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.

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The Taste of Magic

This is part 2 of this story. You probably want to read Part 1: The Gift of Naughtiness, first.


The kids at the fundamentalist bootcamp for LGBT children were slogging through the mud on yet another early morning run. They could see their breath freezing in the wintry air. They were running along the perimeter fence when they saw a glimmer of light through the trees.

Sally, a transgender kid from Oklahoma, nudged her friend Tim in the ribs. “Look – rainbows!” she said.

“Quiet at the back there, Samuel,” called out the youth leader, old-naming Sally.

Tim and Sally slowed to a jog to look at the curious phenomenon of the rainbow glimmers coming down from the sky, twisting and turning on the wind. The glimmers were clearly invisible to the youth leader, who ran on, oblivious.

The other kids started to notice the glimmers too. Gaby, a lesbian from Kentucky, smiled for the first time in weeks. The glimmers flitted about the children’s heads, and finally settled on their tongues. Each child tasted their favourite flavour – sherbet, marshmallow, chocolate, pistachio ice-cream. As they swallowed the delicious magic, they felt a warming, loving feeling inside them. The world was suddenly brighter. The judgmental God they had been told hated them and their kind receded from their minds, and they knew that their way of loving and being was right and good and beautiful.

Now that they had tasted the magic, they could also see the wind-being who brought the magic. The wind-being smiled at them, and ruffled the trees outside the perimeter fence. A shaft of sunlight illuminated a path through the woods.

Later that night, they held a secret meeting in the dormitory.

“We’ve got to escape,” said Tim.

“Too right,” said Gaby. “But how?”

“Weapons of mass distraction,” said Sally.

“I’ve got it,” said Cal, a bisexual boy from Arkansas. “We raid the pharmacy and put drugs in the staff food.”

“There’s enough sedatives in there to knock out a herd of elephants,” said Che (her given name was Charity, but she preferred Che, and had often worn a black beret in honour of the revolutionary leader, before it was confiscated by her right-wing parents).

“What will we do if we actually succeed in escaping?” asked Tim.

“I escaped before,” said Josh, an older kid. “I got caught, but the thing to do is to get onto a long-distance freight train. There’s a railroad track with a junction not that far away. If we can make it to there, we can get onto the freight cars while the train has stopped.”

The next day, the plan went into action just before breakfast, which was when sedatives were normally administered. Sally started overthrowing the tables in the dining room, scattering breakfast trays and cutlery and bowls everywhere. The other kids soon got the idea and joined in. Under cover of this distraction, which had most of the staff trying to calm things down, Che snuck into the pharmacy and stole the sedatives (her father was a pharmacist so she knew the names of the drugs to look for).

The rest of the morning was spent in an emergency prayer and healing session, with the staff laying hands on the kids and trying to exorcise the ‘demons’ that had clearly gotten into them.

The rainbow glimmers of vintage eighteenth century naughtiness were not to be defeated, however. They filled the kids with secret glee, and strengthened their feelings of validation.

The kids were also required to help with chores around the centre, and today Gaby was on kitchen duty. Che slipped her the packets of sedatives just before the duty started at 11:30, and told her what dosage to use.

Tim was in the handicraft workshop with the other boys, and was able to steal a small pair of wire cutters from the tool cupboard.

Back in the kitchen, Miriam, a normally quiet girl from Tennessee, pretended to faint. While the cook was distracted by that, Gaby passed out the packets of sedatives to the other girls, and they quickly put them in the celery soup, but not the tomato soup which most of the kids preferred.

At 12 o’clock, seemingly demure and biddable, the girls served the soup to the staff in the dining room. It wasn’t long before the staff were all slipping into slumber, snoring in their chairs. The kids stole more food from the kitchen, and slipped quietly out of the building. They ran towards the perimeter fence where the glimmers of magic had arrived. Tim cut through the perimeter fence with the wire cutters, and they headed for the path through the woods which had been illuminated by the shaft of sunlight the day before.

“So we have escaped, but now what?” asked Jacob, one of the younger kids, who had not been in on the original plan.

Josh explained about his plan to get on a passing freight train, and about the safe-houses in various more liberal cities, which he had been making for when he got caught and sent back to the bootcamp.

It wasn’t long before they got to the railroad track. As they came out of the trees and into the area beside the track which had been cleared to prevent forest fires, the wind brought them more of the rainbow glimmers. The tiny sparks of joy descended on each child who had not yet received one, and they too knew the happiness experienced by the others.

Che began to sing softly, a song from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. “Don’t dream it, be it…” The other kids soon joined in, even the ones who didn’t know the song.

It wasn’t long before they heard the mournful double hoot of a train in the distance. What met their eyes as the train got nearer was totally unexpected, though: it was a circus train. And riding on the roof of the first carriage was a being of light, dancing for joy to see the effects of his plan. It was Joulutonttu, brought by the wind-spirits to see the joyful sight of the children breaking out of the bootcamp.

As Josh had predicted, the train stopped at the junction. Among the circus folk was Cady, an artiste of high calibre. The circus was not the kind of circus with animals, but the kind with acrobats, and jugglers, and fire-eaters, and dancers. They were on their way from New Orleans to New York. Cady knew immediately where the children had escaped from; he recognised their beige uniforms from the time he had spent at the same bootcamp many years before. He had been experiencing feelings of distress for some time as the train drew nearer to the place. He jumped down from the train.

“Have you escaped from David House?” he asked.

The children were a bit hesitant to answer. They feared that they might get sent back, even now, even with Joulutonttu in plain sight on the roof of the train.

“Of course you have,” said Cady. “Get on board the train, quickly, and let’s get the hell out of here!”

The children clambered onto the train, and were welcomed by the circus people, many of whom had experienced similar sad things in their own childhoods. Tia Estella, the acrobat, found them suitable costumes from the circus’ store of spangly tights and sequinned tops. Sally pirouetted in her new outfit, and sighed happily. Soon the children and the circus people were exchanging stories, sharing food, and working out how the children could be incorporated into the circus performance.

