It is a useful magical and intellectual exercise to examine each segment of your ritual structure, and ask yourself why you do it in the particular way that you do. Why do we sweep the circle, consecrate it with water, salt, and incense, cast it with a sword, and so on? What is the function and symbolism of each of these actions? Can they be improved – either in the sense of making them more magically effective, more reflective of reality, or more inclusive?
There is still considerable confusion over what inclusive Wicca actually is. In part, this could be because the people who are confused about it haven’t read my book, All acts of love and pleasure: inclusive Wicca (available on Kindle and in paperback), or the short guide to being an inclusive coven.
When Gerald Gardner coined the term “the Wica” (originally spelt with one c), he seems to have intended it to refer to any and all witches. Subsequently, the term has come to be used by some people to mean only witches initiated into Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wicca, and has been used by others to mean anybody who identifies as Wiccan, and a whole spectrum of meanings in between those two terms. This can make it confusing for people to understand what is meant by any individual using the term Wicca.
[Estimated reading time: 10 minutes. Contains 2020 words]
I found myself nodding and smiling in agreement throughout most of this book. The author’s sensible and down-to-earth approach to magic and Paganism was very much in tune with my way of thinking. They  also have an exceptionally clear style of writing, which makes the book a pleasure to read.
The book’s subtitle is “A spirituality that embraces all identities” and the author has done their best to include everyone in the LGBTQIA+ community and heterosexuals too. This book would definitely be of interest to queer Pagans and open-minded heterosexuals. It is not only about queer Paganism, but is about inclusive practice. It is very Wicca-flavoured though, so if Wicca isn’t your thing, you might not like it.
Exploring Queer Paganism
The first chapter explores the meanings of Queer and Paganism. It explains that Paganism, Wicca, and Witchcraft are distinct but overlapping. The second chapter looks at how the standard binary thinking of many Pagans (male/female, light/dark, etc) doesn’t include those of us who don’t fit neatly into a cisgender and heterosexual view of the world. Each section of the discussion unfolds clearly and neatly from the previous section of the discussion. This could be very helpful for those people who still haven’t understood why many (perhaps most) queer people have an issue with the deification of the “masculine and feminine principles”. The next chapter goes on to explore concepts of deity and energy, and how these fit together in a worldview that is not based on the idea of a “masculine principle” interacting with a “feminine principle”.
The second part of the book deals with Magic, and includes an excellent chapter on how magic works (again, very similar to my own ideas on the topic). It also looks at how magic and science interact. The section on the Hermetic principles as described in The Kybalion, which explains how they relate to a queer worldview, is outstanding. This is followed by a chapter on ethics, which was excellent on the topic of magical ethics, but would have been better if it explored the Pagan ethics of life in general.
Living as a Pagan
The third section of the book deals with Pagan life, including living as a Pagan, the importance of balance, how to choose a magical name, and relationships with deities. The chapter on the festivals was disappointing, as it was mainly about the view of the Sabbats as the unfolding story of “the Goddess and the God” which I personally find unhelpful from a queer point of view. It does cover the folk customs associated with the festivals though, so you could build out from these to develop something more inclusive. It explains how to adapt the festivals for use in the Southern Hemisphere, which is good. It also mentions that you can choose to celebrate them on the day when the appropriate seasonal vegetation comes into flower, which I liked. I would have liked to see more information on how to adapt the festivals to be more inclusive of other sexualities (but I have covered this in my book, if you’re interested). The chapter on the esbats and the phases of the Moon was helpful, though.
Meditation and Visualisation
The fourth part of the book covers meditation and visualisation. This includes a technique which the author says is helpful for easing body dysphoria. I have seen this meditation before (and it’s the only technique that I find actually helps me to relax) but I didn’t know it was good for dysphoria, so that’s really useful to know. The section on building an astral temple is also excellent, as it points out that an astral temple doesn’t have to be a building, and can be a grove of trees. I had always assumed that it was supposed to be a building of some kind, and had terrible difficulty building one. I do however, have a grove of trees on the astral, and a rather nice stone circle, either of which could be my astral temple. So that section cleared up a longstanding difficulty for me! The chapter on the chakras is very good (and uses the proper Sanskrit names) but draws on the Western idea of the chakras, which is somewhat different from the Buddhist view of them.
