Religious symbols in the workplace

Andrew Copson of the British Humanist Association has written a helpful analysis of the latest European Court of Justice ruling on religious symbols in the workplace. It looks to me as though the new ruling does muddy the waters though.

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Triple Goddesses

Most people, when “the Triple Goddess” is mentioned, probably think of the Maiden, Mother, Crone archetype. However, this archetype can be very limiting, and there are many other triple goddesses who are worth exploring: goddesses of the land and sovereignty, goddesses with many skills and roles, goddesses who are women in their own right, not merely roles in relation to a man.

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A Meditation: The Trees and the Forest

As we sit in the quiet of this place, breathing softly, each with our own particular concerns, let us be aware of our common humanity. Each of us has our own hidden wellspring of joy, our own experience of sorrow, our unique perspective on the Divine and its relationship with the world.

Let us celebrate the diversity of dreams and visions.

Think of the trees in the woods: each grows into its individual shape to fit its particular place and the events that have shaped its growth, but each is recognisable as one of a species: oak, birch, holly, maple, yew, beech, hawthorn.

Religions are like that too: each has its own unique characteristics, shaped by place, culture and history; but all of them have their roots in the fertile soil of human experience, and all seek the living waters of the divine presence.

Let us honour the beauty and diversity of religions in the world, whilst loving and cherishing our own particular visions and traditions, recognising that we too are rooted in our common humanity, all seeking the nourishment of the endless outpouring of love and wisdom that we call by many names, all of them holy.

Trees (pexels.com) - CC0

Trees (pexels.com) – CC0 Public Domain


I wrote this meditation in 2010, or thereabouts. I thought it would work well in an interfaith or multi-faith setting. Please feel free to adapt it for your particular theological perspective. The phrase ‘the Divine’ is intended here to include deities and multiplicity.

Erotic Religion: The Body and Sex for Wiccans and Pagans

This post is part of the October Patheos Public Square on “The Spirituality of Sex.” Every religious tradition has rules—spoken and unspoken—around sexuality, and sacred texts come into play as these rules are navigated in dating and marriage. What does your faith tradition really say about the meaning of our sexuality and sexual activity? What role does sex play in the life of the spirit?


Witchcraft traditions such as Wicca are highly visible in the Pagan movement when it comes to sexuality and sexual activity. Though Pagan traditions in general see the body as a blessing, they hold a variety of views on what the proper relationship is between sexuality and spirituality. Wiccans and other witches, however, embrace the holiness of sexuality as a central religious principle.

“The Charge of the Goddess,” penned by Wiccan priestess Doreen Valiente (1922-1999), is a piece of liturgy so powerful that its influence has reached far outside Wicca into spiritual feminism, the sex-positive community, and contemporary Paganism as a whole. When used in ritual, the Charge is spoken by a priestess who is embodying the presence of the Goddess. She says:

And ye shall be free from slavery; and as a sign that ye are really free, ye shall be naked in your rites; and ye shall dance, sing, feast, make music and love, all in my praise.…

Let my worship be within the heart that rejoiceth, for behold: all acts of love and pleasure are my rituals. (DoreenValiente.org)

An ~11,000-year-old figurine thought to depict a pair of lovers. British Museum. Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY 2.5

An ~11,000-year-old figurine thought to depict a pair of lovers. British Museum. Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen. (CC-BY 2.5)

Many Wiccans and witches believe that all things contain a primal energy or vital life force that moves within and among them. This energy is most easily experienced through sexual activity, especially when it is raised with spiritual intent. Through their sexual intimacy, practitioners can participate in a primal moment of creation: a moment when two divine forces or beings—imagined as a many-gendered God/dess making love with her mirror reflection; or a lunar Goddess and a solar God; or a genderless yin and yang, nothing and something—communed together in an erotic union whose vibrations continue to animate the universe.

Sexuality is a particularly dramatic way to experience the flow of life force, but for some Wiccans and witches, it is not the only way. Sensual communion with nature and nonsexual touch are also places where spiritual energy can flow between two or more beings. To emphasize that this embodied, intimate flow of life force contains sexuality but is broader than sexuality, I use the term eros or the erotic.

