Religious, not Spiritual and the Cult of the Teddy God

I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual.”

This phrase is uttered a lot these days, and tends to mean “I have spiritual beliefs and / or practices but I do not adhere to any codified religion or belong to any religious institution.” The lack of those professing any religious adherence (such as those checking “none” in the religious category on a census form) is also held up as indicative of a movement towards a-religiosity among those in the modern West. However this position is not inherently a movement towards atheism, which is held by many in the New Atheist movement to be the default human spiritual position before the teaching of religion occurs. Many opposed to religion often argue that if human civilizations were wiped out and we started from scratch that Christianity / Judaism / Hinduism / Buddhism (etc) would not develop again. This is generally held up to be proof that revealed religion is total bunk and a human invention.

Well, bra-fuckin’-vo. Of course religions are invented! This does not, however, negate their importance or do away with the basic truths that religions attempt to teach—truths based on human nature, which itself doesn’t change. Spirituality, however, is an entirely different matter, and is rooted right in those truths.

Take, for example, one particular god prevalent in the West—the god of childhood innocence and safety. You know him. We all do. His name is Teddy, and he’s usually depicted in the form of a bear. He’s also been invoked in the Church of the Velveteen Rabbit, and through the Sacred Hymns of Raggedy Ann. As adults we have read of his importance, and remembered our childhood, when he appeared as a tiger to the young prophet Calvin (not John Calvin, who was a dick). If you don’t know him in one of his forms, you’re a heartless bastard and your childhood was probably dull.

If you’ve ever raised a child, or spent time around the very young you’ll find (very quickly, actually) that Teddy is a god to children. To a child, a beloved teddy bear is not a stitched-together piece of fabric and teddystuffing. He’s alive. Children speak to, and react to, a teddy bear (or any other beloved toy, be it ursomorphic or not) as if it’s a living thing. They invoke his protection when they curl up to sleep, and clutch close this fuzzy little god to defend them from the great devils of innocent childhood—the Monster Beneath the Bed, or He Who Lurks in the Closet.

Now, no one teaches a child that Teddy is a living thing! This is a natural, inherent belief at which children arrive all on their own. They know, as if by instinct, the Sacred Ritual of Furry Protection, in which one clutches Teddy close and he banishes evil, and blocks the frightening thunder of a storm. Children often make propitiatory sacrifices to him—they share an imaginary cup of tea with him, and offer their time, attention and, above all, love.

When I was four years old I needed to have my tonsils removed. Being so young I was frightened of the hospital and it’s strange smells, terrifyingly clad adults, and alien noises. Honestly, this was in Alberta, so you could really say the same thing about Calgary or Edmonton as an adult, but I digress. My nurses, angelic as they were, did everything to my teddy bear first. If I was getting a shot, Teddy got one first, complete with a cotton swab and band-aid. In the OR my last memory before drifting off was watching Teddy breathe through a mask, just as I was doing. And by God, didn’t Teddy get his share of ice cream afterwards! More than the kindness of nurses or their gentleness, Teddy was my stalwart defender, who showed me I had nothing to fear. If he could take the needle, then by Teddy, so could I! Fear is a powerful emotion. But 36 years later I remember the strength of the bear more than I remember the fear. Teddy was a guardian angelic spirit, and this I knew without being told. He would be there, no matter what, and keep me safe (Rooooose….bud….)

Now my point with the above is that spirituality is inherent to the human condition. We build religions on spiritual experiences; religions that, like any art, reflect individual takes on collective truths. Those religions wouldn’t arise again after an apocalypse, but the truths would remain. Some kind of spiritual path would arise again, and it’s rooted deep in who and what we are. Children all recognize the shining knight Teddy as surely as they know the floor is lava (and it is, so don’t step on it while you cross the living room unless you can banish the South effectively). But this essential, at-our-core spirituality is not limited to human beings.

Look at the animal kingdom. Elephants are well known for their funeral rites, sometimes travelling for miles to mourn the loss of one of their own. Sometimes they even gather to mourn a human, as they did in recent years when Lawrence Anthony passed away. There is no evolutionary advantage to this. Rather, gathering for days in one place, as they did for Anthony, could well be a disadvantage. Yet they understand that death has happened. Writing in 2007, Caitlin O’Connell discussed how elephants will gather in silence at the bones of another elephant—even one to whom they have no relation. Even other species are mourned, and gifts of food and other items laid out with the dead animal. Psychologist R.K. Siegel wrote about this in 1980, when my teddy and I were preparing to have our tonsils out:

…one cannot ignore the elaborate burying behaviour of elephants as a similar sign of ritualistic or even religious behaviour in that species. When encountering dead animals, elephants will often bury them with mud, earth and leaves. Animals known to have been buried by elephants include rhinos, buffalos, cows, calves, and even humans, in addition to elephants themselves. Elephants have [been] observed burying their dead with large quantities of food fruit, flowers and colourful foliage.”

I suppose one could argue that the burials are meant to avoid attracting scavengers, like hyenas. Why, then, the burial offerings?