The next section explores magical correspondences, including deities, non-binary deities, queer deities, moon phases and the menstrual cycle (but described in an inclusive  way), orgasm mysteries, the four elements, days of the week, colours, and magical tools. This provides the basis of a system of magic that is properly queer-inclusive. I particularly liked the section on colour symbolism. This section also explains the difference between widdershins and deosil, and why they are different in the Northern Hemisphere and the Southern Hemisphere.
The section on ritual was very helpful, as it goes through how to set up the circle, cleansing the space, calling the quarters, and consecrating the tools and the participants. One caveat on this section though: the author mentions that the high priestess and high priest have absolute authority in the circle (p. 128). I wouldn’t go that far, as they do not have the right to ask you to do something that the vast majority of people would be uncomfortable with, such as French kissing, sex with other people in the circle, or anything massively humiliating. Some of the things that ritual involves may be slightly outside your comfort zone, but that’s why it is a really good idea to have a quick chat beforehand about what is going to happen in the ritual. Other than that, this section is really great and has lots of excellent ideas like having three ritual leaders, one for the God, one for the Goddess, and one for non-binary deity (the Universal, as the author refers to it).
The final section of the book deals with divination, including gematria (finding the magical number of your name), Tarot, runes, scrying, and palmistry. This section was also very good, especially the section on the magical meaning of numbers.
An excellent addition to your Queer Pagan bookshelf
All in all, a very enjoyable read. The book is well-thought-out, and it is very easy to find things again when you want to use it as a how-to guide for magical practice. There were a few typographical errors here and there, but they didn’t detract from my enjoyment or understanding of the book, and they were more than made up for by the exceptionally clear writing style. The author’s lovely drawings also grace the text, and help to explain the magical concepts being discussed.
The book is an excellent contribution to the literature on inclusive and queer Paganism and witchcraft, and I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in making their practice more inclusive and welcoming to LGBTQIA+ Pagans.
Where to get the book:
- Amazon.co.uk – Kindle edition, full-colour paperback, or black-and-white paperback.
- Amazon.com – Kindle edition, full-colour paperback, black-and-white paperback.
- Thrift Books – full-colour paperback, black-and white paperback.
- The author’s preferred pronoun is they [Back]
- The male brain also has cycles governed by the hypothalamus [Back]
I was not sent this book for review. I bought it myself and reviewed it of my own free will and accord. Please do not send me books for review, as I generally dislike writing book reviews, and only reviewed this book because I thought it was important and worth drawing attention to.
Dark Mirror – the inner work of witchcraft
And thou who thinkest to seek for me, know that thy seeking and yearning shall avail thee not, unless thou knowest this mystery: that if that which thou seekest, thou findest not within thee, thou wilt never find it without thee.
― Doreen Valiente, The Charge of the Goddess
Inner work is a name commonly given to the inner processes that happen in ritual. However, the best kind of inner work also has an effect outside the individual and outside the circle. When rituals are focused only on self-development, they tend to be a bit too introspective. Ritual is about creating and maintaining relationships and connections – between body, mind, and spirit; with the Earth, Nature, the land, the spirit world, the community, and friends. It is also about creating, maintaining, and restoring balance. It is about making meaning. Telling our stories and reclaiming our history from the oppressors. Weaving a web of symbolism, story, mythology, meaning, community, and love to stand against the ennui and emptiness of relentless consumerism. Creating loosely held but welcoming community, a community that welcomes and celebrates diversity (of body shape, skin colour, physical ability, neurodivergence, sexual orientation, gender expression and identity, biology, cultural background, age, talkativeness or lack of it, and so on). Creating strong and authentic identity to resist the pressures of consumerism and commercialism and capitalism. Weaving relationship with other beings: humans, animals, birds, spirits, deities.
So the inner work of ritual may be intrapersonal, interpersonal, restorative, or community-building. The kinds of relationships that ritual helps to maintain may be of various different kinds – friendships, erotic relationships (including kinky ones), patron/client relationships. Inner work might be meditation, visualisation, prayer, magic, balancing archetypes within the psyche, lucid dreaming, healing, connecting with the body, or attunement to Nature.
