Tag Archive | witchcraft

Another most excellent article

It’s probably a fair observation that I should probably get onto writing some more of my own stuff rather than linking to other people’s, however since this piece has arrived for Lammas, I must share it with those like-minded folk who visit.

This article explores the nature of relationships that form between coven members, and the importance of personal integrity in those relationships. But it isn’t hard to take Alicia’s advice out of the context of a coven and into any small group, be they friends, colleagues or team-mates. In any situation where people need to work closely together there is always the possibility that people will start to form bonds which become closer and more intertwined with time and use. What a lot of people seem never to grasp is the fact that those bonds hold people together in fundamental ways. Our emotions, ego and feelings of self-worth are often tied up in these associations and it becomes very easy for us to invest ourselves personally in the activities of others. So small matters are prone to being blown out of proportion, slights against others cut more deeply and disappointment stings more keenly.

Anyone who has experienced or witnessed the break-down of relationships within groups will find something familiar in Alicia’s words.

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A most excellent article

Over on the Mount Franklin Annual Pagan Gathering blog site is an article written by a senior member of the Gathering. It addresses many of the same issues I raised in my article from last year, only with an added depth of perspective and a delightfully witty and eloquent style I could only hope to emulate.

You can read the article here.

Responsibility, Accountability, Initiation and Reason

Events in my private life have recently led me to pondering the concept of personal accountability. It’s a sticky subject, for a number of reasons. What does it mean to be held to account for one’s actions? Does it differ from taking responsibility for one’s actions? If it does, it’s in a very subtle way, which is part of the stickiness. I’ve learned that responsibility is, at least in an interpersonal sense, rather a subjective notion. It seems to rely upon whether or not an individual is prepared to accept responsibility for their actions. If they refuse to accept responsibility for their actions, then they cannot be held to account for them. At least, they will refuse to be held to account for them in the same way that they refuse to accept responsibility for them. I’m sure anybody reading this will be familiar with the scenario I’m describing.

Now, in civilised society we have laws, and officers of the law, whose duties include enforcing personal accountability in the form of the limitation, in some form or other, of an individual’s freedom. This might take the form of a fine, a community based order, or even a prison sentence. It is thought that through the process of administering the law of the land an individual is brought to the realisation that they are responsible for their actions and have been brought to account for them accordingly. It’s not a perfect system, I know. It would seem that being told by a judge and a jury of their peers that they are responsible for some action does not necessarily mean that an individual accepts that responsibility, even after they have been held to account for it. It’ll do, however, for the interests of society. Society likes to see that justice is being carried out.

In the case of interpersonal relationships it is somewhat different. We generally can’t force people to accept responsibility for their actions without being in breach of the law ourselves. So where does that leave us? Why, with rational discourse, of course. It is possible that an individual can be encouraged to share the view of another if they are prepared to enter into a rational discussion of the matter. It might go something like this:

Arthur: “Bill, I think you shouldn’t have told Fred that he was a noodle-brain.”

Bill: “But Arthur, Fred forgot to bring his knee-pads to training again. It’s happening often and it’s very frustrating.”

A: “I understand that, but when you called Fred a noodle-brain it hurt his feelings. Is it worth hurting someone just to express your frustration about their forgetfulness?”

B: “Well, I suppose not. I didn’t want to hurt Fred’s feelings, I really just wanted him to realise how annoyed I was feeling so that maybe next time he would try harder to remember his knee-pads.”

A: “I’m confident Fred would accept that as being the truth. Perhaps you could pay him a visit, or call him and explain your position?”

B: “Yes, I should also apologise for hurting his feelings, I feel bad about doing that.”

In a perfect world, everyone would be of a rational disposition and would conduct themselves in an entirely rational manner. Our world is far from perfect, so a more likely scenario would be:

A: “Bill, you’re a bastard for calling Fred a noodle-brain.”

B: “Blow it out your ear, Arthur. You’re not the boss of me.”

OR

B: “No I didn’t, who told you that?”