Jane Goodall has noted a type of swaying dance performed by chimpanzees related to water (there is also a primate swaying dance related to fire water and mating rituals that you can see in pubs on Friday and Saturday nights, but that’s a different matter altogether). She has seen it performed at waterfalls, during thunderstorms, and heavy rains. In 2005 she wrote, in The Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, a passage work quoting in full:

As he gets closer, and the roar of the falling water gets louder, his pace quickens, his hair becomes fully erect, and upon reaching the stream he may perform a magnificent display close to the foot of the falls. Standing upright, he sways rhythmically from foot to foot, stamping in the shallow, rushing water, picking up and hurling great rocks. Sometimes he climbs up the slender vines that hang down from the trees high above and swings out into the spray of the falling water. This ‘waterfall dance’ may last ten or fifteen minutes….Is it not possible that these performances are stimulated by feelings akin to wonder and awe? After a waterfall display the performer may sit on a rock, his eyes following the falling water. What is it, this water?…If the chimpanzee could share his feelings and questions with others, might these wild elemental displays become ritualized into some form of animistic religion? Would they worship the falls, the deluge from the sky, the thunder and lightning — the gods of the elements? So all-powerful; so incomprehensible.” It is worth watching the short she narrates here. Go watch it; you’ll be glad you did. It’s touching.

Now, I’ve been called a dumb ape by some of my exes, complete with accusations of being fixated on my own banana, but after reading Goodall I’m not so sure it was an insult. And Goodall is not alone in noting this behavior among our close kin.

Laura Kehoe has examined ritualized behavior and even potential shrine-building among chimps. James B. Herrod’s 2014 paper The Case for Chimpanzee Religion makes for fascinating reading, and Marc Bekoff is completely convinced that animals have spiritual experiences, just like humans. Even dumb apes like me!

It seems, then, that spirituality is not unique to us as human beings. For those animals developed enough, wonder at life and sadness at its end, and contemplation of the vast and glorious natural world also exists. And this is the heart and beginning of personal gnosis, itself the very point of Mystery religions like modern Wicca. It’s no secret that Wicca developed at a time when the Industrial Revolution and subsequent urbanization had moved us away from the natural world, and doubtless this loss of a feeling of connection was part of the impetus behind its rapid growth. We need the teddy bear of the wide and magical world around us.

So I am forced to shake my head at the mad Inquisition of the New Atheist movement, which spends its time lambasting religion but never coming to grips with, or trying to understand, the spiritual impetus that underpins it. The spiritual sense of awe and wonder when faced with the natural world and our place within it. A movement which itself acts like a religion, complete with attempts at conversion; sacred, prophetic figures; gatherings; and a quest for answers.

When a child clutches close his teddy bear s/he isn’t just seeking solace in a lack of understanding. S/he is reaching out in an expression of spiritual connection and awe at something else beyond his or her own self. And we find that chimps themselves display the same behavior—seeking the awesome, the wonder and the majesty at a world bigger than themselves. We find elephants understanding the finality of death.

Spirituality is a part of the living condition, it seems, among those who have developed a certain level of cognition. It’s inherent, finding natural expression not just in animals but in ourselves from our youngest days. There is a deep and abiding beauty in it, and in our connection to the world that spins around us; a world that is sometimes scary, sometimes confusing and sometimes terrifying. And that’s the world in which Teddy is needed most, whether we find his as a bear crafted by human hands, or in the fruit laid in a grave by a wise old elephant. 

Who’s lovin’ a coven?

Have you ever read Tom Sawyer (the Mark Twain novel, not the lyrics to the admittedly awesome Rush song)? There’s a great scene in which Tom is whitewashing a fence. Naturally, the young fellow is none too impressed with spending a nice summer day on this sort of craptastic task. Well, along comes the none-too-bright Ben Rogers, who starts teasing Tom about being unable to enjoy the glorious day. Tom convinces Ben that whitewashing the fence is actually a blast, and then oh-so-generously allows Ben to essentially pay him to have a go at it. Tom suckers other kids into a second and third coat, and gets their personal treasures out of them in exchange. Tom is a little bastard. An admirable one, if you’re the sort to cheer on Loki or all the other tricksters (which I most certainly am).

When someone is able to convince you that coven leadership is powerful fun, or a real pleasure, or a path to easy esteem, renown and respect…well, let’s just say you’re not Tom in this situation, and like his peers, you’re gonna lose your marbles.

Witches can be a secretive lot, but I’ll let you in on one of our little secrets. Leadership will age you, and not in a pleasant fine wine kind of way. See this gerald-brusseau-gardnerpicture of Gerald Gardner? He’d been leading a coven for a year or two when it was taken, and he’s only twenty six years old in this picture. That’s the traditional High Priesthood expression that means the Summoner was supposed to bring the wine and what the hell are we supposed to do with this kool aid, and if this happens again we’re drinking the bloody kool-aid. Well….ok, I exaggerate. A little bit. Especially with GBG’s age.

Not long after my 2nd degree, when I first contemplated getting a coven together, I had a dream in which an old, deceased friend appeared before me, wearing chains made of amber and jet beads and imploring me not to make the same mistakes she had made. “You’ll be visited by three coven officers tonight,” she moaned, “The Maiden of Circles Past, the Summoner of Circles Present, and the High Priestess of Circles Future.”

