and experiences of others. They have been determined to be acceptable collateral damage by whatever power designed this Universe that purposefully causes everything that happens. And so, we must find moral lacking in the very design of such a Universe and thus with its Creator, which constitutes a whole other set of problems and quandaries.
Therefore, if one does not believe that we are Will-less creatures predestined to act in accordance with some greater power’s plan, if one does believe that we are capable of willful choices and are responsible and accountable for those choices, and if one does not believe that the Universe was created by a morally-questionable and ethically-impaired power, then one must reason that while everything may have a cause, it does not have a purpose. But that isn’t to say we cannot find meaning in the tragic and terrible things that happen to us. We can certainly draw or make meaning out of anything. In fact, it’s one skill for which humans are singularly well-suited. Living in a Universe where events don’t have purpose is quite liberating in that way because it means the tragedy in your life does not have to define you, you have the ability to assign meaning and learn from it, and you have the agency and power to change your circumstances to navigate the future endless possibilities. As someone wiser than me often says: “Shit happens and fucks you up, so fuck shit up right back.”
In discussions of Witchcraft, it’s common to hear or read about how peoples’ lives change for the better through its practice. One can easily find accounts of witches who improved their lot in life: better jobs, more romance, a greater sense of belonging, or protection from enemies. Also common are accounts of witches who find spiritual revelations: a greater connection to Nature, a personal relationship with god(s), or the discovery of one’s own divinity. But the most important power granted by the practice of Witchcraft I’ve discovered is one that is least often given the place of importance it’s due: personal transformation—specifically, the sort of personal transformation that liberates the witch from the deleterious shackles placed upon us by society—through the power of Witchcraft’s inherent subversive nature. And so, I discuss how Witchcraft can liberate through its ability to empower, its rejection of sexual repression, its opposition to body-shaming, and it’s utter antagonism towards the patriarchy.
Witchcraft certainly, as previously mentioned, does grant us an ability to create change in a real, manifest way through its practice. It can deliver us more options in careers and love, more material wealth and position, and even more control over people that we would otherwise lack without it. The practice of Witchcraft allows us to affect the physical world in very real ways but I found that the real value in that is not the effect itself but that I am empowered. That is, Witchcraft grants me the ability to exert influence and agency in my own life even when mundane, i.e., non-magical, means of doing so prevent it and the value of that is profoundly empowering for one’s psyche. As a young man, Witchcraft enabled me to put an end to an abuser’s power when mundane options proved impotent. While it was immensely satisfying to be able to put a stop to the abuse, it was even more critical to realize that I did and could affect my circumstance and that I was not and would never again be powerless. This first liberation of Witchcraft was the realization of my own power and agency.
Witchcraft also empowers and therefore liberates by requiring that the Witch think for himself by developing a personal ethical system as opposed to simply inheriting a morality from society. Witchcraft has no dogma. It offers neither any moral commandments nor prohibitions. In Witchcraft, developing one’s own set of ethical principles, founded on reason, becomes a necessity. In order to determine how best to use one’s aforementioned power and agency, the Witch must possess an understanding of ethical action. And instead of simply accepting the pervading morality of our culture, which is arguably antiquated and Abrahamic, I had to determine for myself what was ethical and what was unethical; I had to critically evaluate society’s moral judgments on topics such as sex and sexuality, the meaning of and qualification for life, violence, drugs, and personal autonomy. This exploration of fundamental human questions and the requisite formation of a personal philosophy as a means to live a good and meaningful life liberated me from many of the prejudices and assumptions with which I had grown up and helped me become a person whose ethical judgments are based on reasoned reflection. The second liberation of Witchcraft was the rejection of socialized moral systems without reason and the subsequent development of a rational personal philosophy.
