10 Novels that Informed my Paganism

Yesterday I stumbled across this post on Patheos. For those of my readers who don’t click links, it’s the first part of a list of 22 books that, according to the author, have influenced and defined Modern Paganism (Part 2 hasn’t been posted as of this writing). Having read all but one of the books included in this installment, I think it’s an interesting list so far. But it doesn’t resonate with me or my experience, so I decided to do a list of my own.

The following are books I discovered as a young reader (under the age of 25). Only one is specifically Pagan-centric. Mostly, they slip their Pagan themes into the margins and between sentences–in my opinion, a liminal space highly appropriate for such things–where they contribute to the way the authors constructed their worlds. It’s only later, reading as an adult Witch, that I look at what I absorbed, and laugh, and think, “Well, no wonder I turned out the way I did!” I recommend all of them highly, and I hope if you’re interested, you’ll check a few out, no matter what your religious bent.

In no particular order:

earthseaThe Earthsea Trilogy, by Ursula K. LeGuin

This is the first of LeGuin’s books I ever read. I loved Fantasy and Mythology from an exceptionally young age and eagerly consumed all I could get my hands on. Earthsea had everything: Magic, a school for Wizards, Dragons, and numerous quests. It hooked me from the first page.

From the very beginning, the trilogy serves up a substantial helping of philosophy along with its engaging plot. The magical system is all about balance; in fact, this site’s header, “To Light a Candle is to Cast a Shadow” is a direct quote. The wizards can’t simply do anything they like. Taking energy from one place removes it from another, and every act has consequences. The protagonist learns this to his sorrow when he works a spell out of ego and unleashes a horror. This was my first introduction to the concepts of Karma and the Shadow Self, as well as the idea that sometimes the better part of wisdom for people of power lies in acceptance rather than action. Another bonus is that the main races populating Earthsea are Black and Brown people, although this is rarely shown on the books’ covers and never, to my knowledge, in any of the film productions of the novels.

facesTill We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis

My 8th grade English teacher recommended this book to me to keep me busy when everyone else was working on a grammar program I’d already finished. It’s a retelling of the Greek myth of Eros and Psyche, which has its reflection in many fairy tales, and it’s the first book I ever read that turned a familiar story inside out by telling it from a different point of view. In this case, the point of view is that of the usual antagonist, Orual, the ugly sister of the beautiful Psyche.

Till We Have Faces has a lot to say about the nature of the gods and the nature of knowledge and responsibility. It shows that everyone has a story and everyone’s voice deserves to be heard without flinching from the truth that individual stories can and do come into conflict. It also addresses the harm conventional ideas about beauty does to women, the tragedy that can result when people treat others as possessions, and the need to open one’s heart to both love and grief in order to gain true wisdom.

ExcaliburExcalibur by Sanders Ann Laubenthal

I read this book about the same time I read the previous two. It’s a marvelous adaptation of the Grail Quest to contemporary Mobile, Alabama, which contains elements of Gothic novels as well as Fantasy. Working with both the historical idea that Iron Age Welshmen “discovered” the New World and concepts of reincarnation, it reexamines the definitions of betrayal and redemption. It also has a large number of kick-ass woman characters, which was quite unusual for a book of its time. One of them is an eccentric aunt who lives in a castle and wears medieval garb on a daily basis because she feels like it. I wanted to be her.

This is the first book I read where active magic and Tarot cards played a major role, and I can say without a doubt that it led to my becoming a Tarot reader.

princessThe Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald

George MacDonald was one of the predecessors of both C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, a Scottish Presbyterian minister and professor who was once driven out of his kirk for heretical ideas–or so the story goes. His original fairy tales are some of my favorites. This children’s book starts out in a familiar way with a naughty princess climbing a mysterious stairway, and proceeds immediately to turn every story of the type on its head. Princess Irene meets her “grandmother,” a virtually immortal woman who, with her spinning wheel and “moon lamp,” as well as a tendency to be young or old as it suits her, is a clear stand-in for the Triple Goddess. She sets Irene on a quest which will have repercussions for everyone around her and end a threat no one will talk about.

I love this book because it makes an eight-year-old girl the hero of her own story and shows that girls are brave, steadfast, and capable in their own right. Irene doesn’t sit around waiting to be rescued; she gets dirty and does the work even when the people around her don’t believe in her.

curdieThe Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald

I didn’t initially like this book as much as I liked its predecessor, but I found a beautifully illustrated edition in the library book sale and read it for the pictures. It follows about a year after The Princess and the Goblin, and concerns the further adventures of Irene’s companion, the miner boy Curdie. At the beginning, things don’t look so good for him, but an encounter with the Crone in the guise of Irene’s grandmother teaches him the value of believing the impossible, and the task she sets him shows that scratching the surface of reality always reveals a deeper truth. More of a Hero’s Journey than its companion, The Princess and Curdie still features an array of important woman characters from all walks of life.

horseThe Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge

Elizabeth Goudge is better known for her adult Gothic Romances than her children’s books, of which this is one. Set in Edwardian times, this is the story of the orphaned Maria, who’s sent to live with her eccentric uncle in a mysterious, cursed manor. Before long, she sets herself to the task of righting past wrongs and settling old grievances.

The Little White Horse features a host of amazing characters both human and animal, as well as a plot full of puzzles and magic. It’s gender balanced, with a thirteen-year-old female protagonist and many supporting woman characters. One of the things I like best about it is that, although there is a prophecy involved, Maria grasps her fate with both hands. She does what she does because it’s the right thing and because she wants to, out of love, not to fulfill some cosmic destiny.

valeriansLinnets and Valerians by Elizabeth Goudge

Linnets and Valerians shares a lot of themes with The Little White Horse, but it’s geared towards a younger audience. Once again we see the young protagonists–four brothers and sisters this time–abandon the conventional for the magical in the form of an eccentric uncle in a manor house with an equally eccentric staff. And once again, there’s an old wrong to be righted and dark magic to confront.

Both this book and the previous show how getting away from societal norms and opening the mind to magical thinking, as well as connecting with nature, can lead to changes no one ever expected. They do share a flaw, which is the trope of the “magical disabled person,” so if you read them or recommend them to children, this is something you might want to bear in mind. Since they were written in the 40s, I don’t mind it as much as I might in a contemporary work.

moonheartMoonheart by Charles DeLint

This is the breakout novel from the virtual inventor of Urban Fantasy. There are books of his that I like better, with themes that resonate more closely, but this was the first DeLint I read. Set in contemporary Canada, it explores the way lives are connected over time and the consequences of unintended action. It’s chock full of both Celtic and Native American mythology. (The latter is a bit appropriative by today’s standards, unfortunately.) One of the things that I love about it is the way it shows music and other acts of creation as magical in and of themselves. Most of the characters don’t have any special powers; they’re just ordinary folks in extraordinary situations. Along the way, they learn banding together and supporting each other is the best way to create the world they want to live in.

the king must dieThe King Must Die by Mary Renault

This retelling of the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur is one of my favorite books of all time. Mary Renault was exceptionally skilled at tackling old stories from a sideways slant that both made logical sense and gave them new life. Here, she’s infused the Hero’s Journey with humanity and perspective to explore the nature of sacrifice and the power of consent.

One of the things that makes this book important from a Witchy perspective is the way it deals with the conflict between Matriarchal, earth-centered traditions and Patriarchal ones, showing the flaws in both systems. You can root for the hero at the same time as you cringe at some of his decisions. It teaches the importance of valuing people of all genders for themselves and not dismissing the identity of any.

avalonThe Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

Since the revelations of Marion Zimmer Bradley as a perpetrator of and apologist for child sexual abuse, this book has become a controversial inclusion in any list. It’s still the book most responsible for my identifying as Pagan and claiming the word Witch. To my memory, it was the very first novel that took a male-centered mythology, in this case the Matter of Britain, and retold it from the points of view of the women involved. It was the very first book I read that came out and said “God is a woman, too, and women can be powerful in matters of religion.” In the mid-eighties, if you asked a Pagan how they came to the path, The Mists of Avalon was almost always one of the deciding factors.  Bradley herself later dismissed Paganism as hypocritical for various reasons–e.g., she thought a “fertility religion” had no business taking a pro-choice stance. But there’s no doubt she wrote a powerful paean to woman-centered spirituality here.

That’s my list. I hope you’ll check out some of the titles. Happy reading!


Writing About Witches: Ten Tired Tropes

I get sad sometimes when I follow the #WeNeedDiverseBooks tag or see a discussion on the Internet about the need for diversity in fiction. Please don’t get me wrong: I altogether agree with the sentiment. The voices of People of Color, people with disabilities, Indigenous Peoples, minority religions, and LGBTQ+ people, among others, are underrepresented in fiction. WOMEN are still underrepresented in the book world. No question about it, the movement towards more diversity is necessary.