This, by the way, is why cakes and ale right before bed is not a good idea. Or burritos and beer. Same dif. I didn’t listen to those spirits. Unlike Scrooge I know how to banish spirits (especially vodka, which I am banishing at this very moment), and I learn the hard way.

Anyway, coven leadership. Yeah. Really, it’s not as bad a picture as I’ve painted above. It’s certainly got its rewards—when a student figures something out and has an “aha!” moment, or completely stumps you with a question so smart-assed you’re convinced Einstein is renting a room in their colon (get it? smart-assed? Einst…oh never mind). One of my favorites is when you see a student’s confidence come out—when they speak the words of an invocation and it’s come alive for them, seemingly speaking itself. They’re no longer standing there, eyes squeezed shut as they worry about not missing the next line, or skipping a word. That real moment when they’re able to let go, and fly. Moments like that are the ones that make the headaches worthwhile. But that’s the key—those glorious moments aren’t often about YOU. They’re about others, and what they are able to accomplish. Your job is to sit in the hot seat and try and direct a herd of cats in an aviary in the middle of a rainstorm. Their job is to learn and grow and develop—and if you’ve chosen coven members well, they will. Your growth, then, is tied to theirs for a while. It’s invested in them, as they become a larger focus. You’re like a witchy bodhisattva, like it or not, only without any perks, guaranteed proximity to enlightenment or saffron-robed monks wisely nodding their multi-generational approval. Or at least I never got any monks. Monkeys, maybe.

Running a coven is a lot more than Sabbat strutting or Esbat emoting. There’s prep work; lesson planning; group dynamics to consider and to which attention must be paid. Sometimes there are personality conflicts to deal with. Magic and ritual can force people to face issues they’ve not faced in the past—Jung and Starhawk both wrote of that happy little roller-coaster. Initiation doesn’t mean we’ve transcended all of our own issues either and anyone can suffer from “initiitus” and a runaway ego if they’re not careful and self-aware. Sometimes you’ll need a good smack in the jaw yourself, and enough humility to take that smack from your students and initiates when necessary.

And let’s say you do a good job. A really good job, and start to gain a wider reputation in your local community, or on an even bigger level. They start to call you an Elder (if you share my last name that would make you an Elder Berry, which your father smells like). Well, now there’s a whole new set of issues that crop up. However, my wonderful trad sister Yvonne Aburrow has already addressed this recently, and you can see what she had to say in her blog. If the Gods bear me any affection I’ll never have to sit in that Elder seat.

Running the show means, in the end, responsibility. And like all responsibilities it’s one that should be considered carefully. Reaching the appropriate degree in your tradition doesn’t mean you have to run out and start running a group (and let’s not forget the 23 year olds out there who clutch their dog-eared copies of Nietzsche and cry into antique glasses of absinthe about their inability to find an appropriate student to whom they can pass on their vast store of Arcane and Mystical Knowledge, generally culled from way too much Lovecraft). There is always more to learn. Marge Simpson thought she could teach piano by staying one lesson ahead of her students; this will not work for you. Wicca is one place where you really can’t fake it until you make it.

Really, in the long run, leading a coven is a lot like raising a child. People will tell you how rewarding it is, and it does have rewards. But they’re hard-earned and you pay for them in blood, and sweat, and tears; anyone who tells you different has a fence they need painted.

Death. Hunting. Stuff dies. Get Used To It.

One of the amazing witchy women I follow on Twitter is a bastion of unbridled kickassery. She’s so awesome that I regularly check her posts rather than just wait for them to show up on my feed. You don’t need to know her twitter handle, but you could figure it out as her pic makes her look like a wonderfully attractive Canadian flag (if you can’t figure that out from my ‘followed’ list go back to remedial Dr Seuss studies and depart this blog forthwith). Now I’m not going to yak about anything profound. I’m just gonna complain. Because people. And I will abuse parenthetical statements shamelessly.

Now Ms Awesome Witchy Woman here had a post (I won’t say ‘tweet’, not because I’m not pretentious but because I like to choose my own pretensions thankyewverramuch) up earlier today in which she noted a large number of deer and rabbit hides were currently on her table, and that she had lost followers over this. So to quote Kim Kardashian on her wedding night, let’s have a little bitch, shall we?

Everything dies. That’s just how it is, and it’s never gonna change. And sometimes things die because we kill them and eat them. A lot of the time, those things never really lived before we ate them, and spent their time in some barn somewhere, chewing cud mindlessly like mashedcomputational linguists trying to figure out where they fit in the grand scheme of things (hint: nowhere; deal). Other things were far more a traditional part of life’s big circle and got to live nice, majestic lives before we ate them. And some of those wonderful things have lovely hides and soft fur, from which we can make awesome things. Cute little bunnies and prancing deer are lovely manifestations of Nature, and are noble enough. And they taste damn fine.

