Faery is not academic training. Faery isn’t beginner witchcraft training – though sometimes brand new witches cut their teeth here. Faery isn’t advanced witchcraft training, either; many craft traditions offer powerful access to craft training and currents. How Faery differs from some other traditions is its shamanic, ecstatic, and rather primal current. There are shifting forms here, and while there is a rich body of liturgical material within Faery, this current spills out of containers.
Faery is a peculiar and particular WAY of working magic, and the only way into it is through initiation.
Some traditions are training traditions, in that they prepare students to be witches; Faery is not that. While some traditions view initiation as stepping into acceptance and acknowledgement of yourself as a witch, Faery initiation is not that, either. There may be traditions that offer initiation after a year and a day of training, or in exchange for regular circle attendance; Faery does not. Initiation for some occurs after learning certain liturgy or ritual roles; Faery doesn’t do this either.
How in the world, then, does someone enter in to Anderson Faery?
Well, if you want to learn Faery, there are several things you must do:
Find a teacher.
Ask the teacher if they will teach you.
If the teacher says yes, ask what you need to do.
Do what the teacher asks and report back.
Diligently repeat steps 3 and 4.
Faery initiates are not going to push you to do anything. In fact, most Faery initiates will not set clear expectations or give much in the way of direct instruction. What they will do is sit back and watch what you do. Remember, Faery is not a training tradition but a WAY of working magic. An initiate who has taken responsibility for possibly shepherding you to the Gate is looking for signs. They will give you exercises and material that may foster this WAY of working magic, or strengthen it, but only if asked.
Faery initiates want to see your compatibility with the current. Beating down doors, and risking rejection, is something we look for. You’re welcome.
Once you have a teacher, they are still going to largely sit back and watch what you do with what they tell you. If you do nothing, they will not email, phone or otherwise check-in to see why you are doing nothing. Faery initiates are not your parents. If you need them to be, I suggest you seek therapy first, and then come back to witchcraft.
If you want to learn Faery, you need to push, you need to ask, you need to keep at it, you need to do the things you are given, you need to tell the initiate you did the thing, you need to keep asking for more. And after all that, you still have to ASK for the initiation. Remember, Faery isn’t a tradition that offers initiation after a year and a day, or a day and seven years. When you do finally ask, the initiate may say no, off hand, to see how you handle that, to test if you will ask again. Yet even if you ask again, and again, and again, the initiate may still say no, because they may not see the signs. There is no guarantee of initiation in Faery. That does not mean you are less of a witch. It just means the “fit” for the “family” WAY of working isn’t there. You may be family elsewhere.
Did I mention that Faery initiates are not your parents? We aren’t your High Priestesses, either. We are Witches, and we seek other Witches who are Peers with the Gods.
Do you think you might be a Peer? Get ready to beat down some doors.
“God is Self and Self is God and God is a Person like my Self.” –Victor Anderson
Victor Anderson: An American Shaman is a candid look at the Feri tradition’s most important teacher. The book is loosely arranged into two parts. Part I contains a series of interviews with Victor and Cora Anderson conducted around 1999, about two years before Victor’s death. The interviewer is Cornelia Benavidez, the Andersons’ friend of two decades and an initiate of Victor’s. (Charmingly, the book opens with a copy of a letter of reference for Benavidez from Victor, recommending her as “an honorable person and good witch.”) Victor’s remarks are interspersed with explanatory notes from Benavidez to provide context and additional information. Part II contains supplementary material, including an account of Victor’s last days from Benavidez, an essay by Sara Star that attempts to historically contextualize Victor’s initiation story, comments by Benavidez on the development of Feri after the deaths of the Andersons, and extensive genealogical information on Victor compiled by researcher William Wallworth.
Those who have read earlier interviews that Victor gave over the course of his life will find many of the thoughts recorded here to be familiar. However, in response to Benavidez’s clarifying questions, Victor unpacks many of his views in more detail than was previously available in print and clears up potential areas of ambiguity. Further, since most of the earlier interviews were published in zines or now-out-of-print collections, many readers will be encountering this material for the first time. This factor alone makes An American Shaman an important primary source for the study of Victor and Cora’s lives.
Readers who have primarily encountered Feri witchcraft through websites or in books put out by large publishing houses may be surprised at how little of the material frequently presented as “the Feri tradition” appears in Victor’s final statements of his views. The plain-spoken interviews focus on the Andersons’ core values of love and respect for others and the importance of sexual ethics. Many pages are spent on Victor’s complex ancestry and his relationships with indigenous people. The Andersons’ opposition to American racism and what we would now call cultural appropriation are major emphases, but as a person born during World War I, Victor’s framing of these issues is very different from those of twenty-first century activists. New readers may struggle greatly with his words, finding Victor confusing or downright infuriating.
For the reader who is willing and able to encounter Victor Anderson as a whole human being, however, there is a great deal of insight, humor, and hope recorded in this text. Victor’s Feri tradition is not a set of doctrines or an ideology, nor is it an elite occult club for the sexually alternative. Rather, it is a craft of relationship, devotion, creativity, and joy that the Andersons hoped would help lead humanity away from its most destructive tendencies.
The individual captured in this book’s pages (however incompletely) was a person of striking uniqueness. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the strain of witchcraft that he helped to create continues to be rich, vital, and extremely contentious. As the years pass and the initiates that knew the Andersons pass away, documents that preserve Victor and Cora’s voices as complex, idiosyncratic human beings become ever more important. Within any group, there is always a temptation to simplify and sanitize the life and views of deceased leaders, lest their inconvenient human realities damage the group’s public face. Yet Feri has a deep commitment to authenticity, and its practice demands great personal intimacy between practitioners. Allowing Victor’s humanness to be forgotten, therefore, would betray our most deeply held values.
As Feri initiates, it is our loving duty to remember Victor honestly and to continue to learn from his teaching. Accordingly, Victor Anderson: An American Shaman is a text recommended for any Feri seeker or student—one that must be read slowly, struggled with, questioned, laid aside and taken up again.
“There are many things I would still want to learn, I’m willing to learn from anybody regardless of their degree of initiation […] I still am anxious to learn anything I can, and apply it and see if it works. If it works I will use it. This is our science and this is how we learn and grow.”
Bardic, Shamanic, Ecstatic: these are the three adjectives that introduce AndersonFaery.org at the top of every page. All three are commonly used by initiates to describe Anderson Faery witchcraft. What do they mean?
Historically, a bard is a traveling poet who composed and recited epic poetry, usually while playing an instrument. Over time, the term has loosened to include poets in general, with “THE Bard” often referring to William Shakespeare, a word artist of both poetry and prose.
Poetry, song, storytelling, and drama are ways in which a group performs its shared values. Our ancestors both entertained themselves and learned about who they were through group gatherings where stories and songs were shared around a fire. Many of the world’s religions continue these practices of singing and storytelling, though in the West they have become more structured. A visit to nearly any Christian church, for example, includes reading of scripture (much of which is narrative) and singing of hymns; similarly, historical and mythic narratives and traditional songs are key elements of most Jewish holidays.
Poetry and song have always been an important part of Faery Craft. Part of their importance is to retain knowledge of history, myths, and lore, an understanding of which connects Faery witches to the past and ties them together in relationship. Gwydion Pendderwen, one of the Andersons’ first and most influential initiates, recorded two albums of music that celebrated nature spirituality, folk lifeways, and the Gods. He also penned liturgical pieces for use in private rituals. Faery witches continue to sing Gwydion’s songs and recite his poetry, both to connect with the ancestral traditions that Gwydion felt called to, and to connect with the memory of Gwydion himself.
Poetry was also a passion of the Andersons. In 1970, with Gwydion’s logistical support and Cora’s life savings, Victor published Thorns of the Blood Rose, a passionate book of poetry that led many future initiates to seek the Andersons out for teaching. Victor’s poetry celebrates the natural world, the Gods, and sexuality; but like those of Yeats, the great occult poet of the twentieth century, his poems are also densely layered with meaning and can act as keys to occult revelation. Victor’s poetry rewards the patient and careful reader who is willing to read and reread, recite and contemplate again and again.
Victor was adamant that the images in his poems were not intended metaphorically. Poetry is a way of expressing realities that cannot be captured by linear thought and plain speaking; it is a way of gesturing toward mysteries that are beyond our rational understanding, but that we can experience in our bodies as beings of flesh and spirit.
Cora was also a poet. Some of her simple, striking verse is included in her memoir Childhood Memories (now out of print, but a version of the book called Kitchen Witch is still available). When I met Cora near the end of her life, she spoke with great pride of the poetry that she and Victor had written. She clearly considered this creative work to be one of the great achievements of their lives.
Though not every Faery witch need be a poet themselves, Faery witchcraft cannot be worked without poetry. Poetry and song bind us together. Through them, we share our innermost dreams, longings, and desires; we connect to the ancestors and the Gods; and for those with ears to hear, we convey our most precious truths.
A shaman is a healer and spiritworker who is in service to their local community. On behalf of that community, the shaman seeks altered states of consciousness in order to communicate and negotiate with spirits. Shamanic practice may include the use of local plants to heal and work magic, as well as magical practices based on spirit relationships. Although the term “shaman” probably originally came from the Tungusic Evenki language of North Asia, in Western religious studies it is now used to describe this kind of spiritworking cross-culturally.
Faery witchcraft is worked in a container of beloved relationship. This includes relationship with one’s human community, but even more importantly, it includes the local plants, animals, streams, and hills in all their aspects (physical and spiritual), as well as the Gods who manifest through the land and through our flesh.