Joulutonttu flitted amongst the passengers, spreading magic and laughter.


Featured image credit: CC BY-SA 3.0 – File:Munich – High trapeze act – 6879.jpg [Wikimedia Commons] Uploaded by Jorgeroyan – Created: 1 January 2007 – Jorge Royan / http://www.royan.com.ar


If you want to know more about kids who escape from fundamentalist bootcamps, I recommend the excellent novel Hidden by Tomas Mournian, who has also made documentaries about these awful places.

You might also like to find out about, and donate to, the excellent organisation Truth Wins Out, which campaigns against “gay conversion therapy”. The executive director, Wayne Besen, recently wrote:

Some people, particularly parents, feel conversion therapy is safe and there is no harm if their child gives it a try. In reality, such rejection of self can be psychologically devastating and leave lasting mental scars that must be undone with real therapy. The single worst decision a parent can make is forcing their child into conversion therapy. Still, a demand often fueled by religious fervor inevitably creates a pool of religious ideologues or greedy practitioners who bilk desperate and vulnerable clients with promises of healing or an elusive cure. This is why conversion therapy must be banned for minors in all 50 states. I urge everyone to get behind such noble efforts that protect teenagers and put conversion con artists out of business.

Magic Words: The Extraordinary Life of Alan Moore (Review)

Do you know the work of Alan Moore? If you’re a Pagan or an occultist, you should.

Moore doesn’t think of himself as a Pagan per se, but he’s a product of the same cultural and spiritual currents that have produced contemporary Paganism. A self-declared magician and worshipper of the “sock-puppet” snake god Glycon, Moore is deeply informed by the Western occult tradition. In particular, his graphic novel series Promethea (1999-2005) is written as a primer on the classical elements, the Tarot, the kabbalistic Tree of Life, and more—all explored within the structure of a Wonder Woman-inspired superhero narrative. With a loose group of colleagues who call themselves “The Moon and Serpent Grand Egyptian Theater of Marvels,” Moore has also recorded several CDs of ritual theater, some of which have been illustrated as graphic novels.

Lest this introduction make Moore sound like a writer who writes for a niche of a niche—comics fans deeply interested in the occult—I should also say that his mainstream appeal is well-established. Best known for Watchmen (1986), a grim and satirical take on the superhero genre, Moore has profoundly influenced the direction of mainstream comics while also working to advance comics as a literary and artistic form. Several of his graphic novels have also been made into big-budget Hollywood films. These have increased Moore’s fame even as he has distanced himself from the films, which he has come to view as crassly commercial. At Moore’s demand, the film version of Watchmen (2009) does not bear his name; Moore turned over his share of the profits to Watchmen’s original artist, Dave Gibbons.

Magic Words: The Extraordinary Life of Alan MooreAlthough Moore has been frequently interviewed over the course of his career, he has been relatively circumspect about his personal life. I turned to Lance Parkin’s Magic Words: The Extraordinary Life of Alan Moore (2013) hoping for deeper glimpses of the man behind the work. In this I was somewhat disappointed, perhaps because, as Parkin portrays him, Moore’s work has largely been his life.

The book does spend time on Moore’s childhood and psychedelic adolescence in a working-class neighborhood of Northampton, a chapter I read with interest. In many places, however, the chapter becomes simply a history of Northampton rather than a history of Moore specifically—and this may be in keeping with Moore’s impression of himself. Moore is a lifelong resident of Northampton; his novel The Voice of the Fire is set entirely on the land on which Northampton is built, though its story begins in the Neolithic. Moore is profoundly interested in what Pagans might call “the spirituality of place,” as well as in psychogeography, a playful approach to urban geography that emphasizes the shifting relationships between people and environment. For the most part, however, Parkin covers Moore’s personal life in a handful of sentences scattered throughout the book, and usually only when it directly relates to his writing. For example, The Mirror of Love (2004), Moore’s poetic celebration of same-sex love, was originally written while Moore was part of a polyamorous marriage; he and his partners published the poem in 1988 as part of a protest against Britain’s anti-LGBT Section 28. About Moore’s daughters, the book says almost nothing except to note that Leah Moore is now a comics writer herself. Moore’s current marriage to Melinda Gebbie is mostly discussed in the context of their long-term artistic collaboration, most notably on the erotic trilogy Lost Girls (2006).

Magic Words is rich in detail, however, when it comes to Moore’s often troubled professional relationships. This level of detail may prove a barrier to the more casual reader; since I am not well-versed in the British comics industry of the late 1970s, I found my eyes glazing over a bit during the chapters that cover this phase of Moore’s career. I am much more familiar with the American comics industry, however, and I found myself engrossed in Parkin’s analysis of Moore’s loss of trust in and ultimate falling-out with his original American publisher, DC Comics.

Parkin also spends quite a bit of space on literary and cultural analysis. One chapter is dedicated entirely to Watchmen, which Parkin contextualizes within Moore’s earlier humorous and satirical work. Parkin’s argument is that critics have taken Watchmen far too seriously, producing readings that miss its irony and humor. Parkin also considers the adaptation of Moore’s novels into films, which he portrays as unsuccessful artistically, but nevertheless functioning to draw attention to the graphic novels on which they are based. Some, like the V for Vendetta film (2005), have had enduring cultural impact; Moore reported pleasure at hearing that the activist group Anonymous had adopted the Guy Fawkes masks used in the book and movie.

Parkin devotes a chapter to Moore’s magical philosophy and practice. Moore sees magic as a type of language, the proper use of which gives one access to the nature of reality. The book’s treatment of Moore as a magician is a good summary of the many interviews Moore has given on the subject, and it retains Moore’s playfulness and self-deprecating humor. Parkin is a little reductionistic, however; he sees Moore’s magical practice primarily as Moore’s way of describing and codifying his creative process, not as a potentially freestanding system of spiritual exploration and development. Readers who are primarily looking for insight into Moore’s occult work will probably be better served by reading Moore’s many interviews or by watching the documentary The Mindscape of Alan Moore (2003).