I first encountered the idea of the erotic as a spiritual force in Starhawk’s The Spiral Dance (1979). In the 1980s, this important book of ecofeminist witchcraft was many Pagans’ introduction to Paganism and Goddess religion, as well as to the idea that the body and sexuality are holy. In her introduction to the 1999 edition of the book, Starhawk emphasized that the erotic should not be understood solely in terms of heterosexual or reproductive sexuality, nor necessarily always in terms of pairs (as opposed to individuals or groups). Instead, eros is a relational force that is found throughout nature and within the self. She writes:

Sexual reproduction is an elegant method of ensuring maximum biological diversity. […] But to take one particular form of sexual union as the model for the whole is to limit ourselves unfairly. If we could, instead, take the whole as the model for the part, then whomever or whatever we choose to love, even if it ourselves in our solitude, all our acts of love and pleasure could reflect the union of leaf and sun, the wheeling dance of galaxies, or the slow swelling of bud to fruit. (The Spiral Dance 1999, 20-21)

Starhawk is in good company in understanding eros as both an individual and a cosmic principle. Her idea of the erotic echoes other the views of other theologians and spiritual writers of the twentieth century. To name just a few: psychologist and mystic C.G. Jung saw eros as the foundational principle of all relationship; feminist visionary Audre Lorde characterized the erotic an embodied impulse toward pleasure and holistic community flourishing; and progressive Christian theologians Carter Heyward and Marvin Ellison understand eros as a divine principle of desirous connection that motivates justice-making.

Perhaps because of the theology that “all acts of love and pleasure are [Her] rituals,” Wiccans, witches, and many other Pagans are often more accepting of sexual minorities and unusual sexual behaviors than is society at large. When sociologist Helen Berger surveyed American Pagans in the early 2000s, about 28% of Pagans identified as gay, lesbian, or bisexual—a much larger percentage than in the United States overall. LGBTQ Pagans can be found in positions of religious leadership in many different Pagan traditions today, and many traditions have rituals to celebrate same-sex partnerships and even group marriages (for Pagans who practice polyamory, a form of ethical nonmonogamy). Such rituals may sacralize temporary partnerships—for example, for a year and a day, at the end of which the commitment may be renewed—while other rituals formalize a lifetime partnership, or even a commitment to seek one another in a future life.

Pagans usually consider sexual activity to be ethical if it is consensual, between adults, and does no harm. Today, Pagans are having important conversations about how to ensure valid consent to sexual activity, as well as exploring the impact of individuals’ sexual behavior on their communities. Because inequality—based on race, class, gender, gender identity, and other factors—is an unavoidable part of living in our society, Pagans struggle with questions about how to best navigate power differentials in romantic and sexual relationships.

Pagan traditions challenge religious traditions that see the body as sinful or as a prison for the soul. Although celebration of sexuality is most central for Wiccans and other witches, sexual freedom and community harmony are important values for many Pagans. Accordingly, the Pagan movement continues to welcome LGBTQ people and other sexual minorities who find themselves unwelcome in their birth religions. For Pagans of many paths, the body is an important site of religious practice, a place in which we can meet divinity flesh to flesh and heart to heart.

Find out more:

My Polytheism

Syren Nagakyrie asked…

How do the gods move with and through you? How do you live your life as a polytheist? Where do you walk the knife’s edge and where do the labels blur so much as to be unrecognizable? That is where our power is found.

Gods move in mysterious ways

Some days I am flat and empty and feel disconnected from the gods. These are the days when I most need the solace of their touch. The days when I despair at social injustice, at the slaughter of Black, LGBT, and indigenous people, at the destruction of the environment, the loss of solidarity, and all the ills with which humanity plagues itself.

When I stop and remember to breathe, to be in the presence of the gods, to reach out for them, then they come to me. Some days I sit in the presence of a specific deity; other days, I wait to see who shows up. The other night, when I was wrestling with something particularly difficult, an unexpected deity showed up. I have felt that he wanted to contact me for a while but nothing definite has happened until now. I installed a small statue of him on my shrine and waited.

In Wicca, we invoke deities, and this can be a really powerful experience, as they inhabit your body and speak through you. It’s the most amazing feeling in the world.