So here we are, modern Pagan types. Those of us who are witches venerate a Horned God of the Hunt. Call him Herne, or what-have-you, but he hunts and that means he kills stuff. And–prepare yourself here, because I’m unveiling a mystery like a Gardnerian Scooby-Doo–killing stuff means stuff has to die. There’s no metaphor here, and no mental trickery possible to pretend hunting and killing means something other than it does (you know the kind I mean–where people eschew sex on Beltane, or pretend the Great Rite is never done except symbolically and talk about spiritual fertility, which is a thing, but doesn’t factor in to the natural processes or meaning underlying the whole season, when everything fucks, although, granted, elections fuck us in autumn). Even if you’re a vegetarian (like some of my fave witches) something dies so you can eat it, and live longer, so more things can die and you can eat them too. And this continues until you die, at which point something is going to eat YOU (maybe me if you’re free-range, grain fed and pair nicely with a Pinot Noir)! You can love these wonderful creatures but that love shouldn’t divorce you from the fundamental facts of life.

OK. So some people following this wonderful woman suddenly had an issue with the presence of hides in her house. They obviously didn’t think, because the very presence of those hides shows respect for the animals that died. These hides were kept, not discarded, and will be used, and crafted into something useful that will outlast the meat they gave for consumption. Maybe leather, or a nice warm bedspread, or gloves, or a suit for some wacky Furry out there (cause the God is horny….get it?) Nothing was wasted. I’m not gonna go into the tired, old and problematic bullshit Noble Savage trope (a concept which we should also hunt and kill…even if you do think I’ve got an attitude or am being a little Chero-cheeky) but I will say that there is something primal and, to me, sacred in honouring the spirit of an animal we have killed by not wasting any of it’s useful parts. And Awesome Lady Witch is truly honouring the spirits of these animals. And I respect that, and her, because witches should stick together, except when it’s because we haven’t bathed recently.

When I hear Pagans complain about hunting, or meat-eating, I’ve often heard the comment made that the Goddess loves all her little creatures because she’s the Great Mother. OK, I get that…it’s an awfully Christian sentiment, but I get it. To which I like to point out that sows and hamsters kill off some of their own young if they can’t feed them all–and so do many other animals. Hell, the very act of giving birth is to doom to death! The womb that built and protected your body gave you a physical form, and like all such forms your body has a shelf life. You will die as the ultimate consequence of having been born. Why do you think  the spiritual experience of Binah, the Supernal Mother, is the Vision of Sorrow?

As Christopher Hutton put it in his amazing Charge of the Dark God, “I am the Death that must be so that life can continue, for behold! Life is immortal because the living must die.”

Don’t fear death–fearing the inevitable is wasted energy. You can’t do anything about it, and should accept that you’re gonna die. But your death will not be a terrible thing–not if you leave behind a life well lived, that meant something to those who survive you. And those hides Awesome Lady Witch has on her table are tangible symbols of lives well lived, that have meant something to those still living. They mean sustenance, creation of something, and connection with even our most distant ancestors.

In a way those folks who stopped following her on Twitter did so because, on a deep level, they are afraid of death–their own deaths. Clicking that ‘unfollow’ button was a gut reaction to being faced with the reality of death and its inevitability; a manifestation of a primal fear rooted in divorce from the natural world, not acceptance of its glory and our place in it as temporary travelers through its awesome and majestic reaches–travelers on a road whose end is somewhere ahead, for every one of us.

SMIB, baby.

Too Much of the West in Wicca

Yeah, yeah. I know what you might be thinking. Maybe that this title is a call to arms of some sort; a cry for a healthy dollop of Vedic thinking and philosophy to be slapped into the Craft. But no, that’s not it. Or perhaps you might think I’m taking a principled stand again men in ten-gallon hats slappin’ iron and squaring off on the main street of some dusty Texas burg, spittin’ tobacco juice and itching to see who can draw and fire faster in this town that ain’t big enough for both of ’em. OK, corral those thoughts (yeah, I wrote it; whatcha gonna do about it, pilgrim).

What I’m getting at is the element of the West, water. And to be uncharacteristically frank, there’s too much watering down of Wicca. It’s been watered down enough that one could drink it with some scones on a lazy English afternoon.

Think of a dog. Maybe a beloved family pet you had growing up, or one you have now. Imagine those things that come to mind—a dog is playful, loyal, loving. It protects, loves unconditionally, and becomes part of the family. Now expand that idea outwards. If we include wolves in the ‘dog’ category we bring in new associations—a pack animal; a hunter; a stalker of the night, but not something that curls up at your feet—or helps you herd your sheep. Expand it further, to encompass all the animals of the Canidae family—jackals, hyenas, foxes, coyotes and others. Our concept of what a dog is, if we broaden it this much, starts to become meaningless. Sure, there are similarities—all are quadrupeds, for example—but vast differences separate a fox, hyena, coyote and Pomeranian. At some point, by making the mental category ‘dog’ too broad we lose the ideas of playful, loyal and protective pets and family members. After all, no one trusts a dingo with their baby. We might decide that a dog is whatever we say it is, but the category has become so diluted and so expansive that it starts to become meaningless in any productive, communicative sense. Try and mate a fox and dingo and see what happens. It gets worse when you decide that ‘dog’ means ‘pet’ and therefore includes ‘cat’, ‘parrot’, ‘rabbit’ and ‘goldfish’.

You can see where I’m going with this.