Overall, I was most impressed by the way Parkin ultimately used his detailed accounts of Moore’s professional relationships to allow the reader to evaluate industry perceptions of the writer. In the last chapter of the book, Parkin presents two competing perceptions of Moore: that his stubborn nature and blind adherence to points of principle have cut him off from the rest of the industry, leading him to create work that is increasingly inaccessible; or that Moore has distanced himself from an overcommercialized and failing comics industry, which has allowed him to concentrate on experimental multimedia work while continuing to garner critical acclaim and financial success. Parkin’s meticulous history of Moore’s working life provides the context needed to potentially make a case for either side (although it is probably obvious on which one this reviewer comes down!).

Perhaps my only real quibble with the book is that it does not fully convey Moore’s warmth, which is frequently mentioned by interviewers, and which I experienced myself in Moore’s response to a fan letter I wrote to him in my early twenties. (After sending the letter, I was floored to receive a reply package containing a kind and funny note from Moore, as well as a book, an article, and CDs relating to his occult interests!) To balance that lack, I’d like to close by relating Moore’s thoughtful advice to new magicians, which was given in 2012 as part of a group videochat to raise money for a Harvey Pekar memorial.

Well, I would say, be careful, and try to remember to keep the four basic magickal weapons–and the properties that they symbolize, more importantly–with you at all times. What you need to do is work upon your discriminating intellect, and your compassion, and your basic drive–your will, if you like–and your material circumstances, and to realize that you need to have all of these things under control if you’re going to be a successful human being or a magician, because basically a magician is just a human being writ large. […] Above all, you need compassion, because even if you’ve got the other three and everything is succeeding perfectly, if you don’t have compassion, you’ll end up as a monster. If you’ve got those four basic things, then I would simply advise you to, yes, be careful, treat all this with respect, because it’s all real, at least inside your head, and that’s the only place it needs to be real. Then, progress adventurously. Don’t be afraid to think new or unorthodox things. Try to make sure that whatever magickal insights you’re receiving are applicable to ordinary, everyday life. If they are simply describing conditions in some imaginary universe that only exists to you, they’re probably not of a great deal of use. If they’re telling you things that you can actually use in your everyday interactions with other people, that you can actually use in your own creative life, then they’re probably useful and genuine. Good luck with it, good luck with it!

[If you’d like to hear the entire group chat, there’s an .avi version with a fair bit of garbling and several cut-outs here; or, leave me a comment with some contact info and I can provide a nice .mp3 of the audio only.]


The Superhero AfterlifeFor those with a general interest in religion and comics, I’d also like to note the recent publication of American Comics, Literary Theory, and Religion: The Superhero Afterlife by my friend and colleague A. David Lewis. The book deals with portrayals of the afterlife in superhero comics–which often contrast with the afterlives of traditional Western monotheisms–as well as the evolving models of the human self that these portrayals reflect. I was involved in the editing process of the book, and I can attest that it is smart, accessible, and compelling. Plus, there’s a whole chapter on Promethea! Check it out via a university library, interlibrary loan, or Amazon.

What colour is your witchcraft?

In my previous article “7 things I wish people knew about Wicca“, I wrote a section about “black witchcraft” versus “white witchcraft”. It is one of those topics that is not easily dealt with in a quick soundbite, and this quickly became apparent from the comments.

I also realise that the headline of that section (There is no such thing as ‘black witchcraft’ or ‘white witchcraft’) was ambivalent. What I meant was that there isn’t a whole movement of people who consider themselves to be “black witches” or “white witches“, not that there is no such thing as “black magic” or “white magic“, although I do consider those terms to be very very unhelpful for a number of reasons.

Besides, as everyone knows, the colour of magic is octarine.

“It was octarine, the colour of magic. It was alive and glowing and vibrant and it was the undisputed pigment of the imagination, because wherever it appeared it was a sign that mere matter was a servant of the powers of the magical mind. It was enchantment itself.
But Rincewind always thought it looked a sort of greenish-purple.”

Terry Pratchett, The Color of Magic

There are of course Black people who are witches and/or Wiccans, and that is one of the reasons I object to the use of the term “black” to mean maleficent. If you say “there are no black witches” (meaning “there are no 100% maleficent witches”) it sounds like you are saying “there are no Black witches” (meaning “there are no Black people who are witches”, which is obviously not true). Furthermore, associating black with evil is unhelpful, as it may reinforce racist assumptions about Black people.

I am not denying that magic can be used for bad or selfish purposes, or even that it can be used to call upon entities with a less than benevolent agenda. I would deny that the entities called upon are the source of the magic, however. The universe is the source of the magic. However, people cannot be divided up neatly into “black witches” and “white witches”, and there is no cosmic force of evil or cosmic force of good in the Pagan worldview.  There are no personifications of good and evil in Wicca, but there are personifications of destruction, disorder, etc. (Loki, Kali, Eris, etc.), but these are regarded as part of the natural cycle: agents of chaos or destruction, bringing change so that renewal may take place. There are also personifications of growth, life, and light to balance the agents of chaos and destruction. And Wiccans are strongly discouraged from using magic for bad purposes. Therefore the question “are you a black witch or a white witch?” is redundant.

I believe that the same energy underlies all magic, and that energy is a natural property of the universe – or perhaps preternatural. In my view (which as far as I know is agreed upon by a large number of Wiccans and other magical folk), magic exists independently of those who wield it, whether they are human or spirit. Magic is a bit like the Force in Star Wars – which was actually based on the concept of the Tao, or possibly on ch’i (which are of course not equivalent to each other).