Third Road founder Francesca De Grandis wrote, “A healthy priest makes all things sound.” Faery witches seek harmonious relationship with the land and people where they live. We seek to be whole and balanced in ourselves so that our positive influence ripples outward through all we touch. At times, of course, seeking harmony may require conflict, as we are called to defend human or other-than-human beings in our community who are in danger. A witch’s action to restore harmony may take place in the human realm, in the newspapers in the courts; or it may take place in privacy, through magical intervention or one-on-one negotiation with humans or spirits. In any case, right relationship is the source of a witch’s power. A witch’s work involves constantly strengthening ties and setting boundaries—but our responsibilities are not just to the human community.
Serving in a shamanic role is not easy. The conflicting needs of humans and other-than-human beings can lead to difficult decisions, and as a result the witch may not always be appreciated or loved by other humans. When we serve as mediators between humans and spirits, between the wild world and what we speak of as “civilization,” we put ourselves outside of ordinary human society, and we may suffer for it—if not through persecution, then through being treated as an outsider or a fool. To serve as a shaman means having knowledge that others do not, and this state can be uncomfortable and isolating. It is not a glamorous role, though the moments of beauty and connection it brings may be worth the pain.
Like the rest of our society, twenty-first-century Faery witches struggle with environmental damage and community erosion caused by the ways we have chosen to use technology. Some of us were lucky enough to be raised with a spiritual awareness of the land where we live; others, having grown up disconnected and rootless, must work hard to form the relationships that make a powerful witch. But without being integrated into a community of all types of beings—without, in other words, taking on a shamanic role—a Faery witch’s work is not complete.
Ecstasy is a rapturous state of altered consciousness where the usual boundaries of the self are left behind. The original Greek term, ekstasis, translates as something like “standing outside oneself.” Ecstasy is a sensual, embodied, fleshly state; it is not one where we transcend the body. However, it is transcendent because in this state, our awareness of our individuality and our boundedness from other beings falls away. We transcend our everyday selves and experience communion: with other Selves, with the Gods, with God Herself.
Allowing ourselves to experience ecstasy can be a difficult and even frightening process. In order to freely let go of one’s ordinary everyday self, one must be comfortable with that self and know it well. Our society, however, often does not support individuals in forming a healthy, stable self. Mainstream society is full of casual boundary violations, especially of the bodies and selves of marginalized people, as well as complicated social expectations that may encourage inauthenticity or even be actively exploitative and damaging. If a person is struggling to build good boundaries and experience healthy relationships with other human beings, it is natural that they may cling to whatever sense of identity they have already built—in fact, it is probably healthy to do so!
Ecstatic experience loosens and breaks down individual identity. It may change small elements of our personalities, like preferred hobbies or tastes; or it may leave us questioning elements we thought were foundational and defining, like sexual orientation or professional calling. Ecstasy can be a joy so big it bursts the heart open, leaving pieces that no longer seem to fit neatly together. It offers us freedom, but at the cost of structure we may have come to depend on.
Ecstasy is life force itself. If we are willing to let it flow through us undammed and be changed by the flood, our ability to contain that force expands. We become more powerful witches—but “power” rarely looks like what we imagine beforehand. There is no predicting where ecstasy will take you, or how it will leave you when its surging waters recede from the banks. Those who stay out of the way of the flood—either out of fear, or because they genuinely love themselves the way they are—are not unwise. But for Faery witches, there is no life without ecstasy. We embrace its risk, and its freedom.
Using historical references found within Gardnerian and Wiccan mythology, I will demonstrate how history supports the inclusion of Qwyr folks in Gardnerian and Wiccan circles as working partners. Based on ancient folk customs, I show how transvestites are explicitly connected to fertility rites still performed in our modern world. Finally, I explore how modern Witch mythology informs the intimate connections between ecstasy, fertility and creativity and what that could look like in Qwyr ritual magic. In addition, I explore the benefits to our society of the collusion of Qwyr magic with non-Qwyr magics.
A historical basis for including Qwyrs in Wiccan circles
Despite institutionalized homophobia and the heterocentric notion that the God/Goddess pairing is the only way to operate within a Gardnerian or Wiccan coven, there is a liturgical and historical basis for including Qwyr people in these rites. Wiccans often use a well-known piece of liturgy called the “Charge of the Goddess.” This liturgy is published in the Farrar’s book Eight Sabbats for Witches and starts with the words: “Listen to the words of the Great Mother…” The Farrars write:
In the [what the Farrars describe as an Alexandrian] Book of Shadows, another sentence follows here: “At her altars [of Artemis] the youth of Lacedemon in Sparta made due sacrifice.” The sentence originated from Gardner, not Valiente. (Farrar: 1985, 42)
According to the Farrars, most covens omit this historical reference, considering it to be too “gruesome” for modern Craft practices. Oddly, this same piece of information that points to a historical antecedent of modern Witchcraft is also a precedent for including sexually active Qwyrs as working partners in Wiccan circles. Curiously, in Starhawk’s The Spiral Dance this historical reference is omitted in her version of the Charge. In most Faerie circles the Charge of the Goddess isn’t traditionally used, but it is still loved and preserved by many Witches of different traditions who feel it expresses their concept of the Goddess.
Shedding light on the Charge of the Goddess
The early Dorians in the 12th century BCE established their capital at Sparta. They maintained many of the most ancient traditions of earlier ages, especially with respect toward women. Spartan women wielded the power to compete with, publicly praise, or censor men, and they had greater authority over property than anywhere else in Greece. Elsewhere in Greece, women were only allowed to call their husband “Lord,” were not allowed to eat meals with their husbands and only lived inside the house. In addition, Plutarch wrote in his 1st century CE book Lives that “the unmarried women love beautiful and good women” (Evans: 1978, 34).
Homosexuality had a high status among the Dorians. In fact, homoerotic activity was more highly regarded in Sparta than in Athens during the later classical period. Male homosexuality often took the form of paiderestia – the love of an older experienced man and a younger, more inexperienced man. Paiderestia was a form of religious, military, educational and sexual training. The experienced man initiated the younger man into men’s mysteries. The holy act of transferring semen conveyed an older man’s soul power to the youth and was called “inspiring” the inexperienced man (Evans: 1978, 34). In fact, this is still practiced to this day by some of the Kahunas of Hawai’I as explained to me by Kahunas I met there.
Doric paiderestia is a continuation of familiar shamanic and religious concepts that date back to the Stone Age. The Dorians, though coming later than the Mycenaeans, remained much closer to the earlier sexual traditions. According to the German scholar Bethe, the myth that homosexual men are always contemptuous toward women flounders on the fact that precisely in Sparta and Lesbos, where man-love and woman-love are best documented, the sexes associated more freely and women had more economic and political power than anywhere else in the Greek city-states (Evans: 1978, 33-35).
Historically, social acceptance for homosexuals is associated with a high social status for women. Patriarchal authorities have always oppressed both women and men who “act like women.” Therefore women and homosexuals often have a natural bond born from a personal understanding of the nature of oppression. Witches often tout that the Craft is female affirming; according to this historical reference, the Craft is also homosexual affirmative. Although in Faerie Witchcraft, the Charge of the Goddess is not used much, we do often work with the Divine Twins who are intimately connected to worship in Sparta. The Divine Twins Castor and Polydeuces, the youths of Zeus, are native to Sparta. They grew up with Helen in the house of King Tyndareos, and They fetched Their sister back from Aphidna in Attica.
In the ancient Greek world, these Gods were referred to as Dios Kouroi, Kouretes or Kabeiroi. The worship of heavenly riders of white horses clearly derives from a much older common Indo-European heritage, paralleled in Vedic mythology by the shining horse-owning brothers called Asvin. Twin horsemen who rode white horses were also the legendary founders of ancient Thebes. These divine Twins, found in various cultures, are described as being in the service of the Goddess. The Dioskouroi were called Tyndedaridai in Sparta and had a special relationship to the dual kingship of Sparta. The Spartan cult of the Divine Twin lovers flourished in the context of a warrior society in which initiations included an encounter with death (Burkert: 1985, 212).
In another rite, young Lakedaimonian males, in preparation for combat, flagellated themselves and engaged in same-sex eroticism at a festival honoring Diana (Conner: 1997, 69). [i]
The worship of the Brauronian Artemis by homosexually active men was brought from Tauris (Taurica Chersonnesus or Crimea) to Attica by two male lovers called Orestes and Pylades ”whose romantic attachment to each other has made their names synonymous for devoted self-sacrificing friendship.” Orestes was the son of Agamemnon, who had incurred the wrath of the Furies by avenging his father’s death. The Oracle at Delphi told him the only way to pacify the Furies was to bring the statue of Taurian Artemis from Tauris to Attica. Upon arriving on Tauris, Orestes and his faithful friend Pylades were seized to be sacrificed; however, Orestes’ sister Iphigenia happened to be the officiating Priestess of Artemis there (Berens: 95).
Previously, Iphigenia was to be sacrificed by her step-father Agamemnon prior to the Trojan War, but Artemis transported her to Tauris on the north shore of the Black Sea and left a deer in her place to be sacrificed instead. She became one of the legendary women called aoroi, or those who die before their time. These immortal female attendants of Artemis are often renamed Hekate (Von Rudloff: 1999, 43-70).
With the help of his male lover, Orestes and Iphigenia recognized each other and they all escaped back to their homeland. They stole the statue of Taurian Artemis and carried it with them to Brauron in Attica. Thus She became known as the Brauronian Artemis and human victims were bled to death in both Athens and Sparta (Berens: 96). The sacrifice to Artemis in Sparta at the Ortheia festival was scouring until blood came (Burkart: 1985, 152).
The revolting practice of offering human sacrifices to her continued until the time of Lycurgus, the great Spartan lawgiver, who put an end to it by substituting in its place one which was hardly less barbarous: namely, the scourging of youths, who were whipped on the altars of the Brauronian Artemis in the most cruel manner. Sometimes they expired under the lash, in which case their mothers, far from lamenting their fate, are said to have rejoiced, considering this an honorable death for their sons (Berens: 96).