So why are people still writing the same old stories and using the same tired tropes about Witches and Magic?

Pagan religions are a minority, with about a million practitioners in the United States and about 3 million worldwide, although numbers are hard to determine; many Pagans remain closeted due to misconceptions perpetuated in the media and ongoing discrimination. As well, even among ourselves Pagans disagree about terminology. Some include Indigenous religions and their offshoots, and some don’t. Some claim the term “Pagan” but not the term “Witch,” and vice versa. For an outsider interested in writing an engaging story, wading through all the differences may seem like more trouble than it’s worth. But the fact remains that we are a real minority religion, and very few authors who are not some manner of Pagan themselves give attention to that, or do in depth research into Pagan practices that they would for any other minority religion. When Witches and Magic appear in fiction, they almost always succumb to clichés . And this perpetuates harmful stereotypes, the same way it does when you resort to stock depictions of other marginalized groups.

I think a lot of this is due to the fact that the Pagan world view is so different from that of other dominant religions at this point in history. Even if you don’t subscribe to one of the dominant religions, their ethos, myth, and outlook have shaped the world, particularly Western culture, for the last two thousand years. They influence the way people think and the stories we tell, and those thoughts and stories show up in the art we produce unless we challenge them. The problem is, most people coming from a majority viewpoint don’t even understand that their views don’t apply to everyone. It’s “just the way the world works.” When you operate under that assumption, you have no reason to ask the questions that will lead you deeper. Anybody can do an Internet search and learn enough in an hour to give a fictional Witch a veneer of reality. You can find out the basic belief structure and the basic shape of ritual. But this isn’t enough to instill a real understanding of what it means to be a Pagan: how we look at the world, how we interact with the forces we know as divine, and how we relate to those around us.

Can you write a witchy character without bringing religion into it? I want to tell you, “Sure, go ahead!” Witches are powerful archetypes and they’re prominent in fairy tales and folklore for a reason! Unfortunately, a lot of the reasons the witch archetype is powerful are innately linked to systems of oppression society has deployed against non-conforming individuals for hundreds of years. This includes the rationalist belief that witches and magic aren’t real. I can’t see a much better way to erase a minority than to claim they don’t exist. You can see a similar thing in the way some still claim that sexual orientation and non-conforming gender identity are “disorders” that need to be fixed. There are no doubt people who identify as witches without claiming any religion, just as there are cultures (usually Indigenous ones) where the word that translates most closely to “witch” refers to a person who is categorically harmful and evil. In my opinion, however, we have enough stories where this is the case and religious witches deserve to see ourselves accurately represented as much as anyone else. To that end, I’m compiling this list of ten tropes I’m tired of seeing in the hopes that someone might find it educational and useful.

#10: You Can Tell A Witch By Looking

laurie cabot quote

The irony of the Laurie Cabot quote aside, Witches DO look like everyone else. You can no more tell a Witch by looking than you can a Catholic, or a Presbyterian, or a Jew. Still, most of the time when Witches appear in books, they look strange. Whether as Goths or Hippies, we’re presented as outsiders in dress as well as belief. And often our tastes are outré even for the subculture. Sure, there are Goth Witches and Hippie Witches. There are also Preppy Witches and Witches in the Military and Witches like me, who mainly wear T-shirts and sweat pants (or jeans for special occasions). The reasons most Witches look “normal” are 1. we’re human beings and 2. in a lot of places in the USA (I don’t really know about other countries) you get shit for looking different. You especially get shit for having an appearance people might associate with stereotypes of scary black magic. And by “getting shit,” I mean anything from catcalls and literal mudslinging to being murdered in the name of Jesus. So it’s no wonder many actual Witches and Pagans would want to dress as unobtrusively as possible. The pictures you see of people like Laurie Cabot and Druids in robes at the local park are most often people who have made a special dedication to the religious life and/or in a position of enough social and financial privilege that they are safe being obvious.

#9: Witches Are Hyper Sexual
How 'bout that cauldron of red-hot love?
How ’bout that cauldron of red-hot love?

How many times have we seen the plain girl discover her occult power and turn into a glamorous bombshell? Way too many. This trope comes from common understanding of many types of Paganism as fertility religions and quotes like “All acts of love and pleasure are my rituals” (From “The Charge of the Goddess,” written by Gerald Gardner and stolen from Aleister Crowley), as well as a prurient focus on “The Great Rite” as popularized by Raymond Buckland, among others. Please note that all of these were white men of privilege who had certain views about the roles of women, even if they tried to oversome them. It leads to random guys showing up at rituals expecting to get laid because “Witches are easy” and lobbing shit around like, “If you’re serious about honoring the Goddess, you need to sleep with me.”

Most Witches and Pagans believe that things of the earth and the body, including sex, are just as sacred (if not more so) as things of the spirit. This is true. It’s also true that most of us see it as important to all, and women especially, to reclaim sex and beauty as the powerful expressions of self that they are for many and dispense with messages we may have absorbed that sex is wrong, dirty, or otherwise a bad thing. In this way, a character’s transformation from mousy to mouthwatering can be an appropriate metaphor. Unfortunately, most places where it appears fail to put the change into any kind of context.  If I see another drawing of a teen witch in a mini skirt flipped up to reveal her panties, my head is going to explode. Our religious beliefs don’t exist to titillate you. Please stop.

#8: All Witches Are Women

No explanation necessary. It’s not true. Yes, in most Pagan sects women hold equal power to men and in many women hold greater power. There are quiet a few sects that are woman only. That doesn’t diminish the fact that men can also be Witches. Please show some. And by the way, male Witches are Witches, not Warlocks.

#7: The Mysterious Spellbook

book of shadows

The character inherits it, or finds it in an attic or used book store. Maybe they read it out loud on a lark or to make fun of it, or maybe they want it to work because their life sucks. And WHAMMO! It does work! Shit, what now?

There are so many problems with this that I actually have to unpack them in separate tropes. In the main, despite the fact that words are magical, reading a spell–even out loud–does not guarantee the spell works. Also, Witches often keep Books of Shadows (I’m sure you’ve heard of the practice). They are a sacred object, and it’s demeaning to see them treated as a joke or a plot device in this way. It’s analogous to having a character read The Bible aloud and cause Jesus to manifest. Don’t.

#6: The Magical Destiny

Often appears in company with the mysterious spellbook. The 90s TV show, Charmed, is a prime example. Character or characters inherit or find spellbook and discover they’re Witches. The next thing you know, they’re tossing fireballs around and fighting demons. As much as we might like it to, Magic doesn’t work like that. You might be born with an aptitude for it, but you’re about as likely to accomplish amazing feats on the first try as a person with a talent for playing the flute is to perform Bach’s First Flute Sonata they first time they pick up the instrument. They simply won’t have developed the necessary skills and coordination. Finding out you have a destiny doesn’t change that.

#5: Magic Is Inherently Dangerous/Inevitably Will Cause Harm/Go Wrong

I see this trope in a lot of Epic Fantasy as well as Supernatural and Paranormal fiction. In a way, it also is a standard of fairy tales featuring Witches. The Witch always loses in the end, whether she gets pushed into an oven or whether the hero steals the required magical objects, murders her family, and abandons her on a glacier. The message is the same: Look what happens to people who mess around with these things. This is a problem because cautionary tales of this nature are often used by people in positions of power to prevent others from gaining the ability to challenge them, or simply becoming empowered in their own right. (You can see this working in so-called “abstinence only sex education,” with its focus on all the terrible stuff that will happen to you if you have sex.) And it encompasses another idea I’ve run across more than once, that “An untrained magic user is a danger to themselves and everyone around them.” Usually this leads to the magic user in question being given the particular training sanctioned by the relevant government. Which I find interesting, to say the least. (Disclaimer: I have read a few books of this type where the magic user later falls in with “outsiders” and learns about the gaps in the government-sanctioned training.)

Magic as modern Witches and Pagans know it doesn’t work that way. As I said above, it’s HIGHLY unlikely that a person without training would be able to move enough energy to level a city or cause some other kind of disaster. People have defined magic in a lot of different ways: as the ability to effect change in accordance with the will (Crowley), as a talent for seeing things sideways and responding appropriately, as “the art of changing consciousness at will.” (Dion Fortune) I see it as a process of bringing the known self into line with the potential self and with the forces, both seen and unseen, that underlie events. It’s a discipline much like yoga or meditation, with the difference that it’s often geared towards material change rather than only a change in consciousness. In that respect, it makes about as much sense to assume an untrained magic user is a danger as it does to assume an untrained yoga practitioner is. A beginner who attempts something beyond their ability might pull a muscle, rarely more.

