Paganism for Beginners: Wicca

Wicca is both a religion and a magical practice. Wiccans interact with the world on many levels – physical, spiritual, magical and emotional. Witchcraft is the craft of magic.

Wicca and Witchcraft overlap – all Wiccans are also witches, but not all witches are Wiccans. But the practice of witchcraft (in the sense of doing spells and so on) is only part of the practice of Wicca.

Initiatory Wicca (known in the USA as “British Traditional Wicca”) is essentially an esoteric mystery religion in which every practitioner is a priestess or priest.

A mystery religion is one in which the dramas of the psyche are enacted by and for the benefit of its initiates, but because these mysteries often involve non-verbal concepts, they cannot be communicated. Also, some material is oathbound (initiates are forbidden to disclose it to non-initiates). This is not because we want to keep these mysteries to ourselves, but because you need the ceremony of initiation to prepare you to encounter the mysteries.

"Wiccan altar (0)" by RaeVynn Sands, Flickr user cronewynd - originally uploaded to Flickr by RaeVynn Sands as Beltane Altar. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wiccan_altar_(0).png#/media/File:Wiccan_altar_(0).png

Wiccan altar (0)” by RaeVynn Sands, Flickr user cronewynd – originally uploaded to Flickr by RaeVynn Sands as Beltane Altar. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Initiation

There are three degrees of initiation in Wicca. After the first degree initiation, the initiate is responsible for their own spiritual development; in some groups, the period between first and second is where the new initiate is helped to develop their spirituality by their Coven and High Priestess and High Priest; after the second, they may take on responsibility for assisting others’ development; after the third, their psyche is fully integrated with itself. (The third degree is generally regarded as a personal step in British Gardnerian Wicca, not something that is required in order to be able to run a coven.)

Initiatory Wicca has many variants (Gardnerian, Alexandrian, and offshoots of these) but all share an adherence to a similar ritual structure and the practice of initiation.

Sources

Early modern Wicca was inspired by the general interest in the early 20th century in ancient paganisms, esoteric orders of the 19th century, and a strong interest in nature and magical realms. It appears that the basic structure of modern Wicca was devised by two women in the Bournemouth area in the mid-1920s. They passed this on to Gerald Gardner via Dafo. Gardner genuinely believed that he had found an ancient practice which could be traced back centuries, possibly even millennia.  There were, however, other covens practising in other parts of Britain, but little is known about these other than that they existed, and most claims that traditional and hereditary Craft existed before Gardner have not been proven – but nor have they been disproved.

Gardner eventually published a novel, High Magic’s Aid (a fictional account of medieval witchcraft) and Witchcraft Today, an account of the witches that he had encountered.

Many people joined Gardner’s early covens, including Doreen Valiente, who added quite a lot of new material into Gardner’s Book of Shadows. Each new person added more  material.

The modern Craft both draws upon its roots in the Western Mystery Tradition, and looks to traditional forms of folk magic, folklore, and the pagan traditions of the British Isles for inspiration. The structure of rituals remains reasonably constant, but the content varies quite a lot according to the inclinations and tastes of individual covens. Only initiations remain fairly standard, in order to ensure that they will be recognised across the whole Craft.

Gods and other beings

Wicca encompasses a variety of beliefs:

  • A belief in many gods and goddesses, spirits of place, nature and elemental spirits (polytheism)
  • A belief that “all the gods are one God and all the Goddesses are one Goddess” (duotheism)
  • A belief that there is no duality of good versus evil (monism)
  • Devotion to a specific deity (henotheism)
  • Belief that there is only one deity, usually the Goddess or the Great Spirit (monotheism)
  • A belief that everything has a soul, including trees, rocks, animals, birds, places (animism)
  • A belief that the divine is immanent or manifest in the physical world (pantheism)
  • A combination of one or more of the above

Fortunately it is possible to accommodate all these different views within Wicca because of the autonomy of covens and the diversity in unity of Wiccan practice.

Structure

Most Wiccans gather in covens. Most covens have a High Priestess and High Priest, but the extent to which these are leaders in the generally-accepted sense of the word varies from one coven to another. Their role is more like that of a facilitator or mentor; their aim is to empower their coveners to develop as priestesses and priests in their own right, passing on their experience and knowledge to their coveners, and usually learning from them in the process. Covens are autonomous, but as their founders will have been trained in another coven, they usually maintain contact with their previous High Priestess and sometimes seek guidance from her. The maximum size of a coven is usually limited by the size of the room where they meet.

Most coven members will also practice on their own (either a full ritual or meditation and visualisation), and sometimes will become solitary for a time if they move to another part of the country and cannot find a compatible coven or simply because that is what they wish to do at the time.