It is interesting that initiations into the religion of the Divine Lover-Twins were associated with an encounter with death. This is similar to the modern Craft traditions where initiations are also associated with an encounter with death. This may reveal a connection between Spartan traditions and modern Wiccan traditions, referred to by a published Book of Shadows.
According to the Heritage dictionary, “youth” means a young person; especially a young man. So it seems that the “youth of Lacedemon in Sparta” refers to homosexuals and that the “due sacrifice” to the Spartan Artemis was scouring. If this historical reference was meant to include cross-sex flagellation, then surely the word maiden would also have been included to make clear the scourging was only with male and female partners.
The Charge of the Goddess says the youth made due sacrifice, and Berens states that the youth were the sacrifice. So in Sparta, in worship of Artemis “due sacrifice” was young men scourging other young men! Even though scourging was later introduced in Sparta to replace human sacrifice to the Goddess, sometimes the scourging was so severe that the Lacedemonian youth would perish. Presumably, this is what the Fararrs considered to be too gruesome to mention. Later in the Charge, the Goddess says She demands no sacrifice and so it is in modern times – but She will accept a sacrifice given freely with love.
Not only is Artemis mentioned in the Charge of the Goddess, but so are Diana and Aphrodite. Diana was famous for Her loving attachment to Her female attendants. Diana’s religion was organized like a bee hive, Her priestesses were called melissae or “bees” and Her high priestess was the queen of the bees. Diana was also served by a special class of antineirian priestesses. These particular priestesses were women who rejected marriage, loved hunting, were skilled warriors, hated patriarchal values, and enjoyed the company of other women and gender variant men. These priestesses danced around a sacred oak or beech tree at Ephesus in a circle with their shields and swords (Conner: 1997, 69). [ii]
Portraits of the gender variant priests of Diana called the megabyzoi were hung in Diana’s temples and in tombs contrary to the wishes of Quintillian, a Roman rhetorician of the 1st century CE. He insisted that painters and sculptors refrain from depicting any megabyzoi on aesthetic and moral grounds. Apparently, Quintillian thought these priests were ugly and indecent (Conner: 1997, 229). [iii] Unfortunately, Quintillian was not the last, frightened male to object to the flamboyant freedom of Qwyrs.
The megabyzoi wore a mixture of feminine, masculine and priestly articles of clothing. They shaved, powdered and painted their faces. They wore their hair in a feminine style by looping one lock in front of each ear. They also wore long-sleeved murix-purple garments decorated with golden circles, meanders, diamonds, swastikas, flowers and animals which were all sacred to the Goddess. The color of purple they wore was associated in the Greco-Roman empire with both royalty and effeminacy (Conner: 1997, 229). [iv]
The megabyzoi and melissae were not the only gender variant priests and priestesses who honored Diana with cross-dressing. In the kordax, a religious dance-drama, women dressed as men and wore lombai or “enormous artificial phalli” which they used for penetrating the male dancers who were dressed as women. Not only is the Goddess Diana homoerotic friendly, historically She is bisexual. Britomartis, Cyrene, and Anticleia were Diana’s female lovers who were the first to wear Diana’s gallant bow and arrow-holding quivers on their shoulders. So wrote Callimachus, the royal poet and lover of Pharaoh Ptolemy Philadelphus in his hymn to Diana (Conner: 1997, 69).
Aphrodite was above all a Goddess of love in all its forms, so much so that She was nicknamed Philommedes, “genital loving.” In fact, the Greek term aphrodisia, meaning the “things of Aphrodite,” refers to sexual intercourse according to the classical scholar K.J. Dover (Conner: 1997, 64). [v] Aphrodite has Her own bearded gender variant forms and through Her association with the castrated Cronus is linked to gender variant males. It is She who gave birth to Hermaphroditus, the essential divine form of gender variance. Her beloved priest Cinyras, a legendary ruler of Cyprus, was a transvestite and lover of Apollo. Even the apparently heterosexual favorite of Aphrodite and abductor of Helen, Paris was said to be “unwarlike and effeminate.” He was so favored by Aphrodite that She blessed him with a retinue of eunuchs (Conner: 1997, 64). [vi]
Since ancient times, the Goddess of Love — especially in Her form of Aphrodite Urania, or Heavenly Aphrodite — has been known as a patron of men-loving-men. K.J.Dover points out that in the homoerotic verse of Theogenes, his beloved is considered to be a “gift of Aphrodite” (Conner: 1997, 64). [vii] When Aphrodite appears as a hermaphrodite with female breasts and an erect phallus, She was called Aphroditos or Bearded Aphrodite. She was associated by the ancient Greeks not only with the planet Venus but also with the moon (Conner: 1997, 64). [viii]
In ancient times, this Goddess mentioned in the Wiccan Charge of the Goddess was certainly a patron of sex, one who did not discriminate based on who entered whom. Gardner’s fear and the inclusion of the condemnation of homosexuality in the brand of the Craft which bears his name was contrary to the way his own Witch teachers did things. Gardner’s initiator Dorothy Clutterbuck lived with Elizabeth Slatter instead of with her husband. Elizabeth was described by locals as Dorothy’s “companion” and she went by the name of “John.” Dorothy also wrote passionate love poetry to mysterious women (Hesselton: 2000, 126-176). Perhaps Gardner was caught up in the Christian moral of hating homosexuals, or perhaps he found Dorothy’s lesbianism to be sexy and only condemned male homosexuals.
The sexiness of lesbianism (making it tolerable) may be the reason why some Wiccans insist that two men cannot stand next to each other in circle or work together as partners while at the same time allowing women to stand and work together. Conceivably, it is merely practical for women to be together as there aren’t enough men to go around. However, if Wiccans were really serious about the “rule” for alternating men and women, they would only allow equal numbers of both sexes in circle. There have been many times that I have been in Wiccan circles where the women outnumbered the men. There seem to be objections only when two men stand or work together. Like so many other such “rules,” they are only enforced when useful. Regrettably, too many people still think for a man to emulate a woman is unnatural – that it is improper for a man to relinquish his privileged status. Regardless of prejudged attitudes, the Wiccan Goddesses’ all-encompassing, libertine-loving nature is still remembered in Wiccan circles every time She says, “All acts of love and pleasure are my rituals.”
The ancient association of transvestites with fertility
Perhaps the rule that men and women should stand alternating in a Wiccan circles is a mis-remembering of the tradition of cross-dressing in connection to fertility rites in ancient Britain.[ix] Those individuals who say that there is no place for sexually active homosexual priests or priestesses in a fertility religion should give more thought to the purpose transvestites played in most fertility folk customs throughout Britain. Of course not all transvestites are homosexual, but the language of queerness is applied to both and they both express a non-standard gender.
In Britain, the horse was the most frequent animal disguise used to promote fertility in humans, the earth and in animals. Appearing frequently along with the sexually endowed horse was a man dressed as a woman. In 33 ancient sites in eastern and northern Kent, the transvestite “Mollie” carried a broom and appeared with the “Hooden Horse.” In southern Wales, a black-faced transvestite called “Judy” also with their broom cavorted with “Punch” during the appearance of the Mari Llwyd or “Grey Horse” previously called the Aberyn bee y Llwyd or the “Bird with a grey beak.” In villages around Sheffield, the broom-wielding, black-faced transvestite was called “Our Old Lass.” He took on the role of an old woman appearing in a hero-combat play between the butcher and the sheep-headed horse called “Old Tup.” Even today during the Horn Dance, which still takes place at Abbots Bromley in Staffordshire in early September, there is a transvestite called “Maid Marian” who carries a collecting ladle as a token of their sacred office and appears with the “Hobby Horse.”
The sacred transvestite did not only appear with holy horses, they appeared as an important figure in all manner of fertility rites. In Kent, during the Horn Fair at Charlton, any man could appear in public dressed in women’s clothing. On May Day the lucky London sweeps celebrated with “the Lord and the Lady,” who was, of course, a transvestite. In the May Day battle between the Queen of May and the Queen of Winter on the Isle of Man, the Queen of Winter was a man.
“Moggies” together with his husband can still be seen during the fertility rites on May Day at Ickwell in Bedfordshire. In north Wales the principal character of the fertility dances held in May was the transvestite “Cadi.” The transvestite “Bessie” blessed the ceremony of Plough Monday while the transvestite “Betty” carrying a broom sanctified the Goathlan Plough Stots in north Yorkshire the following Saturday. Ritual cross-dressing for the purpose of promoting fertility was a worldwide folk custom of antiquity which was first recorded in Europe around 400 CE by Severian when he wrote about the kalends (Bord: 1982, 201-218).
Cross-dressers appeared at many fertility folk customs throughout ancient Europe. Sometimes the man (like the Cadi) was dressed as a woman only from the waist down. The image of a man dressed as a woman (in part or completely) carrying a broom was an essential ingredient in most rites to invoke fertility. Feasibly, this is in honor of the role that the mythic bisexual progenitor played in the creation of life on earth. Similar to the image of the brush and pole of the broom which they carried, the image of a single person embodying both sexes implies the psychological/physical/energetic/mystic union of male and female. This is not the union which comes after creation, but their union prior to the forming of men and women that is the source of maleness and femaleness. Thus gender variant individuals participate naturally in the source of creation. To honor them is to honor the act of creation itself thus promoting fertility for man and beast.
What could Qywr magic look like in today’s world?
The Holy loves us with the same love with which we love each other, but raised to the level of the Divine.
–Victor H. Anderson
The Minoan Brotherhood and Sisterhood were created in the 1970s by Edie Buczynski and Lady Miw because they were frustrated with the homophobic attitudes enshrined within the Gardnerian tradition. Part of the Minoan tradition’s mission was to do magic to promote the social acceptance and legal equality of GBLTQ folks. In the Minoan Brotherhood, the Great Goddess of our people is the Mother of the Divine male Lover-Gods. This is similar to the Faerie Tradition of Witchcraft which views the Star Goddess as the progenitor of all life in the universe. Her first born are the Divine Twin-Lovers who can be male-male, female-female, or male-female pairs. They switch gender at will to appear to us in the most suitable and helpful form. They also appear in diverse shapes, sometimes terrifyingly awesome or stunningly beautiful. They always appear in the form which has our best intentions at heart.