Much of the Western world’s views on sex and sexuality are colored by the Judeo-Christian worldview, which historically has taboos or moral prohibitions against perfectly natural aspects of human sexuality like homosexuality and recreational sex. This prejudicial attitude towards natural expressions of sexuality are so ingrained in our society that it had been heavily legislated against in decades past and continues to be the source of legal battles throughout our culture. But, as already discussed above, Witchcraft has no dogma nor codified morality; it offers no judgment on human sexuality and sexual practice. Instead of establishing taboos or prohibitions, I found that Witchcraft celebrates sex and sexuality—all forms of it—as sacred: “all acts of love and pleasure are my rituals”, says the Goddess of Witches in Valiente’s seminal prose. What’s more the frequent celebration of sexuality, fertility, carnal passion, and life in Witchcraft through ritual, symbolism, and mythology revealed an inherent openness, acceptance, and reverence towards human sexuality that is not present within broader society, least of all the dominant religions of broader society. It was through Witchcraft that I found not only acceptance of my own homosexuality but a celebration of it. Witchcraft is the foundation from which I was able to demand my rights and needs as a non-heterosexual person; and it was Witchcraft that allowed me to fully own my sexuality—my desires, my needs, my expression, and the frequency with which I engaged in sex—without condemnation, judgment, or shame. The third liberation of Witchcraft was escape from sexual repression and oppression.
Undoubtedly due to its values regarding sex and sexuality, mainstream society also has a deeply flawed relationship with the human body. Beyond the social taboos society continues to reinforce on public nudity, nudity in art, and nudity in other media, society even legislates against it for entirely natural and necessary reasons such as breastfeeding. We are explicitly told that our bodies should be covered and hidden and then implicitly told that exceptions are made and encouraged for those who fit the ideal physical aesthetic through art, media, and social pressure. But Witchcraft instills no shame of the human body. On the contrary, if anything, Witchcraft celebrates the human body, the vessel without which, celebration of sex, sexuality, fertility, passion, and (human) life would not be possible. So much so that it’s traditional to practice Witchcraft entirely in the nude, contrary to what society would expect of a religion. It’s not uncommon for Witches to stand naked before one another as equals and this, seeing each other laid bare, engenders an acceptance, appreciation, and love for one another and onseself. So, it’s no wonder that it was through Witchcraft that I, previously plagued by a nearly debilitating sense of shame for my own body, came to truly see myself and find comfort in my own skin. And this gift—the gift of freedom from body-shame and total ownership of my body—was the fourth liberation of Witchcraft.
And so we come to the most important ways that Witchcraft can liberate us from the one of the sickest of our social ills. Our society is founded upon a narrative of powerful men and it perpetuates that narrative like a virus. Our society is, for all intents and purposes, rooted in patriarchy. It sees women as secondary persons, if it sees them as persons at all; it devalues womanhood or portrays it as obscene; and, it teaches men that power is what defines them and separates them from women, among many other things. (Here I must admit that I am in no way the best voice for how Witchcraft can liberate us from patriarchy—to that end, the most profound voices on the topic would be women—but I can speak on how it began to liberate me from this social influence and how it continues to do so.) But Witchcraft, arguably, empowers women more so than any other religion. There exists in Witchcraft a recognition of the Divine Feminine, or a Goddess, as not only a figure worthy of worship but one on equal footing with the Divine Masculine. It requires no explanation to suggest that this isn’t so of the dominant religions of our culture. Women themselves, too, are often leaders in Witchcraft and can more easily be found leading groups and religious organizations than female members of mainstream religions. Womanhood, Women’s Mysteries, and the power of women are recognized as sacred and are not treated with derision, contempt, or made to seem obscene. And so, this natural tendency in Witchcraft to have powerful women as leaders, in turn, teaches men that power is neither integral nor unique to being male. It, too, teaches men that their manhood nor masculinity need neither be threatened nor lost by being a supporter instead of director, and an ally instead of a champion. And that is the fifth liberation of Witchcraft: it unfetters and loosens the grip of the patriarchy on both women and men.
So, that’s how Witchcraft has liberated me. Has it liberated you?
Pentacles were not permitted on veteran gravestones1, workplace discrimination has and continues to happen2, prison inmates are often not provided equal access for their spiritual accommodations3, there’s a lack of representation amongst military chaplaincy4, and Pagan temples fight for survival5—these are just some of the examples of discrimination modern Pagans have found and continue to find themselves contending with as part of their reality as a minority religion.