Life as a polytheist

One of the things I really like about polytheism is its inherent plurality. Gods and spirits are not one single entity, but a multiplicity of identities, local and finite and specific and particular. They can be the consciousness of rocks and trees and water; or deified humans; or forces of Nature, spirits of place, emerging from the complexity of the universe (or multiverse).

I am a mystical polytheist, and as such, I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about defining or describing the gods or indeed polytheism. The gods have managed to look after themselves all this time, so I am pretty sure I don’t need to defend them from people who think they are all one, or don’t believe in them at all. They speak to those who are listening, and sometimes to people who weren’t listening.

Walking the knife’s edge

It is in liminal spaces and places that we can find power. The interstices between day and night, between civilisation and wildness.

There are people who say you can’t be a Wiccan and a polytheist, because Wicca is supposedly duotheist. I am a Wiccan and a polytheist, so they are wrong.

There are people who say you can’t be committed to social justice and be a polytheist – but for me, gods and politics are the warp and the weft of my polytheism.

Things are frequently not either/or, not simple binaries – often they are both/and, or a multiplicity of choices: a spectrum, or a scatter-plot.

The knife of the witch cuts away illusion, enabling us to see into the heart of things. If we do not walk the knife’s edge, we will never enter the castle of the mysteries.

By NASA, ESA, AURA/Caltech, Palomar ObservatoryThe science team consists of: D. Soderblom and E. Nelan (STScI), F. Benedict and B. Arthur (U. Texas), and B. Jones (Lick Obs.) - http://hubblesite.org/newscenter/archive/releases/2004/20/image/a/, Public Domain.

The Pleiades, by NASA, ESA, AURA/Caltech, Palomar Observatory. The science team consists of: D. Soderblom and E. Nelan (STScI), F. Benedict and B. Arthur (U. Texas), and B. Jones (Lick Obs.) – Hubble, Public Domain.

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See more posts exploring the glorious diversity of polytheism at MyPolytheism.com

 

Poem on a Birthday

Brigit Rest Goddess Grove. photo credit: Sadie

I am a lucky woman, and much gifted. Four gifts in particular I received this year:

a perfect July peach
a knife that fits my hand
a heartmeant compliment from a teenage son
and an argument for which I did not apologize

 

These things exist in our world, but they are exceeding rare. I know their value and will wear them forged and braided as adornment and strength. I am a lucky woman.

A woman grown so quiet here, in this space where just a year or two ago I was all enthusiasm. For a while my silence worried me. A theologian, I’ve had to learn trust over the months as my thought moves down, into the body. Into my body. A poet, I’ve had to face the fact that language flattens and distorts when tossed about too quickly. A woman, I’ve had to find a way to understand my silences as active and alive, rather than passive and inert.

All the myths and stories tell us the gift exists to be transformed and passed on, or it loses its power.

one sunflower 2016

photo credit: Sadie

 

A Poem for Women with Birthdays

 

It has taken me decades to learn to love
the way I pour each night into bed like a Midwestern river,
soft and insistent and ripe, effulgent with summer rain,

here and there paused and pooled
with minnows, with trout. Then too I am the voracious,
toothy carp jumping into the next boat that passes.

I was taught to play my breath out with care,
To run it over and through the knotted cords of my throat
like wind through a young grove of aspen,

to sing and laugh like the spring breeze that flirts
and lifts the hair playfully on a hopeful morning.
It’s a gift, that grace, but there are other gifts too.

By now I know we are equal parts joke and broken,
luscious bluster and blister, so very unspoken,
so very real. Silver and gilt. Sisters, tell me

how will you exult
in your gristle, the meat and fat of your flesh,
how will you rest in the mud of your marrow,

where important and ephemeral things go to be born?
Nameless and slippery, crunched and wiggling,
dark in the sockets of bone,

against all odds and cultural narratives,
we have time yet to locate each element and ore, here,
and here, and here again. Come closer.

 

photo credit: Vardaman

photo credit: Vardaman

 

We Are Rising

The Queer Ones are rising. We are rising out of the woods, out of the ocean, out of the cracks between the concrete. Genderqueer, transgender, glorious peacock-shimmering, rising out of the darkness, the healing and sacred darkness, into the many-hued light of day. Queer deities, genderqueer deities, transgender goddesses and gods. Inari the fox god/dess; Vertumnus the changeable and ever-changing; tricksters and healers, poets and seers and shamans.