This mythology is similar to many different cultures throughout time and in diverse places. Many ancient peoples not only recognized the social reality of homosexuals born of heterosexuals but also recognized their value to society as well. In the recent past, Qwyrs had lost all standing in society but were still valued for their entertainment and decorating skills. Now that the will to oppress homosexuals/bisexuals/transsexuals/queers is lessening in society because of the weakening power of religious ideologues, once again gender variant people can be valued for the multi-skilled talents they so often possess, as well as for simply being who they are.
The mythology of a Mother Goddess and Twin-Lovers is ideally suited to informing Qwyr religion, myths, customs and magic, not only because of its venerable history but also because of its simplicity and beauty. The mythos of a primal Goddess giving birth to Divine Twins of indeterminate gender is so powerful because such a mythic arrangement naturally participates in the magical triangle of manifestation. The power of the One becoming Two and the Two becoming One is the power of creation itself!
The fact that Divine transsexuals such as Ymir, Vishnu as Mohini, Shiva Ardhanarishvara, Baphomet, Hermaphroditus, Mollie, Judy or Bessie are associated with creation and fertility is because They can bridge the gap between women and men and directly show us that within every man and woman lies the power of creation. Every man has female hormones, and every woman has male hormones, each person with their own unique balance.
Utilizing the power of creation — which is the power of love and desire — provides the ecstasy that raises power directly from our bodies and feeds our spells and magics. The use of ecstasy as a main path to the Witch Power is a specialty of gender variant covens. Qwyr folks are adept at ecstatic states which bridge the gap and discharge the force needed for spells because we naturally understand in our guts the intimate connection of ecstasy and creation. This may be why even during the worse times of our persecutions, Qwyr folks were often associated with creativity. This would explain the prevalent folk custom of including a transsexual in fertility rites to represent the ecstasy of union that empowers all kinds of fertility and creativity.
Qwyr culture not only has a spiritual role but also has a supporting role for heterosexual culture. Heterosexual pairings can create families based on bonds of love and caring for each other. However, it is the bonds of love and caring between men and other men as well as women with other women that creates community. It is the circle of community that surrounds the family units to protect them and provide services. Perhaps it is the Great Goddess’ design that we help each other. Heterosexual people give birth and nourishment to Qwyr people who in turn provide multiple services that enriches and enlivens society.
In today’s modern times we can forgo human sacrifice. Our Gods no longer demand blood sacrifice, as ancient Pagan societies started changing their beliefs in the need for and efficacy of blood sacrifice, in addition to recognizing its cruelty. Governments are now the arbitrators of human sacrifice, demanding their populace (but not the politicians) sacrifice their lives and livelihood to their gods of war.
We also don’t need paiderestia as an accepted social institution any more. Now we know the damage done to children from abuse by adults in power is counterproductive to healthy minds and normal social relations. In turn, the damage done to pedophiles destroys their sense of compassion, social appropriateness and their ability to relate to others without controlling them. This type of behavior can lead to abuse of power over others because that is what sex with students by their teachers is often based on. Those with smaller, less encumbered egos tend to try to please those they perceive as more powerful. This kind of abuse of power over others is passed by example onto other generations, destroying slowly the social fabric of community. One cannot build community while hiding sexual misconduct; eventually it will destroy any trust upon which a community is built.
Besides a mythology to help build forms of worship, one needs a healthy understanding of the relationship of sex and love. Victor Anderson used to say that if we had a real understanding of sex, we would feel no dichotomy between love and sex. Our sexual sense is one of our natural senses. It is just as natural as seeing something beautiful and feeling pleasure in the sight of it, or hearing a beautiful sound or music and being transported to an ecstatic state. In today’s world most of us are sexual cripples, crippled by religious morals, sexual predation, a lack of sexual education and a true understanding of sexual abuse as a power play. Most people in the societies of today are taught to ignore or be afraid of our sexual urges that separate our bodies from our nature and the nature of the world. It is no wonder why many people feel disassociated from others and the world.
Victor also said that the association of sex with guilt was accomplished by men who wanted all the power they could grab. They betrayed women and girls by enslaving the weaker willed into submission and taught this perversion down through the generations. Because people were not allowed to choose their own sex partner, but were told who they could and couldn’t have sex with by men in authority, sexual predation and abuse has been nourished up till modern times. Masses of people have easily become perverted into hate which has fed racism, intolerance and the belief that greedy men are natural rulers that ought to be emulated. Because love and sex have become separated, the natural urges that drive evolution became separate from natural sexuality. Our sexuality, once separated from our natural urges, became associated with violence and war. This is the force behind the world’s ubiquitous rape culture that blames women for the indiscretions of men.
Sex magic, on the other hand, can change all that because of its marvelous healing and creative power! It is wonderfully healing, self-empowering, and creative, because rites of sex can allow us to remove the fear, confusion, guilt and shame that authorities use to control us. The Divine desire to create the universe is reflected in our own personal desire for sex. When we realize that we as animals have the right to have sex with any consenting adult, we are naturally closer to the Divine power of creation because we are exercising our own choice rather than someone else’s.
In the ancient Pagan cultures, there are many examples of both acceptance and tolerance and in some cases an elevated status for Qwyr people. These attitudes were reflected in the myths of their Gods and in their laws. It isn’t until more modern times that homosexuality was raised from an ordinary Christian sin, like eating shrimp, into a crime that exceeds the prohibitions of even the 10 Christian Commandments. Consider how often some fundamentalist monotheists bear false witness with the lies they spread about Qwyr folk.
Modern Witchcraft culture itself has struggled with acceptance or tolerance of gender variant behavior. On the one hand is the libertine nature of the Goddess accepts all love and pleasure, which translates into a respect for all of human nature. On the other hand are the centuries of accrued prejudice layered onto the psyches of people by authorities. However, even Gardernians who had no problem with Qwyrs would often bend the rules of conduct because they recognized how ridiculous the rules were. It just wasn’t talked about, like so many other Qwyr things. However, not all Traditional Witchcraft traditions view Qwyrs with the same ambivalence. Some still remember the traditional inclusion of the transvestite in fertility rites to invoke the power of creation.[x]
Berens, E.M. Myths and Legends of Greece and Rome. Clark and Maynard: New York, n.d.
Bord, Janet and Colin. Earth Rites: Fertility Practices in Pre-industrial Britain. Granada Publishing: London, 1982.
Burkert, Walter. Greek Religion. Trans. John Raffan. Harvard University Press. Cambridge, 1985.
Conner, Randy; David and Mariya Sparks. Queer Myth, Symbol and Spirit. Bath Press: Bath, 1997.
Evans, Arthur. Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture. Fag Rag Books: Boston, 1978.
Sex is not a doorway leading to something else, nor is it a metaphor for so-called spiritual love, but a sun and moon lit path leading across the sea of life to an infinite horizon.
Introduction to Part One
In Part One, I briefly put forward ideas of how the Witch power operates with Qwyr people in the context of Faerie Witchcraft. I then discuss and contrast ideas of how the Witch Power is believed to work in some other modern Witch traditions in the context of polarity. I show how polarity works not only as a model for heterosexual couples but also for Qwyr couples. Then I introduce an ancient idea of non-gendered polarity and how that exists and functions in our world today in the context of creation. Later, I delve more deeply into Faerie Witchcraft ideas about how the Witch Power moves within a magic circle based upon our mythology. I give the examples of gravity and plasma as to how the Witch Power moves within nature and mimics its natural movement within the circle.
Attitudes about Qwyrness in Faerie Witchcraft culture
Believing as they did in both the autonomy and the empowerment of each individual was the exquisite beauty of the Anderson’s teachings. The Tradition can morph to fit and empower the individual, but at the same time there are some items that clearly distinguish Faery from Wicca.
Faery meetings might look a great deal like a Wiccan coven’s, but the informing principles are quite different. Victor and Cora dismissed the physical polarization of Deity by gender as an oversimplification of the Divine’s multiple manifestations of every conceivable mixture of gender. (Gander: 2010, 3)
I feel that the power in an Anderson Faerie Witch circle doesn’t flow only between men and women or even simply between individuals. Like life-giving dew forming from moist air, sexual attraction between people makes the Witch Power condense onto their bodies, giving them a feeling of pleasure in the other’s company. I feel the power raised in a circle before it is formed into a spell or cone to be like a bubbling cauldron: full of potential yet free flowing throughout the cauldron of the circle and freely available to every member in circle regardless of sexual proclivity.
The common understanding of Wicca tends to stress the importance of male-female workings and focus on fertility. Anderson Faery magic has always had a primary focus on ecstasy instead of fertility. This may be due in part with the plurality of Deities we work with. As a result, sex of any stripe is honored as a gift from and to the Gods. Homosexuality, heterosexuality, bisexuality, polysexuality, transgendered sexuality, in short all of sexuality, is our holiest mystery. We have no reason to simplify the profound mystery of sex into redundant and meaningless roles. The Anderson Faery Witch is complete in herself, needing no other to complete her magic (Johnson: 2001, 3).
Gender and Polarity in Wicca
Polarity can mean a lot of things to different people, but to many modern Pagans it means that magic is believed to work by raising energy from paired couples of men and women. Thus it is sometimes believed that, in order to properly raise power, it must flow only between alternating male and female partners. Some covens insist on alternating men and women in their seating or standing arrangements. Some covens will also only pass initiations or magical tools from men to women or women to men. Some covens also believe polarity to mean a division of labor based upon sexual characteristics and they have fixed roles for priests and priestesses in ritual. What are the principles underlying such ideas?