Magic requires focused intent to work. The ability to focus on a specific intent, without the intrusion of hopes, fears, unconscious desires, and the like, does not come easily. If intent falters, the energy dissipates. It doesn’t get out of control or go on to wreak havoc.

This trope encompasses those instances of the power-hungry coven leader being led astray by some supernatural entity (I’m looking at you, True Blood), becoming deluded, and otherwise succumbing to evil that the (morally pure) protagonist has to avert somehow. Notice how these coven leaders are almost always women? There’s a reason for that.

#4: Love Spells

love spell

I’m giving this one a section of its own because love spells have a nasty habit of working, often in ways the one casting it doesn’t foresee or like. I think this is because everyone on some level wants love, so you don’t have to reach too far for the intent. A love spell going wrong is a common trope all by itself.

In some traditions love spells are not seen as problematic. You can buy ready made ones from the Internet: Burn the candle at the appropriate phase of the moon, recite the charm, add these herbs to your bath, and Bob’s your uncle. Feminist Witches, however, tend to see them as unethical because you’re using your intent to affect another person WITHOUT THEIR CONSENT. It’s the magical equivalent of drugging someone’s drink, and as such should not be played for laughs. In fact, no magic that affects another person should be performed without their knowledge or consent, no matter WHAT your intent is. Even healing. Ask first. In writing, please refrain from having your character(s) do this unless they are the villain. It’s the spiritual and magical equivalent of rape.

#3: Summoning Demons/The Devil/Angels/Etcetera

This is one where the opposing world view problem really comes to the fore. You may have heard that Witches don’t believe in the Devil, and the orgiastic sabbat where we all lined up to kiss his infernal arse was an invention of the Inquisition. Yes and no. It may or may not be true about the sabbats; there are a variety of explanations, including mass hysteria, ergot poisoning, and Morris Dancing gone wrong. The question of “belief” is a little harder to answer, but the pertinent information is that “The Devil” as defined by the Christian Church is not part of our cosmology. Do I believe there IS such an entity? Actually, yeah, I do. People have fed way too much energy into that thought form for it not to exist. But it’s part of the Christian cosmology, not ours. Same with demons and angels. Sure, they exist. We don’t run in the same circles.

So when I read about some witches summoning any of these entities, my first question is always, “Why?” Because they’re ignorant and happened on a spell? I already explained why that’s unlikely to work. For kicks? Honey, if you’re stupid enough to place a prank call to Lucifer and you get through, you deserve what you get. It all boils down, once again, to intent. Now, it may be that a Witch would have a really good reason to contact an entity from this cosmology, and there are traditions that mix and match pantheons. There are indigenous traditions with their own demons and guardian spirits, as well. So this is my take. The main thing to remember is, you don’t do this on a lark. For gods’ sake, do your research.

While I’m on the subject of summoning, I ran across a “spell for summoning the ancestors” the other day. I had an issue with this. In traditions that practice ancestor worship, you might get in touch with them, honor them, or otherwise approach your ancestors, but you wouldn’t “summon” them. They’re already there. This is another world view conflict. The major religions, especially the Abrahamic ones, but also Buddhism, believe in a transcendent spirituality. That is, the gods, other supernatural entities, and heaven lie OUTSIDE the material and’/or outside mortal ken, and are most often seen as superior to it. There is a stated goal to escape the world and its suffering. Paganism and many Indigenous traditions are religions of immanence. That means everything is present right here, seen and unseen. We talk about the World-That-Is, and it encompasses gods, monsters, mortals, ghosts, rocks, animals, death, life, and the spaces between. It all IS. This is a difficult thing for many outsiders to grasp.

Another thing that often occurs with this trope is that the (female) Witches call up a (male) entity that takes over their lives and leads them to destruction or otherwise causes them to experience BAD THINGS. This is what incensed me about The Witches of Eastwick. In the first place, it perpetuates the stale notion that women doing magic < men doing magic; in fact, a whole group of women doing magic often doesn’t measure up to a single man doing magic. It taps into the idea that women are easily misled and manipulated. And it encompasses the trope I’ve mentioned above, about magic always being dangerous. So please don’t so this one, either.

#2: Tarot Cards

So many stories of a Supernatural or Paranormal bent that I’ve read feel obligated to insert the obligatory, gratuitous card-reading scene. When I was hanging out more on writing forums a few years ago, I saw a question about this every week. Most often they appeared in this form: “I want my protagonist to have a card reading done that predicts such-and-so. What cards mean that?”

Stop. Don’t do that. Don’t ever do that. I’ve read Tarot for forty years, professionally for thirty. Tarot doesn’t work that way. Divination doesn’t work that way. Don’t buy a deck and take your meanings from the included booklet. It looks ridiculous. Tarot and other divinatory tools help people gain insight into themselves and their circumstances. They don’t predict the future, and the meanings of a reading are seldom straightforward. There can be many interpretations. If you MUST, take a class from a reputable reader or read a decent book on the subject, buy a deck, and spend a couple months learning how it works. Really, I’d prefer it if you left out that card scene altogether.

#1: Blood Magic

Blood is old. Blood is powerful. Some traditions practice blood sacrifice. It is always performed by someone trained to do it, for specific reasons. In the Pagan community, it’s a divisive subject.

I gave this the number one spot on the list because blood sacrifice is the without a doubt the most sensational thing non-conforming religions do. Practitioners of Santeria and Vodoun have fought legal battles to be allowed to continue the custom. It strikes a dissonant chord with outsiders for all kinds of reasons: Because of the association with death, because you shouldn’t do that to the poor animals, because Jesus died to make blood sacrifice unnecessary, whatever. Books and movies and TV shows present it in the most sensational way possible. This actively harms practitioners of minority religions. Every time you show a character you call a witch draining the blood from a rat and using it to write a spell, you are reinforcing the dangerous stereotype that we commit gratuitous and unthinking acts of violence and that we have no respect for life. Stay away from it. I know it’s great shock value. That’s precisely why you should NOT indulge in it. Real people practice Pagan religions, and these real people will be the ones hurt if the neighbors take against them. In fact, history has shown that witchcraft hysteria sweeps up innocents who simply don’t look right or who act in ways that communities find threatening. This is not the past. It’s still going on. Don’t add fuel to the fire. Especially don’t add it because the ones who suffer most are People of Color, the mentally ill, and others who push the comfort level of privileged society. (I’ve heard anecdotes of Caucasian witches being harassed out of their homes, but I couldn’t find any documentation.)

This is my list of tropes I’d like to see vanish from fiction about witches. Paganism being what it is, others will no doubt have their own, and many will disagree with what I’ve said. That’s fine with me. I just want our voices to be heard and our lives to be represented, same as anyone.


Challenging The Crone

The other day, I got an email inviting me to participate in an event known as the Crone Council. I deleted it as soon as I read the first line. Not only because I don’t do events (for various reasons including being an extreme introvert and not having the disposable income for travel), but because I have a violent visceral reaction to the word “crone” when used in relation to myself.

For the non-Pagans and others in the audience who may not be familiar with this archetype, many forms of modern Paganism–and perhaps ancient Paganism, though it’s hard to be certain–view the female principle as a triple entity, each part of which reflect a stage of a woman’s life: Maiden, Mother, and Crone. Operating under an old-world view, the Maiden is a girl who has not yet begun menstruating; the Mother rules the years of fertility, from menarche to menopause; and the Crone represents womanhood after the cessation of monthly bleeding. There’s some flexibility to the first two stages. Maidenhood might last several years after a woman’s periods begin and cover sexual awakening and exploration, while identification with the Mother archetype might not begin until a woman has borne her first child, or settled down to her adult role in life. The Crone, on the other hand, has no such leeway. Once a woman stops bleeding, she becomes as the waning moon, a mysterious figure on her way into the dark.

Lots of world mythologies include trios of goddesses conforming to this archetype, which is why it’s easy to think that the pagans of ancient history also subscribed to the Maiden-Mother-Crone idea. There are the fates of Greek myth: Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos. There are the three Norns who guard the Well of Urd in Northern European cosmology: Urd (Fate), Skuld (Being), and Verdandi (Necessity). The Irish battle goddess, the Morrigan, often appears as a triple goddess, embodied most frequently as Badb, Macha, and Nemain. Even the weird sisters of Shakespeare’s MacBeth partake of the power of the triple goddess archetype.