OR

B: “Well Fred told me you play with dolls.”

and so on…

In the interpersonal sphere of experience, we have traditionally broken ourselves up into neat groupings called “families”, and we have used these family structures as microcosmic societies, with their own systems of justice. Parents would lay down the law, children would adhere to the law, order was maintained. This is still the case in some families, and in some cultures more so than in others. In the West, generally speaking, the family unit is breaking down, due largely to increased mobility of the workforce, increased divorce rates and commercial television. Well, the first two, anyway. Perhaps I should have added the advent of “aged care facilities”. Anyway, there have always been alternatives to the family unit when it comes to interpersonal relationships. Sometimes we will group ourselves according to interests or beliefs. Religions, charitable organisations, clubs and societies, sports teams and such can act upon us in different ways. Sometimes they stand as intermediaries between the greater society and the family. Sometimes they have hierarchical structures similar to both families and society.

I read an excellent article recently that looked at the nature of initiation in a spiritual sense. It looked in detail primarily at self-initiation of various kinds. What was lacking was some insight into the nature of initiation into a tradition such as Wicca. There are two distinct qualities that differ from self-initiation: taking oaths before one’s gods and other people, and making a commitment to a group. A Wiccan group, or coven, is hierarchical in its structure in much the same way as in a family or in society as a whole. But when one is initiated one is bound to that group by oaths that honour not only the tradition but also one’s fellows within that tradition. Witches who work in covens will often report that after a time they become attuned to their coveners both emotionally and spiritually. The relationships formed in this manner can tend to be intense and highly charged, and in the past the general rule was that one wouldn’t socialise informally with one’s coveners. This was to avoid public blow-ups of energy that more rightly belongs in the controlled environment of a circle. It’s not a perfect system either, and unfortunately many a personal relationship has been damaged or broken because uncontrolled energies spilled out into the private lives of witches.

Because one has taken oaths, and because one is bound to a group of other minds, personal responsibility is of the utmost importance. Within the coven structure interpersonal disagreements can be brought forward and at that point the parties involved are obliged to conduct themselves in a rational manner, and it is the responsibility of those further up the hierarchy to maintain an objective viewpoint and to ensure that the dispute is resolved in a fair manner to all parties. Again, it’s not a perfect system and it’s been my experience that on several occasions even people in this situation can simply refuse to accept responsibility for their actions and hence cannot be brought to account. However in these instances there are other minds to consider, and there are often repercussions felt throughout the group when one member goes awry, not to mention the fact that oaths have been taken.

Now someone can have a bit of a tizzy without breaking oaths, that’s not the issue here. But the question arises that if not for the betterment of oneself why does one seek a spiritual path? I have written before on the qualities necessary to be spiritually “upright”, as it were, but I shall add to that the necessity for self-exploration. “Know Thyself”, the seeker at the Temple of Delphi was told. “The unexamined life is not worth living”, Socrates said. These are fundamental tenets not only of philosophy but also spirituality. The only explanation as to why someone wouldn’t behave rationally is if they are unable to, for whatever reason. Perhaps they are mentally incapable. Perhaps they are emotionally incapable. Irrational refusal to accept responsibility for one’s actions seems to point towards an unwillingness to acknowledge something about oneself. That’s certainly been my experience. People who are afraid to look into themselves and examine what they find closely also tend to be the people who will deflect rational enquiry and apportion blame where it isn’t due.

We all do this, or have done this at one time or another. Whilst recently I have had cause to call out one person on their appalling behaviour and lack of personal accountability, I’ve also had to acknowledge that I had been at fault and allowed my behaviour to adversely affect another. It was uncomfortable and difficult to do, but also completely necessary. I could have adopted an attitude of belligerent denial of my culpability but what would it achieve? In the end, I’d have only been deceiving myself.

So finally, here’s a question for you: What is the purpose of reason if there’s no-one to reason with? To my mind, right now at least, I contend that individualism, especially in the form of the ego, is in fact the enemy of reason.