From talking with those who work magic in a format of gendered polarity, I learned that underlying the idea of polar gender-oriented ritual is the desire to maintain a literal interpretation of a symbol set and the use of a sexually charged atmosphere. This atmosphere is charged by the release of psychic energy, subtle and obvious sexual signals, pheromones and possibly other bio-chemicals.
“Polarity” has been the term used to denounce the workings of same-sex couples, while at the same time shoring up the privileges of non-gay couples. “Polarity” is the “reason” why gay people cannot work together in a Gardnerian circle. If one were to ask what “polarity” is, one gets conflicting answers. One well-known and highly respected Priestess in the Long Island line of Gardnerian Craft once explained “polarity” with a scientific sounding proof. She said that “polarity” operated like pheromones in that they flowed from male to female or female to male and caused an excited state which could be tapped into as a source of magical power.
However, pheromones are a specialized type of hormone. They act like hormones in that only an extremely small amount of the chemical is needed to have a great effect on the body and they actonly on specific receptor sites. Pheromones spread throughout the entire environment in all directions, like hormones which spread equally throughout the whole body and its tissues. As one’s body emits pheromones, they do not flow through the air only to one receptor site (an opposite sex body), but are available to everyone in the area equally, regardless of sex. However, only those people who are susceptible to the pheromone would be affected. Heterosexual people are affected by the pheromones of the opposite sex and homosexual people are affected by the pheromones of the same sex. The same man in a circle can affect the bodies of both heterosexual women and homosexual men. The effect is not determined by the preference of the emitter of the pheromones but by those who react to it.
The Gardnerian Priestess’s explanation wasn’t an explanation in favor of “polarity” working only for non-Qwyr people or a “reason” why same-sex working couples were taboo! Using pheromones as a model to explain “polarity” actually shows why “polarity” would work for Qwyr working couples as well as non-Qwyr couples. A gay man would be affected by the pheromones of any man in the circle that he found attractive! Thus, I have come to believe that “polarity” is simply the same thing as good old sexual attraction. It is the sexual attraction felt between two people that acts as a source of magical power. It is sexual attraction that makes the working “juicy.” It can be physically felt only between those who are attracted to each other. “Polarity” would not work between a non-gay and a gay man, but only between gay or bi-sexual men. It makes sense that Gardner as a heterosexual would feel “polarity” only with a woman, and write about it as such. It is incorrect, however, to assume it is the same for everyone in all Gardnerian circles.
Looking at “polarity” from an electrical theory viewpoint, between two separated poles there exists a gap that can become charged. When the charge becomes intense enough or when the poles connect, they discharge the force collected between them. When there is sexual attraction between people, the attraction can build until it is released with orgasm, which is like discharging a charge. The charging and discharging of a space is like raising a cone of power which is sent to the target upon total relaxation of the coven members.
This ancient idea of a gap of charged atmosphere as the source of manifestation was known by the folk of Scandinavia. They called it the Ginnungagap and it was seen as the source of all creation. The word Ginnungagap comes from the old Norse ginning which means a charged potential and gap which has the same meaning as in English – a space in-between. This primal space was charged with a mighty, magical force and is from whence all reality springs. This primal place was not formed, it just existed.
Fire and ice were formed billions of years later as the extremes that defined the outer limits of the Ginnungagap. The northern part was frozen, solid and dark whereas the southern part was molten, flowing and glowing with light. The middle was as mild as the warm air of a summer’s evening. Due to the warm breath in the middle – from the melting ice the first life arose from the mists. Life arises from the middle not at the extreme poles of fire and ice. The proto-space filled with magic power moves from formless potential into form, in this case as the giant Ymir: “He incorporates the double function of creation – conception and birth” (Lindow: 1988, 467).
“But it is said that while he his legs got a son with the other, and that is where the families of the frost ogres come from. We call that old frost ogre Ymir” (Sturluson: 1973, 34). Snorri refers to two groups of beings created by Ymir – men and women from His arm pit as well as a son produced independently by His two legs. Perhaps this son of the primordial bisexual Giant was Qwyr. The myth of Ymir can be seen as an ancient reason why gender variant people are associated with creation and thus fertility. Similar tales of creation arising from a hermaphrodite progenitor are found not only in Norse myths but also in ancient Iranian, Egyptian and Indian cultures. Even though sometimes the Gods rose up against Their progenitor and killed Him/Her, They still bear the marks (genes?) of Their Giant ancestry. As we are children of the Gods, then all people must also bear the marks of the first born bisexual progenitor. Thus it makes sense why heterosexual relations give rise to bisexual and homosexual people, because they carry the genes for it!
Although the Alexandrian tradition was started by a bisexual man and they have historically been much more welcoming of gay men and lesbians as equals in their circles, in America this seems to be changing. Apparently, some American Alexandrian Witches are introducing alternating male-female partners in their circles. One Alexandrian Priestess once told me in her experience and the experience of her coven, power only flowed from a woman to a man to a woman in a straight line across the circle. I think this is a worthwhile observation, but I wonder if these observations are related to the sexual orientation of the group members or simply their expectations. Ironically, I have seen this bias insisted upon in circles where two men are not allowed to stand or sit together while at the same time everyone on the other side of the circle are women. Three to five women for every man – talk about gender imbalance! However, it only seems to bother the “polarity” people when two men are together!
It doesn’t bother some gay men to only work with a woman as a partner in circle; they follow the rules and they are happy. They have told me that it is no big deal to work magic with a woman for only a few hours a month. I understand, as I have worked magic with women to wonderful effect. However, it is my feeling that when one is in the sacred circle and in the presence of the Gods, it is the most important time to be honest about your true self! To play the role of a heterosexual so the other people in the circle feel okay about me is not what I want to do in the Gods’ presence. I feel it belittles my relationship with the Gods to try and trick Them by playing the role of something I am not.
In the lore of ancient peoples all over the world, Mountain and Lake were primal polarities that manifested the genesis of our world and were primeval symbols of fertility. However, the Holy Mountain and Sacred Lake are polar fertility symbols that are not gender specific. Mountains and lakes are often viewed by local peoples as having a particular sex, but the same sex is not allotted to either mountain or lake. Sexual characteristics ascribed to masculine or feminine traits are not the same for all people.
Some of the surviving ancient images of the Goddesses Astarte, Tiamat, and Aphrodite include apparently masculine traits, even those most strongly associated with the male, such as a beard or penis. Likewise Baphomet, Agditis, the Hurrite God Kumarbi, Zarvan of Akkadia, the Hittite Teshub, the Hindu Shiva Ardhanarishvara and the wooden God image from Somerset, England also display breasts and vaginas. Even the sacred island of the most masculine of the ancient warrior Hawai’ian God, Ku is named the “Vagina of Ku.” Since primary sexual characteristics such as a penis or vagina are displayed as both characteristics of Goddesses or Gods, then surely They share secondary and tertiary sex characteristics such as hair, hair styles, clothing and gender roles.
The ancient non-gender specific model of polarity has been almost forgotten in our modern Pagan world. However, since the universe is infinite and unlimited, the generative power of creation must also be unlimited. Since the blinders of religious prejudice have been dissolving before our collective eyes, it is possible to see that in nature heterosexuality is not favored over homosexuality. It is very common for animals and humans to be sexually attracted to members of their own sex at least once in their life. Some try to insist that nature conform to their way of thinking, but it does them little good.
Polarity and Gender in Faerie Witchcraft
In Faerie Witchcraft we do not talk about “polarity” as if it were a process that demanded women and men alternate positions. Victor Anderson himself was bisexual, and he never said anything that could be construed as homophobic or heterocentric to me during the many years I visited him and Cora. In their opinion, a man was equal to a woman in power and could do anything a woman could do except give birth. They told me that of course a man can cast circles, initiate and work with another man, and it is the same for women working together. This is the general consensus of our tribe: that all are equal in the circle of initiates regardless of gender. As it is for the Faerie Witch, so do the Gods display every combination of gender, just as humans in diverse cultures have done for centuries. In our tradition the extreme points of masculine and feminine (on a sexual spectrum) are respected and honored and They are seen as the exception that They are in life.
Just like us, the Gods can assume a multiple variety of gender roles. They do this to meet the needs of the people. In Faery Witchcraft we say: “God is self and self is God and God is a person like myself.” We do not have to fit ourselves into outdated gender role models to connect with the Gods, we just need to be ourselves. For this reason Lesbians, Gay men, and Transgender folk often feel comfortable in working Faerie magic, because they don’t have to pretend to be something they are not.
There are many forces like polarity that are mysterious to us. For instance, gravity is strange to us. It doesn’t come in discrete little packages of energy. It seems omnipresent and it is totally continuous without break. If there is no break in the force of gravity, then there can be no gravitational polarity. Gravity is the origin of our world and universe – the origin of duality. If the origin of duality is ceaseless then it is non-dual. In the same way that an apple seed produces only an apple tree, then a fundamental force of nature that is non-dual can only produce a non-dual reality. This pointing out of the identity of non-dual and dual modes of reality is exactly what the image of the gender-variant individual is alluding to.
If the point of polarity is to explain how we raise power from our bodies within a sexually charged space to empower a spell, then it seems it is most important to raise our libido. This can be enhanced in many ways, such as through movement, hearing, smell, taste, touch or sight. There doesn’t seem to be any difference between the sexual arousal of homosexuals and heterosexuals, so the power raised is the same. How would the power move in a circle of people if the popular model of an electromagnetic field was not used to explain the phenomena of polarity? Even without any explanatory concepts, power would still rise with the libido of the coveners. Libido is usually defined as sexual interest, but it is also the passion for life and life’s experiences, as well as a driving force behind all kinds of creativity.