Magic, and spiritual beings, are agreed upon by most Pagans to be immanent in the universe, intertwined with matter – not outside and beyond the universe. if there is an Otherworld or spirit realm, it is usually seen as very close to, or intertwined with, the physical realm. As Michael York writes:

The supernatural as we know it is largely a Christian-derived expression from the idea that its ‘God’ is over and ‘above’ nature – material/empirical reality. It is this notion that is the target of secular and naturalistic animosity alike. Instead, rather than ‘supernatural’, I turn instead to the ‘preternatural’ that expresses the non-causal otherness of nature – one that comprehends the magical, miraculous, numinous, mysterious yet non-empirical quality of the sublime. Most important, however, the preternatural does not demand belief or faith but instead encounter and experience – whether through contemplation, metaphor, spontaneous insight, ecstasy, trance, synchronicity or ritual or any combination of these. As Margot Adler expressed it, paganism is not about belief but what we do.

Yes, magic can be used to call upon entities such as gods and spirits (who may be preternatural or supernatural depending on your theological perspective), but why would you call upon an entity that you consider to have a negative or maleficent agenda? Of course, there are people who work with entities who are labelled as demons, but I’m pretty sure those people would defend their magical work and the entities as benevolent or at the very least, just misunderstood.

As to the possibly malevolent or beneficent agenda of magical entities: surely that depends on your perspective? Some entities may be hostile to humans, because we are busy despoiling the planet and making other species extinct. From the perspective of those other species, humans are evil (even those of us who are not actively going out and killing endangered species are complicit in the habitat loss and pollution that is making many species extinct). Some entities may be entirely indifferent to humans, and not notice that they are trampling on us. The hurricane and the volcano and the venomous spider don’t intend to kill people; they just do.

I am aware that there are people who use magic for selfish or even maleficent purposes; but Wiccans are taught that this is a bad idea, because there are negative consequences. A person who consistently acts only in their own interest will hurt other people, and eventually hurt themselves.

I believe that morality and ethics are much more complex and contextual than a simple black/white dichotomy. For example, if someone was to curse a dictator such as Stalin or a mass murderer like Pol Pot, would that be “black magic” or “white magic”? Or if I give healing (normally considered “white magic”) to someone who then goes on to commit a very evil act, was my healing “white magic” or “black magic”?

Magic is a bit like a tool: it can be wielded for good or bad purposes. As Lori Ann James commented on my previous post:

Magick is a tool. A hammer can smash a window, or it can build the cabinet.

The intent of the magic-wielder, and the consequences of the magic, and the intentions of any magical allies who helped with the work, all contribute to the benevolence or malevolence of the magic. So, until all the consequences have played themselves out, and until all the motives have been weighed and analysed, it is a bit difficult to tell whether it was good magic or bad magic. As in the story of the Taoist farmer, the consequences of many actions or events are hard to classify as wholly good or wholly bad.

The problem is, when someone asks “are you a black witch or a white witch”, they are not looking for a long explanation of the Pagan worldview, or Wiccan morality and ethics. They are looking for a quick soundbite; they probably want you to say “a white witch, of course”. But it is an ignorant question in so many ways, and one to which there is no simple and straightforward answer. That’s why I tend to reply with “I am a green witch” or “your question makes no sense in my paradigm” because otherwise one ends up reinforcing a simple binary view of morality and people as neatly divided up into “good people” and “bad people”, or “good actions” and “bad actions”.

Starry Night, VVincent van Gogh [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Starry night, Vincent van Gogh [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Both magic and reality are swirly and complex. We do ourselves, our Craft, and the gods a disservice if we allow them to be reduced to a simple binary dichotomy of “black” and “white”; and if we allow darkness to be used as a metaphor for evil, we also do the night a disservice.

In Wicca, darkness does not symbolise evil. The darkness is necessary for rest, growth, and regeneration. Death is not evil, but a necessary adjunct to life. If there was no death and dissolution, there could be no change or growth. The cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth is part of the interaction of the polarities. Suffering is also part of the process of growth; just as a tree is shaped by the wind, we are shaped by our experiences. It is only by experiencing suffering that we acquire sufficient depth to know the fullness of joy. It is then that the full light of consciousness dawns in us, and we achieve mystical communion with the divine/deities.

So, if someone asks you “are you a white witch or a black witch?” how do you answer the question?

7 things I wish people knew about Wicca

John William Waterhouse - Tate Gallery, online database: entry N01572 Public Domain

The Magic Circle, John William Waterhouse [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

1. That Wiccan theology is diverse

This one applies equally to Wiccans, polytheists, and everyone really. In Wicca, you can be a pantheist, a polytheist, an atheist, a duotheist, a monist, a Neoplatonist monotheist, a polymorphist, or all of them at once, and hardly anyone minds.

Sable Aradia explains all about it in The Many Faces of Wiccan Divinity.

2. That there are many different types of Wicca and witchcraft, but not all witches are Wiccans

There are many different types of Wicca, some initiatory, some lineaged, some descended from Gerald Gardner, some not. They have a variety of practices and styles. In the UK, Gardnerians and Alexandrians will happily work in the same circle and there are many dual-heritage covens. In the UK and Europe, we believe that you don’t have to start a new tradition just because you changed something about your rituals. In the US, Gardnerian and Alexandrian covens are referred to as “British Traditional Wicca”.

There are also other types of witchcraft – Reclaiming, Feri, Cochrane Tradition, 1734 Tradition, and many others – which do not use the name Wicca to describe themselves.

Not all witches are Wiccans, but all Wiccans are witches.

3. How to ask for training and initiation

If you write to a coven and ask for training in Wicca, do expect that there will be travel involved, and face-to-face meetings and rituals. Most people don’t offer correspondence courses. Wicca is hands-on.

If you have already done a self-initiation ritual, that’s great, but please don’t be offended when the coven wants you to be initiated into their coven and lineage. Self-initiation can be a wonderful and meaningful experience and a genuine encounter with the Pagan deities, but it is different from an initiation into a lineaged coven.