Selling Spirituality

Necessity, as the adage goes, is the mother of invention. With that in mind I have recently been brought by necessity to contemplate a number of interesting topics, ranging from ethics to mercantilism to a much deeper and more uncomfortable examination of my own beliefs and motives. So, as inventively as I can manage, I will attempt to bring a number of these ideas together into an article of writing to amuse and bemuse in possibly equal measure.

The matter, I would reply if someone were game to ask, “What’s the matter?”, is related to in what manner and to what extent it is acceptable to profit from one’s spirituality. “Oh, is that all,” you might reply and go back to your needlework. I have chosen the term “spirituality” here quite deliberately, as I’m rather loath to use the term “religion”, because I don’t believe they’re synonymous. How one defines “religion” is really a topic that deserves its own article, and perhaps one day I will give it some consideration but not today. For the purposes of this piece, the term “spirituality” refers to a person’s beliefs of a spiritual nature, whether they be associated with an established religion, a recognised mode of spiritual practice or just whatever their approach to contemplating the great transcendent “otherness” might be. It will have to suffice as an unlikely umbrella, under which I will stuff (quite against their will) Christians, Muslims, Wiccans and Zoroastrians, with “solo eclectic practitioners”, hedge/kitchen/fairy witches and so on. The more I try to make it work the harder it appears to be but I’m going to do it anyway, as much for the sake of expediency as anything.

Just to make things a little clearer I am also going to acknowledge and dismiss, for the most part, the manner in which the world’s major religions have fleeced the public for centuries as being common knowledge. We all know about things like tithes imposed by the church and so forth, so I’m not going to explore those issues in any detail. This is partly because to do that I’d have to conduct some meaningful research on the topic, but mostly because it’s all rather irrelevant to the principal topic of paganism. Pagans and witches don’t, generally speaking, own large amounts of property and enjoy tax exemptions from the government. So I will limit the scope of my enquiry somewhat and focus upon how us pagan and witchy folks have, and continue to profit from our spiritual beliefs.

Of course, as I look at the bookcase next to me I see a great many books on a variety of topics that bear some relevance to my beliefs. So one of the first ways a witch or pagan can profit from their beliefs is to write about them. A good book is a great treasure, and I have noticed that a great many witches and pagans possess significant libraries. I suppose part of the reason for this is the occult (i.e. hidden) nature of most pagan and witchcraft practices. The knowledge that seekers seek is seldom easy to obtain, and historically the process of finding one’s way through the dark is to follow the lights cast by scraps of text hidden in books. All of the great names have published works: Gardner, Starhawk, Valiente, the Farrars. None of them have enjoyed sales figures like J.K. Rowling, however. Making a living as a writer of non-fiction books within such a limited field of interest must be next to impossible. Anyway, now we live in the Internet Age, and the old ways of going about pagan business are falling into disuse. Once upon a time you would put an ad in the classifieds calling for students (often worded in a somewhat cryptic fashion) or announcing oneself as seeking. Now you just google “paganism” or “witchcraft” and you can have a whole world of information to choose from. So, with a certain degree of irony, what was once hidden now remains hidden, only whereas once it was occult through scarcity and the necessity to hide from unwanted attention, now it is occult through the sheer mass of information that is very often endlessly reproduced from un-cited sources, plagiarised from extant sources, or simply (apparently) made up on the spot. I have both experienced the frustration of the former and witnessed the frustrations of others with the latter.

So how does the money come into it? Well, apart from spending it on books, which can be a thoroughly worthwhile and rewarding pursuit, there seem to be more and more “teachers” emerging who are offering their services for a fee. (They’ve always been there, by the way, I recommend to anyone unfamiliar with Frank Zappa’s song from 1974, Cozmik Debris to give it a listen.)

My personal ethics, and those of my spiritual belief system forbid me from charging people for any knowledge or wisdom that I have acquired through my spiritual path. I believe if you operate in a group system, such as a coven or learning circle, it is entirely reasonable to ask for basic costs to be covered by participants – purchase of consumables like candles and wine, for example, or to maintain tools and paraphernalia. But for teachers, “leaders”, “instructors” or however they like to style themselves to profit personally from passing on “spiritual” knowledge or wisdom in the form of a structured “system” to me, at least, seems highly unethical. And now here comes the difficult part where I have to explain that.