When Wicca first came into the public consciousness it was quite specific—an initiatory priesthood that venerated a specific Goddess and a specific God. It gathered in small groups; practiced rites that followed a pretty specific structure; and held pretty specific teachings (even if they weren’t as clearly defined and dogmatic as those found in certain other religions). It didn’t take long for different streams to arise, such as the Gardnerian, Alexandrian and Tubal Cain / Cochrane paradigms, yet each of these shared, at their hearts, the same basic concepts of initiatory priesthood of a lunar Goddess and her Horned Consort. Simply put, that’s what Wicca was / is. The Gards, Lexies, and Cochranites (for lack of a better term) were different breeds of the same animal, but not different species. Even when Wicca began to spread out it still maintained these core concepts. When people couldn’t locate a coven to join there was enough info out there that clever, thinking individuals and groups could assemble a workable system based on the GAC paradigm, just as they had done with the Golden Dawn system after Crowley, Regardie, Fortune and the rest had written their books.

Then came the 60s and North American counter-culture, when Wicca’s core conceptual structure was altered. From Z Budapest, Starhawk, Martello et al it became politicized; through Buckland and Cunningham it was simplifiedwayne—watered down enough that it ceased to reflect the original image it had held. Of course everything grows and changes, but in a rush to be as accessible as possible Wicca was watered down into a general paganish gruel—easy to digest and suitable as spiritual invalid food. Where it had been a specific species within the genus witchcraft, in the family of neo-paganism, in the order of paganism it instead was expanded by too many to try and be too much. The idea that “Wicca is whatever you want it to be” was bandied about, becoming in and of itself a credo of banality and a broad, hazy and ill-defined trend—the computational lingusitics of new pagan religions. As Brooks and Russell wrote in A New History of Witchcraft, “pop-culture witchcraft is sufficiently vague in structure and content to qualify more as a ‘lifestyle’ than a ‘religion”. It didn’t start out that way.

Now it’s not my intention to disparage the spirituality or experiences of a tremendous number of modern neo-pagan, self-professed Wiccans. Rather, I would ask them to consider Christianity (stop snarling and do it)—at what point does a self-professed Christian cease to be such when s/he does away with ideas like sin, scripture, salvation, sacrament or even Christ? Can one be a Muslim while rejecting the Qur’an, the hadith, the shahadah, and denying belief in Allah? I would say no. And is there harm in a Muslim saying that his or her beliefs are Islamic, and not Christian? No. And the reverse is true as well. There is no harm in forging one’s own spiritual path, but there is no strength is diluting the language and practice of one group to make it into bite-sized chunks that are bland and suited for every palate.

You can only dilute something so much before it is no longer what it was when you began. I’ve heard many a self-proclaimed Wiccan speak of the Goddess in terms that make one think of Jesus in drag—they haven’t erased the old files of their spiritual computers, and are not seeking Wicca, but rather a Christianity they find more palatable. They seek something they can call their own, but make in their own image. The clouds of Heaven replaced with rolling, forested hills and the fires of Hell with some poorly-understood bastardization of Hindu concepts of karma. The scourge brandishing Lord of Death and Resurrection becomes as gentle as a lamb. He becomes the carrot-munching huntable, but never the ravenous hunter.

Wicca, by its very nature, has always been subversive, counter-cultural and niche. It doesn’t exist to proselytize, expand at a rapid rate or seek the status of a world religion—it stands at the gates of defeated and dead but oh-so-popular dogmas and yells ‘fuck you!’ There is a reason many come to trad Wicca through rebelliousness, and why many trad Wiccans aren’t pure haters of subversive figures like Crowley, or Georgia O’Keefe. Wicca is a tailored suit, meant to fit some, but shapeless on others, and has never been ‘one size fits all’. As people fear and disparage their bodies, Wicca calls for ritual nudity. When society diminishes Woman, Wicca elevates her to priestess-hood. It doesn’t pat your head and say ‘there, there’; it says, “get up, wipe your nose and soldier on!” It has no Devil on which to blame one’s failings; no original sin to blame for the world’s. When people say that it is whatever they wish, it’s exactly that—they wish. It is not a path that needs to adapt to the follower, or to alter itself for public acceptance. It does not need public acceptance or legal recognition; nor does it need representation in ecumenical council or Goddess fish on the bumper. Wicca is for the few, not because it is elitist but because few are the ones who can and will approach it on its own terms. It is a demanding path and a rigorous one because it challenges not just social mores but also the ego of its practitioners. Where is the challenge to ourselves and our compatriots when we do little more than cross off the Christian letterhead and scrawl ‘Wicca’ in its place? If you’re calling something Wicca, but you’ve done away with its Gods, ritual structure, sacred tools and teachings, practices and personal challenges then you may have a viable system for you, but you don’t have Wicca.

Wicca is a fire in the blood. It is not water in the veins, and to my way of thinking, trying to make it so misses the entire point. After all, the witches of Leland’s Aradia didn’t spend their time turning the other cheek to tyrannical political and religious hegemony. Why, then, should we allow a raging torrent of a spiritual path to become a trickle because some are too afraid to let their feet get wet? Galadriel may be willing to diminish and go into the West. I, for one, am not.

Hunting a Coven

Hunting a coven?

You can do that. You could try…hunting witches with a bow is a thorny affair (that’s a sly reference, yo). You could try a sling, but using barbs and arrows requires outrageous fortune (REFERENCES!). Guns don’t work either, because witches can really get the lead out.