Table of contents
- Introduction: the inner work
Coming to the circle
- The Pagan worldview
- Creating sacred space
- Raising energy – synergy, resonance and polarity
- Magical names
- Archetypes and the inner work
- The Mysteries
- Evocation and Invocation
- Use of symbols in ritual
- Spell work
- Magical tools
- Relationships and Consent in Wicca
- “Ye shall be naked in your rites”
- The erotic and spirituality
- Inner aspects of the festivals
- Grounding and centering
- Making an altar
- The Hearth
- Food in ritual
- Labyrinths; Meditative walking; Pilgrimage
- Spirits of the land
- Meditation, Visualisation, Contemplation
- Poetry, Storytelling, and Reading
- Cultivating the virtues
Between the worlds
- Modes and types of ritual
- Sound and silence
- The Moon
- The witch’s journey
- Queer Witchcraft
- Witchcraft and the land
- Witchcraft as resistance
- Working with ancestors
- The Pact – relational polytheism
- Madness, shamanism, witchcraft
- The night journey
Bringing it all back home
- Inclusive Wicca
- Group dynamics
- Being a coven leader
- Teaching and learning in a coven
- Egregore, lineage, upline, downline
- Power and authority
- Rites of passage
- Challenging oppression
- Evaluating your Craft
- Brimful of Asha
- Model guidelines for group discussion
- Coming-out ritual
- Recommended reading
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)
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:
What is a fraud?
In the context of witchcraft, it is someone who deliberately and knowingly seeks to deceive others about the origins and nature of their tradition, or claims that they were initiated by a genuine practitioner of a tradition, but they weren’t. In other words, they lie about their origins to make themselves seem more authentic.
Examples include claims that a tradition calling itself Wicca, or possessing a Gardnerian book of shadows, is older than Gardner, or used the word Wicca before Gardner; these should be treated with extreme caution. (There are witchcraft traditions that are pre-Gardner, but they mostly don’t call themselves Wicca.) Claims that a tradition has an unbroken initiatory lineage back to ancient pagan times are also fraudulent. Claims to an unbroken initiatory lineage stretching back any earlier than 1900 should also be treated with extreme caution.
Why does this matter?
If you are going to trust someone enough to engage in transformative and powerful ritual with them, you want to be able to take them at their word. You want to be sure that they know what they are doing, that they have been taught a tried and trusted set of techniques, and that you are not going to be asked to do something that is massively outside your comfort zone.
If someone lies about something as simple as where they got their initiation from, or the origins of their tradition, how can you trust their word about anything else?
It has been observed that fraudulent claims about origins, and fraudulent claims of initiation, are often accompanied by abusive behaviour. I don’t think an implausible origin story should automatically be seen as a sign of potential abuse, unless it is accompanied by other warning signs of abusive behaviour.
It is advisable to seek external confirmation that someone’s story (either about their initiation, or about the origins of their tradition) is true. Get a vouch from other Wiccans.
In a previous article, I mentioned that the Frosts were never part of Gardnerian or Alexandrian Wicca. Indeed, they never claimed to be. However, Gavin Frost did claim to have invented the word Wicca before Gardner did, and the Frosts claimed to be running “the oldest Wiccan school in the universe” (if you don’t believe me, look at their blog, it is right there in the header).
What is not fraudulent?
Any tradition or group that does not lie about its origins is not fraudulent.
A tradition that cannot trace its initiatory lineage to Gardner or Sanders, but doesn’t claim to, is not fraudulent. There are many Wiccan and witchcraft traditions, particularly in North America, that do not claim lineage back to Gardner or Sanders, but do call themselves Wicca. That is definitely not fraudulent. Wicca is a useful term for ‘softening’ the word witchcraft in areas where fundamentalism is rife. It is not fraudulent to call yourself a Wiccan if you don’t have a Gardnerian or Alexandrian lineage – as long as you don’t lie about your origins, lineage, or initiations.
Some Gardnerians and Alexandrians object to anything outside their traditions being known as Wicca. That is a different argument, and should not be confused with fraudulent origin stories.
A person who has been lied to by their initiators, but believed the story, and repeats in in good faith, believing it to be true, is not fraudulent. A bit gullible perhaps, but not deliberately lying about their origins.
A tradition that possesses a Gardnerian book of shadows, and thereby believes itself to be Gardnerian, but doesn’t have a lineage back to Gardner, and doesn’t claim to – not fraudulent; not actually Gardnerian by the standard definition of the term Gardnerian, either; but not actually fraudulent, because it is not lying about its origins.
Witchcraft traditions that are not fraudulent include (but are not limited to) Reclaiming witchcraft, Feri witchcraft, Bread and Roses, 1734 witchcraft, Clan of Tubal Cain witchcraft, Central Valley Wicca, Georgian Wicca, Wiccan Church of Canada, Blue Star Wicca, Mohsian Wicca, Kingstone Wicca, Algard Wicca, to cite some well-known examples. None of these traditions claim to be much older than Gardnerian Wicca; they have clearly traceable origin stories, and don’t claim a lineage that doesn’t exist.