It is difficult, this is now my third attempt. And I suppose the reason why it’s difficult is because in order to explain my position I feel I have to venture into parts of my own path that are not generally something I would share openly. I will go back to a previous article and re-invoke what I consider to be the core principles of witchcraft; or at least should be the core qualities of a witch, which are humility, discretion and the ability to remain silent. To my mind, for someone to use the knowledge they acquired through their own instruction within the context of a structured system for the pursuit of profit they are in breach of all three of these fundamental ideas. I must make it clear that I am trying to limit my premise to the teaching or instruction of spiritual system of practice. I should also reiterate that in my personal view, which is very traditional, knowledge that is passed on through traditional training is free, and should not be used as a source of profit.

Maybe if I examine these concepts further I can address my concerns. In a way, the third quality is really related to the first two. It’s as much about knowing when to be silent as knowing how. Silence is one of the most powerful weapons a witch possesses, and it requires such discipline to be good at it that it strikes me as though if you had taken the time to really come to grips with it, it would seem antithetic to go and sell your words to seekers. Likewise, as a seeker the ability to remain silent is probably the first and most important skill to perfect. How can you hope to hear what you need to hear when your mouth is loud and your mind is raucous?

Discretion is important to a witch because one is very seldom presented with scenarios that offer simple outcomes. This is true as much for one’s craft as it is for life in general. You can’t teach discretion, beyond offering advice, giving pointers or reminding the seeker to always learn from their mistakes. When you think about it, if you’re one of those that hopes to make a living from selling witchcraft you can’t afford to be discerning or to turn anyone away. You have to take all-comers in order to fill your pockets. It is, after all, what advertising folk might describe as a “niche market”. That, in itself, leads down a very difficult ethical path, because to my mind it is not ethical to pass on significant spiritual wisdom to someone who is unfit, for whatever reason, to receive it.

Humility is the most important of all three qualities. This is largely because it suffuses every element of the craft. Without humility you cannot remain silent or employ discretion. Without humility you cannot be anything other than what you perceive yourself to be. It takes humility to be able to release oneself from ego. However one who presumes to offer spiritual training for money can only be motivated by ego, and hence is not acting with humility.

Think about this (he says, in his best Morpheus-from-The Matrix-voice): how can another person tell you how far you have progressed spiritually, without you already being in possession of that knowledge? If I attend (or enrol online, as is more often the case these days) for Madam Moondrop’s school of all-things-witchy and pay to achieve the “first degree”, what does that mean, at the end? That I have enjoyed value for money? If I was humble, I would see that it doesn’t mean anything in and of itself. If I had used discretion, I would have considered, “if the doors to spiritual instruction could be found by anyone with a library card, then money is unlikely to be the key to opening them”. If I had remained silent, I might have heard my common sense prickling at me.

Generally speaking, the great and ever-expanding library of books covering various aspects of witchcraft and paganism contain all of the “knowledge” a seeker needs. It’s been said a little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing, and it is instruction in the use of that knowledge that is at the heart of spiritual practice. I implore all of you to employ your intelligence, refuse to suspend your disbelief, and go about your spiritual path with your eyes open. By all means take a course in Tarot, or Reiki, or herbology, or attend workshops in what-not or whatever. But if someone is telling you that enlightenment, “initiation” or occult power can be yours for a fee, then they’re trying to take advantage of you. The means of connecting with the Divine are many and varied, but ultimately your path is your own, and no-one can charge you for your own relationship with divinity. If you’re humble, use discretion in your choices and know how and when to remain silent, then instruction will come to you.

An article on Men in Wicca

Originally written for the Mount Franklin Annual Pagan Gathering blog, below is an article that attempts to examine at once both the role of men in Wicca and how the sabbats of Imbolc, Ostara and Beltane relate to them.