Solitary Wicca is also practised by non-initiates, either because they do not want to join a coven or cannot find a compatible one. Solitaries sometimes perform a self-dedication or self-initiation ritual.

The structure of a ritual

The basic structure of a ritual is similar to that of a story. It has a beginning (the opening of the circle), a middle (the purpose for which the ritual is being conducted be it celebratory or magical) and an end (the closing of the circle).

Wicca is practised in a sacred circle, and most rituals have a structure broadly based upon the Western Mystery Tradition. This involves consecrating the space, orienting it to sacred geometry, raising some power, performing the ritual, sharing consecrated food and drink, and then closing the circle and bidding farewell to the beings and powers that have been called upon. Coveners usually bring a contribution to the feast.

Festivals

Wiccans celebrate eight festivals and the thirteen Full Moons of the year. They will sometimes meet on other festivals and other phases of the Moon.

The eight festivals are Samhain or Hallowe’en (31st October); Yule (21st December); Imbolc (2nd February); Spring Equinox (21st March); Beltane (1st May); Midsummer or Litha (21st June); Lammas or Lughnasadh (1st August); and Autumn Equinox (21st September). The dates, practice and meaning of these vary according to where the coven is located, when particular plants actually come out, and the local traditions where the coven members live. Some covens celebrate on the nearest weekend to the actual festival. Some writers have tried to fit the festivals to the story of the interaction between “The God” and “The Goddess”.

It is now generally recognised that the eight festivals were not all celebrated by the same culture (in spite of wild claims made on some web sites), and some of them are retro-engineered Christian festivals, but this is in keeping with the nature of Wiccan practice. Whatever the origins of the festivals, they have now taken on a life of their own, and could be considered a valid development of pagan tradition, provided that we do not make spurious claims for their antiquity.

While the Solstices and Equinoxes are fixed points governed by the movements of specific movements of the Sun and Moon, the other four, Imbolc, Beltane, Lammas and Samhain are moveable and relate to the passing of the seasons as they display themselves wherever the practitioner happens to be geographically.

In the Southern Hemisphere, the equinoxes and solstices are reversed, so the winter solstice is in June, and so on.

Magic

Most Wiccans practice magic for healing and other ethical results. The intention behind the working of magic is not to impose our will on the universe, but to bend the currents of possibility somewhat to bring about a desired outcome. Magic is generally practised at Full Moons rather than major festivals.

Ethics

The Wiccan attitude to ethics is mainly based on the Wiccan Rede, “An it harm none, do what thou wilt”. However, it is significant that this injunction occurs as part of the first degree initiation, and was probably originally meant to show the new initiate that it is impossible to do anything without causing some harm, so it is necessary to consider carefully the consequences of one’s actions. The other famous (and often misquoted) injunction occurs at the second degree, and is generally known as the Law of Threefold Return. The actual text enjoins the initiate to return good threefold wherever s/he receives it. To my mind, the most important aspect of Wiccan ethics is the list of the eight virtues which occurs in The Charge of the Goddess. These are beauty and strength, power and compassion, mirth and reverence, honour and humility. Each of these pairs of virtues points to the need for balance.

Further reading

This post is part of a series, Paganism for Beginners. All the posts in this series will appear in the category ‘A Beginner’s Guide‘. You can find them by clicking on the ‘FILED UNDER’  link at the foot of the blogpost. 

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Paganism for Beginners – Overview

I am Pagan. I am a part of the whole of Nature. The Rocks, the Animals, the Plants, the Elements, and Stars are my relatives. Other humans are my sisters and brothers, whatever their races, colors, genders, sexual orientations, ages, nationalities, religions, lifestyles. Planet Earth is my home. I am a part of this large family of Nature, not the master of it. I have my own special part to play and I seek to discover and play that part to the best of my ability. I seek to live in harmony with others in the family of Nature, treating others with respect. – Selena Fox

Tree at dawn, Bucovina, Romania [free image from Pixabay]

Tree at dawn, Bucovina, Romania [free image from Pixabay]

So, you have realised that you are a Pagan. You feel connected to Nature, or you read a book, or went to a Pagan festival, or went to a pub moot, and now you want to explore further. But where to start? Which are the best books, websites, organisations? How to find a reliable source of information?

I have realised that, despite all the many wonderful articles out there about Paganism, many of them assume a basic level of knowledge about Paganism, and if you don’t have that basic knowledge, it can be very difficult to know where to find it. What is self-initiation and why are so many people dismissive about it? What do Pagans believe? What is orthopraxy?