Gender is not a binary, not even a spectrum, it is a vast glittering field of possibility, many gender, many hues, many different expressions of being and love.

We are rising, out of the silence, out of the hidden places, daring to be, to shine forth our glorious queer radiance, because we are the holy ones, the liminal ones, the dreamers and the creators of possibility.

Our freedom is frightening to some who want there to be a binary, a set of limitations. We call them out of their fear and into the radiant and glittering field of stars, into the joy of expressing all that you are – joy, magic, dreams, anger at injustice, diversity in unity, unity in diversity. We call them to embrace their humanity and ours, not to cling in fear and loathing to a diminished, fearful, restrictive, and destructive vision of womanhood, that excludes the childless as much as the transgender and the non-binary.

The glorious diversity of the human body, the glorious diversity of life journeys and intersecting identities, is to be enjoyed and celebrated. Different people have different journeys. The penis is not a symbol of the patriarchy. The gun is the symbol and the weapon of patriarchy and kyriarchy. The penis is a symbol of life, celebrated and venerated as such by many ancient cultures, along with the yoni, the vulva, the vagina. Both are fountains of life and creativity. The kyriarchy wants to distort and desecrate these sacred places, by turning the penis into a weapon and the vagina into its sheath, a place to be violated. But we reject and resist the violence of the kyriarchy, and affirm the sacred beauty of transgender, gender-fluid, and genderqueer in all their gentle and fierce beauty and glory. We embrace the witchery of genderblending.

Gender essentialism and separatism is the mirror image of patriarchy. We reject the patriarchy and the kyriarchy. We reject all binaries. There are men who reject rape culture and women who excuse rape. Let’s promote consent culture and gather our beautiful diverse tribe. Let us include people in, welcoming and celebrating and affirming diversity, not sowing hate and fear and division. Let’s create spaces that are safe for everyone of every gender. Pagan traditions (both ancient and contemporary) affirm the queer as sacred, as liminal, as being touched by the gods. All magic is magic. All love is love. All people are people.

We are all images of divinity. As a polytheist, I affirm trans and queer deities among the vast range of deities. The Sun is both fierce and hot, gentle and warming. The Ocean is both gentle, rocking the cradle of dreams, and destructive, storming and raging and destroying. Neither of these moods has any essential gender. The Moon is the lover of the hidden ones, calling to us of wildness and wilderness, dreams and intuition. These experiences are available to all genders – we all carry the tides of the Moon in our blood and in our bodies, regardless of whether we menstruate.  Let us celebrate the tides of our blood with all who venerate the body, regardless of their anatomy or ours.

Let us magnify and glorify the images of divinity within ourselves and each other. Show forth love and beauty and creativity; celebrate the radiance of the many-hued multiplicity of gender expression, sexuality, and the human body.

Radical Faeries parade at London Pride, Trafalgar Square. By Fæ - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10791440

Radical Faeries in London Pride procession, Trafalgar Square.. By Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Exciting new projects

Pat Mosley is organising an anthology, Arcane Perfection, which will be a collection of essays, poetry, art, rage, love, rituals, spells, and musings by, for, and about Queer, Trans, and Intersex Witches. Sounds totally awesome.

How have you overcome discrimination? How have you encountered the Divine? What are your experiences with magic as a Queer person? How has Witchcraft empowered your life as a Queer person? Can you tell the story of your transition through the Tarot? What is your relationship to the world, to Pagan community, to Queer community? Do you have a rant that needs to be screamed into publication? How are you uprooting heterocisnormativity in the Pagan community and beyond? How have you dealt with loss, invisibility, violence, disability, racism, power, capitalism, jealousy, change, and love?

Other exciting trans-inclusive projects are being discussed and planned.

Trans charities

In the UK, Gendered Intelligence, Action for Trans Health, and Mermaids have all been recommended to me as charities doing great work.

David Salisbury’s post lists some US trans charities that he plans to support: National Center for Transgender Equality and Gender Justice Los Angeles.

