Tag Archives: feminist witchcraft

Ancestors for the Alienated

On the subject of ancestor worship, I find myself deeply conflicted.

Its provenance, of course, is undeniable: it is attested across the whole of the world and the whole of human history, from some of the oldest archeological sites to cultures across the world today.  There are those who see its traces in the roots of all religion, though that is always a bold and, from a scholastic standpoint, unprovable claim.  Its efficacy, also,  as both magic and religion, is well attested in both ancient and modern times.  As Gordon White has said, and others have said before him, who among the Otherworld could care as much or as well for human affairs as those who have, themselves, been mortals?

And yet … I find the notion of ancestry … troubling.

To lay the facts bare: I am a witch from a family of Christians.  I am queer from a family most of which I never felt safe coming out to.  I was assigned male at birth and, for all that I am both more and less and other than that, look the part enough that I am generally ascribed the privileges associated with it, and know first hand exactly what sort of monster men are trained to be.  I am white in a world where white supremacy has brought low every people and nation it has come across, all in the name of profit and purity.  I am not proud of the people I come from, nor should I be.

The one attempt I made at “ancestor work” (for lack of a better word) was a visionary journey undertaken at Heartland Pagan Festival 2009, my first with Aradia.  I was only at the beginning of my visionary studies, then, but visions of that strength have remained few and far between.  The drumming began, and I entered the trance.  When the time came to leave my body, though, things went awry: a column descended from the sky, squares and circles and triangles and other shapes stacked one atop the other, all scribed in bright blue light, poured down and pinned me where I was.  The message, I feel as strongly now as I did then, was clear.  “You are not wanted,” it said.  “Do not call upon us.”

And yet … one without a past has no future.  And witches and queers alike have always sought strength in both the facts of history and the mythic past.

Who are the Mighty Dead that I call upon come Samhain?  Who are the ancestors of the alienated?  Several names come readily to mind.  Doreen Valiente.  Gerald Gardner.  Margaret Murray.  Pamela Coleman Smith.  Aleister Crowley.  Frieda Harris.  Frida Kahlo.  Margot Adler.  None of them perfect people, of course.  But … I wonder.  Would they answer if we called?  We, their spiritual heirs, those who draw strength and inspiration from their life’s works?

I could have the answer to that.  I have tools for divination.  And yet …

Frankly, I fear the answer.  I am, as I said, deeply uncomfortable even with the notion of ancestry and, by extension, ancestor worship.  And then there’s the part where necromancy has a certain (perhaps undeserved) reputation, which was ingrained in me deeply early on.  And, were I to ask, and be told “yes, you may call upon us” … then I would be rather obliged to follow through.

And then there are the basic logistical questions: what do the rituals look like?  Having been raised in the heart and soul of White America, a land where Protestant Christianity has done its best to scrape all the ritual and ecstasy and tradition from even its own religion, I have no native rites to turn to for inspiration.  Nor do I wish to engage in any appropriation of others’ cultures: I am seeking to undermine my ancestors genocidal legacy, not participate in it.  Perhaps the dead, themselves, might instruct me.  That would be the best option, but it still leaves me floundering for a place to begin.

Who are the ancestors of the alienated?  What are their rites?

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In Pursuit of a Queerer Witchcraft

For those who haven’t caught on yet: I’m fucking queer.  This shapes my experience of magic every bit as much as it does my interaction with the rest of the world.  Sometimes positively.  Sometimes negatively.

I live in Kansas City, where the Pagan community is “cool” with people like me  …  just as long as we never complicate their gender binary, or challenge the gender dynamics of their power structures.  Sunrise, Indiana, was worse: excepting Sannafrid, they had that awful Viking vibe of aggressive heteronormativity.  Lawrence, Kansas, where I come from originally … well, honestly, it’s hard to say.   I was pretty closeted and ignorant back then, and the world ten and twenty years ago was a very different place.  Although I have known a variety of other LGBT witches, pagans, and sorcerers in my time, barely a handful  of them have been politically queer, and most of those from the …well, to be blunt, from the anti-radical cis gay political end of things.

Literature has largely failed me, as well.  The things I have found in print largely pigeonhole Pagan queers: speaking exclusively to cisgender gays and lesbians, and framing them guides and teachers for the pagan community at large, a teaching tool for others but of no value to or in themselves.  They also tend to be very appropriative, stealing language from First Nations peoples, and poorly researched in terms of the ancient peoples they point to for comfort and inspiration.  There are some explicitly radical and trans-positive Pagan ebooks available in the world (interestingly: almost all anthologies) but I find it increasingly difficult to read from a screen, and strive to spend most of my digital time producing content rather than consuming it.

I know  that there are,  in the world, traditions of witchcraft more friendly to queer ethics and politics than any I have seen in person or in print.  I hope, someday, to find a teacher.  A coven.  A community.

In the meantime, however, I must write the book I want to read.  I must create the community I wish to find.

What does it mean, to me, to be a witch?  What does it mean, to me, to be queer?  What does it mean, to me, to be a queer witch?  I have been asking these questions for fifteen and twenty years.  So far my answers are still ephemeral, less than satisfactory.

Witchcraft is both a being and a doing: to be a witch is to practice witchcraft.  Not all forms of magic are witchcraft, though, and sometimes it’s hard to say what is and what isn’t.  Often, it’s a sort of “I know it when I see it” sort of thing.  But what I can say is this: it is transgressive.  It is an explicit rejection of one’s assigned place in the world, particularly with regard to sanctity and blasphemy, but also with regard to class and caste.  It is movement outside the boundaries.  It is reaching too high, and stooping too low.  It is addressing gods as equals and cavorting with forbidden powers.

To be queer is likewise to transgress the boundaries assigned by society.  To be queer is to reject traditional limits of masculinity and femininity.  To be queer is to engage in forbidden loves and lusts.  It is to take your identity into your own hands – and, by doing so, often putting your life at risk, as well.

To be a queer witch, then, is doubly transgressive, doubly marginal.  It leaves practically no area of my life safe from public condemnation.  I cannot be a model minority.  Even if I were to otherwise submit utterly, the very fact that I exist is a challenge to the system.

I am Outside.  I am Other, even among Others. Everywhere I go, I find … “No, not this, either.”

And yet … what I am not is an unsatisfactory exploration of what I am.

I must clear new paths, pave new roads, perform new rites, write new books, dedicate new temples.

But it’s so, so hard to travel alone.

I am one mad, damaged queer.  My vision is insufficient to tear down the edifices of the Patriarchy.  These two hands are not enough to destroy the gender binary.  Alone, even with my friends and lovers, I cannot find or create new gods adequate to the new age which we must build together.

Our predecessors walked away from the One God.  They found a new Goddess and her Consort.  They found that the Old Gods had never truly left.  But our peers are too complacent, looking too much to the past and the present.  We must look to the future.  We must be transgressors and innovators.  We must complicate witchcraft.  We must queer it.

So I beg you: come forth, and follow with me. Lead me, if you will.  Let us make witchcraft a wilder, stranger place than it has ever dreamed.

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Apolitical Paganism Must End

At its inception in the first half of the 20th Century, modern neo-Pagan witchcraft was inherently political.  It was a new religion for a new age.  Disdaining the One God for a Goddess and her consort.  Challenging mainstream religion with (then new, albeit now discredited) interpretations of historical fact.  Giving religious authority to individual worshipers and, more frighting, to women.

In the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, Pagans of all stripes were closely allied with the environmental and animal rights movements.  Witchcraft traditions, in particular, were almost synonymous with feminism.  The Feri and Reclaiming traditions, just to name two, were political protest organizations as much as religious ones.

When I joined the movement in the mid 1990s that was still the case.  The Satanic Panic was “officially” over, but the echoes had not yet died down.  We were fighting for the right to serve openly in the military.  Every Pagan web page on the internet had a link to, or the full text of, Isaac Bonewits cult identification rubric, and/or a disclaimer addressing law enforcement, assuring them that we did not believe in Satan, curse anyone, or perform human or animal sacrifices.  A presidential hopeful (who went on to win) scored points with his base by condemning us as “not a real religion”.  There were an increasing number of people who resisted calling any of that “political”, but that didn’t change the reality that it was.

In the 1990s and 2000s, though, an underlying current of assimilationism made its way to the forefront.  I don’t know, exactly, what happened.  Perhaps, like we’ve seen in the Gay Rights movement over the last few years, those with the least to lose decided that they had won enough recognition that they are prepared to throw everyone else under the bus in order to keep it.  My own belief is that, in the wake of, first, the Satanic Panic, then the 9/11 attacks, fear and nationalism took over: “we’re just like everyone else” stopped being a strategically deployed shield, and became a goal.

People stopped looking quite so askance at Neo-Nazi Norse Pagans, and that – combined with the spikes in racism and sexism in mainstream society – backflowed into the Pagan mainstream like an overflowing sewer, reinforcing the underlying racism and swank pedestal sexism that had always been a part of the movement.  Explicitly nationalist (and often implicitly heterosexist white supremacist) reconstructionist Paganisms emerged in both Europe and the United States.

Now event organizers pride themselves on their political neutrality.  When Pagans discuss what they need to to to achieve greater “mainstream acceptance”, more than half will tell you that Paganism needs to keep out of politics.  When trans folx demand to be included in gendered rites, half the opposition is from pole who don’t want their religion politicized.  When others among us demand un-gendered spaces, or try to complicate gendered archetypes, we are accused of “overthinking things” or dismissed as having “an agenda”. When some of us point out that Native Americans have asked not to be counted among our number, have asked us to stop stealing their language, to stop aping their their rituals, to stop copying and selling their tools, we are accused of being too political.  When some of us speak up against police brutality, against war, against rape culture, we are shouted down as being too negative, too divisive, too political.

That doesn’t work.  Literally everything is political.

For Paganism to stay out of politics, it must become empty and meaningless.  And, even then, it’s still political: it’s become a product to be sold, a lifestyle to be aspired to, an aesthetic without ethics or ecstasy.

Politics is ethics in practice.  If our religion does not inform our ethics (and vice versa, for that matter), then it is nothing.

Paganism must be political.  Pagans must take public stances, as Pagans, on the issues of our day.  We must agitate.  We must argue.  We must take action.

 

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ξένια: The Ethical Implications of Hospitality and Witchcraft

Behold, ξένια (xenia):

“… There you have my lineage.  That is the blood I claim, my royal birth.”

When he heard that, Diomedes spirits lifted.  Raising his spear, the lord of the war cry drove it home, planting it deep down in the earth that feds us all and with winning words he called out to Glaucus, the young captain, “Splendid–you are my friend, my guest from the days of our grandfathers long ago!  Noble Oeneus hosted your brave Bellerophon once, he held him there in his halls, twenty whole days, and they gave each other handsome gifts of friendship.

Come, let us keep clear of each other’s spears, even there in the thick of battle.  Look, plenty of Trojans there for me to kill, your famous allies to, any soldier the god will bring n range and I can run to ground.  And plenty of Argives too–kill them if yo can.  The men must know our claim: we are sworn friends from our fathers’ days till now!”

Both agreed.  Both fighters sprang from their chariots, clasped each other’s hands and traded pacts of friendship.

Iliad VI.251-279.  Translated by Robert Fagels.  Penguin (1990).

From ξένος, “stranger” (though, specifically a civilized neighbor, not βαρβαρος ) and often translated as “guest-friendship”, ξένια was the ancient Hellenic practice of hospitality that assured travelers a safe place to stay, on the one hand, and the good behavior of guests on the other.  In a very real sense, the reciprocal obligations obligations of hospitality among mortals mirrored the reciprocity of piety and patronage between mortals and gods: it was a covenant.  Guest and host honored their duties alike, because it was one of the founding ethics of their society; to fail to do so invited chaos.  The central conceit of the Iliad, after all, is that Paris/Alexandris violated the terms of hospitality when he abducted Helen (willingly or unwillingly, the primary text is unclear … and how does being brainjacked by Aphrodite, as Helen implies she was at III.460-5, calculate into discussions of consent?), and the otherwise un-unified whole of Greece went to war for it.  For further examples, the whole Odyssey is basically a treatise on what goes wrong when you violate the terms of hospitality.

This is one of the Hellenistic practices that translates almost directly into my own life: all who come under my roof come under my protection–for the duration of their stay, at the very least.  Those who partake of my hospitality may always expect (at the very least):

  • clean water, and what food and booze I can afford to share (all my friends being as poor as I am, that painful caveat is mutually understood)
  • a safe place to stay at the end of the party and an intervention of they are too intoxicated to travel on their own
  • a safe place to stay when traveling through my territory
  • the use of my shower and laundry facilities
  • that, barring simple accidents, their bodies and property are safe within my territory
  • that they may always request a change of subject, excepting only if an intervention is taking place
  • that, while sexually charged situations may arise, sexually predatory behavior will never be permitted
  • that, should anyone encroach upon them, I will always take their side

But the idea of sacred hospitality also intersects, in my mind and heart, at least, with Hermetic notions of the Kingdom and with my feminist notions of witchcraft.  For those who partake of my hospitality on the regular, the protection follows them home.  And, however problematic it may be, I expect the same of them.   They are allied nations, in a sense, and the standards by which I judge the hospitality they offer are raised considerably.  Although I have never been handed this law as a taboo, it is the only position I can hold given my particular background of neo-Hellenism, Hermetics, and feminist witchcraft.  Simply put, fair or not, I hold the hospitality of others to my own ethical standards as a matter of spiritual obligation.

The thing of it is, though, these are not just words.  Ideas have consequences–ethics in particular.  What does one do, then, as a modern neo-Pagan neo-Hellenistic feminist witch, the divinely-charged manager of one’s own spiritual world, when one learns that a friend–the lord of an allied Kingdom–has grossly violated the laws of hospitality?

Clever readers will have already noted that this is a particularly neo-Pagan spin on one of the fundamental issues in feminism and other social justice movements: how do we police our own spaces?  What is the best way to respond to racist, sexist, and homophobic language when it’s coming out of the mouths of people we love?  What do you do when your friends exhibit sexually predatory behavior?

I don’t have the answers to these questions, unfortunately.  Confronting bigots in the wrong way often leads to them doubling-down on heir biases; socially isolating predators can lead to faster escalation.  Do we bind them then?  Curse them into oblivion?  Feed them to the Furies or to Tartaros, himself?  But I’m tired of seeing these issues blown off in Pagan circles as “divisive”, or being the fault of people who just can’t hack it (whether “it” be the liqour they’re drinking or the permissive atmosphere of festivals or whatever), or dismissed as “politics” and therefore unrelated to spirituality.

I am, however, hereby formally proposing that, at the very least for those of us who see a sacred component to hospitality, these are issues of spiritual consequence.

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