Review: Casting a Queer Circle

Thista Minai (2017), Casting a Queer Circle: Non-Binary Witchcraft. Hubbardston, MA: Asphodel Press.

Aimed at everyone who finds that binary and heterocentric approaches to witchcraft do not fit actual lived reality, this book is an outstanding guide to crafting an inclusive, non-binary approach to ritual. It contains a complete system of magic, ritual, symbolism, festivals, and ritual roles, all designed to be inclusive, safe, creative, and genuinely transformative.

The author states that they decided not to refer to their system as a flavour of Wicca because of the gender-binary approach adopted by many Wiccan groups. To me, that factor is not what makes this system of witchcraft distinct from Wicca, because I maintain that the gender-binary approach is not a core aspect of Wicca, and that Wicca needs to adjust its understanding of gender to fit reality. Ancient polytheism, indigenous traditions around the world, and other magical systems, were and are not as fixated on the binary model of gender as some Wiccans. I also think that you don’t need to have a new name for your tradition just because you have changed something, or even a few things; there is plenty of variation within Wicca. No, to my mind, what makes the Spectrum Gate Mysteries (the system described in this book) different from Wicca is that it uses a distinct and fresh approach to the tools, symbolism, the creation of sacred space, and ritual roles. There is much here that I recognise from my approach to magic and witchcraft, but the author and their coven have created a genuinely new, cohesive, and satisfying system of magic and symbolism.

There are several things I love about this book. Thista Minai is a polytheist, which means that their rituals are designed from the ground up to be respectful to the deities and spirits of place. I am also a polytheist, so this aspect of ritual is really important to me. It also means that they dispense with the version of the Wheel of the Year where the festivals are tied to a mythical cycle of “the God” and “the Goddess” (which was not in the Book of Shadows that I was handed down).

I also really like their thinking about ritual roles. Instead of focusing on who does what, they have focused on what needs doing in a ritual, and what type of skills would be best to enable those tasks to be performed effectively. So the roles in ritual  are allotted to people with the skills that best fit those roles (instead of trying to match tasks to outdated ideas of gender). The role of Greeter reminded me of the coven role of Fetch or Summoner in some forms of witchcraft; the role of Guardian reminded me of the Tyler in Freemasonry.

The section on why we cast a circle is outstanding, and covers physical and psychological safety in the circle, among other things. The symbolism and magical purpose of the tools used in circle are covered in depth, with consideration of safety – which included things like consenting to sharing a cup (what with the risk of sharing germs and infections), what to do to make sure recovering alcoholics are included, and the potential for incense to cause problems for asthmatics. This section also included environmental considerations, and some really interesting ideas about how to set up a circular altar as a microcosm of the sacred cosmos, oriented to the four elements and  combinations of elements – for instance, the idea that cooked food is a combination of Earth and Fire (something that had never occurred to me).

Although the starting-point for exploring new ways of doing ritual was the need to expand concepts beyond a binary model of gender, Thista Minai has included other considerations like consent, accessibility, safety, respect for the powers, spirits, deities with whom we work, and an approach to ritual that is grounded in an embodied understanding of magic, and an awareness of the need for community, dedication, and commitment. They also state that it is quite possible for atheists, archetypalists, monists, duotheists, and polytheists to work together in the same circle, as long as they can respect each other’s perspectives. (Quite right too, I have been saying that for years.)

The section on the festivals covers the Pagan/Wiccan wheel of the year from a queer and polytheist perspective, and how the festivals can be expanded and adapted to reflect queer concerns and affirm queer lives and identities. There are some excellent ideas for rituals and magical activities in this section. There are suggestions for dealing with homophobic and transphobic families and ancestors; how to make connections with ancestors of spirit. There are suggestions for rituals to let go of old baggage and embrace new identities. Each festival is examined for its lore and mythology, and how it specifically applies to Queer people. The practice of consent culture is central to the way the festivals are celebrated, whether it’s consent for cuddles at Beltane, or spirits and deities consenting to work with you. I particularly loved the ideas for Beltane and Samhain described here. The Beltane ritual sounds like a lot of fun.

A snail on a cherry

Beltane with a difference [public domain image]

My only quibble here is that I do not see the heterocentric story of “the God” and “the Goddess” that has been mapped onto the eight festivals as a core part of traditional Wicca. Some covens use it, many do not. It has never been part of my practice; as far as I know it was introduced by an American line of Gardnerian Wicca (though I may be wrong about that).

The section on magic and energy work explains the different ways to move energy around (grounding and centering, tapping and sending) and then explores polarity, resonance, and synergy. Interestingly, Thista describes synergy as bringing complementary energies into play, such as a music and poetry and incense. I hadn’t thought of that angle, as I had assumed that synergy was a group version of resonance, but it could also be a group version of polarity (understood as any pair of opposites, of course).

There is then an exploration of the key issues in coven dynamics, leadership styles, learning styles, and the various stages of training and elevation, including some rather intriguing transitional or preparatory phases, and suggested training topics for each phase. The book concludes with some sample energy exercises.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, and learnt new things, as well as agreeing wholeheartedly with the need for a queer polytheist witchcraft that is grounded in consent culture.

I will definitely be adding this book to my list of recommended reading for my students, and have already added it to the recommended reading page on the inclusive Wicca website.


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