The Triple Goddess archetype, as depicted by archseer.
The Triple Goddess archetype, as depicted by archseer.

Most women I’ve known of a Pagan, or feminist, or vaguely alternative mind as regards religion and spirituality have been excited to enter the sisterhood of the Crone. As a keeper of hidden magic, who’s privy to the mysteries of life and death and answers to no one for her decisions, she’s a powerful figure and role model for older women, who are all too often dismissed as irrelevant in the modern world. For women in a patriarchal society (which, like it or not, modern society is), who have probably spent the first fifty years of their lives conforming in one way or another to male expectations of what a woman should be, it can be liberating to throw it all away and answer to no one but themselves. As a Crone, you’re no longer an object of desire, no longer required to cater to fashion trends or make choices with the welfare of your family in mind. You’re free from the moon’s tidal pull and from the demands of young children. For women who love babies, there are always grandchildren, whom you can enjoy and cosset, and return to their mothers when you’re through. Or so runs the party line.

So what’s my problem? I’m what is still known in some circles as “a woman of a certain age,” prime Crone material. Why does the idea of claiming this archetype turn my stomach?

The Crone from the Well-Worn Path Tarot.
The Crone from the Well-Worn Path Tarot.

Part of it is personal. Looking to the triple goddess as a guide through the stages of a woman’s life and the changes a woman’s body goes through from birth to death can be a powerful tool. But I, for reasons of upbringing, and culture, and perhaps simple Fate, missed out on those life stages. In all the ways that matter to me, I have always been a Crone.

It’s a fact that even in the worst society, a person is rewarded for conforming to social norms. This is something I have never been good at. My family, my parents in particular, had a severe impediment when it came to discussing the realities of young womanhood. And being a bookish kid growing up in virtual social isolation, I didn’t absorb the lessons of popular culture–not many of them, anyway. Consequently, I never learned how to be a girl. And though in some respects this has been an advantage, I didn’t get the rewards contingent on “girling” well. I never had a boyfriend until I was well into my twenties. No one looked at me with desire. To this day, I’ve never been asked on a date. My husband and I sometimes go on what we call “dates,” but it’s something mutually agreed upon rather than an event geared towards wooing, where one party, in the mating display peculiar to humanity, invites the other to participate, arranges the details, and picks up the tab. I didn’t get a marriage proposal. When we decided to formalize our relationship, my husband and I were sharing a burger at a bar in Silverton. One of us–I think it was me–said, “So, you think we should get married?” and the other said, “Sure, okay.”

As a feminist, I feel deep down I shouldn’t regret the lack of these things. After all, I managed in large part to escape ever being treated as an object, as prey, as lesser. As something to be pursued and won. However, by nature or nurture, I’m an incurable romantic at my core. I DO feel the lack of those things. And although much psychology and New Age philosophy holds that we need to find our own inherent value, desirability, worth, et al, it’s a truth that we learn to see ourselves, in great part, through the eyes of others. Having our inner selves seen and acknowledged by the people around us teaches us to see an acknowledge ourselves. It’s incredibly difficult to stand up and say “I AM DESIRABLE AND SEXY!” (or intelligent, or graceful, or capable of success) if no one has said it to you first.

I never got the quintessential “Maiden” experience, and I’m angry about it.

In a similar way, I never got the “Mother” experience. I have no children of my own. I’ve never had a child quicken inside me, never felt it move and grow, never experienced my power as a giver of life. I have been a caretaker, looking after the needs of those around me, sometimes at the expense of my own. I still do this. It doesn’t fill the hole. It’s not the same–or what I imagine it would be like, if I’d had children. I’ve heard that though having kids is difficult and frustrating, it’s also rewarding. My efforts at mothering garner me little reward.

crone 1

Perhaps it wouldn’t matter so much if I didn’t want those typical Maiden and Mother things–and of course, I believe that to be a good feminist, I really shouldn’t want them, because I shouldn’t crave the societal perks of subscribing to stereotypical gender roles, blah, blah, blah. But I DID want them, and I DO want them. I long to be romanced and desired. I long for a man (because I’m heterosexual) to put on his vibrant plumage and strut around in an attempt to gain my favor. My last normal menstrual cycle was some years ago, but I still dream of pregnancy, of birthing and raising a child of my body.

But I have always been the Crone. I have been the One Who doesn’t conform to the images we hold of Maidens and Mothers. The One Who speaks uncomfortable truths. The One Who Doesn’t Put Up With Nonsense. The One Who wears what She pleases and goes where She likes, and walks in the dark, and gathers grubs from beneath rocks. Some of this identity came from not understanding how human society worked, and some came from not really caring, even though the not caring often brought me pain. Most came from not knowing any other way to be. But now that I am physiologically a Crone, more and more I feel the lack of passing through those other stages. I feel incomplete, and this puts a serious damper on my enthusiasm for embracing the freedom that comes to others from making it to this stage of life.

Those are my personal reasons. The societal are perhaps more complex. I don’t feel the Crone archetype as we understand it, as it is associated with a woman’s reproductive life, makes sense in this day and age. We live too long for it to make sense. When we had shorter lifespans, when a woman’s reality was inextricably linked to her fertility, one might say “Twenty years a Maiden, twenty a Mother, twenty a Crone,” and encompass a life. It doesn’t apply to the world today, not in the same way. With the advent of reliable birth control, women–first world women, at least, and increasing numbers in less developed nations–are no longer slaves to their menstrual cycles or to the inevitability of devoting large portions of their lives to the bearing and rearing of children. Getting free of that is less of a transitional marker than it once was. You can choose not to experience it at all and still have an active sex life. Women have more educational opportunities, as well. So the archetype of the Wise Woman as an elder who has outlived her fertility and thus has time to devote to arcane knowledge has less validity. Of course, there is always something to be said for the wisdom gained through perspective and years of experience. All the same, it seems to me that the power of the Crone has been diminished in this realm.

At the same time, we “women of a certain age” aren’t really free of the expectation society puts on Maidens and Mothers any more. For years, magazines have shown us how to remain desirable and active, how to cater to the male gaze, at higher and higher ages. At fifty, at sixty, we’re still not allowed to “let ourselves go.” Women are also choosing to delay childbearing later and later. With the help of science, some become mothers well into what once would have been considered the Crone years. And more power to them. But all this makes me wonder what kind of relevance the traditional interpretation of Crone-hood has today. There are other factors at play, too. The emphasis on two genders–a goddess and a god, or goddesses and gods–in much of modern Paganism, as well as the prominence accorded at-birth biology and the biological events associated with particular body parts (e.g., the uterus), is unwelcoming to trans*, intersex, queer, and gender fluid individuals. How can a woman who has never possessed a uterus relate to an entity whose entire identity hinges on menstruation or lack thereof? How can a man who goes through pregnancy and bears children relate to a god who has never done either? Is the Maiden sufficient to her, or the Mother to him? Is the Crone relevant to either?
There’s no doubt that the Crone as an archetype gave power (of a kind) to a set of women who were often set aside or scorned as lacking value once their fertile years had ended. It’s easy to imagine how a society with less knowledge of modern science would imbue these women with magic simply for the fact that they survived multiple pregnancies and births and reached an age where their wombs “dried up.” And it’s equally easy to imagine this same kind of society believing that a woman’s menstrual blood was a key element in the creation of life (which is kind of is), and that a woman who now kept that element to herself instead of expressing it on a monthly basis also retained its creative force. But what does the Crone do for us now?

I come from a long-lived family. Barring serious illness or accident, I can expect to have as many years ahead of me as I have behind me. Another half a century of prospective Crone-hood holds no appeal at all, especially if it entails all the burdens of both Maiden and Mother and few of the blessings. Older women are not much respected, these days, simply for the fact that they’re old.

No myth, philosophy, archetype, or thought-form is all-encompassing. Part of the appeal of modern Paganism comes from its willingness to incorporate this truth and adjust when necessary. Yet all too often, instead of using archetypes as guides along a personal journey, people try to fit every experience into the shape of their chosen archetype, shoving things in where they don’t go and cutting off the awkward bits that stick out. It’s not my intention to dismiss the Crone’s value to those who honour Her. However, if Paganism wants to remain a relevant and living religion, we need to expand our paradigms to incorporate the lived experience of all women, not just that of those who fall neatly into the patterns we have adopted from years past. And in this sense, perhaps the time of the Crone has passed.



A Witch’s Perspective on Worship and the Divine

A few months back, I was talking with an Atheist friend about the concept of worship. She had posted a series of tweets on the subject, most revolving around her opinion that putting anyone, human or deity, on a pedestal is unhealthy and worship is in and of itself a bad idea.