Most of us are familiar with three forms of matter: solids, liquids and gasses. But there is a fourth form of matter that is found in the dark heart of stars and also within the huge gas clouds that move between the stars. This is a form of matter that starts as a gas but becomes ionized by extreme heat and is called plasma. If the temperature of the material is very high, all the electrons separate from their nuclei. The particles which make up the gas are split apart into smaller positively and negatively charged particles. In plasma, the electrically charged particles moveindependently of each other, not in a linear fashion like electricity.
Instead of marching in line, these independent particles move wildly in any direction, pervading the entire plasma field. Plasma has diametrically charged particles and so is a phenomena of polarity, but the charged particles do not move in a predetermined configuration based on detached opposites. Plasma is a substance which demonstrates non-dichotomized polarity. Due to the electrical charge which pervades plasma, it behaves differently than a gas and is also affected by electromagnetic fields. Although on earth we are often not familiar with this substance, it is by far the most common state of matter in the universe. Plasma is a primal form of matter from which all the atoms in the universe congeal.
The reality of plasma can be used as a model for understanding how power moves and works in a magic circle. Instead of conceiving that an electric-like charge flows from one person to another in a straight line, the charged particles released from our bodies move about freely within the circle. As water brought to a boil inside a cauldron where the molecules move in every direction, so too particles of pheromones from our bodies rush in every direction within the confines of the magic circle. By intensifying the libido thus increasing the pheromones, the contents of the charged atmosphere in the circle is brought to a “boil” that allows the power to build to the pitch necessary to manifest magic. If pheromones or other bio-chemicals are a part of the process of raising power, then a model based upon the roiling movement of power as with a boiling cauldron makes more sense than an electrical linear movement of power in a circular space. The bio-chemicals wouldn’t move in a linear fashion but pervade the air like a fragrance smelled by all present.
There are quite a few articles out there about finding a good Pagan teacher, how to avoid bad ones, or how to know if you’re ready to teach or not. Precious few are about teaching itself, or how to be a better teacher.
I am a professional educator, from a family full of educators on both sides. Teaching is my day job. As it happens, I have thoughts on the matter.
Knowledge is not enough
Every one of us during our educational career has encountered someone who may have been very smart, very knowledgeable, perhaps even a star in his or her field, but who absolutely stank as a teacher. Possessing a body of knowledge or being good at a skill is necessary but not sufficient, because teaching is actually a separate skill with distinct requirements. Fortunately, there is some overlap between the abilities needed to be a good priest/ess and those required to teach, such as perceptiveness about people and a certain flair for the theatric.
In related news, degrees and/or ordinations are also not enough; however, speaking for my own tradition (Faery), initiation is absolutely necessary. You need the perspective of having walked the whole path up to that point in order to guide someone along it. Some people feel that an advanced student teaching under the supervision of an initiate is fine, but in my experience students close to initiation (who are the only ones with enough knowledge and experience to teach) need to spend their time and energy managing their own progress. Faery in particular is apt to go splodey on you at certain stages if you don’t keep your focus. Your mileage with other traditions may vary, but one of the advantages of a lineaged tradition is that most of the time there are established guidelines for when you are considered ready to teach. In my own line of Faery, we advise people not to teach until at least a year after initiation; it needs that much time to settle.
This is not about you
If you want recognition, to be seen as an authority, or some other form of egoboo, then you are not going to be as good a teacher as you might be. Charisma does help and there are some egotists who are actually excellent teachers; but it is generally in spite of that, not because of it. The reality is that teaching does give you a position of authority, which you can’t manage well either by pretending it doesn’t exist or by diverting it to some purpose other than the task at hand… which is ultimately to empower your student. If that sounds tricky, well, that’s why I felt the need to write about it.
The point is not to create an intellectual or spiritual copy of yourself, but to develop the skills, knowledge, and mastery of the person in front of you. To that end, start with what they already know or are interested in; Victor Anderson was reportedly good at this, with the result that he taught each person slightly differently but with a recognizable basic core. Give them a manageable chunk, in which you offer both the big picture including connections to what they already know and a breakdown of the new information into component parts. Step back and let them use or demonstrate the knowledge. Step up again and offer feedback; but be sparing with both criticism and praise. The reason is that both are information, and tossing someone information while they are learning a complex skill is akin to throwing them a plate while they are juggling. One is plenty; four is too much. I generally tell a student what I think their biggest obstacle or problem is, the most important thing they are doing right, and give one concrete suggestion, until the next round. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Be very aware of your language. Use words that emphasize the student’s competence, and avoid ones that undermine it. This includes describing someone as a “newbie” or the like. I know some organizations have formal designations such as “neophyte,” etc. but I assure you students are aware of where they sit in the hierarchy and don’t need their noses rubbed in it. Even when a student needs to be gently reminded that they came to you for a reason, there are better and more subtle ways to do it. Always be asking yourself, “what is the best way for this person to learn?” The answer will vary, and you have to stay on your toes, even as you keep them on theirs.
At the very same time, you don’t owe anyone your time and energy and knowledge. Being a martyr to someone else’s spiritual progress is all kinds of bad, and they are likely to resent you for it in the long run besides.
Don’t get bored
In graduate school I had a delightful professor and mentor who only ever gave me one piece of direct advice about teaching: “Don’t let them bore you.”
There’s no excuse for being bored as a teacher under any circumstances if you ask me; teaching is fun. But doubly so if you are teaching a religious tradition which ought to engage you on the deepest levels. If you are bored, you yourself have stopped progressing. If you are bored, you are energetically disengaged (bad enough in a classroom, practically malfeasance when teaching witchcraft). If you are bored, you probably don’t actually like your student very much… so do both of you a favor and refer them to someone else. Most of all, if you are bored you will be boring.
Different models of teaching and their uses
Let me begin by reiterating that I teach for my day job. I have experienced the workshop/classroom model for teaching Pagan and witchcraft topics as both a teacher and a student. I received my Faery training under an apprenticeship type one-on-one model, and I have taught my own students in a combination of apprenticeship and coven teaching, depending on what was going on at the time.
The classroom or workshop model
Fundamentally, this means that you have a number of students and one or two teachers, and the relationship between teacher and student is limited in time and space. That is, they interact mostly in the classroom setting, with a variable amount of individual consultation outside of it, and once the term of the class is ended there is no presumption of a relationship beyond that.
The classroom model is good for imparting mainly intellectual information, or specific skills that can be practiced within the constraints of the course. It is also an efficient way to maximize resources… either in terms of making sure more people get access to a particular teacher or (if the teacher is being paid) ensuring that the teacher gets a reasonable wage at an equally reasonable rate of tuition for the students.
The classroom structure inherently creates more of a hierarchy than the other types, relatively speaking. This in itself is neither good nor bad, but is a tendency to be aware of, especially if your stated values are otherwise. The frequent internal fights I witnessed in Reclaiming about who was or was not deemed a “teacher”… and who got paid… I believe are traceable in part to the structurally hierarchical tendencies of workshops and Witch Camp straining against the anti-hierarchical sensibility of the tradition as a whole. A classroom model also creates emotional distance, which is useful to me as a college instructor, but as a means of teaching emotionally intense spiritual subjects, it may be counterproductive.
An apprentice is something like a student and something like an assistant; learning comes from both discussion and practice, often in partnership with the teacher, and it easily (almost inevitably) spills over into a personal friendship. This approach is generally far less structured, which can be both an advantage and a disadvantage. The down side is that sometimes major topics get skipped because they just didn’t happen to come up; the up side is that the practice is very much integrated into daily life and the student sees the teacher’s practice in action, not just in theory or by self-report. This is the most supportive form of the teacher-student relationship, and that level of support is essential for some of the shamanic and ecstatic types of practice. It is also the most time-intensive, on both the student and teacher’s part.
Teaching in covens
In practice this is often a combination of the two, both structurally and in a kind of linear progression; that is, a coven may have “outer court” classes which are taught by coven members to a group, then as students advance they wind up working with a teacher one-on-one. In a tradition like Faery where there is only one initiation and several initiates may be part of a coven, each initiate may have a student under his or her supervision for individual work combined with group ritual and other activities. Ideally coven-teaching is the best of both worlds; in practice I could see the potential for screwed-up interpersonal dynamics finding a foothold or being exacerbated. I will say that in my own personal experience that for any witchcraft beyond the most basic “this is how to cast a circle, here’s the Wheel of the Year, let’s talk about directions and elements” kind of information, the closer the teaching model is to apprenticeship, the more functional it tends to be. There also needs to be a clear path forward for students, and a clear understanding of who is responsible for what.
Generally speaking, the more intellectual and dry the information you are conveying, and the less expectation you have of any relationship beyond the term of the course, the better a classroom or workshop model will suit. The more intense and volatile the training, the more an apprenticeship or coven model is necessary; this is why the principles listed on the Faery Tradition website include “We recognize that Faery is highly transformative and extremely experiential, requiring closer attention and responsibility than workshops, seminars, or intensives provide.”
From both the teacher and student’s perspectives, knowing what your goals are (both short term and long term) is vital. How much support and attention from the teacher do you need/are you able to give? I have seen people struggling with the emotional fallout of practices learned via a book or a relatively inaccessible workshop teacher, sometimes to their detriment; in my own experience I have found that approach too ungrounded for anything energetically intense. There are also potential pitfalls for the teacher: in an interview for the article “The Teacher Will Appear” by Christine Hoff Kramer and Sierra Black which appeared in Witches and Pagans #25, I made the observation that “in group situations people are much, much more likely to project their shadow stuff onto me than they are in situations where we have a more organic and personal relationship.” Obviously, I don’t think a classroom model is inherently bad; I teach in a classroom every week. I have also given my share of Pagany workshops and talks. I do think that for both teacher and student, understanding the limits and advantages of a given approach will help to avert difficulties and make sure the education you are seeking happens.