I was asked some time ago to contribute an article to this blog on the topic of “The Role of Men in Wicca”. Since then I pondered, in the ponderous manner that is characteristic of my thinking, this topic in some detail, and from several angles. Time passed, and I was also asked, since the previous article was still yet to materialise, if I’d mind terribly writing something about Imbolc, and then Ostara.
Then Beltane rolled around and finally my ideas began to coalesce into one reasonably strong premise: The role of men in Wicca has a lot to do with Imbolc, Ostara and Beltane. “There,” I told myself, “I can write something about that”. But another incident occurred just prior to Beltane that gave me pause to consider something else, namely that there is something, orthings, that tie the former premise into a much larger and more significant premise: “The role of Men in Wicca is not an issue”.
So, how to write an article that not only has two premises but two premises that appear to contradict one another? Some may suggest “systematically”. Others may suggest “with a strong basis in contemporary research”. I know some witches to whom the liberal application of footnotes and appendices induces such bacchanalian fits of rapture and ebullience that one had best stand clear, or carry an umbrella. Personally, I’m more one for hyperbole and rambling, so I’ll stick with them.
The role of men in Wicca has been covered before by a number of people, and as far as I can tell the conclusion invariably depends upon the author’s political disposition. Like most people, I’m prone to categorisation and generalisation, but feel rather uncomfortable about being too unconditional in their use. And so it is here. The terms of the premise must be defined. I know this, because I am unlike the greater proportion of men in the world because I have been awarded a post-graduate qualification. So right off the bat the term “men” becomes divisible by the number of them that might have pursued higher education. This could go on endlessly, like Zeno’s paradox about Achilles and the tortoise (See? Now I’m just showing off) so I will opt to get over my squeamishness and say that, at least for the purposes of this article, the term “men in Wicca” means pretty much what you would expect the term to mean, that is “the male human adherents of Wicca”. I added “human” there just to avoid the inevitable “but my dog’s a Wiccan” counter-claims. The heck with that.
But, all of this blather has been avoiding the really sticky definition, which is that of “Wicca”. What does that mean? I could be annoying and say “It means all things to all men”, and that’s not too far off the mark these days. The term has been picked up and run with by many an aspiring witch and kicked around now for so many decades that its original meaning, however much some people would like to disagree on this point, is largely irrelevant to everybody except those to whom it means something in itself, which is to say the followers of Gerald Gardner, who is widely accepted as the first to coin the term in reference to a “system” of ritualised witchcraft. The thing is, there can be such a rift between what one man calls Wicca and what another calls Wicca that they would both be talking about entirely different things (there’s some parable about blind men and an elephant that fits quite nicely here). Indeed, there are some brands of Wicca that men are forbidden to claim a part in altogether.
So it’s a bit of a pickle. I could go down the “pagan” route, but it’s not true that all Wiccans are pagans. Also, to compare some pagan men with some Wiccan men would be like comparing battle-axes with bluebells, and isn’t at all useful for my purposes. Eclectic witchcraft has, it would appear at least, decided to put a stop to the confusion by embracing “Eclectic witchcraft” as a collective term in itself. However, I was asked to talk about men in Wicca, and whilst many Wiccans can be quite eclectic in their manner of practice (not least of all those famous progenitors, Gardner and Sanders) most of the “traditional” Wiccans have enough in common that I can probably make do without having to embrace “eclecticism”.
So, questions that have been asked include, “are Wiccan men submissive to the women in a group?” Or, “do Wiccan men have a problem with being primarily goddess-worshippers?” And more often than not “so, do men choose a Wiccan path to get all sky-clad and stuff with female witches?” It is sometimes implied that Wicca is something of a gynocentric path, and that men are perceived as similar to the self-castrating priests of Cybele, the Gallai, subservient to the High Priestess in all matters. I have heard of some groups who operate in a strictly gynocentric manner, and that all men, even the High Priest, are subservient to the High Priestess. I have also heard of cases where the opposite is true. I can’t speak for all men, but I would suggest that the reasons for seeking the Wiccan path must vary considerably from one man to the next. My own experience has changed as my understanding of the Craft has developed. At first one of the attractive features of Wicca to some of the other paths I had pursued was that there was an equal role for both men and women. Not even so much that there was an equal role but that equality was an essential element of practice.