To a degree, I agree with her. I remember once telling my father (the Presbyterian minister, remember) that, in my ten- or twelve-year-old opinion, any god who required worship from its followers wasn’t a god who deserved it, and in any case, was no one I wanted to talk to. I’m afraid in religious matters, I often caused my father to fear for my fate in the afterlife.

witch and know things

I think now the problem stems from the connotations of the word, not the actual meaning. My dictionary defines “worship” as “The reverent love and allegiance accorded a deity, idol, or sacred object,” “The set of ceremonies, prayers, or other forms by which this love is expressed,” or “Ardent, humble devotion.” The verb form means “To venerate,” or “to participate in the ceremonies connected with a religion.” I personally don’t see anything objectionable in these definitions. However, in many modern religions, particularly those which look to a single transcendental god, “worship” also carries the connotation of some form of self-abasement. They participate in and promulgate the notion that “god” is, by nature, superior: the pinnacle of Creation and outside of it. The followers of this type of god are required to perform particular rituals and adhere to a particular strict code in order to avoid angering their deity and bringing down its wrath. In most cases, recognition of the divine in one’s self is the most heinous of sins, as is any action that might be interpreted as putting one’s self on a level with one’s god. In the Garden of Eden myth, YHWH was not nearly as ticked that Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil as he was afraid that they’d eat the fruit of the Tree of Life, and become “as gods.”

In return for this kind of worship and acknowledging your place in the scheme of things–i.e., your deity dispenses rules; you follow them; god is big and all-powerful; you are nothing of the kind nor should you be–religious practitioners often receive exclusive benefits, like status as their god’s chosen people and access to a special afterlife. Hey, you want that land where a different tribe has lived for a thousand years instead of this manky desert? No problem! Your god gives you permission to drive out the infidels in his name! Are you tired of being sweaty and exhausted after a long day hoeing your fields? Check it: you can take this tribe as a slave race! After all, they don’t worship the same god, so they’re not really people, anyway.

These systems promote hierarchical thinking and what Starhawk calls a “Power Over” mentality. Everything is neatly arranged on a ladder to Heaven (or wherever your deity happens to live), with gross things like worms and mud down at the bottom, god at the top, and god’s people on the uppermost rung. If you’re closer to god on the ladder, you’re allowed and even encouraged to exert power over those beneath you for whatever reason you like–because they don’t look like you, because their customs are different, because they eat weird food, whatever–as long as you remember you’re beneath god and he can throw a lightning bolt at you whenever he likes. But woe betide you if, by failing in the proper form of worship, you slip a bit lower on the ladder!

Of course, even within this type of religion, some people are closer to god than others. Not everyone fits on that top rung of the ladder, after all! Did your god make men in “his image?” Good for them! They’re higher up than women, so they get to make the Earthly rules for everyone! Did god make adult humans to begin with? Great; adults have power over children. What about that convert who came from the slave race? Well, they’re obviously lesser than the original chosen people. So racism is okay, too. Generally speaking, the more a person resembles their god, the more power they’re granted. And it’s not only acceptable but commendable to exert this power over others. After all, you only want them to resemble god as much as a human can. And if this means using violence to bring them in line, well. regrettable, but god says it’s okay!

Yeah, I’m not down with any of that.

himself cartoon
A different way.


Obviously, not all Polytheistic and/or Pagan systems are exempt from these shenanigans. When you personify phenomena you can’t control and don’t understand, like hurricanes and droughts, you’re apt to feel small and powerless, and to want to create rituals to keep your personifications from interfering with your ability to lead a happy and productive life. Pagan and polytheistic pantheons have their own power structures. As well, the further removed your deities are from the Earth and your daily life–e.g., sky gods who inhabit some remote and inaccessible mountaintop–the more hierarchical they tend to be. This is a problem, because the chosen people of hierarchical gods, filled as they are with religious fervor, often come out on top in the short run. Religious history is full of myths about warrior pantheons conquering agrarian ones. The conflict of the Aesir and the Vanir in Norse myth and the Hellenic gods absorbing the Minoan in the Mediterranean are two of the better-known cycles. However, even in these incidences polytheism has a big advantage over modern monotheism in that, instead of destroying the older gods, polytheism tends to absorb them. So instead of having just one kind of god–a warrior, say–you can have both a warrior and a farmer. You can have both gods and goddess. Both fathers and mothers. It evens things out a little.

In my family, we practice a particular kind of Paganism that even other Pagans might find peculiar (or they might not). To give you a brief rundown of our cosmology: We focus on what we call “That Which Is.” This term means just what you probably imagine it does: The Whole Shebang. The Universe and everything that lies within it and without its bounds. Things and the spaces between them. Life, death, and otherwise. What we see and what we don’t. The known and the unknowable. All of it. To us, this is Divine. But it’s not god. I’m in two minds about whether I believe it has an individual consciousness. It’s an object of respect, yes. But not of worship. How do you worship something infinite? What does it want? Does it have wants? These are questions I can’t answer, though I think about them.

Since That Which Is includes Everything, it includes gods. And, yes, other supernatural or metaphysical entities. I don’t put a limit on the infinite. I’ve tried to explain this to people before–how I cannot personally disbelieve much. Particularly when I tell them I believe all gods Are, people don’t handle it well. Often I get some response like, “But if all gods are, then none are!” or “If all gods are, then they can’t be gods!” both of which make no sense to me. I mean, all people Are, whether they’re Chinese or Mongolian or Nigerian or North American. The existence of one doesn’t negate the existence of the rest. And calling the Chinese “people” doesn’t mean the Nigerians can’t be “people,” or that none of them can actually be “people.” Honestly, I don’t understand how other human beings think most of the time.

I suppose most of it boils down to the way I view what I call “gods:” They’re individuals–people, if you like–with different characteristics than human people: different abilities, different substance, different languages. Does this set them “above” me? Not in my belief. Yemaya may have the ability to move the ocean, but can she make a mean lasagna? In other words, sure, the gods can do things I can’t. But I can do things they can’t, not least of which is enjoy my human body for a mortal lifetime. And just as I have my faults and foibles, so do the gods. Some can have hair-trigger tempers. Some can be fickle. Some can’t dance. Do I feel the need to propitiate them? Not really. I don’t actually speak to most of them. I have real relationships with very few.

I can envision readers with more hierarchical ideas of god cringing and protesting about now. If gods are like people, then how can they be gods? If they have faults, why should we worship them? If they aren’t all-powerful, if they make mistakes, if, if, if… Plato had a lot of the same problems, by the way. It’s part of why he wanted to close the theaters–which would have made one god in particular very unhappy with him. And would that god have extracted revenge? He might have. Plato’s problem, not mine.

A personal altar.


My “worship” doesn’t hinge on abasement and propitiation. It hinges on relationship and communication. I treat the gods the same way I treat my friends–that is, the ones I speak to. I wish them good morning. I do nice things for them. I acknowledge their presence. Sometimes, I ask them for favors, but not often. What does it look like? It might look like burning a candle or inviting them to dinner. It might look like listening instead of beseeching. It might look like asking their opinion on my writing. It might look like any number of things I do or don’t do when they enter my consciousness. And what do they do for me? Depends. Sometimes it’s difficult to know.

As for the gods I don’t have a relationship with, I don’t worry about them. They don’t bother me. Why should they? I’m not their property. They don’t have a right to me. I worry FAR more about moronic, self-centered human beings who claim to be acting in some god’s name. Maybe they ARE acting in some god’s name. I have NO obligation to fall into line and EVERY obligation to tell their god to shove it up his celestial ass. Deity gives no one the right to be a bully. And maybe a god will smite me some day, just cause. I don’t waste my time worrying about it. It hasn’t happened yet. Divine bullies generally back off when you stand up to them.

I look at other people’s relationship with their deities and I often think, “Why in the WORLD would you want to worship a god who requires you to live in a way that makes you unhappy and threatens you with eternal torment if you don’t?” Hey, if your religion works for you, great. But if not, why? Why continue to try to force yourself into a box you’re not remotely shaped to fit? Why punish yourself for not being a “good enough” member of your religion when you have another choice?

Ah, well. That’s the thing about polytheism. It allows for another choice.

I agree with my Atheist friend. When “worship” means putting another, be it a human person or a deity, on a pedestal, practicing self-abasement, and engaging in ritualized behavior out of fear of the consequences, it’s not healthy. In fact, this kind of worship is the very template for abusive relationships. And as in abusive relationships, the people most in need of getting out for their own safety’s sake are the ones least empowered to do so. I’m thankful for my more inclusive view and a way of interacting with the divine that encourages me to stand up straight, look the gods in the face, and act with both compassion and pride. I only wish more people would come to understand that another way is not only possible, but worthy. The world would, in my opinion, be a kinder place.