But if you’re hunting FOR a coven, well…that’s a different matter altogether! Today, modern Wiccans and witches don’t always meet in covens; in fact, solitary practice is one of the dominant paradigms in the modern witchcraft movement. Sometimes this is due to geographic isolation from like-minded persons; other times it’s a simple matter of personal preference. However, when it comes to the modern traditions often called BTW (British Traditional Wicca or witchcraft—a problematic term but not one I feel much like unpacking in this post, and it’s my blog, so nyaaah) coven-based practice is pretty central. Teaching, rites and ceremonies are undertaken within the coven setting, and one of the purposes of initiation is to bring one in to such a group.

Finding a traditional coven isn’t always easy. Not every town or village has one–the fact that we’re non-proselytizing is one of the reasons for this. Maybe the day will come when skyclad Circle-goers walk door to door with copies of a magazine called Lords of the Watchtower, and inviting you to hear the good news of the Queendom of the Gods, but it’s not today, and hopefully will never be.

There are resources to help in the quest. Websites like The Witches’ Voice maintain listings for different covens and individuals (Cesig Gwynion maintains one there). Groups can often be contacted through local magical or alternative spirituality shops. But let us assume you’ve been successful and found a group. What now? What should you know? What should you look for, and avoid?

Learn what you can about a tradition, a coven and its members—don’t be all creepy and root through their immaculately separated and sorted trash, but it doesn’t hurt to ask about them. After all, 28.34 grams of prevention are worth 0.453 kilograms of cure (because metric—looking at you, America, Burma and Liberia). When you approach a group, at least be toilet trained. Your first question to a prospective coven shouldn’t be “what’s a Gardner?” or “why are those guys named after a guy who used sandpaper?”

Don’t jump at the first—or even the only—coven you find. Covens are, in a way, family groups, and like families they differ from each other. No two covens are alike, even daughter covens stemming from the same source—a cactus will be at home among cacti, but might not be at home among wild roses (oh the references)! Remember that its members will want to meet with you and get to know you. They’re trying to get a feel for who you are to determine if you’re a good fit. At the same time, remember you are also interviewing them.

Grab or print off a copy of the ABCDEF. It’s a quick and handy tool to use when you’re vetting a group to see if they’re the sort you’d like to be involved with. Now, don’t be a Richard’s cranium here and whip the thing out, pointedly making notes on it while having coffee with your prospective High Priestess. It’s rude and you’ll likely offend her; the last thing you want is an offended traditional HPS with a scourge and the will to use it. If you’re going to meet with these people initially remember that you don’t know them. Make sure someone knows where you are, and how to reach you. Think of it as a blind date, and protect yourself accordingly.

If the coven with which you’re meeting is part of a lineaged tradition be sure to ask for a vouch, which is the equivalent of a reference in a job interview. If they cannot produce someone in their upline or the wider community of the trad who can vouch for them being proper initiates, or are unwilling to, or make excuses, it’s a big red flag. The last thing you need is to work hard to join a tradition and then find out you haven’t. Some lines keep written records, others don’t. Be patient. Be prepared to ask questions, even if they won’t be answered or you won’t get the answers you want. Be prepared to answer questions as well, and be honest. If something smells fishy avoid the group, and remember that they’ll do the same. It’s not your right to join a coven or tradition, so be respectful and expect the same.

Joining a coven can be rewarding. You end up with brothers and sisters who will help and support you. You’ll also end up with brothers and sisters you have to help and support. When you do get to meet the group pay attention to the dynamic. Is there a lot of raging ego? Does it seem like you’re one of the kids on Recess looking over the fence into the kindergarten playground? Do they seem to get along, or is it all about one or two people with the rest along for the ride?

There is a lot more that could be said, but that can wait for another day.

Magical Computers, or Why You Don’t Eat Clam Ice Cream

One of the things that often frustrates me about some modern Pagans, or practitioners of various spiritual disciplines of witchever (yeah, intentional) kind is the move towards thoughtless hodge-podgery. Now, I don’t mean eclecticism–there’s nothing wrong with drawing on elements of different but related traditions. What I’m talking about is the thoughtless blending of anything that catches one’s eye.

Let’s use cooking as an example. I love a good steak. I also love my sister’s homemade strawberry freezer jam. But ewwwthe two just don’t go together very well. And neither one has any business being paired with avocado paste (I’m sure someone will argue, so let’s just agree that you’re completely wrong and what the hell were your parents thinking and I’ll buy you that missing chromosome for your birthday and leave it there). Of course each is great on its own, and works well when combined with a plethora of other foodstuffs. But a little sense goes a long way towards pleasing one’s palate. Luckily, when it comes to food, we’ve all had enough trial and error throughout our lives to get a sense of what works and what doesn’t. It’s not often that we all apply such sense to spiritual practices.