There are clearly some traditions of folk witchcraft that do pre-date Gerald Gardner, but not by more than fifty years, as far as I am aware. Claims of origins back in the mists of time should be treated with extreme caution.
Some groups are not entirely sure of their early history. In these cases, an honest answer to a question about origins would be, “We don’t really know for certain, but to the best of our knowledge and belief, what happened was this…” If new evidence comes to light which refutes the origin story, the members of the tradition accept the new historical information. For example, if contemporary Alexandrians and Gardnerians discover that Sanders or Gardner made something up, we admit it, and don’t seek to cover it up.
Once Ronald Hutton had traced the historical origins of Wicca (in The Triumph of the Moon: a history of modern Pagan witchcraft), the vast majority of Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wiccans accepted the new information and stopped claiming older origins for Wicca. Subsequent research by Philip Heselton has shown that Gardner’s story that he was initiated into an existing coven was true (and they sincerely believed themselves to be reincarnations of nineteenth century witches). I believe that Gardner sincerely believed he had stumbled upon something really old, whose fragmentary nature he sought to supplement based on his reading of Margaret Murray’s work and The Key of Solomon.
A fraud is someone who deliberately and knowingly seeks to deceive others. If you can’t trust their word, it would be inadvisable to trust them about anything else.
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.
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.)
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:
- Should you have a specific patron deity?
- Can you choose your patron deity, or should they choose you?
- Can you say no if you are chosen by a deity you don’t want? (Yes)
- Do we serve the gods, or are they allies?
- Can we ever know the true nature of the gods?
- What does “real” mean?
- Who has the authority to answer these questions for others?
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.
Every time I mention polarity and inclusive Wicca, someone at the back is sure to say, with irritating regularity, “But what about the tradition?” There is also a tendency to assume that polarity must always be made by a man and a woman, and that that is the default option for making polarity. It has got to the point where other forms of making magic don’t seem to be considered in some circles.
As I have pointed out on numerous occasions, and as my friend Alder Lyncurium points out in this excellent article on polarity, there is much more to polarity than the interaction of a male body and a female body:
Polarity is, in essence, a constant interaction between more than one force or element. It is the movement, the striving of those forces, and the rhythm in it, that creates the dynamism. As occultists, witches or magicians we observe the underlying patterns of that rhythm, get insights and tap into it, or try to emulate it — either conscious or unconsciously.
There is also resonance (named by Ed Gutierrez of the Unnamed Path), the ability of two people who have a strong similarity between them to make magic together. It is rather like sympathetic magic.
And then there is synergy, the ability of several people to create magical energy together by bringing their energy together, and making something that is more than the sum of its parts.
But if you want to talk about tradition – which is, in any case, a constantly evolving and developing discourse – then let’s talk about tradition. If you want your Paganism (whether it is Heathenry, or Wicca, or Druidry, or any other Pagan religion) to be really traditional, really connected to ancient pagan religions, then it should not just include LGBTQIA people as some kind of afterthought or bolted-on concession to contemporary “liberal” sensibilities.
On the contrary: truly traditional Pagans should regard LGBTQIA people as an integral part of society. There should be rituals for same-sex partners. Lesbian poets should be celebrated and their songs recorded for posterity. Gay lovers such as Hadrian and Antinous, or Patroclus and Achilles, or Pausanias of Athens and the poet Agathon, should be widely celebrated for their heroic love. Transgender deities such as Loki and Vertumnus should be celebrated for their changes of gender. Humans such as Tiresias should be celebrated for their exploration of the other gender.
The Pagan revival
Many of the Pagan pioneers of the early 20th century, especially Edward Carpenter and Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, were gay, and their enthusiasm for Paganism was partly informed by the knowledge that ancient pagans were gay-friendly. A friend of mine who has studied the period informs me that, similarly, early 20th century bisexual and lesbian women such as Hilda Doolittle (H.D.) were inspired by the example of Sappho. And Sylvia Townsend Warner, author of Lolly Willowes (whose heroine is an unmarried woman who becomes a witch) was both a Nature mystic and bisexual, as explored by Rebecca Beattie in her excellent book Nature Mystics. The first civil rights group for lesbians in the USA was the Daughters of Bilitis, named for a fictional contemporary of Sappho.