 

Why I am a Wiccan (video)

This was an address at Memorial (Unitarian) Church, Cambridge, on 29 May 2016. In it, I explain what Wicca is, situating it in the context of other historical and cultural developments, and then talking about why I love Wicca.

Order of Service

What is Wicca?

Wicca is primarily a religion where the practitioners interact with the world on many levels – physical, spiritual, magical and emotional. Initiatory 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.

There are three degrees in initiatory Wicca. After the first degree initiation, the initiate is responsible for their own spiritual development (a priest unto themselves); 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.

Modern 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.

The contemporary 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, should a covener wish to transfer to another coven.

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.

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).

There are eight festivals in the Wiccan year: 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. 

Most Wiccans practice magic for healing and other ethical results. The intention behind the working of magic is not to impose one’s will on the universe, but to bend the currents of possibility somewhat to bring about a desired outcome.

The Wiccan attitude to ethics is mainly based on the Wiccan Rede, “An it harm none, do what thou wilt”. I think this was originally meant to show that it is impossible to do anything without causing some harm, so it is necessary to consider carefully the consequences of one’s actions. 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.

Most Wiccans believe in reincarnation, with the possibility of rest between lives in a region generally referred to as the Summerlands. Some believe that the spirit joins the Ancestors, whilst the soul is reincarnated.

My experience of Wicca

When I was about six, I had a series of visions, or maybe dreams, I am not sure, where I met with a god. It wasn’t clear to me at the time who he was, but I now think that he was Odin. He inhabited a rocky and hilly landscape which was fairly arid.

Later, I read the Narnia books, and all the Pagan elements – Talking Trees, Talking Animals, dryads, river gods, fauns – really stood out for me. I think I first tried talking to trees when I was twelve.

But the book that really made me realise that I’m a Pagan was Puck of Pook’s Hill by Rudyard Kipling.  It turns out that Gerald Gardner, the founder of Wicca, was also influenced by this book, as he included one of the poems from it in his Wiccan ritual for Beltane, the festival of spring, merriment, and love.

I decided that I am a Pagan some time in 1985. I was pondering my values – of celebrating life and pleasure and the Earth – and realised that Paganism was a good label for my value system.

I first discovered Wicca in my final year at university. I had read Dreaming the Dark: Magic, Sex, and Politics, by Starhawk, and liked its message that darkness represents the rejected feminine side of life, and that darkness and light are equally sacred. I had always found the idea of the witch attractive – the idea of a healer, a shaman, and a woman who stood in her own power.

So, when I was introduced to a real Wiccan, and eventually got initiated into Wicca after I moved to Cambridge in 1991, I felt a sense of homecoming.

When I heard the words of The Charge of the Goddess for the first time, I found them overwhelmingly beautiful and resonant.

And whilst I have had moments over the years when I have disagreed with aspects of Wicca: especially the simplistic theology of a God and a Goddess embraced by some Wiccans, and the need for secrecy, and the way that some Wiccans are insufficiently inclusive towards lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people… I have always come back to that beauty, that sense of connection and homecoming, the feeling that I have found my tribe. A tribe of people who are individual and interesting, independent thinkers and wonderfully creative, who celebrate sexuality and wildness and the sheer joy of being alive.

I am also a polytheist, because I believe that divinity is manifested in many forms, and that the idea of an all-pervading single deity doesn’t stack up alongside the fact of the infinite universe. If the pantheist’s deity is the mind of the universe, it must be either so huge that it can’t be aware of our tiny consciousness, or it can’t be conscious in the same way that we are. So it would be difficult (as far as I can see) to have a personal relationship with it. With polytheism, I can have a personal relationship with a huge number of different deities, with different perspectives on life. There’s Mercury and Athena for intellectuals, Cernunnos and Artemis for those who like forests, Odin and Bragi and Brighid for poets and bards, and so on. Pretty much everyone has difficulty relating to the idea of the ultimate divine source, or to an infinite being – so people need to relate to something smaller. 