Even within spiritual traditions that, to the outsider, seem intrinsically related, this sort of thoughtless eclecticism can cause profound and far-reaching issues. In his article That’s the Way Indians Do It, Mi’kmaw author Daniel Crowfeather writes,

“Now, as these Nations try to reclaim their heritage, many are adopting ceremonies and practices that rightfully belong elsewhere. This can lead to further loss of their own culture, and to a great deal of confusion caused by potentially conflicting beliefs. As an example, there is a growing circle of Mi’kmaw people who have adopted the Sundance from the plains Nations. The Sundance was originally intended to honour the buffalo, which we have never had here in the Maritimes. Because the Sundance tradition is not strongly rooted in the Mi’kmaw culture, it is also being changed by the adoption: I have heard a Mi’kmaw Sundancer claim that nobody can become a Medicine Person for the Mi’kmaq unless they have completed a full commitment to the Sundance. Apparently the Mi’kmaq have been doing it wrong for over ten thousand years…In this case, the adoption of someone else’s tradition has created confusion and, worse yet, has created rifts between different segments of a Nation.”

To Crowfeather, and to the Mi’kmaw people, the introduction of a Plains First Nation ceremony has been incredibly problematic. Someone has tried to combine strawberry jam with couscous and the result has been stomach-turning. Rather than promote community, friendship, and togetherness, the Sundance has accomplished the opposite when introduced to another system; a system which does not possess the enabling conditions and internalized belief structure that make the ceremony so powerful and vital to the people from whom it originated.

It’s been said that one should master one spiritual system before one begins to learn another, and in my own experience this is true, which brings us to the idea I’m going to call the Magical Computer.

computerWe might think of the human being as a computer (no quips about deus ex machina, please…it’s not as original as you think). And different computers have different internal architecture and different operating systems. Some operate on Windows while others use the iOS. Still, others operate on Android, Linux, Chrome, Blackberry, and so on. Each system has its merits and flaws, and each can accomplish similar things according to its own operational parameters. Spiritual systems are like this. For example, let us assume that Sufism is Windows (after all, Rumi wrote, “close the language door, and open Love’s window…” ha) and Wicca is iOS (because you can cut an Apple to find a pentacle). Both spiritual traditions can create ritual, just as both operating systems can create written documents. The end product (spiritual development) may be the same, but the underlying code and the way each functions is quite different, and they are frequently incompatible.

If we liken a spiritual practice to a program, not all practices work within the operative framework of all religious paths, just as a program designed for Windows won’t work on an Apple computer.  Crowfeather’s comments, quoted above, demonstrate this. Praying, in Arabic, towards Mecca has meaning for a Muslim–an internalized, powerful significance–but what would be the point in, say, a Wiccan doing the same? And what good would it do a Muslim to pray to the Moon? It’s no different than hitting ctrl+alt+del on an iMac; those keystrokes have meaning to someone using a Windows computer (usually ‘goddammit, Gates, you prick!), but not to someone using iOS.

And therein lies the risk in spiritual hodge-podgery. Many modern books on spiritual development, magical systems and mysticism reference the subconscious mind, and it’s use of symbol systems to communicate with us (always, of course, important for those who are Jung at heart). We spend our lives programming imagery into our subconscious–we fill a symbol with a meaning that we internalize; these symbols can be (sub)cultural in origin, or spiritual, or come from a number of other sources. Once again, symbols mean different things to different operating systems; their meaning is not intrinsic. A crescent moon means one thing to a Wiccan and something different to a Muslim. Neither interpretation is wrong. Each is right within the context of its own underlying conceptual framework. If we’re constantly confusing the issue–which we do when we thoughtlessly cobble together Frankenstein spiritual systems (sort of a monster mash…no?), we, at best, stunt our own progress. After all, a dream about a snake has a very different meaning for an ophidiophobe than it does a person who absolutely adores all things serpentine, and cognitive dissonance is only valuable when it forces us to examine what’s causing it. A third degree with whom I’m acquainted works with an Afro-Caribbean goddess as well. He didn’t begin this practice until he had ‘mastered’ the Wiccan system, and even so, he wisely keeps the two practices separate.

In the end, a little thought and a little consideration regarding why we do something can go a long way, just as it does when we expand from why and ask should we? In the end, just as a computer of any type needs electricity, spiritual systems do all tend to agree with the motto of the Greek Mysteries–γνῶθι σεαυτόν. Know Thyself. The road to self-knowledge is the one we all walk when we wholeheartedly practice a spiritual system, and in the end that’s the goal we all seek, regardless of which type of computer we choose to frustrate us.

And if we’re not devoted to self-knowledge, well, really…why are we wasting our time?

Weird Old Uncle Al

OK, so it’s been a few years since I bothered with a blog (my first one was back before the term ‘blog’ was coined). I’m a little bored these days, so I’ll get back to it. Too bad I deleted the old one with all its contents, but what can you do. It’s not the least of my regrets, I’ll have you know.

crowelywiccaI’m always flabbergasted about the Wiccan—and Pagan in general—dislike of that strange old Alfred Hitchcock-lookin’ oddball, Aleister Crowley. OK, sure, the guy didn’t have a Christopher Lee basso profundo voice like one might expect; in fact he sounded like the priest in The Princess Bride. One can almost hear him solemnly intoning “Mawiage…Sacred Mawiage, of gods and men, is what bwings us togethah today.” (No, seriously. Go listen).