In academia where I spend most of my time, teaching is an entire skill and field of study (pedagogy) in and of itself. I would like to see the awareness that how you teach can be as important as what you teach more widespread in Pagan circles. As you contemplate your own teaching, consider that values, world-view, your relationship with your student, even theology can sometimes be more clearly conveyed by what you do rather than what you say. To that end I try to be open, grounded, connected, and flexible as a teacher, emphasizing relationship and experience over declaration while being firm in my own knowledge and practice. My own witchcraft and the results of it in my own life are the best teaching I can offer.
Since I caught its scent in 2000 and realised its current had been nudging on my awareness for ten years already, I’d done what I could to study, learn, connect with and generally be in the same vicinity as Feri tradition. During that time I’d strongly received the message, from Feri initiates, teachers, from dedicants of all sorts of other paths and religions, that daily spiritual practice is a Good Thing – that it is, in fact, essential. But it didn’t occur to me until half a decade ago that, as for Vizzini in The Princess Bride, that did not mean what I thought it meant.
One practice I’d been doing throughout my Feri/Faery training was making Kala, or, as the teacher who would finally initiate me names it, the Water Trick. I’d had four cups that I’d bought specifically for the purpose of making Kala. Every single one of them ended up cracked or broken, or developed a leak.
First of all there was the beautiful clay goblet with a powder blue glaze that I picked up in an Oxfam shop in Edinburgh: it fell off its shelf onto the floor and broke in two. Then there was the gorgeous, apple wood, hand-turned chalice which I’d bought in the mid-1990s in Bath: the centre fell out of the knot in its side making it no less beautiful, but utterly unusable; the cup I made myself at a pottery class and which, although properly fired and without visible cracks, holes or fissures, conspired to dribble its contents out of its base every time it was filled; and finally, the round-bellied, clay chalice with a glaze shifting from tan brown to mustard yellow, another charity shop purchase, which spontaneously developed a crack overnight, without ever moving from its spot on the altar.
As you might imagine, I became suspicious that Something Was Up. At the time of this final insult to my attempts to be a daily spiritual practitioner, I was about halfway through a two-and-a-half year training with T. Thorn Coyle. We did a lot of work with our tools, both physically and metaphysically, and the idea came up in discussion with my fellow students of the ‘cracked cup’ – the student on the spiritual path who cannot hold the benefits of their work, because they have an unhealed wound, or an unnoticed fissure somewhere in their body, physical or energetic.
This made a lot of sense to me, as I was at the time finally coming to grips with a lifetime’s untreated depression. It also made sense because I took my first steps into the occult through the Tarot. I did a lot of journeying into the cards in my teens, and returned frequently to the Ace of Cups. Again and again I experienced being the Cup, the vessel for the Holy Spirit and the water of Life to work through into the world.
From that point on, I didn’t acquire any more cups with the practice of making Kala in mind.
Over the next year daily practice became more and more difficult for me, to the point where I just about gave up, although it was always in my mind, especially once I asked my final Faery teacher to take me on as a student. After having some success with doing the exercises she suggested daily, I found myself thinking about them, but not doing them.
I said before that I didn’t acquire any more cups for making Kala: that’s true, but I did make one last attempt at having a ‘special’ vessel for the purpose – the very first piece of pottery I had ever thrown, fired and glazed, back when I was 18 and a year into my journey with the Tarot.
I had made it with the intention of pouring out libations to the elements; I had used four different glazes to represent the four elements, overlapping with each other to create eight colours. It was lumpy and uneven, some of the blended glazes had run where the chemicals in them had interacted to alter their properties under heat, and it was perfect. I had carried it with me and kept it safe for 22 years. This simple, sturdy, uneven cup I had made myself, this cup which had been with me for so long, which knew me so well, which I did not imagine for a minute could possibly succumb as the others had done – which, not long after, fell off a table and split in two.
Shortly after that, I received a waking vision:
It is sunny and there is a clear, wide, straight and even track stretching off into the distance, but I’m not looking at that. I’m looking at myself as I sit on the grass verge, dense woods behind me. I am unable to walk on along the path. This isn’t for lack of energy, through illness or injury, but through unwillingness. My will is not to walk the clear, wide, straight and even track in sunlight; my will is to walk into the wild woods, into the dark, the unknown, the trackless – into the arms of nature.
I had not connected the vision with the broken cup, but following conversations with my teacher and others, something shifted into place within me: all of those broken Kala cups were not because I am a ‘cracked vessel’, but because I simply do not fit within walls any longer, because my path was not one of form: I break containers.
Talking to my teacher and another initiate who is a close friend, I heard reflected back a confirmation of what I felt: that going into the wild, into the woods, into nature was what I needed; that, in my friend’s words, it was about time I stopped torturing myself trying to make myself do spiritual practice that way it’s ‘supposed’ to be done, and did it my way.
Fetch-me was so mightily relieved. No more rules! No more instructions! No more boring straight path! Relaxation and fun and doing stuff that kept Fetch-me happy was the order of the day.
This included a lot of walking in the woods, sitting by the burn (a particularly Scottish kind of stream), falling asleep on stones, conversing with buzzards and swallows, cuddling dogs, making healthy food, listening to the wind, standing and singing barefoot under the full moon. After a while, it also began to include mantras to the sun, T’ai Chi for the moon, alignment, salt water baths and whatever out of my existing bag of tools and tricks took my fancy and felt right.
And it was happening every day, which made it daily practice, right?
Which points to the vitally important nugget at the heart of all this. With all of those ‘Kala cups’, with all of the following instructions, I was making the mistake of turning daily practice into something special, something cut out, something disconnected, and, as my teacher said to me, the whole point of all of this is connection.
The point of daily practice is that it is not special: it is beautiful and self-expanding and joyful and full of wonder and connecting, but it is not special.
It is understandable, in this age of super information coming at us from all sides and media, that we have different kinds of information and lore from many various traditions and cultures mixed up together. This has resulted in many styles of modern Paganism. Still, there is a certain bottom-line of cornerstones that connect all forms of Crafte.* Confusion about this occurs at times because people have either lost sight of what the cornerstones of the Crafte historically are, or because there has been a deliberate effort to destroy or twist these fundamentals into forms that serve no one.
Victor and Cora Anderson were called to the work of helping people through humanity’s entangled complexes and magical snares. Now more then ever, it becomes necessary to recall and reflect on these cornerstones of our Crafte and how they apply in any age.
I offer these to think upon for those who want to embark on the spiritual life of Feri/Faery Crafte:
To respect and know nature in all its forms, for this is what we are all a part of.
To strive to embrace life and humanity, and to value life’s lessons as well as its pleasures.
To live with joy and wonder, understanding the wisdom that lies between dignity and ecstasy.
To live honorably and in accordance with our oaths, so we have the strength of character, if need be, to shun that which has become broken or twisted in its nature or values.
To defend the tradition with love and the courage of true warriorship.
To know your life is of purpose, to be filled with education, creativity and spiritual truths.
To strive for rightful pride and rightful humbleness, becoming your true self and reaching for your human refinement.
To recognize, respect and celebrate one another’s gifts and talents.
To honor and respect our elders’ experience.
To offer help to those in need, especially our kin.
To Honor the Gods and spirits of all nations and places.
To live in balance in ourselves, our covens, and our communities in accordance with our oaths.
The paradox that brings wisdom is knowing that, although the journey from birth to death is in essence one we make alone, the journey is not possible or complete without each other. Be it from our smallest cell, to the great forces all around us, it is all part of us. This is but one of life’s deep mysteries, what drives us to contemplation, meditation, prayer, science and all spiritual arts.
To walk the path of Crafte, it becomes our duty to endeavor to practice self-honesty and humility, as well proper pride before each other and the Gods. We must know when and how to be silent, for the greater good and for the inspiration and wisdom it brings. Our code of honor contains both kindness and discernment, joyfulness and dignity, that which seeks to explore and stretch boundaries yet not overstep common sense. Our code asks of us that we not conduct ourselves in such a way that brings confusion or mistrust to our kin or neighbors. We model Devotion not as enslavement, but as a unity of love and trust.
We are wise ones, artists and healers of various skills and talents. We should be trained well in these skills and have faith in ourselves as well as in our partnership with the divine. We should have clear understanding of our oaths and live to uphold them and our tradition. If one does not understand this, then one is not seeking the paths of the wise, but is at best having a well-meaning or innocent dalliance with the mysterious, or at worst becoming some kind of con artist of varying malevolence and criminality. There are many bitter pills in life, but none so choking as spiritual debasement; so remember you are living and walking a path, not just wearing its apparel.
When Initiation is fully realized, the doors of imagination open the mind to Wisdom and Science, the heart to Magic and Art, the spirit to Love and Reason. Realize that all the talent and genius of anyone without Love and Self-discipline comes to naught, for these provide the backbone and heart of true warriorship. The path of Feri Crafte offers skills of mind, body and spirit to strengthen and protect the seeker and Initiate. We learn to refine our nature as well as help uplift human kind. Only those who truly desire such goals and are ready to pursue them will see this Crafte for what it truly has to offer.
Know that any magic you make is real, because all of creation is an illusion that is very real. This is a paradoxical truth and one reason why genius and madness can walk hand in hand.
Realize that human evil is birthed from fear and greed, and these are the stepchildren of arrogance and ignorance.
Realize that all forms of slavery and violence are our enemy. Yet we will aid and defend, for such are our oaths.
We walk this path in partnership with the Divine as their children, and thus we have great possibility, and responsibility.
* Editor’s Note: The author has used the older spelling of “Crafte” here for historical reasons… and because it has not yet been the title of a major motion picture!
I am a fourth-generation Appalachian Herbalist. Herbalism, hearth magic and ancestor worship make up a large part of my craft practice. I don’t separate my magical practices from my mundane life. My home is my temple and my apothecary. I find meaning, use and beauty in the things I have adorned and equipped my home with.