When you get to the end of the training, you may be ready for first-degree initiation. It is up to you to ask for first degree initiation, as the coven will not want you to feel pressurised into it. It is not automatically the outcome of Wiccan training – the coven may decide that you are not a good fit for them, or that you are not ready for initiation. This will probably become apparent before the end of the training, both to you and to them, however.

After some time of being a first degree, you may feel that you are ready for second degree initiation. However, it is up to the coven to offer it to you, and not up to you to ask for it. This is the other way around from first degree.

Having said all that, different covens may feel differently about this, so it is a good idea to ask what their practice is.

4. Traditional Wicca does not cost money

We do not charge for face-to-face coven training. People might ask for financial contributions for temple sundries (candles, incense, etc) and for paper handouts. Every covener is expected to bring a contribution of food for the feast.

I do believe it is legitimate to charge for handfastings, baby-namings, Tarot readings, rune readings, workshops at events, and so on.

I have thought quite long and hard about Pagans’ relationship with money, and concluded that we need to talk about it more.

5. Wicca is a religion and a craft

Some seekers seem to be under the impression that Wicca is only a set of magical techniques, and that they will not need to engage with Pagan deities. Nope, Wicca is a Pagan religion, and that means we honour Pagan deities.

There are Christo-Pagans and Christo-Wiccans and Jewitches, who worship Yahweh and Asherah, or Yahweh and Shekhinah, or Jesus and Mary… but most Wiccans are Pagans.

There are also apparently some who believe that Wicca is not witchcraft. Yes it is. The name Wicca was used to refer to the Craft when it was difficult to use the word “witch” because people automatically associated it with devil-worship. But the vast majority of Wiccans regard ourselves as witches.

6. There is no such thing as “black witchcraft” and “white witchcraft”

One of the most annoying questions that witches get asked is “are you a black witch or a white witch?” There are so many things wrong with this question.

The categories of white and black witchcraft were created by the Church persecution of witches, as they believed that white witches conjured angels, and black witches conjured devils. They do not apply in a Pagan context, because Pagan cosmology and theology does not include angels and devils, or opposing cosmic principles of good and evil.

It is racist to associate “black” with evil. As I wrote in my essay “Is it meaningful to speak of queer spirituality?” [1]:

[Robin] Hawley-Gorsline suggests that darkness is generally seen as a negative cultural meme – dark sexuality, dark continents, dark people – and that Christian spirituality is focused on the light.   This negative view of darkness increases its power as a meme; darkness is equated with exotica, especially sexual difference.  Blacks and blackness are associated with sexuality and sensuality; and ‘deviant’ sexuality is kept hidden, in the dark.  An African American transgendered activist, Miss Lorrainne Sade Baskerville, said to Saadaya:

“Why is black the color of evil? Why is the color black bad and impure and why does white represent light, wisdom and purity? … Black is [a] mysterious color, a beautiful color! It represents mystery!”

Most Wiccans and other witches believe that our magic comes from energies inherent in Nature, and have very little to do with the supernatural. So, if someone asks me the question, my reply is usually, “I’m a green witch”.

The question also implies a black-and-white view of morality and ethics, whereas we tend to believe that morality is complex and contextual.

7. The Threefold Law doesn’t mean what you think it means

The Threefold Law is an injunction to return good threefold when you receive good. It is not a belief that if you do harm, there is some cosmic karmic law that causes you to receive threefold harm in return.


[1] Is it meaningful to speak of ”queer spirituality”? An examination of queer and LGBT imagery and themes in contemporary paganism and Christianity, chapter in Contemporary Christianity and LGBT Sexualities ed. Stephen Hunt, Ashgate Publishing, 2009.

Woman with the Pen: Five Moments On My Way Back to Patheos

I suppose, if I want to be orderly about this, I should outline the reasons I took an extended leave first.

But I don’t want to be orderly…
I’m sure I don’t remember them all…
Maybe I wasn’t even there at the time…

So I’m skipping ahead to what brought me back to this space. We’ll fill in the backstory another time.

 

One…

A nice thing happened this week—Junoesq, an online magazine from Singapore, published this interview with me, along withself portrait in five lines a handful of
new poems (one of which, “Small But Real,” was inspired by conversation with Niki Whiting of Witch’s Ashram). The compliment was welcome. This year I’ve wondered deeply about the worth of my own voice—others speak so much more immediately and profoundly to current events and crises.

But…Junoesq’s editor, Grace Chia, reached out to me for the interview after I sent her a few poems out of the blue. They struck an immediate chord with her, as another writer trying to balance motherhood, profession, the nature of a literary calling, and public vs. private persona. Halfway around the world, and yet…same old, same old story. Sigh.

 

Two…

And then, checking out the 1988 book Sacred Dimensions of Women’s Experience, edited by Elizabeth Dodson Gray, I’m struck by how many things have not changed. Women (and men) still struggle to place value on domesticity. We still struggle to love our bodies as they age, thicken, change. We still struggle to insist that our lives have worth, as individuals, as women, no matter our work, our size, our appearance, our voice, or the money we make (or do not make).

So—yes, there are many radical and beloved and ferocious warriors whose voices I treasure above my own. And that doesn’t absolve me from writing my truth. Both. And.

 

Three…

Then, too, I’m writing a novel. Trying to. Daring myself. This is a new adventure and it has me thinking about different kinds of writing, what they are useful for, how they work. Poetry vs. prose. Fiction vs. nonfiction. Where are the fissures and faultlines between “fact” and “truth.” As I work along on my fictional endeavor, it brings me back to this blog. Blogging is even another form of writing, after all, which I have only begun to explore. Writing in here offers its own strengths, its own opportunities.

 

 

Four…

Did I mention I’m working on a novel? At least partly because of one book: The Priestess and the Pen. “Give me blood and magic,” author Sonja Sadovsky writes in the opening pages. I have to agree. In this space, I don’t have to pretend the blood isn’t real. I don’t have to apologize for the term “magic.” No animals will be harmed in the writing of this column, I promise—although I make a special exception for mosquitoes. (Bonus: Jason Mankey interviews Sadovsky at Raise the Horns!)