In ritual, we express our deepest yearnings towards what we hold to be of greatest worth. In Wicca, it’s possible for a polytheist and an atheist and a duotheist and an animist to circle together, if we share the same values and a similar practice. Our theology is fuzzy, and there is a greater focus on experience than on theology. There is plenty of room for mystery in Wicca. We don’t know what the nature of the gods is, so all our theorising is probably inadequate, and most Wiccans acknowledge that. We are aware that we don’t know everything about the gods, and that we only see the faces they choose to show us; that sometimes it may be more illuminating to say what the gods are not than to attempt to say what they are.

In a Wiccan ritual, the words, the energies, and the space are beautiful and resonant. We have crossed a threshold into a new realm, a realm that feels closer to the gods and goddesses. This is the place between the worlds, where we walk on the edge of time and space, with one foot in the otherworld. The circle is a space where you can commune with the universe, develop the self, engage in sacred play, and honour the divine with each other. There is freedom from unnecessary social constraint. We celebrate the beauty of the night and the human body, and the firelight flickering on the naked flesh. The ecstatic leaping across the fire, wild and free. The flames, symbolic of life and passion… The feeling of journeying together to other worlds, communing with the ancestors, the land, and the spirits of the land. Walking with gods and goddesses.

I have now been practising Wicca for twenty-five years. After that amount of time, the cycle of seasonal festivals becomes part of how you see the world, and everything is seen in a Pagan perspective – looking for the most life-enhancing option in any given situation, seeing everything as a spectrum rather than as two poles of a binary choice, trying to ensure balance, create harmony, and care for the Earth and all beings upon it. 

Plain Speaking on Polytheism

That’s enough apple pie metaphors… let’s get down to brass tacks.

It’s good to have descriptions of what a word means, so that labels are mutually comprehensible. It’s also quite nice when the meaning of a word bears some vague resemblance to its etymology. But there’s a conflict between creating a meaning that is inclusive enough to include the majority of people who want to identify as that label, and making a word completely meaningless.

A definition is a fairly precise meaning or set of meanings that are generally agreed usage(s) of a word and what it denotes.

However, language usage is fluid and changeable, and different groups of people use words differently in different contexts. That’s why it is a good idea to examine the connotations of a word, so that we can describe how it is used in different contexts.

Examples of words that have highly fluid — and thus highly disputed — meanings: Pagan, polytheist, and Wiccan.

Part of the reason that these words are disputed is because the dictionary definitions are largely unhelpful and out of date.

Why are the meanings disputed?

If a group of people wants to describe its practice, beliefs, and values as distinct from those of another group, it becomes helpful to have a name that describes only that group, and is not in use by another group. This is why the various denominations of Christianity have created labels to distinguish themselves from each other. It’s why there are umpteen different varieties of witchcraft, Druidry, and Heathenry. You can recognise some common factor that makes them fit in their respective categories; but there’s enough difference between them that it is worth adding a qualifier to the label.

Wicca

The word “Wiccan” has a fairly chequered history. Gerald Gardner referred to all witches as “the Wica“. Charles Cardell described his group as “Wiccens“. Gradually, in the USA, Wicca came to refer to any Wiccan or “Wiccanish” tradition. In the UK, it tends to refer to Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wiccans — but many people identify as Wiccan who have never been initiated into those traditions. (Part of the reason for this is that it became very difficult to identify as a witch during the late 1980s and early 1990s, and Wiccan became a handy euphemism for witch.) The word “Wicca” has become so broad and confusing that it may be impossible to restrict its meaning to Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wiccans.

There are also other witchcraft traditions (in the UK, Canada, Australia, and the USA) such as the 1734 tradition, the Clan of Tubal Cain, Feri, Reclaiming, and so on. Most of them are initiatory. Fortunately, hardly anyone disputes that the word “witch” applies to all these different traditions.

It is also worth noting that uniformity of belief is not the prime focus of witchcraft traditions. You can be a polytheist witch, a duotheist witch, a pantheist witch, an atheist witch, an animist witch, or some combination of these. (Some readers of All Acts of Love and Pleasure: inclusive Wicca were surprised that I said that you can be an atheist witch. It’s more difficult to be a materialist witch, not believing in or experiencing energies; but not believing in gods is not a barrier.)