A Ramble Toward the Meaning of Yule

Yesterday I was chatting with a friend about the horror of Black Friday. In case you live under a rock–or in a country that worships capitalism less than the United States–this is the Friday after (the American) Thanksgiving. It’s long been considered the real start of the Christmas Season in this country, and for years has been acknowledged as the “biggest shopping day” of the year. In more recent times–I’m thinking within the last twenty years, because I don’t remember it being such a huge thing before that, but it could have begun sooner–it’s become a cultural meme for rabid materialism, as retailers offer rock bottom prices and push their Friday hours toward ever earlier start times, requiring workers to service hordes of deal-hungry customers instead of enjoying a peaceful holiday at home.

During the course of our conversation, I mentioned to my friend that I don’t have anything in particular against shopping on the Friday after Thanksgiving as long as it starts AFTER Thanksgiving. That day is the source of many of my few good memories of my childhood, because my family always went down to the big department store in downtown Detroit, Hudson’s (which I believe is now out of business), where they had a wonderful Christmas maze leading to a visit with Santa Claus. My friend responded that she hates Christmas with a passion for numerous valid reasons: The materialism, the hypocrisy of a holiday supposedly celebrating the birth of a person whose message was one of peace and love (in whom she doesn’t believe anyway, being an atheist) being turned into a capitalist orgy, the sappy messages and moralizing and their striking contrast to the way many people are really treated, and Santa Claus himself, whom she thinks is the creepiest fictional character ever.

We see Santa Claus as the spirit of hope and generosity.
We see Santa Claus as the spirit of hope and generosity.

I get all of that, and I even share a lot of my friend’s opinions. Still, I love Yule. It’s my favorite of the eight major seasonal holidays of the Pagan calendar–which is pretty odd, because when I was a kid, it was about the most traumatic time of the year for me. But even then there were things I loved about it. I’ve always loved ritual, theater, and spectacle, and in the Presbyterian church of my childhood, Christmas was the only holiday where any of these were in evidence. I loved being allowed to set up the Nativity scene, both at my father’s church and at home. I loved the evergreen decorations, bringing down the boxes of candles and figurines we only saw once a year. Opening them and finding the perfect place for each one. I loved the ritual foods that appeared during the winter: cookies and pecan rolls, boxes of fruit from parishioners who had moved to Florida and California, sausages and cheeses, choco0late and nuts. Most of all, I loved decorating the tree, which is the lone activity I remember us doing as a family. I loved seeing the ornaments and hearing their stories, from the gorgeous blown-glass balls, to the mess of glitter and string I made in kindergarten, to the hideous fish that always got hung on the far side of the tree “for the cats.” And always, I loved giving gifts more than receiving them. To get in touch with the spirit of the person for whom I shopped, to remember what they liked and what they didn’t, to bring to mind offhand mentions of interesting items, and then to put all that energy into finding the perfect present. To see the smile that told me I had succeeded in reaching something unique, when the present was opened. For me, the winter holiday has always been about connection.

Okay, I was a very weird kid. And sure, I liked getting presents and I got overstimulated and threw tantrums, and behaved as expected for a child. Still, I remember going into the Hudson’s kids’ shopping area with an envelope of cash pinned to my coat and a list in my hand, and perusing the wares. Wondering if my mom would like the blue velvet cat with the perfume bottle–was that her? And my dad, what would speak to him?

One thing I value about the Pagan path I follow is that it allows, and even encourages, a person to keep the things of personal value and let go of the rest. Michael and I have developed our own rituals for the Yule season over the years, and we keep them up as time, resources, and varying stress levels permit. Many of them are not so different from the rituals of my childhood, but one thing that is different is that we try to maintain an awareness of the symbolism of each act, knowing that interacting with symbols is a way of making magic and unexpected things can come from interacting with symbols unknowing.

Historically speaking, most cultures participate in some holiday to mark the time when the days stop getting shorter and begin getting longer once more. Of course, this tradition would have no meaning in equatorial climes, but as one gets closer to the poles it becomes not only desirable but necessary. I remember winters in Michigan as times of unending dark and bone-penetrating cold, and I’m sure that without the assurance that the year would turn and summer come again, as represented by the winter holiday season, I would have gone quite mad. (Madder than I am.) Modern Paganism has a lot of myth and tradition from which to draw, part of it conflicting with other parts–but for this one time of year, that seems much less important than at others. The more powers you can enlist to combat the Winter Dark, the better, I say.

The Goddess of Yule with the newborn God.
The Goddess of Yule with the newborn God.

At the Winter Solstice, Yule, we (in the Northern Hemisphere) might say the Goddess, who represents Earth and Nature, has given birth to the God, who represents the sun. Many Pagans have reinterpreted the crêche, or Nativity Scene, as a tribute to the She who labors alone to bear the one who is Her son and will become her lover, husband, and sacrifice. I’ve been collecting figures for my own Nativity for years, but I haven’t yet found a goddess icon that speaks to me. I do have Obi-Wan Kenobi for one of the wise men, however. The crêche provides an important meditation tool and connecting point to the energy of renewal, which is part and parcel of the Yule season. By considering the journey of each figure, one can internalize the differing ways the change of seasons might affect those of different backgrounds and even species. Here, Pagan practice, not being limited by a story in a sacred book, can allow a person to pick the figures she needs to participate in the sun’s rebirth, in order to learn the appropriate lessons. For example, the shepherd of Christian tradition might be less valuable to a modern Pagan than a schoolteacher, who might see the turn of the year as a time to put aside mistakes made in the autumn and embark on new, more successful, ways of imparting information.

The Holly King
The Holly King

We might also honour the Holly King, another god form who can both protect creatures from the dangers of winter and bring killing ice (in some fairy tales, he appears as King Frost). The cold and dark have their own lessons to impart, one of them being that everything happens in its season and even the land needs time to recover from the productive months of summer. Sometimes we talk about the epic battle between the Holly King of Winter and the Oak King of Summer, which occurs the day after the longest night (Spoiler: The Oak King wins). The British tradition of Hunting the Wren is emblematic of this battle; wrens are associated with the Holly King, and they nest in the same areas robins do later in the year. By driving out the wrens, the hunters symbolically make way for summer by clearing the nesting grounds for summer’s birds.

Of course, we love the lights and the evergreen, both of which have symbolic value. Evergreen, which appears to live through times when everything else dies, is a symbol of hope and a sign that not all things succumb to the cold. Keeping lights burning through the dark, especially on the longest night, encourages the sun to return by sympathetic magic. It’s the same idea as that behind the Yule Log. And yes, we do know that the sun is going to return whether we keep the lights burning or not. Knowledge doesn’t diminish the impact of the act. Keeping the lights going helps put us in touch with those who came before us, who might have been less assured of the sun’s return. We can imagine our ancestors gathering in a drafty hall, tending the fire that was the only thing standing between them and death by cold, and the imagining gives us a better appreciation of the thin line between light and warmth versus cold and death. I’m sorry to say this is one tradition my household has become rather lax at keeping in recent times. We used to keep a fire burning in the hearth all night, and stay up all night to tend it. We also used to use nothing but candles from sundown on the Longest Night until sunup on the next morning. Since we moved into a house without a fireplace, our symbolic fire is a single candle which we burn only on Yule. And lately we use electricity through that night. The fires are something I’d like to get back to, some day.

The ritual I treasure most these days is the feast. Every year, no matter how poor we are or how little we’re in the mood, we have our Yule goose with all the trimmings at sunset on the Longest Night. Part of the reason I relate to the feast so much is, a feast in the dead of winter carries the same weight it always has. To eat the best of what you have put by at the season when you’re least likely to be able to replenish your stores is an act of trust, an act of faith. Now that I think about it, the entire Yule holiday is a celebration of those two things: trust and faith. We trust that life will improve. We have faith we’ll live to see the sun. We open our hearts to the stranger, give to those less fortunate, acknowledge difficulties past and celebrate successes to come. It’s funny to me that this holiday bears so much meaning to me, since I do not consider myself either a very trusting person or one whose faith is particularly strong. But this one time of year, I can find it in myself to believe. And it’s this belief in the goodness of the world and this trust in the dependability of nature, whether or not it results in personal gratification, that sustains me through the bad times and helps me stand against rampant materialism, ignorance, and injustice. Not just in a particular holiday season,  but all through the year.

May light and life bless all creatures, of every species, and of all religions or none.

So Mote It Be.