Add to that the fact that there are so many people on the internet who are willing to dismiss your hard-won insights, peddle pseudo-history, and claim that theirs is the One True Way, and it becomes very hard to sift reality from fantasy and find some people you might actually want to celebrate with. Plus the fact that we all spout jargon – though this is inevitable when we have a different way of looking at the world, and need the vocabulary to describe it.

So, this series will aim to provide a basic introduction to the Pagan movement and the various traditions within it, with links to resources, organisations, books, blogs, and websites. I will also provide a glossary of terms.

What is Paganism?

Many people have tried and failed to come up with a comprehensive definition of Paganism that includes everyone who identifies as Pagan – so the simplest explanation is ‘you are a Pagan if you think you are one’.

However, that is not very helpful if you are trying to work out whether you are one or not. You might be a Pagan if you agree with one or more of the following statements:

  • Deity
    • the nature of deity is unknowable
    • there are many gods
    • there’s a divine feminine and a divine masculine
    • there’s one god or goddess with many aspects
    • deity or deities is/are immanent in the world
    • there are many beings and spirits/wights
    • deities are archetypes (yes, it is possible to be an atheist and a Pagan);
  • The world
    • the physical world (this life) is just as good (or better than) the other planes of existence
    • the physical world is the the only plane of existence so let’s celebrate it;
  • The body
    • pleasure (sex/food/being alive/general pleasure) is good or sacred or life-enhancing;
    • the body is sacred;
    • same-sex relationships are just as valid as opposite-sex ones;
  • Nature
    • Nature / the Earth / the land is sacred;
    • life is less enjoyable if you don’t get a regular experience of nature in some form
    • darkness and death are not seen as negative, but part of the natural cycle
  • Magic
    • positive attitude to magic & ritual & arcane knowledge
  • The soul
    • reincarnation exists;
    • original sin (or similar concepts) does not exist.

Not all Pagans will agree on all of the above; that does not make them any less Pagan. Paganism is more of an attitude of mind than a fixed creed. It is always tempting to ask, “what do Pagans believe?” but a better question is “what do Pagans do?” That’s not to say we don’t need theology – of course we need theory to explain and underpin what we do – but we definitely don’t need dogma.

Paganism is an umbrella term for several different traditions, some of whose members identify as Pagan, and some of whom identify solely as a member of that tradition. It is also possible to be a Pagan without belonging to any particular tradition. However, most people find they want to meet other Pagans to bounce ideas off, and to celebrate the seasonal festivals with.

In future posts, I will look at the different Pagan traditions, Pagan values, and Pagan concepts. I will also do requests, so if you have a question or an idea for a topic, please leave a comment.

Further reading

This post is part of a series, Paganism for Beginners. All the posts in this series will appear in the category ‘A Beginner’s Guide‘. You can find them by clicking on the ‘FILED UNDER’  link at the foot of the blogpost.  

Spirituality – let the buyer beware

At its best, “spirituality” (whatever that term actually means) is a spur to greater compassion, engagement with social justice, and trying to make the world a better place. This used to be called mysticism, which actually meant something and sought to wrestle and engage with the wider tradition in which it was situated. Many times, organised religion sought to crush the mystics, with their call to genuine compassion, and their speaking truth to power, and their direct engagement with the divine other (or others).

At its worst, “spirituality” is a mess of cultural appropriation, exploitation of the vulnerable, silencing of dissent, sweeping justified anger under the carpet, and offering a pabulum of spurious advice, airy-fairy sayings, and consumer offerings of easily-digested “wisdom” and manufactured artefacts to make you feel “spiritual” and get in touch with your inner wossnames. Many ‘spiritual directors’, ‘life coaches’, and other self-styled spiritual leaders – most of whom are not even qualified therapists – prey on the vulnerable to make them feel that they cannot have self-worth without succumbing to a rigorous programme of self-help, self-examination, and generally beating themselves up for not being spiritual enough. They keep their ‘followers’ as perpetual neophytes, never empowering them to lead the group themselves.

If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him

Every time I have an encounter with someone who has an interest in spirituality, and also possesses power over others, I find that they want to silence my anger at injustice because it is “not spiritual” to be angry. I find myself bruised and diminished by their criticism of my way of being in the world. Any engagement with the intellectual or theological or historical context of an issue is also silenced by these people, because that is “not spiritual” either. These people are so convincing with their “peaceful” mien and unfurrowed brows, untroubled by actual social injustice or the suffering of others. These are the type of people who silence those who complain of racism, sexism, and homophobia, claiming that they are “obsessed” with race, gender, and sexuality.