Polytheism

To my mind, polytheism just means “many gods” or “belief in many gods”. It doesn’t say anything about how you worship them, or what type of rituals you perform to get in touch with them. Some people want to define polytheism as “religious regard for many gods” (in order to exclude those who acknowledge that gods exist but don’t have any truck with them – but I think that is redundant, as even if a Christian acknowledges that our gods exist in some way, they don’t acknowledge them as gods, so their view is irrelevant to the definition of the term).

If you want to describe a particular way that people interact with the gods, or a particular concept of what they are, then I would argue that you need a qualifying adjective. Various qualifying adjectives have been suggested (hard polytheism, soft polytheism, devotional polytheism, relational polytheism, Jungian or archetypalist polytheism, monistic polytheism, henotheistic polytheism, mystical polytheism), not in order to split polytheism as a whole, but to provide more accurate descriptions of how people relate to the gods.

Various people have different understandings of what polytheism means in their religious context. If someone else’s meaning of polytheism conflicts with your meaning, then you have two possible options:

  • claim that their meaning / usage / understanding is wrong;
  • add a qualifying adjective to distinguish your usage of the term from theirs.

Over recent years, there have been various online arguments about how to do polytheism “properly”, such as:

What’s really going on?

It is probably not possible to “win” one of these arguments, or answer the question to everyone’s satisfaction. But there is always someone who wants their definition of a concept to be the only valid definition, and to be a gatekeeper of who gets to identify as a particular label. Being a gatekeeper or the person who gets to define a term is a position of power and control, potentially with authority attached to it.

Whoever gets to define or describe what polytheism is will have a huge influence on its future development. If it is a broad-brush movement with many different ways to be polytheist, it will become large, nebulous, and hard to control. If it is narrowly defined, it will be much smaller, but possibly easier to control. And it will end up excluding people whose insights, ideas, and practices might have been valuable to it.

My own position is that I  don’t want to control anything. I am inherently distrustful of authority (including any authority that I myself may accidentally have acquired). Any authority should have checks and balances with it. If you are the high priestess of a coven, or the leader of a religious tradition, there should be a process for consultation and establishing consensus, and in large groups, for democracy and accountability. For example, in the Inclusive Wicca Discussion Group that I founded on Facebook, I created a set of group guidelines and invited members to vote on them and add to them; and there is more than one moderator for the group. In my coven, we take it in turns to write rituals, so everyone gets the kind of ritual they like; and whoever has written the ritual is the facilitator for that ritual. Whilst I am the most experienced witch in the coven, so the buck does tend to stop with me, I do try to empower others. The process of teaching and learning that we use is all about sharing ideas.

If you want to create a sub-tradition of polytheism that has a set of beliefs, practices, and values that meet your expectations and requirements, that’s fine. But don’t try to label it as the One True Way of polytheism. You will need to give it a more specific name. Some have argued that if polytheism is seen as a catch-all term that includes soft polytheists, archetypalists, and so on, then it becomes a less useful term. Maybe so, but that’s just how language and terminology work.

That’s why Niki Whiting proposed the term ‘relational polytheism’, and others have proposed other qualifying adjectives: to be clear about how our polytheism works out in practice and in context. Similarly, there are different flavours of Wicca and witchcraft, each with their own label, to enable people to find a flavour of Wicca that’s right for them.

People are confusing denotation with connotation, as often happens when the meaning of a term is contested. The term polytheism denotes ‘many gods’. To a devotional polytheist, that has connotations of devotion, religious regard, and so on. To a relational polytheist, the connotations are forming relationships with the gods. In order for different groups of people to find the polytheists they want to hang out with, we need those qualifying adjectives so that everyone who honours many gods can call themselves polytheists, without insisting on a particular definition of a god, but if you want to be more precise about how you want to honour the gods, or what you think gods are, then use a qualifying adjective.

The alternative is that a tiny group of people get to define what polytheism is and who gets to call themselves polytheist, till the whole thing turns into a clique and everyone else loses interest.

Polytheism isn’t yours

As Bekah Evie Bel points out, polytheism isn’t yours. And it’s not mine either. It belongs to everyone.

Lubnaclach in splendid isolation.

Lubnaclach in splendid isolation.  © Copyright Pip Rolls and
licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence