Introduction: Why I’m Doing This
I’m not a scholar. I once tried to be, but I wanted babies more than I wanted the degree, and in the end I couldn’t do both well.
So now I have a smattering of outdated knowledge of Medieval and Renaissance literature rattling around in my head, along with the things I was reading when I should have been working on the lit degree (mostly theology and spirituality), the things I read in second-career-grad-school (psychotherapy related, plus more theology), lots of rock songs and gardening info– and the experience of marriage and child rearing.
I’ve been Catholic, agnostic, Catholic again, then atheist; Democrat, Republican, and Democrat again; feminist, traditional, feminist again. I’ve made the acquaintance of Zen Buddhism, read a little Rumi, and now, against all odds, have taken an interest in Wicca, sort of.
I’m basically an atheist feminist solitary eclectic witch.
For starters, because I want to remember the women who, under that label, were killed for standing out– including, btw, my Catholic patron saint. But I’ve settled on it as perhaps the least misleading of all the misleading terms I could apply to myself. I’ve been googling “witch,” “wiccan,” and “pagan” for some time, trying to figure out if I’m flesh or fowl or good red herring. The world of Wicca sounds a little more organized than I’m comfortable with at present– though you can practice as a solitary, and there are no orthodoxy police. There’s a hierarchy, and steps involved in joining and advancing (if that’s the right word) in a coven, and, as Huck Finn would say, I been there. It may be very different from the hierarchies I’ve dealt with so far, but– call me phobic– I don’t want to join another damn community of believers till I’m very, very sure what I want, and what are my cues to leave.
I’m also too much of an atheist to comfortably refer to “the goddess” or “the Lord and Lady” without an asterisk and an explanation that I am, of course, just personifying some positive trend in myself, my history, or the world.
As for pagan … you may, if you’re old and a former Catholic like me, remember when “buying a pagan baby” (i.e., sponsoring a foreign child in a Catholic mission) was a popular classroom charity. And then there were the textbook pagans, people in fancy antique garb who bullied Christians in sandals. They were the “other” team, the guys whose ways we were not to adopt. Even as an atheist, it sometimes feels creepy to me to be doing stuff that “pagans” did.
But even setting aside the remnants of an old prejudice, “pagan,” like “wiccan,” seems to be too bound up with deities. As for “secular pagan,” while I do recycle, I’m less focused on green politics than they seem to be (though I am an ardent fan of Jethro Tull’s Songs from the Wood album, and that should count for something).
So, you ask, “witch” is not misleading?
Well, yes, and the neo-pagan definitions I’ve read involve such a broadening of the term that it is barely recognizable. A witch, I’ve read, is anyone who does witchcraft, and witchcraft is any use of energy to manipulate the natural world in a way that brings about change. So, for instance, a doctor, a cook, and an artist are all practicing witchcraft. And as a psychotherapist, so am I. There’s nothing objectionable in that, but also nothing much resonant with the flavor of the word “witch.” Why adopt it, then?
Initially, I labored under the misconception that “witch” came from the same root as “wizard” and “wise,” as well as “wicked.”* In fact, some source I can’t remember claimed that at one point, the English language did not distinguish between a “witch,” a “wise woman,” and a “wicked woman.” As the bumper sticker says, well-behaved women rarely make history, and indeed, educated and unconventional women were popular targets for witch hunters.
But as cool as that bogus etymology is, it’s wrong. “Witch” and “wicca” come from the Anglo-Saxon word for “to bend.” Witchcraft is about bending, shaping, reality. And this is cool in its own way– witchcraft is not about breaking, ignoring, or violating nature or ourselves; it’s about working with it, within its capacities, to influence it in whatever constructive ways we can.
And “magic”? The term comes up in Wicca, witchcraft, and paganism. I’m too lazy to drag out the OED, so I’ll wing it. Magic …. Magi: the three “wise men” of the nativity story, but the root isn’t about wisdom. Magister … it’s about mastery, mastering something. From my lit days I remember C. S. Lewis pointing out that in the Renaissance, both “magic” and “science” were about the mastery of nature– but in the sense of domination, or even, if you will, rape. They were about getting minerals or demons or chemicals or people to do your bidding, against their will, if need be.
But there are other ways of “mastering” a skill or a situation. Through understanding. Through attunement. Through patient negotiation. This is the “magic” of the Horse Whisperer, or a good parent. Modern witches, wiccans and pagans tend toward this kind of magic. The wise-craft of a witch, then, would ideally be a skillful understanding of herself and others, and a skillful adaptation to her surroundings that helps bring about change. Good change.
Now that’s a witchcraft I can get behind.
And why the blog? The only point, apart from my needing to think out loud, is this: The major religious traditions are all rooted in patriarchy. Moreover, history shows that goddess worship does not guarantee respect for real, living women. Feminist-pagan-wiccan-witches are trying to build from the ground up, with the shards and spiritual jetsam we find, fleshed out by our imaginations. We’re making it up as we go.
But women can’t afford to abandon critical thinking, not now of all times, when women of advanced nations finally have access to education, and women in the third world are still fighting for it. We won’t become empowered by buying (or manufacturing) snake oil.
Any religious tradition that lasts and has real power to give us meaning has to emerge from the cauldron of many hearts and minds, allowed to simmer, allowed to mature. And any religious tradition that hopes to be a vital and empowering force in the future had better not pit itself against hard realities, in particular scientifically and historically verifiable realities.
So without claiming the power to dictate or define for others, maybe we do owe each other the kind of input that will aid the refining process– or to go for a witchier metaphor, the kinds of ingredients that will cook up the richest brew.
Here’s my handful of spice.