It is not clear to me exactly when or how homophobia became such a huge part of Western culture. Many people would like to blame the Bible, but that book is surprisingly ambivalent about same-sex love. The love of David and Jonathan, Naomi and Ruth, and Jesus and the beloved disciple John, are all praised; it is actually fornication (sex without love) that seems to be condemned. Later Christians would of course take a dim view of all pleasures of the flesh, but that seems to have been part of a general turn against the body in Western culture that occurred around 500 CE. Looking at the timeline of LGBT history in Britain, it was not until 1102 that the church took steps to make people aware that homosexuality was sinful; and anal sex was not made illegal until 1533.
Ancient pagan religions’ views of homosexuality
Looking back to ancient pagan religions, most of them were tolerant of gender and sexual diversity, but regarded the passive role in sexual intercourse (whether that role was occupied by a woman or a man) as lesser. Both the ancient Greeks and the Vikings took this view. However, it is not clear whether this view was introduced to Viking society along with Christianity, or whether they felt that way before the introduction of Christianity. Viking Answer Lady has a very comprehensive article on the subject, and it appears that the Vikings were very scathing on the subject of men who were on the receiving end of anal sex; but on the other hand, Oðinn was frequently called ergi, a term which meant a variety of things including effeminate, passive, and irritable. Practitioners of seiðr were regarded as ergi. As many Viking men had female concubines, it was quite likely that some of them had same-sex relationships (as has been found in other cultures with concubinage). There were also male prostitutes, and priests of Frey who danced with bells and were regarded as ‘effeminate’ by the Christians. It is also worth noting that all the sagas and tales were written down 200-300 years after the heyday of pagan Viking society, and were written down by Christians who were hostile to homosexuality. It seems likely that there were ritualised roles for gender-variant and homosexual people (as is the case in many ancient cultures), and whilst the Vikings may have found ergi men uncanny, there was a role for them as priests of Frey and Freyja.
As to the ancient Greeks and Romans, they were much more positive about same-sex love, and extolled its pleasures and virtues in many texts. Again, the active role was regarded as ‘manly’ and the passive role as ‘unmanly’, but same-sex love was not condemned. There were gender-variant deities (Hermaphrodite), deities who engaged in same-sex love (Zeus and Ganymede being the most well-known example). Again, it was complicated. Ancient pagans were not all sweetness and light in their attitudes to same-sex love, but there were many positive examples of it in ancient pagan mythology, and it was not universally condemned.
Numerous LGBT Pagan traditions draw their inspiration from ancient examples: the Minoan Brotherhood, the Modern Gallae, the Temple of Antinous, the Ekklesia Antinoou, and so on. Inclusive Wiccans, whilst not a distinct tradition, and not harking back to any particular ancient example, like to point out that gender-variant and queer magical practitioners have been known in just about every culture, and that “all acts of love and pleasure are Her rituals”, and any pair of opposites can make polarity. Given that Wicca was only developed in the 1950s, and has grown and changed since then, there is no excuse for claiming male/female polarity as some immutable tradition. The idea that only a man and a woman can make polarity is merely a heterocentric assumption rooted in Victorian notions of gender. The Minoan culture of Crete, which inspired both Gerald Gardner and Eddie Buczynski, certainly included same-sex love.
Conclusion: it’s complicated
What all of this shows is that attitudes to homosexuality and gender variance are complicated and varied in all societies, and that how they are viewed by others, and how they are represented symbolically and managed through ritual, has varied over time. It is certainly not the case that we can assume that so-called traditional Christian attitudes to homosexuality and gender variance can just be lifted across into Paganism and assumed to be traditional. How Christians have viewed same-sex love has also varied from one region to another, and from one historical era to another.
So, if you are harking back to some ancient pagan view of the world, and want to adhere to ancient pagan values with regard to LGBTQIA people, it was a mixed picture, and there was no single view (just as there has never been a single view of this or any other issue). The ancient pagan world had rituals and roles for LGBTQIA people, and often regarded them as sacred, and therefore a bit uncanny and weird. Hence the eunuch priests of Cybele, the Galli, and the ergi men devoted to Frey and Freyja. But there is no justification in ancient texts for the kind of virulent homophobia found among some right-wing so-called Pagans.
This leads me to the conclusion that, fascinating though ancient views of sexuality are, we live in our own context and culture, and have to make up our own minds. But perhaps we can recover something of the sacredness of gender-variant and homosexual magic by looking at the myths, legends, and practices of the ancient world.