 

Five…

A fox showed up in our backyard the other day. I want to find a place once again among people who know 1) the fox doesn’t care about my work and 2) the fox is telling me to get cracking.

 

So here I am, returned. As Sadovsky writes:

Ultimately, the woman with the sword is the woman with the pen; the one who wields it creates her reality.

I took the time I needed. And I remembered that for me, the answer is almost always both/and. Yes.

The question is courage.

office 2015

 

Old magic versus new magic

Morgan le Fay, by Frederick Sandys

Morgan le Fay, by Frederick Sandys

Recently I received an enquiry from a seeker in Eastern Europe, where much of the traditional magical practices and folklore were wiped out under Communism. There are many seekers in the area, but not many experienced practitioners. The seeker was especially interested in older forms of magic, and asked how to tell the difference between fake and real techniques.

I replied that we don’t know everything about what people did in the past, so have had to supplement with other techniques. Also, Wicca is not an ancient religion, but an outgrowth of many different strands of magic and spirituality coming together (see Triumph of the Moon: the rise of modern Pagan witchcraft by Ronald Hutton).

Even reconstructionist traditions have had to supplement the writings they have with a lot of personal gnosis (which starts life as unverified, but may become substantiated, either by matching it up with traditional lore, or by finding that the experience has been shared by others).

I must also point out that not all Pagan traditions practice magic; but I do think that if you are going to practice magic, it is best embedded within a religious tradition.

Some books of magic from the medieval period survive. Some 19th century handwritten books survive; they are not books of shadows in the modern sense.  Avalonia Books are translating and publishing some of them.  One very interesting book documenting 18th century fairy beliefs is The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies by Robert Kirk. Another very interesting book is by a Finnish traditional witch, and is called Snake Fat and Knotted Threads by Kati-Ma Koppana, describing what survived of Finnish witchcraft. I also recommended Practical Magic in the Northern Tradition by Nigel Pennick.

The Pagan revival is a new thing building on old ideas. Paganism was wiped out in Europe by forced conversion and (in some areas) slaughter and persecution. However, many of its ideas, stories, and techniques survived – written down by Christian monks and antiquarians like Snorri Sturluson, or retained as folk customs and practices. The Christians who wrote down these ideas sometimes did so from second-hand hearsay, and sometimes tried to explain away Pagan deities as ancient kings and queens. Folk customs only began to be recorded systematically in the late nineteenth century, so in many cases, it is not clear how old they are, or how much they may have changed in the intervening centuries. The good news is that Pagan traditions are a human response to the land and its other-than-human inhabitants; even if all the books and stories disappeared, Paganism is inscribed in the land itself and our response to it, as John Male once said to me. That is why the old deities and the old customs would not, could not, lie down and die. People will always respond to the land in a magical and mystical way.

If you want old and traditional, start by researching the folk magic of your region. The seasonal festivals; the protective magic people did for their crops and livestock. If this information is not available from older people, it may have been collected by folklore collectors in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But bear in mind that tradition is dynamic and fluid and always changing – it is not a fixed thing.

Older descriptions of magical techniques are not necessarily better than newer descriptions, and in any case, the newer books are generally based on older books, and draw upon them. The trick is to distinguish between fake and real. If it claims to be an old and unbroken tradition, it is very likely to be fake. If it has references to academic works, it is probably real. If it is realistic and moderate in its claims, it’s probably real. If it claims to be the solution to all your problems – that’s fake. If it wants to charge you money for Wiccan training – that is fake. Real Wicca does not cost money; face-to-face participatory coven training is free, though you would be asked to bring food to share, and perhaps contribute to the cost of candles and incense. You would be charged a modest fee for things like workshops and day courses, to cover the speaker’s time and travel expenses.

People assume that older traditions are better than newer ones, but this is not necessarily the case. Everything was new once. For me, the test of whether any tradition is any good is: does it work? does it help (in the long term as well as the short term)? Is it a coherent system? Does it both challenge and empower its participants? If you want to understand the underlying theory of magic, I would recommend Isaac Bonewits’ The Laws of Magic.

Magical techniques include visualisation, invocation, protection magic, cleansing, sigils, talismans, and divination. These techniques are very old and were used by most magical practitioners from ancient times to the present. They have been presented in new styles by a number of different writers; but they are essentially the same techniques. I once bought a book about witchcraft and magic in Russia, called The Bath-house at Midnight, thinking that Russian magic would be very exotic and different. I was disappointed to find that it drew on the same sources and almanacs as much of the folk magic of Western Europe.

I also recommended that the enquirer should contact the Pagan Federation International to find like-minded people. If you are in a similar situation, I would recommend you do the same.

Drugs: it’s all about the context

Drugs and other mind-altering substances have been used in a sacred context for millennia. These include wine, tobacco, hallucinogens, soma, haoma, hashish, and many others. Indigenous Americans used tobacco as a sacred and medicinal plant. According to Wikipedia:

[R]eligious use of tobacco is still common among many indigenous peoples, particularly in the Americas. Among the Cree and Ojibway of Canada and the north-central United States, it is offered to the Creator, with prayers, and is used in sweat lodges, pipe ceremonies, smudging, and is presented as a gift. A gift of tobacco is tradition when asking an Ojibway elder a question of a spiritual nature. Because of its sacred nature, tobacco abuse (thoughtlessly and addictively chain smoking) is seriously frowned upon by the Algonquian tribes of Canada, as it is believed that if one so abuses the plant, it will abuse that person in return, causing sickness. The proper and traditional native way of offering the smoke is said to involve directing it toward the four cardinal points (north, south, east, and west), rather than holding it deeply within the lungs for prolonged periods.