If not subjected to institutional discrimination, Pagans still encounter a lot of prejudice and antagonism from peers and individuals within broader society. Who hasn’t encountered misinformation about Paganism, from the banal stereotype that it’s something into which only Emo teenagers dabble, to the more malicious belief pervasive in evangelical Christianity that Pagans worship evil, harm and abuse other living things—human and animal—and consort with the malevolent demons of Christian mythos? Yet, despite all of these personal experiences with prejudice and discrimination, Pagans themselves are often perpetrators and perpetuators of these very same problems.
While many of us grow up and educate ourselves to correct our gross misinformation, so many within our communities remain confused, misguided, or in possession of completely incorrect information about other minority traditions. In recent years, one of the traditions to come into focus for Pagans has been Haitian Vodou.
A religion of the African Diaspora, Vodou was born from the syncretism of native traditions defiantly held by the African men and women brought to the West by the slave trade and the Catholicism forced upon them by the slavers. Vodou, unlike many Pagan traditions, is monotheistic and as such professes belief in a single god—in fact, the same god of the Bible. Vodou also teaches that there are non-divine, ancestral spirits, the Lwa, who intercede on the behalf of its practitioners. Vodouisants (the proper term for someone who practices Vodou) build and sustain relationships with the Lwa through regular ritual, both personal and communal, so that the Lwa might be propitiated and invested in them and therefore be oriented towards assisting them through life.
But Vodou is also a tradition that, historically, has been and continues to be oppressed by mainstream cultures and religions in the West. It should be a great shame to us, as members of other minority traditions, to find ourselves perpetuating and reinforcing that oppression and ignorance. To help dispel our misunderstandings and ignorance with regard to Vodou, I asked for help from someone who lives this tradition: Mambo Chita Tann, a voice respected within Vodou and by many Pagans.
Benny (BB): Would you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Mambo Chita Tann (MCT): I’m Mambo Chita Tann, and I’m in my mid-40s and have been a Vodouisant for a little less than 20 years. I am also a doctoral student, and clergy in another unrelated polytheist religion.
BB: Are you considered a priest of your tradition? An initiate?
MCT: I am a mambo asogwe, which is a priest rank (the highest priestly rank); I am also an initiate.
BB: Are they the same thing?
MCT: Initiation is required to be a priest in Haitian Vodou, but not all initiates become priests.
BB: In what ways is being a priest different than being an initiate of non-priest rank? Are priests officiates of rituals like they are in, for example, Christianity? That is, is being a priest(ess) in Vodou orient one towards service of laity?
MCT: Yes, Vodou priests lead ceremonies, instruct and initiate laity, and also serve the spirits on behalf of the laity – we are the most likely to be creating and doing the healing and other ceremonies that assist people in their lives, as well as all the rites of passage.
BB: Do you need to be a priest to work with the Lwa directly? How do the non-priest initiates interact with the spirits and what roles can they serve within the tradition as a whole?
MCT: Nonpriests can serve the spirits, but only on their own behalves and informally on behalf of other family members. They are not given the license or the training to perform the group ceremonies, the rites of passage, or the heavier types of work (divination, healing, sorcery, etc.) that priests do. Nonpriests do interact with the spirits, both on their own and in ceremonies with priests and laity. They form the backbone of the Vodou sosyete (society) and cook the foods, sing the songs, dance the dances, and welcome the spirits that the priests are invoking and directing for their benefit. It’s a highly symbiotic relationship between laity and clergy.
BB: How long have you been a member of this tradition?
MCT: Since 1992 or so. I have been a mambo since 2001.
BB: Is my summary of Vodou in the first part of this piece accurate? Is there anything you’d add or correct?
MCT: there is a strong disagreement over whether Vodou is actually a religion or if it’s just a magical/ancestral tradition that comprises parts of other religions. Not even all Haitians agree on this [or that it is monotheistic, she advises me after reviewing a draft of my introduction].
BB: Does it have a unifying set of principles—a doctrine?
MCT: Other than that there is a world of spirits beyond this world we live in and that the spirits want us to be healthy and happy, I’m not sure that Haitian Vodou has an overarching doctrine. It’s a practice-based tradition much more than a dogma-based one.
BB: What does it say about the nature of the Divine, if anything?
MCT: The creator (“Bondye,” or “the good god”) is beyond understanding or description. We are provided with the Lwa, or the angels/helping spirits of Bondye, for our needs, while Bondye keeps the universe running.
BB: So, do Vodouisants communicate directly with Bondye? Or only through the Lwa?
MCT: Vodouisants honor Bondye as the first being at the beginning of all prayers and ceremonies, but generally it is the Lwa that do the work and communicate with us.
BB: Are there specific ways to address or interact with the Lwa? Or are they open to anyone who wants to interact with them?
MCT: There are traditional ways to address and interact with the Lwa that are taught family to family, through a chain of transmission and initiation. There’s nothing stopping people from attempting to contact the Lwa on their own, but being certain that you are really interacting with the Lwa, and forming a strong relationship, comes through the training and license of the traditional methods. It is generally not a solo practice in Haiti; Vodou is a family legacy and an unbroken tradition within many thousands of individual lineages.
BB: What are some other important aspects of your tradition?
MCT: Emphasis on healing, possessory work, magical work, cultural heritage of Haiti are all big parts of Haitian Vodou.
BB: Does your tradition fit under the “big umbrella” of Paganism?
MCT: Not really in and of itself, though there are Pagan/Polytheist Vodouisants.
BB: If not, why not? Does it share any commonalties with Pagan traditions beyond those that all spiritual traditions have (e.g., the enrichment of human life, etc.)?
MCT: Haitian Vodou is an ancestral magical practice and is almost always practiced in tandem with Roman Catholicism. There are “pagan” elements in Catholic Christianity that find their place in Vodou, such as the veneration of saints and relics, observance of certain holidays and other practices that ultimately derive from Roman paganism and not from Jewish practices.
BB: Is there a typical format to the traditions’ rituals? Is there an underlying goal to all of the rituals (e.g., communion)?
MCT: Formal ceremonies are marked by a Catholic style liturgy sung at the beginning, followed by drumming and singing in various African tribal styles and manners. The underlying goal of Vodou ceremony is to greet the ancestors and the spirits and seek healing and education and protection from them.
BB: What have you found to be the biggest misconceptions about your tradition amongst Pagans, in particular? What’s the worst misconception Pagans tend to have, in your opinion?
MCT: That the Lwa are “gods” like Pagan deities is probably the biggest one I know of; the rest of my pet peeves have to do with misunderstandings based on racist Vodou tropes, and are not unique to Pagans.
BB: Would you be able to elaborate on some of those racist Vodou tropes? Would those include the idea of Vodou being “dark” or “evil” magic versus the “light” or “good” magic of European witchcraft? The use of “Voodoo dolls”?
MCT: Yes, they would. The biggest tropes are that Vodou is only evil and only used for evil, hand in hand with the idea that it’s “black magic” both in the evil sense and in the African sense. Pins in dolls and zombies are the legacy of bad horror films that were created during the 1920s-onward U.S. occupation of the island – racist politics gone very wrong. Such damaging tropes and misconceptions aren’t unique to Pagans, but it is disappointing to watch Pagans happily accept them without question.
BB: Where do you think this misinformation comes from? Are these misconceptions new ones or are they old ones that members of your traditions have had to contend with for a while?
MCT: I think this misinformation comes from the same place that assumptions about a single goddess and/or god come from; a well-meaning but misplaced desire by a certain subset of European-American Wiccan oriented Pagans who want to universalize practice. We’ve had to contend with this since Haitian Vodou hit the Pagan radar with the Feri tradition, and it has only gotten louder in the Facebook age and with some non-Haitians saying things they don’t really know anything about being taken as truth for all kinds of Vodou.
BB: I’m not familiar with Feri’s interaction with Vodou and I could guess that many others aren’t. Would you please elaborate more on that history and its fallout?
MCT: I’m not incredibly knowledgeable about it either but am aware that Victor Anderson had some interaction with Haitian Vodou. Whether or not he was actually initiated or went to Haiti, or whether he just plugged Lwa into his magical system, I am not entirely aware. You would probably have to talk to a Feri initiate to get more details on this. I am told, however, that this is where the Neopagan interest in Vodou got its start.
BB: Do you think some of it is based on fear?
MCT: Yes, because there is latent and overt racism involved in the understanding of Haitian Vodou, just as there was in its creation in the first place.
BB: Could you talk more about the overt and latent racism present in the West’s treatment of Vodou? How is it expressed?
MCT: This is the subject of several chapters [of her book] and it’d be a book on its own. Haitian Vodou has been demonized, literally, since it was a tool of black freedom on Hispaniola/Ayiti (the island), and it has never ceased to be paired with the idea of dangerous black people who are wild and just want to kill white people. The Catholic church has demonized it, the US government demonized it, Hollywood demonized it and it just persists.
BB: Do Pagans tend to be more open-minded, less, or about the same as mainstream cultures and religions? Why do you think that is?
MCT: I think it’s about the same for people in the same sociocultural brackets. I think much of the issue of open- or closed-mindedness when it comes to American Pagans at least is more related to white privilege and a lack of familiarity with persons of color and the history of colonialism, than to anything in Paganism.
BB: Should Pagans, by virtue of their own minority and marginalized status, have a better track record than they do when it comes to interacting with and understanding their peers of other minority and marginalized religions?
MCT: You’d like to think so, but unfortunately, socio-economic status still seems to trump religious status.
BB: Have Pagans unintentionally adopted the prejudices of the over-culture with regard to your tradition?
MCT: I think they’ve intentionally done it in some cases. I don’t believe that Pagans have confronted the issue of white privilege or of their response to colonialism adequately if at all, and there are some serious issues in the Pagan community around people of color.
BB: Can you provide an example of how someone in the Pagan community intentionally adopts the prejudices with regard to Vodou?
MCT: Well, the introduction to my book details an interview with a Neopagan who also happens to be Haitian, who decided he wanted to go to Haiti and get initiated not because he was getting in touch with his ancestors or even out of personal interest, but he stated that he needed to “save Vodou” from Haitians so that it could be purified of evil elements. There are neopagans who have decided that the Lwa are gods and goddesses, and when told by Haitians that this is simply not so, they use some European writings from the last century that present a Unitarian/theosophist idea of all the “gods of Africa” even though the Lwa in Haiti aren’t considered to be African anymore necessarily. There are Pagans involved in other ATRs who look down on Vodou as being too primitive, too dirty, too “evil” to practice compared to Lukumi or Candomble. There are many prejudices based in prejudices against Haitians themselves, based in prejudices against black people, etc. (The issues with some white pagans about pagans of color also persist here.)
BB: If you could change the dynamic between the Pagan community at large and your community, how would you change it? What would you ask of the Pagan community?
MCT: I don’t know that I care enough about the Pagan community at large to put in that kind of work with it. Haitian Vodou is not a dying religion by any means, and whether or not Pagans understand it or not is not something that Vodouisants put a lot of concern into. We also don’t really care what anyone else thinks about us, either, so it’s not a particular issue with Paganism. I personally find it frustrating that people profess interest in the tradition and often do very little to learn about how it really is, but again, the problem seems to be on the other end. Vodou is a closed community and while the door is always open for those who sincerely come to knock, there is no sense that we are going to be out there looking for people to show the door to. That’s not meant to be rude; there’s just no proselytization or need to show off/find more people in what is largely an indigenous tradition.
BB: Is there something that Pagans who want to be aware can do to be more respectful of Vodouisants and their tradition?
MCT: As when encountering any tradition one isn’t part of, respectfully listening to the practitioners when they tell you who they are and what their tradition is, instead of trying to explain it to them, goes a long way. Being aware that it is generally not polite or acceptable to make changes to the tradition, which doesn’t need saving and isn’t in danger of dying out. Simply being respectful of it in the first place.
BB: Are there any important issues or questions I missed that you think it’s important to relate here?
MCT: I think these are good starting points, and if you want to expand on anything here, please let me know – I am speaking very broadly on purpose.
BB: Any other final comments or statements you’d like to add?
MCT: Thanks for asking these questions. I hope they were helpful!
BB: They were! I learned a lot!
If you have additional interest in Haitian Vodou or Mambo Chita Tann’s published work on the tradition, you should consider her book, “Haitian Vodou: An Introduction to Haiti’s Indigenous Spiritual Tradition,” available for purchase at her website: http://www.legbastore.com.
I know I’ve certainly added it to my reading list!
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.