The Way of Me


My Spirituality and Welcome To It

After I wrote my first post on my particular, peculiar belief system (My Path to the Craft, published, appropriately enough, on Samhain), certain people noticed a glaring omission in the content. I. E., while I gave a rather detailed account of HOW I came to believe what I do, I never said what I actually believe.

Damn. Not going to let me get away with that, are you?

Okay, fine. What I believe. Um.

Can’t you all just read my books for a general idea?

While I acquired a number of unusual notions about religion and spirituality early on and from various sources–for example, I first started thinking about reincarnation after reading Jonathan Livingston Seagull, because how does that NOT make sense?–the main thing that drew me to identify as Pagan and a Witch was the idea of God as a Woman. Being a budding feminist in my early twenties, and having come from a family that practiced unconscious sexism as a matter of course, internalizing that many cultures had throughout history (and a few in the present day) given women’s experience equal weight in matters of the divine was a huge revelation for me. I mean, I’d always KNOWN it. As a senior in high school, I wrote an analysis of Virgina Woolf’s To the Lighthouse as a conflict between masculine and feminine deities. I had no idea what I was talking about, but I somehow managed to pull it off. It wasn’t until later, though, that the idea became any more than an abstract concept. It made sense to me on a deep level. I’d never really accepted the standard Judeo-Christian construct of God as some old, bearded, white guy on a golden throne in the sky. I didn’t understand how that was supposed to work. I REALLY didn’t understand why we were supposed to worship this being or why he would care. Once I asked my dad, “If God is all-knowing and all-powerful, why do we have to prove we’re faithful by going to church? Doesn’t he already know if we’re good or not?” (No, I never really cared about standard questions of why an all-powerful, benevolent God would allow evil. Gods are gods; who can tell why they do what they do? I was always way more concerned with the relationship.)

“Of COURSE it’s a good idea!”

Well, anyway. I really loved the idea of Goddess. God being a woman and concerned with women’s things. What would a male god know about childbirth? Pregnancy? Fear of being alone? Menstruation? Boobs? Finding an appropriate dress for every occasion? All these things that women are brought up to believe have less validity than “manly” concerns suddenly become sacred when a goddess is concerned. When the female is just as sacred as the male, WOMEN STOP BEING DISPOSABLE. This was something I could get behind.

I also could get behind the idea of immanent deity. If this is new to you, immanence is the quality of being present. An immanent deity is one present and involve in the world rather than removed from it (“transcendent,” in other words). Most of the religions people are familiar with worship a transcendent god and place a high value on transcendence. What this means is, their god is removed from the world and worldly concerns, and a high value is placed on non-earthly things like the afterlife, abstract thought, and unattainable goals. When you have an immanent deity, your point of view changes. Your gods are dirty and messy and concerned with practical things. Since your gods are present in the earth, the earth becomes sacred. You no longer have the ability to think, “Nothing here matters because getting to Heaven is the true goal.” Your actions on the earth and the way you treat the earth gain importance.

DISCLAIMER: I’m not saying transcendence is necessarily wrong. The ability to transcend trouble and pain is a good skill to learn. And many non-Abramic religions practice a combination of transcendence and immanence. (An Abramic religion is one of those based on early Hebrew texts, like Judaism, Christianity, and, as I understand it, Islam, but feel free to correct me if I’m wrong about this last one.)

Okay, so I liked having goddesses and I liked the idea of immanent deity. But I didn’t want to shut out male gods either. It seemed to me both were necessary. This led me straight away to Wicca, which is the Pagan religion most people are probably familiar with. Wicca was basically founded in the 50s by a man named Gerald Gardner, who claimed at the time that he was revealing a religion that had been secretly practiced in the British Isles since prehistoric times. These claims have since been debunked; Gardner mainly took his ideas from the spiritualist movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, combined them with popular notions of what Witchcraft should look like that reached back to Medieval times, and gave them street cred by attaching his ideas to the notion of a long-standing tradition. (Short story. If you want a longer, scholarly take, look here.)

DISCLAIMER #2: I have no particular problem with Gerald Gardner or his system. Nor do I blame him (or anyone, really) for claiming a longstanding tradition. In the first place, a lot of the main ideas of Wicca can be traced pretty far back. In the second, generally speaking to get a religion taken even halfway seriously, it’s simply necessary to connect it with something old because people have this need to think of religion as something handed down from time immemorial by people with special skills and/or wisdom regular folks don’t have. I personally don’t subscribe to this view, and I’m quite comfortable with someone following a religion she invented yesterday because it spoke to her. But whatever.

Wicca is a specific religion with a specific doctrine. A lot of Wiccans will dispute this, because part of the dogma of this dogma-less religion is that it can be whatever you want it to be. There’s no holy book and no standard liturgy. Rituals and practices can change as necessary. And all this is true, but from a comparative religions point of view (and yes, I took several classes on this), a religion MUST have a doctrine to be considered a religion at all. That is, there is a common set of beliefs that set it apart from other religions. The doctrine of Wicca sets it apart from other Pagan religions like Heathenism, which is Norse-influenced, or Native and Indigenous systems. Wicca is a dualistic religion which worships a goddess and a god who work together and have different roles. Generally speaking, these female and male deities are non-specific and unnamed; mostly they’re referred to as The Mother Goddess and The Horned God. A Wiccan ritual takes a specific shape and always includes certain elements (“casting a circle ” by calling on the four directions, invoking the goddess and/or god, completing a symbolic action, etc. I’ll probably write a separate blog about the shape of ritual later). Wiccans use a particular set of magical tools, each of which is associated with one of the four directions. Generally speaking, the goddess is seen as more powerful than the god. Wiccans keep eight major holidays, known as Sabbats, and may keep any number of lesser ones, known as esbats. They believe in the “threefold law:” Whatever you do returns to you three times, for good or evil. They also attempt to live by the “Wiccan Rede:” And it harm none, do as you will. And so on.

witchcraft meme

Wiccans usually meet in small groups which may or may not be known as covens. Some traditions keep to a strict number–13 is common, for obvious reasons. The group is most often led by a High Priestess acting in conjunction with a High Priest; they represent the goddess and the god, respectively. Offices are usually not permanent, but pass through the coven members as time, ability, necessity, and other influences require. There’s a lot of fluidity in the system, with some groups having standard rituals for particular occasions, and some writing new rituals or improvising them every time.

As I said, I started as Wiccan. I was High Priestess of a Wiccan coven for a time. It’s a stressful and strenuous job. After that year, I didn’t have much interest in doing that again. My husband (who had, incidentally, been the High Priest of my coven) and I moved to rural Colorado to start a new chapter in our lives. We sometimes passed along our…I guess I need to call it wisdom, although making a claim to wisdom gives me an upset stomach…to other interested parties and invited others to rituals. But mostly we practiced alone or with each other. And our beliefs evolved.

I still consider myself a Witch, but I no longer can call myself Wiccan. I can’t relate to the idea of one goddess who is all goddesses and one god who is all gods anymore. I have become a straight polytheist. All gods and goddesses under all their myriad shapes and names are real in my cosmology. I have a particular few to whom I am close. They speak to me more clearly and more often than others. I have to admit, this is a bit unnerving for several reasons. Not so much because I feel deities speak to me, but because I’ve never much approved of mixing pantheons. Some Pagans will invoke a god name and a goddess name from any old system–a Greek healing god and an Irish healing Goddess together, for example. And this had always bothered me, because I see deities as individuals, as much as people are. In fact, thinking all deities are the same and can be invoked at whim, without paying attention to their individuality, strikes me as a kind of racism. But here my particular patrons are a Greek wine god, a Norse goddess of magic, and a Yoruban fertility goddess. They seem to get along most of the time.

It’s not that I don’t believe in other gods. I just don’t talk to them. You might hear pagans saying, “We’re not Satanists! We don’t even believe in Satan!” That’s not true for me. Sure, I believe Satan probably exists. There’s been too much energy put into that thought form for it not to have validity. But I don’t talk to him. He’s not relevant to me. I doubt he ever will be. Not someone I want to get to know.

Actually, “belief” is beside the point for me. Starhawk has a great answer to the question, “Do you really believe in the goddess?” She says, “Do you believe in rocks?” That’s what deity is like for me. A part of the world. Self-evident. No belief required. It just is.

This year's Samhain altar
This year’s Samhain altar

I do still keep the major holidays, the sun feasts and the cross-quarters. Kind of. I don’t feel any pressure to do so, but I recognize the shift in energy as the seasons move through their dance, and I feel the…actions appropriate to the time of year changing, transforming one into the next. Sometimes I practice magic and sometimes I don’t. Depends on what I need. If you’re curious about magic, I plan to do a separate post about it some other time, but here’s a brief introduction to how I use it. Aleister Crowley defined magic as “The Art of shifting consciousness at will.” I always thought, “Well, that’s very nice, but why?” I’m all about the why. Plus, I’ve never had any trouble shifting consciousness, seeing things in a different way. For me, magic, performing a ritual or doing a spell, is about engaging in a set of symbolic actions that interact with my subconscious on a deep level and thus influence my ability to make a change in my environment. A teacher of mine used to say, “Don’t do a spell to lose weight. Do a spell to empower yourself to get what you want.” Practical magic works a little bit like cognitive therapy or behavior modification, but it’s more fun. In my experience, it’s also more likely to work, because you can trick your subconscious into making changes your conscious mind would find scary or threatening.

I believe in the Unseen World. I believe there are many entities that are present, that may influence our lives on a daily basis, even, who don’t necessarily want to appear to us. That’s okay with me. I don’t need to know. I believe these beings might be divine or might be spirits or might be faeries, and we CANNOT expect them to act as humans might or have the same values we do. If you want to interact with them, for gods’ sake get to know them first. We simply CANNOT assume faeries are friendly, helpful, and sparkly. No more can we assume that about angels. Remember, angels are the ones YHWH always sent to destroy cities with fire.

To me, the most sacred thing is what I call That-Which-Is. This encompasses…everything. Earth and the stars, life and death, good and evil, male and female and everything in between. The totality of everything that exists as well as the empty spaces. This is sacred, this is divine, but it’s NOT a god. It’s too big to grasp. To be useful, a god has to be someone you can relate to. Some people might take offense at the idea of gods needing to be useful. To me, it simply makes sense. We create the gods we need, and they create us. Personally, I think it’s a never-ending cycle, and where it began I have no idea. I don’t much care about ultimate beginnings. But deities have their lives and their deaths, just like anything else.

I don’t feel a need to prove myself. Religion, to me, is personal. I don’t need anyone to believe what I believe in. I don’t need group support to give my reality validity.

So, that’s a little bit more about where I came from and what I believe. I’m happy to entertain respectful questions in the comments. I also am completely fine with blocking assholes, so don’t be one, okay?

My Path to the Craft

About a week ago, someone suggested that I write more about the “supernatural” stuff that informs my books: magic, spirituality, witchcraft, and the like.

It’s not like I’ve never thought about it, or even tried it. A few years ago, I started a blog called “The Pagan Coffeehouse,” which I intended to revolve around the topics my husband and I discuss when we–you guessed it–go out for coffee. But I got sick, and we didn’t go out for coffee or have those discussions anymore, and the blog ran only two posts. It’s still out there, if you want to look for it. More recently, Witches and Pagans magazine offered me a slot on their Pagan Square blogs. I turned it down. Looking at their blog roll and all the various topics covered there intimidated me. I didn’t think I had anything to add to the discussion.

When the idea came up again, I asked several people what in the world I could possibly say. I don’t think of myself as a teacher–in fact, I’m a very bad one. I have the relationship that I have with the world, both seen and unseen. It works for me, but I don’t feel any great need to promote or share it. I haven’t named a tradition after myself. In fact, I’m not sure anyone else would find it at all interesting. There’s just me, and sometimes my husband, and what I think and feel. What I do.

It seems I have a unique perspective, however: sometimes challenging, sometimes humorous, and often unpopular. This, according to those I asked, is what makes it interesting. I have the gift of seeing through things and saying what others don’t. Or so I’m told.

So, all right. I’m going to have a go at writing about magic according to me. And the first thing I’m going to write about is how I got where I am.

I identify as a Witch, but I don’t use the word to align myself with any particular path or tradition, as some do. To me, the word “Witch” encompasses so much, from the witches of folklore and fairy tale to the weird sisters of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, to frightening magic users of cultures that are not mine, to–yes–practitioners of Wicca and other Pagan religions who have worked so hard to reclaim the word and relieve it of some of its stigma in the common consciousness. It’s a word that suits me, as I have, since I can remember, had pieces in me of all those archetypes. And I think maybe leaving some of the stigma attached to the word is a good thing. Witches are not comfortable beings. They–we–can be the grandmother who bakes cookies and makes sure you have a dress for the ball, and we can be the crone who cooks wayward children in her oven. We can be the dream maiden of the Beltane fire and the Siren who lures sailors to death on the rocks. All of these things at once, without the need to distinguish. Most of all, witches tend to be terrifyingly practical and will suit actions to circumstances. I think this is what makes the Witch such an uncomfortable archetype to work with and be around. People like reassuring labels like “good” and “evil” and “beautiful” and “ugly.” People like boxes and the ability to identify those around them as one thing or another. Witches tend to defy these labels.

As far as I can remember, I’ve always been a Witch, even before I applied the word to myself. I wasn’t raised as one. My father was a Presbyterian minister–in my estimation, not a very good one. He was a brilliant scholar and historian, but I believe he would have been happier working the academic side of religion than tending to a flock that–again in my estimation–neither understood nor appreciated him. Anyway, I was raised nominally Christian Presbyterian, but it never took. Some of that was undoubtedly that as a preacher’s kid I saw behind the curtain on a regular basis, and seeing behind the curtain is a sure impediment to easy faith. And some of it was that I had eclectic reading habits from a very young age. I devoured Greek, Norse, and Celtic mythology.  Later, I got interested in Eastern religions and hung out at the Hare Krishna temple a few blocks from my home. I never could see that these systems had any less validity than the Christian mythos I had been taught, and in fact I saw a good many sticky contradictions in Christianity. I remember once asking my dad why Christianity was right and Hinduism wrong. He couldn’t give me any answer other than, “Because Jesus said so,” and “Hindus worship idols.” Which didn’t satisfy me.

I’ve always known things I should have had no way of knowing. At an early Sunday school class on the expulsion from Eden, I asked why what Eve had done was wrong because apples and serpents are both symbols of wisdom, and both are aspects of women’s power. So Eve had every right to teach Adam her wisdom if she chose. I couldn’t have been more than eight at the time. I remember, because my sister had made a Garden of Eden mosaic in college–she was an Art major–and I had been thinking about it. But where did I get that? I’m sure no one else in my family had ever mentioned such an idea, and I don’t think it had appeared in anything I had read. Later, in another Sunday school class, I pointed out that Moses was one in a long line of supernatural warrior saviors who claimed to be sons of river deities (in fact, I think you could make a case for Achilles, although his mother was an ocean goddess). I shouldn’t have done that, because my dad was teaching the class and Moses was an especial favorite of his. I got in trouble for mouthing off and was asked to leave.

I was never a normal, middle class, Christian-raised child. I worshiped the moon. I invented spells in my bedroom. I had long conversations with invisible beings and animals. I burned incense, and walked at night, and studied the stars. At twelve, I became fascinated with Tarot cards and bugged my parents until they gave in a bought me a cheap deck for my birthday. I laid them out in patterns and told myself stories about the pictures I saw.

I think I freaked my parents out a bit. I remember one time in second grade, I found a talisman of sorts on the playground. It was white, an Easter Island head about three inches high. There were blue rhinestone chips for eyes. I thought it was cool. But that night, my mother found it and had a complete, frothing at the mouth, fit. She took it away from me and ranted about idols and Satanism and all manner of other things. I have no idea what she did with it. I’ve often wished I could get another look at it.

I picked up bits of magical philosophy from odd Fantasy and Gothic novels without knowing I was doing it. Sometimes I reread those books now and I think, “Oh, no wonder.” But how much did the books influence me, and how much did I choose the books because of the person I was born? I can’t say. It wasn’t until I hit my early 20s that things started to fall into place, and it was two books that did it: Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon and Starhawk’s The Spiral Dance. As seems to have been the case for so many who embraced Paganism at that time, I didn’t discover anything new by reading those books. But I discovered what I already believed, what I had always believed, had a name and a form. I’m a Witch.

That was thirty years ago, and I’ve done a lot in that time. I’ve worked at an occult bookstore. I’ve read tarot professionally. I’ve served as High Priestess of a coven and taught classes in ritual magic. I was initiated into the Guild of the Grey Owl. I’ve made charms for my friends and invented rituals for myself and those who care to join in. I’ve never been afraid of calling myself a Witch and I’ve never hidden my beliefs, but I’ve never felt the need to shout it to the four winds, either. It’s just what I believe, what I do. Who I’ve always been.

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”

–T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets, “Little Gidding”

That’s my story. I intend to blog bi-weekly on magical and spiritual topics. I hope you will join me.