So let’s look at the sabbats. Imbolc, even while the days and nights are still cold, it’s generally the time when I find I catch the first whiff of Spring. Everyone knows what I mean, it’s a certain something in the air that marks the beginning of the end of Winter. For men, it’s the first stirrings of the return of the God, or god-paradigm, if you like. In Central Victoria it’s also roughly around the time when lambing season begins, which fits in well with the definition of the term “in the belly”. The snowdrops always come out at this time, so I always feel that it is rather portentous. As a man, I see it as being a return to the time of year when the god makes his presence felt most strongly, and my head-space begins to shift with it.
Ostara, the vernal equinox, is very nearly my favourite time of year. It is accompanied by a much more distinct change in the air, at least in this part of the world. One recognises the lengthening of days (even if it’s only by how long the kids think they’re allowed to play outside before coming in for dinner) but again, importantly for men, it is that quite palpable sense of power as the god returns to make his presence felt. This is entirely my point of view, and some may think that perhaps I suffer from some kind of seasonal affective disorder, but it’s nothing like that. It’s not as though the god begins to take over, it’s just that the more contemplative, darker aspect of the god throughout the Winter months changes character into the more fecund, playful and youthful aspect we see culminate at Beltane. I understand the Druids (at least the modern variety) consider these three sabbats as being one cycle, and I’m inclined to agree. It feels like a gradual build-up of male essence that begins, almost quietly, at Imbolc, and is given release at Beltane. Hail the Summer! Men of the Wiccan world, take up thy staff and well, you know…!
Some have attempted to draw me into discussions about gay or trans-gendered men on this point. To them I have but one reply – if you identify as a man then this is the time of year when you should celebrate your masculinity! Your tradition will have its own means of doing so, but really all one has to do is look around to see how that vitality should be brought into being. It’s happening everywhere. The world begins to hum, to vibrate with energy. Get outside, put your hands in the soil and feel life. Furthermore, some of you may be thinking this is all rather androcentric and I am neglecting the feminine in all this. Well, that’s true, because I’m talking about men in Wicca and I think a woman is far better qualified than I to describe how they perceive the return of the God during this part of the year. Some might even go so far as to suggest that celebrating masculinity is unnecessary because we already live in a patriarchal society where such things are not only celebrated but sensationalised. Whilst it may be true that we live in a patriarchal society, that’s a political matter and as such has nothing to do with how I practice my spiritual beliefs. I’m a firm believer in keeping politics and spirituality separate. People tend to agree with me when the spirituality in question is Islam or Christianity, but Wicca is ok? Please feel free to comment below should you happen to disagree. I feel myself drifting off-topic. Time to move on.
Just before Beltane I had cause to remind someone of some of the basic tenets of Wicca, which are not by any means secret, but are at least to my mind fundamental to correct practice. They are humility, discretion and the ability to remain silent. These ideas aren’t exclusive to Wicca, and there is a good argument to be made that they are really pretty basic common sense. But also they are what make being a man in Wicca a non-issue. Regardless of your gender I think to find fulfilment in your practice you must adhere to these basic principles. Men in Wicca must be humble, and that humility is what people often mistake as submission. Men in Wicca must employ discretion in their actions and decisions, because the ability to discern the correct path is essential to the way of a witch. Finally, it takes strength and conviction, along with humility and discretion to know when to remain silent, and when to speak out. This is not exclusively related to men, but rather all witches. So really, being a man in Wicca is a question of adhering to basic values. Know thyself! Be true to your own values and to your gods. Wicca is about celebrating all that is female and all that is male, and all that comes about when the two meet. If you are of the Wicca, being a man ceases to be an issue, it’s just simply as it must be.
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