It is only when drug use is taken out of this sacramental and communal context that it becomes a vice. If a drug is taken to alter one’s consciousness for a sacred purpose – to obtain information or abilities inaccessible to normal consciousness – then it is a rare occurrence, and for a good reason: in the service of one’s community. I have a friend who is studying to be a curandera using ayahuasca, and she is learning from a traditional South American curandero. All the consumption of ayahuasca is in a safe and sacred context, supervised by experts, and assisted by the spirits of ayahuasca. In Hinduism there is a sacred plant known as Soma, of which it was said “We have drunk Soma and become immortal; we have attained the light, the Gods discovered.” (Rigveda, 8.48.3)  The Zoroastrians have a similar substance known as Haoma, which also has a deity associated with it. The two substances are probably the same, as they are derived from the same Indo-European root word. A substance that is used in a sacred context is called an entheogen:

An entheogen (“generating the divine within”) is a psychoactive substance used in a religious, shamanic, or spiritual context. Entheogens can supplement many diverse practices for transcendence and revelation, including meditation, psychonautics, psychedelic and visionary art, psychedelic therapy, and magic.

As Nimue Brown points out, the reason drugs work is because they mimic existing brain chemistry. That is how drugs like anti-depressants work, and it is also how hallucinogens work. This means that similar (though often much less intense) effects can be achieved by using other ecstatic techniques. Sometimes, however, entheogens can alter brain chemistry and create new pathways for perception. So, my take on drug use is that we should always ask ourselves why we are taking it, and if there are better alternatives. If I have a bad headache, I will take a painkiller (aspirin is derived from willow trees, after all), but I will also try to ascertain the cause of the headache (e.g. dehydration, lack of sleep, poor posture, lack of exercise). If I have an infection, I will think twice before taking antibiotics, because over-use and mis-use of antibiotics can lead to the bacteria becoming resistant to antibiotics, and therefore more virulent. I will also take steps to restore the natural mix of flora and fauna that should be in residence in my intestinal tract, by taking probiotics. If I needed to perform a powerful ritual, I might consider the use of entheogens, but I would also consider other options. I have never tried ayahuasca because one of its side effects is vomiting, and I dislike vomiting intensely. If I was going to use any other entheogen, I would try to find out the correct rituals to get in contact with the spirit associated with the plant, and ingest the substance in a sacred context. I would also find out all the side effects of the substance in question, and make sure that it was safe to use. One of the things that has always struck me about the recreational use of cannabis is that a certain amount of ritual has developed around its use. People don’t tend to smoke it own their own; they tend to share it with others. There is an art to rolling up, and the joint is always passed around in a circle. People make sure that no-one who wants to partake misses out. It is a very social activity. I also think we should consider the ethical consequences of taking illegal drugs. Just as with Prohibition in the 1920s, when illicit alcohol was supplied by criminal gangs, illegal drugs are supplied by criminal gangs who also supply guns and harder drugs. If such drugs were legalised and controlled in the same way as alcohol, the criminal involvement would cease, or at least be massively reduced. The reason I don’t partake of illegal drugs is because they are not fair trade, and buying them means you are giving money to gun-runners and other criminals. We need, as a society, to have a serious conversation about our use of all drugs – medicinal, recreational, stimulant, and entheogenic. Sadly, when drugs are being discussed, their use as entheogens doesn’t tend to even enter into the conversation. But traditional, shamanic, and Pagan religions have always used mind-altering substances for sacred purposes. If this is done in a sacred manner, with appropriate safety precautions, relatively infrequently, for genuine purposes, then there is nothing wrong with it, and it is part of the panoply of ritual techniques available to magical and shamanic practitioners.


The ethics of personal drug use is an ongoing topic at the Patheos Public Square. Click through to read responses from Pagan writers Nimue Brown, Peg Aloi, and John Beckett, as well as from writers of other traditions.

Thought forms

Georg von Rosen - Oden som vandringsman, 1886 (Odin, the Wanderer)

Georg von Rosen – Odin, the Wanderer (Wikipedia)

One aspect of deities seems to be thought-forms. That is not to say that deities are merely thought-forms, but that part of the way we interact with them seems to be through our internal image of what they are like. The more people carry an internal image of that deity around in their heads, the easier it is to visualise them.

This thought occurred to me because I wondered why it was so easy to visualise Jesus. Then I tried it with other well-known images, such as Robin Hood, Kuan Yin, Gandalf, Che Guevara, Superman, and even the man with the thistledown hair from the novel Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. So it is not because Jesus is a powerful deity that he is so easy to visualise, but because his image is so ubiquitous and has a number of consistent features (beard, robe, long face, big eyes, etc).

Odin has a number of consistent features about his image (one eye, pointy hat, staff) but his image is less widely-known, so it is less readily available from the collective unconscious (or wherever it is that these images are “stored”).

Doctor Who has changed his appearance very frequently, so despite being widely known as a character, his imagery is not consistent, so he is harder to visualise.

This is presumably why some magical practitioners choose to work with figures from popular culture: because their imagery is widely known, consistent, and readily available, so they make a powerful thought-form.

Pathways in Modern Western Magic (Review)

Pathways in Modern Western MagicAs I mentioned in a previous post, Pathways in Modern Western Magic is Concrescent Press’s answer to the conditions of contemporary academic publishing—an activity that, especially for scholars of area studies, is at best difficult and at worst, financially untenable. The book is the first release under the Concrescent Scholars imprint, “dedicated to peer-reviewed works of scholarship in the fields of Esotericism, Pagan religion and culture, Magic, and the Occult from within, and without, the Academy.” In other words, this collection contains contributions from scholars, some of whom are practitioners, and practitioners who though not involved in the academy, are serious about the scholarly study of magic. Each article has been “peer-reviewed,” meaning that it was reviewed and deemed fit for publication by scholars with PhDs in relevant fields.