Some of them do engage with the suffering of others, but in my view, they only exacerbate it by placing the blame squarely on the shoulders of the sufferer, convincing them that they must “work on themselves” and buy whatever the latest self-help book, video, course, life-coaching, etc happens to be. Some of them even say that the first step to being more spiritual or loving or whatever is to accept oneself. The natural response of many people to this is to feel guilty for not loving themselves. However, the lack of self-love and self-esteem that many people suffer from is caused by alienation from other people, from nature, and from life. It will not be solved by increased introspection, but by going out and doing what you love. If you are an introvert, that might be different from what extroverts love to do, and that is just fine. The first step to accepting yourself is to stop worrying about yourself so much.

The blame for social ills is constantly shifted from the collective to the individual in many contexts. Instead of preventing bullying in the workplace, employers hire stress and time-management consultants to ‘fix’ individuals who haven’t ‘adapted’ to the workplace.  The same applies to dieting, where the fact that it is difficult to avoid eating fattening food, and difficult to get enough exercise to burn it off, is laid squarely at the door of the overweight individual, and hardly anyone bothers to look for social or societal factors that  might contribute to obesity.

Whenever you see a self-help book, or a person who sets themselves up as an authority on spiritual matters, ask yourself what qualifies them to be such an authority. I am not saying their life has to be totally organised (whose life is not subject to misfortune and the vagaries of circumstance?) – but rather, how do they respond to disaster? Do they curl up in a welter of self-pity, or do they actually get out and do something, perhaps getting involved with trying to right the social injustice that caused their misfortune (if applicable)? As the wonderful saying has it, “if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him”. Anyone claiming to be a Buddha is not a Buddha. The Tao that can be named is not the true Tao. Indeed, it was Siddhārtha Gautama, the Buddha himself, who said that if the things he said did not make sense to his hearers, they should ignore him:

“Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumoured by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.”

Subjecting advice to scrutiny and reflection about whether it applies to your own life is of course a principle that you should apply to anything that I write as well. Nothing is exempt from this principle. My perspective is also limited to my own experience, as is that of every other writer.

Do without doing, and everything gets done

If all the money and energy that was expended on trying to become more spiritual was expended on trying to make the world a better place for everyone, think how much better the world would be. I am not saying that people should not indulge themselves in a bit of pampering like a massage and a bath with some nice candles and a bit of tinkly music, but do it unashamedly because it makes you feel good, not because you think you ought to, or because you think it will make you a more spiritual person.

As the great Viktor Frankl once said:

“Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run—in the long-run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it”

― Viktor E. FranklMan’s Search for Meaning

Personally, I derive more benefit from going for a nice walk in the woods, or going on a demonstration about a social justice issue, or having a nice evening with friends, than I ever have from any attempt to “be more spiritual”. I am not a naturally introspective person in any case. You can derive a great amount of self-worth and connecting with others by going to take part in conservation work, or feeding the homeless, or helping animals, or doing something creative – you don’t need to sit about worrying about whether you are spiritual enough. I also derived a great deal of benefit from being a trades union caseworker, because I learnt to speak truth to power, but I became a caseworker because it was the thing in front of me that needed doing, and I knew it was the right thing to do, not because I particularly hoped to gain anything from it.

The other day, I saw a brilliant and hilarious video by J P Sears, How to be ultra-spiritual, which sends up the “spiritualler-than-thou” types (as I call them): the people who speak ultra-softly and go about dispensing unsolicited “wisdom”. It is a merciless send-up of the “ultra-spiritual”, and a critique that needed to be out there.

And then I saw a post by a “life-coach” giving women contradictory advice about how to be irresistible to men, where one of the pieces of advice was a blatant piece of slut-shaming. Fortunately, a bunch of people had posted hilarious comments on the piece, sending it up mercilessly.

I vividly remember my first encounter with a “life-coach” and I remember thinking it was a load of pretentious tosh and quite possibly a sugar-coated version of “how to be a capitalist bastard and succeed in the rat-race”.

I feel much the same about most so-called “self-help” books, which again locate the source of suffering in the individual, and fail to offer any remedy that we might all undertake as a society. There are a few excellent exceptions, such as Families and how to survive them by Robin Skinner and John Cleese, Taking care by David Smail, and Women who run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes (brilliantly satirised by Women who run with the Poodles, however).

This is why I have been trying to eliminate any talk of “spirituality” from my speech and writing, and instead talk about embodiment, and connecting with the body. This too might become problematic if we assume that there is only one right way to be embodied, but at least it is more earthy, and takes actual physical and emotional needs into account and makes a connection between them. Writers on embodiment that I have seen do actually seem to engage with the world around them.

Spirituality as a commodity

Nevertheless, it strikes me that the elephant in the room, and what really ails us, is the commodification and marketisation of everything – also known as capitalism. Value is no longer seen as intrinsic to an experience or a thing, but only as a marketable commodity. “Spirituality” has become yet another marketable commodity – a thing that should be our birth-right, that should be as natural as breathing, has been packaged and marketed back to us as something that can only be mediated by experts.