Sure, they called him ‘the wickedest man in the world’. Big deal. Being a wicked man in the immediate post-Victorian period wasn’t exactly difficult, was it (plus that’s rich coming from the colonial British establishment of the day). What was so wicked about the man, anyway? Well, he was fond of having sex with men (he was wilder than Oscar), getting high, and freaking out the squares. Hell, that’s half of my gay friends right there, and the only thing wicked about any of them is their love of bad club music and their withering sense of snark. And yeah, he did like to leave a steaming pile of shit on people’s doorsteps now and then—but that’s what you get when the Great Beast knocks in late October and you’re handing out apples instead of a full sized Snickers bar. You’ve got it coming in that case, and the 8 year old in me has no sympathy for you (my current “adult” self has little either, you cheapskate, and so help me, you bastards who hand out Chick comics….they’re warming up the Ivan the Terrible suite in the southwest corner of Hell for you).


The accusations frequently leveled against him are rarely based in fact, although sometimes in his writings, which (as noted above) were intended to freak people out. A few pages into Magick in Theory and Practice one finds the quote, referring to a magical sacrifice, “…one must accordingly choose the victim which contains the greatest and purest force. A male child of perfect innocence and high intelligence is the most satisfactory suitable victim.” He also noted he performed this sacrifice about 150 times a year. Reference to the rest of his work makes it clear that by such a child he meant ejaculation (the only thing other than meditating that Crowley crowed about doing so much). It tells us a lot about Victorian morality that one couldn’t write openly about masturbation, but could use terminology related to child sacrifice in print (or as South Park has put it, showing the same attitude still exists in contemporary America, “horrific deplorable violence is okay, as long as no one says any naughty words”.

Don’t get me wrong, the man was surely an asshole of the highest caliber. You wouldn’t want to bring him home to meet Mother (or Father for that matter, unless one or both was in a dry spell and you didn’t much like them), but the reputation with which he’s been slapped is certainly hyperbolic. So what’s the deal? A broken oath taken during the Golden Dawn initiations? Pshaw. Gardner and the Farrars have been accused of the same yet Wiccans are still drawing heavily on those folks (even if they won’t admit it). Plus it’s rather amusing, as Crowley himself noted, to swear a terrible oath to protect mystical secrets, and then being handed the Hebrew alphabet as the first of these (I wonder if my Biblical Hebrew prof knows he’s now on some heebie-jeebie Secret Masters hit list).

The man even had the respect of more ‘respectable’ occultists of his day, including that lovely lady, Dion Fortune (see Alan Richardson’s Aleister Crowley and Dion Fortune: The Logos of the Aeon and the Shakti of the Age, which is based in part on previously unpublished correspondence between the two). So, Wiccans, chill out on the old fella.

And of course no mention of Crowley in the context of Wicca is possible without the whole “Crowley wrote the Book of Shadows OMG WTF BBQ” bit of crap. Sure, GBG (and a metric shit ton of other witches) have used quotes from Crowley’s work but so what? A few quotes don’t mean Jack (Parsons or otherwise). If that’s the case then my Masters’ thesis (and everyone else’s) was written by someone else as well and some other jackass should be paying off my loans (but can leave my name on the parchment thankyewverymuch).

It should be noted that Weird Uncle Al certainly foresaw the rise of Wicca and the rest of the Pagan movement well before GBG burst onto the scene (with his voluminous coattails that had room for Sanders, Cochrane, and all the rest). Near the beginning of the First World War, while Gardner was still kickin’ it in Malaya, sippin’ on Djinn and juice, Crowley wrote,

“…the time is just ripe for a natural religion. People like rites and ceremonies, and they are tired of hypothetical gods. Insist on the real benefits of the sun, the Mother-Force, the Father-Force, and so on; and show that by celebrating these benefits worthily the worshipers unite themselves more fully with the current of life. Let the religion be Joy, but with a worthy and dignified sorrow in death itself; and treat death as an ordeal, an initiation…in short, be the founder of a new and greater Pagan cult.”

Sure, he didn’t mention nudity, which was part of Gardner’s naked ambitions (yes, that was on purpose) for a new religious movement or revival, but doubtless he’d have supported it and then roundly convinced all participants to express awe at his…ahem…magical will.

The man even provided one of the nuclei around which the modern Pagan conception of a three-fold Goddess developed, explaining the Maiden-Mother-Crone paradigm in his (admittedly awful) novel Moonchild (which does have the added cred of inspiring one of the strongest openings for any 1980s era Iron Maiden album; up the irons, yo).

Heck, the man even had a low opinion of L. Ron Hubbard, writing to Karl Germer, “Apparently Parsons or Hubbard or somebody is producing a Moonchild. I get fairly frantic when I contemplate the idiocy of these louts.” And anyone with a “piss on Hubbard” attitude is ok in my books.

Beyond that, Crowley gets some more counter-cultural cred by appearing on the cover of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band; inspiring the best guitar solo of Randy Rhodes’ all-too-short career (don’t argue; you’ll lose); being a prime inspiration for Jimmy Page (look him up, whippersnappers, and get off my lawn while you’re at it); and popping up in David Bowie’s Quicksand.

So give the old bastard some love. If he was alive and running around today he’d be on a list of Llewellyn’s latest authors and would have earned less of a reputation for assholery than Kanye West.