Unlike traditional academic publishers, however, Concrescent is set up to be fast and nimble. Headed by Pagan priest and PhD candidate Sam Webster, the press prides itself on bringing manuscripts through the publication process in a timely fashion—much more quickly than the 2-3 year process that is typical for most academic publishers. I see this publishing model as being very promising for scholars of area studies, especially independent scholars who are more concerned with being read than with the dog-eat-dog realities of tenure reviews. The editor of the collection, Nevill Drury, may be a perfect example of this new kind of scholar: having completed a PhD at the University of Newcastle, Australia in 2008, Drury now brings together formal academic training in the humanities with decades of experience in editing and publishing. His recent publications include several books on occultism and art.

So why might you, dear reader, want to read Pathways in Modern Western Magic?

First of all, although the anthology is scholarly, it is far from dry. The articles are accessible and engagingly written. For a reader who wants an introduction to the academic study of magic or an overview of major areas of magical practice in the West, this book delivers. Pathways includes articles on Wicca and witchcraft, neo-shamanism in the United States and Europe, Heathen seiđr, Thelemic sex magick, the Golden Dawn system, Satanism, Tantra, and more. In addition to these established topics of study, the collection also offers essays on lesser-known traditions and figures: Dragon Rouge; the Temple of Set; chaos magic; artist/occultists Ithell Colquhoun, Austin Osman Spare, and Rosaleen Norton; and technoshamanism.  Especially for readers new to the field of Western esotericism studies, the book provides an overview of modern Western magic while also opening up tantalizing new areas for exploration and research.

As a religious studies scholar, however, I’m always interested in what a book has to offer to the larger field. What would someone with an interest in religion and how it is (or can be) studied get out of this book? Some of the book’s articles don’t have much to offer the reader who isn’t already interested in magic: they are descriptive or historical pieces that provide essential context for the topic, but don’t necessarily make an argument for why a reader from outside the field should care. Some, however, do make broader arguments that I still find myself chewing over weeks after finishing the collection.

Nevill Drury’s introduction makes a case for the idea that emic (basically, insider) approaches to the study of religion are just as valuable as etic (outsider, “objective”) approaches. Although his article seems to have been prepared before the publication of Markus Altena Davidsen’s essay “What Is Wrong with Pagan Studies?”, Drury addresses a number of Davidsen’s criticisms. Davidsen is impatient with emic, insider, and “religionist” approaches, believing that they lead to a lack of skepticism—in other words, scholars with insider approaches risk uncritically agreeing with their subjects and taking their assumptions for granted. As support, Davidsen gives examples of Pagan scholars making arguments that seem to be contradicted by their data, perhaps out of loyalty to their subjects.

On the other hand, Davidsen praises etic “outsider” scholars who, as Drury points out, have made equally clumsy errors. Drury criticizes anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann, for example, for her lack of grounding in the historical study of magic. Rather than approaching British Wicca using a definition of magic derived from Western esotericism (from which Wicca is partially, but directly, derived), Luhrmann uses a theory of magic developed from the practices of pre-literate Oceanic cultures. In other words, her contextualizing theory is wildly inappropriate for the subject matter.

Davidsen makes an important point that insider perspectives can lack skepticism. But, as Drury argues, an insider can bring a far greater depth and integration of knowledge to a subject and so avoid such gross errors of context. (In her essay, Lynne Hume makes a similar argument, suggesting that too great a degree of skepticism or investment in outside theory prevents researchers from genuinely participating in the religious traditions they study and so threatens to distort their perceptions.)

Nikki Bado’s essay uses the Wiccan Triple Goddess as a jumping-off point for issues that are broadly relevant to religious studies: contemporary challenges to biological determinism that undergird sexism; literalism and the way it prevents access to other modes of truth (including the rational, allegorical, mythic, and faith stances); and most importantly, the nigh impossibility of operating outside of the paradigms of one’s own culture. Bado is an advocate of “reflexive” rather than “objective” scholarship; she believes that it is more helpful for scholars to identify and reflect on their biases within their work than it is to attempt to free themselves from them. As a low-level example, Bado focuses on the number three in both myth and scholarship. Tripartite models and triple aspects are pervasive in Western culture, conditioning us to look for and find triples even when there are other possibilities. She writes, “The problem with paradigms is that once they are created—some would say discovered—it is nearly impossible to escape their influence. Once identified, they appear everywhere, dominating and even determining how and what we see. If something doesn’t fit the model, we manipulate it until it does” (80). Bado ends with a call, not to abandon paradigms and categories, but for greater openness to their subjectivity—in other words, for a better understanding that our models are maps, not the territory.

I also particularly enjoyed James R. Lewis’ essay on the role of Anton LaVey’s The Satanic Bible in modern Satanism. Lewis brings his own original ethnographic research on Satanists into the essay to argue that, despite Satanists’ explicit rejection of traditional religious values, many use LaVey’s book in an extremely traditional fashion—as an authoritative textual source. This continues to be the case even as the level of education among Satanists has risen and more and more information about LaVey’s fabricated biography has come to light. Even more interestingly, contemporary Satanists’ strategy of textual legitimization is completely different from LaVey’s strategy in the Satanic Bible itself. Rather than appealing to a particular authority or text, LaVey’s philosophy was based in scientific thinking: secular humanism and a particular understanding of human nature based on Darwinian evolution. Lewis concludes, “It appears that being raised in a religious tradition that locates the source of authority in religious figures and sacred texts creates an unconscious predisposition that can be carried over to other kinds of persons and books—even in the unlikely context of contemporary Satanism” (278). The issue of how converts’ former religious affiliations influence their experiences of the religions they choose as adults has wide-ranging implications for religious studies, and Lewis’ article is a fascinating contribution to that conversation.

Overall, Pathways has the most to offer to a reader who is just beginning a formal academic study of Western magic. When it broaches less-treated topics of study and connects its subject matter to broader discussions in religious studies, however, it is also potentially valuable for established scholars of esotericism or contemporary Paganism. I am pleased to add it to my personal library.

[Drury, Nevill, editor. Pathways in Modern Western Magic. Richmond, CA: Concrescent Scholars, 2012. 484 pp.  $39.95 (softcover).]