They say “the best things in life are free” and actually, it’s true. Having a consensual hug or a massage with someone you love, or a stimulating conversation with a friend, or a lovely walk in the woods, or some other experience of shared beauty, is much more effective than hours of “spirituality”-related activities.

One of the things that has made me a more empathetic person, and possibly a nicer person to be around, is reading novels, because novels teach you about the nuances of feeling and allow you to empathise with someone else’s pain in a safe space (the privacy of your own mind) before going out and practising compassion in the real world. The trick is to make the connection between the character in the novel and real people, of course.

Look outwards, not inwards

Many people have emphasised the idea that you need to love something greater than yourself, and/or other than yourself, in order to find happiness. Of course, many people who aspire to be spiritual do love God, or Nature, or something beyond themselves; but then they spend a lot of time worrying about how to be more spiritual, and fall back into introspection and self-doubt.

Viktor Frankl explains that the only way to find meaning and peace is to look beyond the self:

“By declaring that man is responsible and must actualize the potential meaning of his life, I wish to stress that the true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche, as though it were a closed system. I have termed this constitutive characteristic “the self-transcendence of human existence.” It denotes the fact that being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself–be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself–by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love–the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself. What is called self-actualization is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it. In other words, self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.”
― Viktor E. FranklMan’s Search for Meaning

So, all this relentless self-examination is actually counter-productive. The Muslims say that “Allah is closer to me than my jugular vein”; Buddhists say that enlightenment is only a heartbeat away. The great mystery of life is always available, always present, always pouring itself into reality at every moment, waiting to be experienced and enjoyed.

For me, the central mystery of my religion is love. The word religion comes from the Latin word, religio, to reconnect. Love is about connection, connecting fully and deeply with another human being. There are many types of love involving different types and depths of connection (eros, filia, storge, and agape are some that have been named).

“For the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that Love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.”
― Viktor E. FranklMan’s Search for Meaning

Our culture has also sought to commodify love, and reduce it only to romantic love, but it is much broader and deeper than that. In Hebrew, one of the words for love is Ahava, meaning ‘I will give’. The Tanakh (Jewish Bible) contains an extended meditation on the meaning of Ahava in the story told in the Book of Ruth. Another is Chesed, meaning steadfast love, loving-kindness. This term is often translated into Greek as eleos. Eleos is the personification of compassion in Greek mythology. Her Roman counterpart was Clementia. Ancient paganism had thought about love, compassion, and forgiveness, and these were among the virtues they cultivated.

Photo of Robert Indiana's 1977 Love sculpture spelling ahava. "Ahava" by עברית: רוברט אידניאנה, נולד ב-1928 - Talmoryair. Licensed under GFDL via Wikimedia Commons.

Photo of Robert Indiana’s 1977 Love sculpture spelling ahava. “Ahava” by עברית: רוברט אידניאנה, נולד ב-1928Talmoryair. Licensed under GFDL via Wikimedia Commons.

All the best writing seeks to broaden our humanity by encouraging us to connect, to have compassion, to love (both ourselves and others). If we cannot be compassionate to ourselves, how can we have compassion for others?

Love is a fierce and joyful thing

Love does not mean complete negation of the self. I am a human being with needs and desires, and I deserve love and compassion as much as the next person. Transcending the ego is not the same thing as erasing or negating the ego. All that happens is that one becomes aware of a reality beyond the ego, and seeks to connect with that greater reality.

Love is not a mealy-mouthed, weak thing that allows others to walk all over one. Love is a fierce and joyful thing that seeks the greatest well-being for all – bearing in mind that another person’s well-being may look quite different from yours. As many sages have said, “love thy neighbour as thyself” – in other words, love your neighbour as much as you love yourself.

Buddhism talks about ‘foolish compassion’ – the type of compassion that fails to involve the mind as well as the heart, to try and assess what would really help the suffering other. Love is not afraid to speak truth to power, or to tell the schlemiel that he is a fool.

Love is out on the front line telling the world that Black lives matter, standing up for the rights of LGBT people, indigenous peoples, immigrants, asylum seekers, and the marginalised. Love may be gentle and kind, but it is also fierce and joyous, and angry and sad, and embracing diversity.

“No One Understands About Black”

My daughter wrote me a poem for Mother’s Day:

Mom, I love you the blackest!
I love you the color of a mystery cave.
I love you the color of a blackbird singing its territory.
A summer midnight.
A bat’s wings.
And an evening talk with no meaning.

 

(Yes, I’m proud.)

“You really describe black so people can feel how bright and beautiful it is,” I told her.

“I know,” she said with rapture in her voice. “Isn’t black wonderful?” And it’s true. She has always loved black. When she was two she took her black crayola marker and (re) colored our living room couch (usually sage green) black. She was very proud.

The next day after school she came back and said to me, “No one understands about black.”

“You can help them understand,” I told her. “By writing poems and stories. By making art. You can share your thoughts about how warm and comforting, how strong and glorious black is.”

One of the tropes I am most tired of is the binary opposition of “light/good/white” versus “dark/bad/black.” This is everywhere in our language and culture, and especially deeply entrenched when we talk about religion, soul, spirit, knowledge and wisdom.

Darkness nurtures the seed, the babe. The dark nests us all when we sleep. Dark allows us space to mourn, and also space to grow, to change, to cast off an old skin and try on a new. Night is the nurturing mother of us all.

Light without dark is the intolerable bright glare of torture and interrogation.  We need our shadows. We need the dark. We need black.

And those of us who are makers, writers, story tellers, artists, songwriters and creatives of all stripes, we have a responsibility to help our culture(s) rethink this binary. We need to find a way to embrace black, and the trope of darkness. We need to remember—and to say, repeatedly—that light (and white) is not always good and beneficent.

This is not about race.

This is about race.

Mandala Things Come Together

The Need for Story, Witness, Truth

Today, the same day that Dane County’s District Attorney failed to indict Officer Matt Kenny in the shooting death of Tony Terrell Robinson, I came across a face from my past, posted on Facebook. He hasn’t changed.

“I’m sure he’s a nice guy, overall,” I said to myself. “He was just too young to know better.”

“And I didn’t say no very loudly,” I said to myself. “I probably wasn’t forceful enough. It would have been easy not to hear me.”

“He was too drunk to know what he was doing, or hear what I was saying,” I said to myself. “He was—wait, what?!”

I’m one of the most pro-woman, pro-femme and pro-feminist people I know. And I had just repeated how many all-too-familiar, all-too-common excuses. And I’ve been repeating those lines to myself for almost twenty five years.

I never realized until today that the scripts I’ve called out as bullshit so many times were scripts I had internalized myself in my own history.

I curled up on the bed and sobbed for an hour as I never did when I was eighteen, not one iota less humiliated, confused, guilty-feeling than I was then, but finally allowing myself to give expression to those feelings and admit what happened to me.

I was in a situation one night that felt pressured, threatening, unsafe, and unwinnable. The next day he smiled at me. So did his friend.

That guy was not a bad guy, you know? That’s why I didn’t realize what had just happened to me. 

I hear Officer Matt Kenny is a nice guy too. Our justice models fail us by focusing on individuals rather than systems. I’m no criminal justice expert. But today it was brought home to me, twice over, that something isn’t working here. How do we define justice, when (in the words of Walt Kelly’s Pogo) We have met the enemy, and he is us?

(This famous quote was originally used for Earth Day. Although it’s not within the scope of my small reflection here, I think a compelling case could be made that moving to a restorative justice model could revolutionize environmental movements as well.)

It’s hopelessly complicated. It’s hopelessly tangled and ambiguous. I rely on voices from the Young Gifted and Black Coaltion and Justified Anger to help me learn. Some other day I’ll figure how all this fits with environmentalism and spirituality and whatever this thing called Paganism is…but I feel pretty strongly this: the voices and stories in any situation need to be heard—and heard by all of us. Safe space needs to be created for speaking truth and deep listening on all sides. And stories, witnessing, need to be a bigger part of the justice equation. What if we focused on healing the harm on every side, rather than punishing (or failing to punish) the perpetrators of violence? By focusing on individuals, we too easily and often miss the larger, deeply entrenched and internalized systemic injustices which form and inform us, day in and out.

self portrait in five lines

 

A bubble of complacency

One of the things that enables me to function more-or-less effectively is the notion that bad things won’t happen to me. I call this “the bubble of complacency”. The bubble is a sense that all is well, life is generally benevolent, and other people do not actively wish one harm, and that the arc of history may be long, but it points towards justice. When bad things do happen to me, of course, the bubble gets popped, and I walk around all raw and unprotected. In 2010, I was in a car crash which was not my fault, and it was then that I first realised that the bubble existed, as the car crash popped it, very suddenly and abruptly. there was also a wonderful rush of relief at not having been killed in the car crash, during which I loved all my friends and family intensely, and even tiny mundane details of existence were intensely beautiful.

