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.