The other day, I saw a meme which said that you don’t need magical tools, initiation, or a Book of Shadows to be a Wiccan. Well, maybe you don’t need these things, but they are what people think of when they think of Wicca. They are among the things that get you recognised as being part of the Wiccan community, because they are symbols and experiences and ideas that we all share. They are also useful. You don’t need a knife and fork to eat your dinner, but it makes it a lot easier. You don’t need an address book to write your friends’ addresses in – but it makes it a lot easier to remember where they live and post them Yule cards. And you don’t need a rite of passage to help you feel like an adult – but it makes it easier if a definite transition has been marked.
I would like there to be as broad an interpretation of the term “Wiccan” as possible, and an even broader interpretation of the term “witch”, because that is how they were originally intended to be used (the term Wiccan was not coined exclusively for the use of Gardnerian Wiccans, or even Alexandrian plus Gardnerian – it was intended to refer to all witches, as Ethan Doyle White has shown from his historical research). I am okay with people identifying as Wiccan without initiation – but if you want to be part of the initiatory Wiccan community, or another initiatory community such as Feri, then you need initiation. Initiation is a powerful transformational ritual.
The purpose of a Book of Shadows is not to prescribe how you should do your rituals, but to record powerful rituals that you have done, and to transmit powerful rituals written by past Wiccans. Each witch’s book should be unique to them, although it will also contain the rituals that have been passed down to them. A Book of Shadows is a magical tool for recording and transmitting good rituals.
What about tools such as wands, athames, swords, chalices, and so on? There are several reasons why they are helpful. I do think that a good witch should be able to do a spell or ritual without any tools in an emergency – but I still use tools when they are available.
Humans are tool-using animals. One of the things that helps us to think and solve problems is our tool-using propensities. Look at other animals who use tools. We tend to think they are cleverer than animals who don’t use tools, because they can manipulate more of their environment.
According to Tool Use in Animals: Cognition and Ecology:
The last decade has witnessed remarkable discoveries and advances in our understanding of the tool using behaviour of animals. Wild populations of capuchin monkeys have been observed to crack open nuts with stone tools, similar to the skills of chimpanzees and humans. Corvids have been observed to use and make tools that rival in complexity the behaviours exhibited by the great apes. Excavations of the nut cracking sites of chimpanzees have been dated to around 4-5 thousand years ago.
Think about how we use physical tools such as screwdrivers, hammers, brooms, milk-frothers, egg-stiffeners, paint-stirrers, and so on, and how difficult life would be without those tools. Think about how chimpanzees have been seen getting ants out of ant-hills with a straw, or cracking nuts open with a rock. Frequently, tool use involves remembering that you saw a useful-looking rock, or a hollow blade of grass, going to fetch it, and bringing it to where the food is. So tool use involves the use of cognitive skills such as memory, comparison, and visualisation.
My partner Bob pointed out that it is much is easier to do a task (magical or mundane) without a tool when you have learnt to do it with a tool.
Tools are levers for affecting the world. You can’t tighten a screw without a screwdriver. You need a wooden spoon to stir a pan of soup or stew, otherwise you would burn your fingers. You can cast a magical circle without a sword or a wand – but it feels like a better and more magical circle when it has been cast with the appropriate tool. The subtle energies involved in magic are affected by physical tools in much the same way as denser matter is affected by tools.
Magic is not all in the mind – the body is part of it too. The people who claim you don’t need tools also tend to claim that doing magic is a purely mental process. The conceptual separation of mind and body, spirit and matter, is a Western phenomenon which has been a disaster for our civilisation in so many ways, involving the denigration of sexuality and sensuality, the denial of the pleasures of the flesh, a dysfunctional relationship with food, and behaving as if the Earth, the other animals, birds, and plants with whom we share it are expendable. Using magical tools helps to remind us that magic is an embodied spirituality, and to involve our bodies in the process of creating magical energy. Indeed, some of the tools used in Wicca have specific uses for enhancing the sense of being in the body.
Tools are powerful symbols. Much of magic and ritual is about engaging with and awakening the poetic and symbolic aspects of the mind (the “right-brain” functions). The use of tools as symbols speaks to these aspects of the mind (sometimes referred to as “Younger Self”). Tools are part of a complex set of magical associations involving directions, elements, planets, deities, trees, and so on, all of which speak to the poetic, mystical, and symbolic side of our natures. They are part of a poetic language of witchcraft. The process of getting into the twilight consciousness required for ritual is assisted and enhanced by the use of familiar words, tools, imagery, and physical movements, evoking muscle memory and awareness of space.
So, maybe you don’t need tools, but why would you want to do without them?