The following year, 2011, was really awful in a number of ways. I had an awful line manager, my relationship was on-again-off-again, I was planning to leave my job and start a course, but had no idea where I was going to live or how I would support myself during the course, and all the options I thought I had kept closing down. In November 2011, my beloved cat Harry died. I now realise that all those options closing down was actually the Universe trying to tell me that I was headed in the wrong direction, but it was painful at the time. My home, job, relationship, income, and spiritual journey were all in question. Normally it is pretty stressful if only one of those things is in doubt, but all of them at once was bad.

So, during 2012, my bubble of complacency started to reassert itself, living in Oxford, enjoying my job, and gradually getting everything together. I met my lovely partner in August of that year. But even in my bubble, I remained aware of social justice issues and tried to raise awareness of them.

In her excellent novel, The Fifth Sacred Thing, Starhawk talks about El Mundo Bueno (the good world) and El Mundo Malo (the bad world). Every situation has two possible outcomes, a good one  and a bad one. With our magic, prayer, and positive thinking, we constantly try to create the good world, the one where everything goes right. But every so often, we fall through the cracks into the bad world, the one where everything went wrong. My “bubble of complacency” is an attempt to keep walking in El Mundo Bueno.

“Doña Elena used to say that there was the Good Reality, El Mundo Bueno, literally the Good World, and the Bad Reality, El Mundo Malo, and they were always vying with each other. In the Good Reality you have a mild headache; in the Bad Reality you have a fatal brain disease. In the Good Reality, you catch hold of the rail as your foot slips; in the Bad Reality, you miss, slide down the stairs, and break your neck.

“We walk in the Good Reality as if we were treading the thin skin on warm milk. It’s always possible to break through and drown. …

“There is a hopeful side to Doña Elena’s teaching. … Even in El Mundo Malo, the Good Reality is always just on the other side of the surface of things. If you can learn to reach and pull yourself through, you can make miracles.” (Starhawk, The Fifth Sacred Thing, page 44)

But recently I have become aware that my “bubble of complacency” may actually be a bubble of white privilege. Part of white privilege is the ability to walk down the street without being suspected of a crime, to get a job based on one’s qualifications, to get a house without being discriminated against by the seller, the estate agent, or the person renting it to you. In short, these are actually rights that everybody should have access to. White privilege is also the inheritance of wealth and resources stolen from colonised countries and enslaved people – again, something that the descendants of those people should be entitled to, but are still denied, due to the lack of a will to offer or even discuss reparations.

The horrific shootings of far too many Black people in the US, and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, has made me aware that for Black people in the US, there can be no “bubble of complacency”. If you can’t walk down the street without fear of arrest or shooting for “walking while Black” – if you fear for the safety of your children when they leave the house – if you know you will be treated more harshly by law enforcement, and cannot get justice or equal treatment in any sphere – then El Mundo Malo  is always lurking just beneath the surface, ready to swallow you and all that you hold dear.

Here in the UK, I have become involved recently with two organisations, both of which have made me aware that my bubble of complacency is very much a privilege.

The first is Movement for Justice by Any Means Necessary. They are a group that campaigns against institutional racism, in particular the indefinite detention of asylum seekers by the Home Office. They have campaigned (successfully, in several cases) against the deportation of LGBT asylum seekers back  to countries where being LGBT is illegal. They also campaign against the detention of other asylum seekers and people who have been imprisoned for very minor crimes who are under threat of deportation. One of the most egregious injustices that they have highlighted recently has been the death in custody of Pinakin Patel, a 33-year-old holiday-maker from India who was detained with his wife Bhavisha by the UKBA (UK Border Agency) on arrival in the UK for a holiday, on suspicion of coming here to look for work. Detaining innocent holiday-makers from India is deeply racist (assuming that they were lying about coming here on holiday, among other assumptions). Make no mistake: Yarl’s Wood and other detention centres are, in effect, concentration camps. Another very worthwhile campaign against them is Close Campsfield, which in addition to campaigning for the closure of the immigration detention centre just north of Oxford, has also organised conferences to try to raise awareness of these unjust and inhumane places. Britain is the only country in Europe which detains asylum seekers indefinitely.

Yarl's Wood immigration detention centre

Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre (photo by Yvonne Aburrow)

I have also been talking to other people about the issue of how badly asylum seekers and immigrants are treated in Britain, and have been met, for the most part, with indifference and in some cases, casual racism. The only people who get it are people who either come from elsewhere, or have partners or friends in the same situation.

If you read my recent post, Blue Beltane, you will see that El Mundo Malo was trying to break through into my world, as my partner was having visa issues. Thankfully, these have now been resolved, and he is back with me, in time for a belated Beltane celebration. But that situation heightened my awareness of other  people’s problems with visas and immigration.

The other organisation is the International Liberty Association, an organisation which has consistently campaigned for democracy and human rights in Iran and the Middle East, and which promotes a tolerant and egalitarian version of Islam, where women are recognised as equals and encouraged to take up leadership roles. 2700 of their members are currently trapped in a transit camp (called, somewhat ironically, Camp Liberty) near Baghdad airport. The forces of ISIL are closing in on one side, and the Iraqi forces on the other. Because they promote democracy and human rights, the Iranian regime wants to extradite them to Iran and execute them. The Iranian regime has already murdered thousands and thousands of people who campaigned for democracy and human rights. Last night I had the privilege of meeting some people who have recently been rescued from Camp Liberty. Brave, brave souls. These are people whose relatives have been murdered, who have been in constant fear of their lives from rocket attacks, arrest, torture, and imprisonment. They have never had the luxury of a bubble of complacency.

How can we, as Pagans, respond to all these horrific situations? Certainly not by retreating ever further into a cosy world of magical illusion, bickering over the right way to cast a circle, or what colour your candles should be. Rather, by engaging in the struggle for social justice, and promoting a vision of a world where all life is sacred.

Laura Bruno expresses it well:

…we live in a Both/And Universe. El Mundo Bueno and El Mundo Malo exist simultaneously, and we summon them by honoring or rejecting the sacred — in ourselves, in others and in the “world” at large. Every time we calm ourselves and remember (re-member … give new form and vessel to) the sacredness of Air, of Fire, of Water, of Earth and of Spirit, we pull ourselves back into the Good Reality.

Rhyd Wildermuth, Alley Valkyrie, T Thorn Coyle, Crystal Blanton and others have all been doing their best to promote a compassionate and engaged Paganism, one that connects deeply with the sacred, with the gods, and with the vision of a way of living that acknowledges that life is sacred. Rhyd and Alley in particular have correctly identified capitalism as the biggest threat to the flourishing of life. Why? Because capitalism disconnects the maker from the made, the worker from their work, and encourages the idle rich to make money from the labour of others. In the UK, the gap between rich and poor has become even wider during the Conservative administration and their austerity programme.

Wikipedia’s definition of capitalism glosses over the biggest problem, which is the extraction of profit by shareholders from the enterprise.

Capitalism is an economic system and a mode of production in which trade, industries, and the means of production are largely or entirely privately owned. Such private firms and proprietorships are usually operated for profit, but may be operated as private nonprofit organizations.

Capitalism is not simply a market economy, where small traders make and sell their goods. It is the notion that a person who invests in a company, but does none of the actual work, is entitled to a share of the profits. The alternative to this (which has proven to be very viable and successful) is the co-operative, where every worker in the co-operative is a member and gets a share of the profits.

Pagan worldviews and visions – of what is sacred, of how we might live in harmony with the Earth and each other – are deeply important in showing what is possible. Pagans were among the first to argue that the Divine is both feminine and masculine. Now that view is widely acknowledged. Pagans were among the first to argue that Nature is sacred. Now that  view is more widely acknowledged. We also were among the first to welcome LGBT people to our circles and groups (though there are still issues with heterocentrism). Many Pagans (but not enough) are actively involved in the struggle against racism. We are often at or near the forefront of movements for social change. We can be agents of transformation, both in the struggle for social justice, and in the practice of magic to help bring about change. I would argue that showing up for demonstrations against injustices is a form of magic, in that it brings about a change in consciousness.

So, I aim to transform my “bubble of complacency” into an effort to bring about the manifestation of El Mundo Bueno for as many people as possible. Instead of luxuriating in my privilege, I intend to work  to extend that sense of comfort to as many people as possible.

The Enchanted, a beautiful article by Lia Hunter at Gods and Radicals expresses the contrast between a world of selfishness, greed, and exploitation and a world where everyone is valued, including the natural world. She writes:

We can cancel the terrible show and start writing and rehearsing, or even remembering one that does not eat our children and destroy mind, body, soul, Earth, and connection. It made us forget what community is, and what sacred means, but we can find them again. Some of us have already begun. Some of us in indigenous communities never lost them and can share them. There are paths strewn with fulfillment rather than endless hunger. We can find the paths with vital air to breathe, clean water to refresh, and solid ground to stand and circle with each other upon. Our ancestors knew them, walked them, danced them. Some continued to remember them throughout empire, despite the illusions of usurious capital and divine right of kings, and preserved markers for us in myth, symbol, and language. Nature, itself, contains markers and inspiration. Our home and kin are calling us.

Yes! We do not have to dance to the tune of war, austerity, destruction, greed, and selfishness. We can articulate a vision of a world of beauty and sacredness. We can build communities, friendships, and connections. We can work towards a world where all are equal, safe, and free. This is the sacred vision towards which our gods are calling us, which the whole of Nature is crying out for.