In my thirties, I took great joy in learning how to cook and bake in a wall-to-wall fireplace in a one-room cabin in the wilds of West Virginia with my ex-boyfriend. Two important times in my life I have gathered my water from a natural spring instead of from a city water source. In these instances, I gave thanksgiving to the water through seasonal rites of cleansing. I planted mint in my spring and called upon the Goddess to keep the water flowing and clean for consumption by chanting “Born of water, cleansing, powerful, healing, changing, I am.” (The chant is by Linda Lila from the CD Return of the Goddess, Sacred Chants for Women.) Water is very sacred to me and I find myself drawn to springs, creeks, rivers and waterfalls. The sound of water carries my mind away from mundane worries. Many times I have found a sense of peacefulness sitting beside the river on my favorite rock. This makes it easier for me to carry out my work and open to spirit and guidance.
Though I do work with the deities of the Feri Tradition, I don’t always need to participate in Deity worship to wield my craft. My work with the beings, plants and animals of nature can also be described as “shamanistic”. I gain understanding by listening to the spirits of nature and observing the plants and animals around me. I often see the image of a specific plant that a person needs for healing when I ask the plants for guidance. After being diagnosed with Celiac Disease, I began seeing the common mallow plant (Malva neglecta) everywhere and was relieved to discover this plant heals issues of the gut. The plant spirits had pointed me to an ally that would prove to be very helpful for my specific disease process. My Appalachian ancestors used the leaves and shoots as cooking greens and salad ingredients, while the seeds were used to accent dishes. The plant’s traditional medicinal uses included soothing skin rashes and easing coughs. Most importantly for me, it is also used to reduce inflammation in the respiratory and gastrointestinal systems.
Mallow Root Coffee
Use a digging tool to unearth a dozen or more common mallow taproots.
Remove stems and leaves and wash and scrub roots with a vegetable brush.
Chop the clean roots into 1/4 inch pieces and spread them out in a roasting pan.
Roast in a 350 degree oven until dark brown, about 30-45 minutes.
Grind and brew like coffee beans, combining with roasted chicory, dandelion, or coffee if desired.
I follow the rules of nature and consequence. My craft is not a religion; it is a daily practice of observation, prayer and listening. I work with items taken from or derived from nature such as bark, feathers, flowers, gemstones, herbs, rocks and soil. I gather my tools from my garden or woods and ethically wild harvest in the Appalachian forests surrounding my home. I prefer the company of nature and a few close friends. I feel most peaceful and powerful while working in nature.
I follow the rhythms of the moon and the seasons, and I plant during the appropriate time of the moon to bring about the desired outcome. I learned these techniques from my Great Grandmother, Grandmother and parents as a child watching them plant and harvest in our gardens. My father, grandmother and I often set out early in the morning with our backpacks loaded with trowels and lunch ready to hunt for treasures. I became acquainted with bloodroot (Sanguinara Canadensis), coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara), mullein (Verbascum thapsus) and other early spring herbs and flowers. I loved bringing our finds to Great Grandma Jack. She steeped the gathered mullein leaves for several minutes in boiling water and made a tea to drink as a cold remedy. A mullein root brew can also be administered to small children for the croup. However, she advised that it was best to gather the roots in the fall after the flowers had died away. Coltsfoot leaf, boiled in water and sweetened with honey, was also a well-tried remedy of hers for the common cold.
I make medicine as act of rebellion against Big Pharma, as part of my relationship with the plants and to honor the heritage of my Appalachian ancestors. I like knowing where my medicines come from. I enjoy having a relationship with and understanding the plants, watching them grow and respecting their wisdom as I harvest and celebrate the power of the plants I used to heal myself and others with. I believe it is vitally important for an herbalist to live with her plants. To know them and fully understand them, she must smell, see, hear, and live with them. This is part of the Craft of the Wise. I have been able to identify the plants of Appalachia since I was a child. It has only been in the last five years that I have come more fully into my understanding of the medicinal uses of the plants by completing basic and advanced herbal medicine programs. Every herb and root has a medicinal and magical property of some sort. Each shows its properties by its form, shape and spirit. This Doctrine of Signatures is a part of my craft of knowing and being aware.
The herbs I use in my Craft practice are not the same as used in other traditions. I use herbs and roots from plants that grow in Appalachia, whereas Traditions like Conjure may use plants that grow in other regions. It is important to note that many of the herbs and plants famous for their magical properties are highly toxic if ingested. It’s very important to never ingest plants unless you know exactly what they are and what effect they will have on the human body. Some herbs used in Traditional flying ointments are not safe for ingestion, such as henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) or Datura (Datura stramonium).
In general, most of the herbs in this recipe will cause your body temperature to drop and pulse rate to quicken. The “Witches Flying Ointment” produces psychedelic effects and was said to be used by Witches in the Middle Ages. It consisted mainly of parsley, hemlock, water of aconite, poplar leaves, soot, belladonna and henbane. The ointment was supposedly rubbed on various parts of a Witch’s body to enable her to “fly” off to the Sabbat. The ointment induced incredible hallucinations, psychic visions and astral projections.
Melt four parts shortening, over low heat, to one part herb mixture.
Heat on low for approximately 4 hours. Strain into a heat proof container, add 1/2 to one teaspoon tincture of benzoin as a preservative.
Mix equal parts of: cinquefoil (Potentilla), hellebore (Helleborus niger) and henbane into an ointment.
Spread a small amount ointment on arms and legs. Be careful not to ingest any ointment.
Common aromatic herbs like sage (Salvia officinalis) are not only good for culinary and medicinal use but also have surprising magical uses too. Sage is one of the best protection herbs there is. It can shield you from evil and harm, banishing negative influences and aiding in divination work. Sage smudge bundles come to mind for me.
I honor the spirits of the land and my Appalachian and Native American ancestors in my practices. My family has lived in the same area of Appalachia for over 150 years. One afternoon, as my sister and I were playing in the creek behind my Grandmother’s house, a bee stung my sister. Grandma immediately sent me down the creek bank to search for the brilliantly orange and yellow colored jewelweed (Impatiens capensis). She knew jewelweed soothed many skin ailments, including bee stings and rashes caused by poison ivy. Later, as an adult, I learned our native orange and yellow jewelweed is part of the Impatiens family. The annual flower Impatiens we plant in our flower gardens each spring is related to the jewelweed native beauty. Grandma used to simmer a quart of jewelweed in a pot of boiling water for ten minutes. She would take the strained mixture and apply it to affected areas of the skin.
Gather a fistful of jewelweed plants by lightly grasping the stems and pulling upward to unearth the shallow roots.
Shake the roots to dislodge soil and crumble the entire plant into large pot.
Add fresh water to cover the crumbled plants and bring to a boil.
Reduce heat, place a lid on the pot, and simmer for 10 minutes.
Allow the orange decoction to cool to room temperature and pour through a strainer into jars or ice cube trays.
Refrigerate jars or freeze trays and dispense as needed for stings, bites, or rashes.
I was born on Memorial Day and spent my birthdays at our family cemetery cleaning, tending, playing and adorning the graves with flowers and mementos. I remember having conversations and learning things from family members who had died years before I was born. My Grandma served favorites foods of our dead on these Memorial Day picnic dinners, like green bean sandwiches and wilted lettuce topped with bacon. These visits taught me respect for my ancestors. I am passing this on to my daughter whom I named after my favorite herb, and I hope she will become the fifth generation of my family to learn the Craft of the Wise. We are Appalachian Herbalists!
[I’ve updated the title on this essay because too many readers were missing the statements that “these are tools for thought” and “not definitive” and “not without overlap,” etc. I understand that not everyone finds contrasting pairs* helpful, and further that not everyone will recognize their communities in these Ways — in which case, don’t use the model; it’s not relevant! For those who DO recognize these as dominant narratives in their communities, and have experienced (as I have) the conflicts that arise from not acknowledging them or respecting the differing points of view, I hope this way of thinking helps you. It would have helped me tremendously ten years ago!
*See the post-postscript for why these two ways do not form a meaningful dichotomy.]
I came to the Craft primarily through the workshop model of learning and teaching. In this model, a teacher (sometimes from inside the local community, but often from outside of it) presents a day-long or weekend intensive on a particular area of Craft practice. A fee is charged, usually on par with what a small church charges for a spiritual retreat. The relationship between teacher and student is a professional one: time, skills, and information are exchanged for dollars. After the workshop is over, if the student is very lucky or lives in a tight community, s/he may be able to work with what s/he learned in the context of a group or coven. More likely, s/he is left to work with the material on her own—at least until s/he can attend the next workshop.
There are variations on this model that have advantages and disadvantages, of course: some communities emphasize peer teaching, and others provide linked series of workshops that a committed group experiences together. In general, however, the workshop model best supports people learning in groups but practicing on their own.
When I began to study Craft material derived from the teachings of Victor and Cora Anderson, I joined electronic mailing lists in order to learn more. The discussions I witnessed there perplexed me to no end. Some participants had dogged attachments to magical secrecy and in-person, unpaid, one-on-one teaching that struck me as superstitious, almost nonsensical. Their reasons, when explained, might as well have been in another language; their perceptions of the Craft and its meaning left me helplessly scratching my head. I wondered if some of them were just plain crazy.
Fast-forward some years. My workshop-based training sent me down a spiritual rabbit hole that I now recognize as a drawn-out initiatory crisis. I was largely without supervision, though I had a peer working group for support. I struggled, formed deeper relationships with the gods and spirits of my tradition, and leaned hard on my friends.
By that point, I was becoming disillusioned with the workshop model of teaching the Craft, at least for anything that was not strictly skill-based. I had been introduced to gods and spirits in these workshops and then left to negotiate my relationships with them on my own. The road was rough, and I felt abandoned, having no one who had walked the path before to advise me.
Happily, I reconnected with a friend in the tradition who was willing to teach me. We circled together, and as my training focused in toward initiation, something amazing happened: all the stuff those crazy witches on mailing lists had been saying suddenly began to make sense.
I realized that there is more than one kind of witchcraft, more than one way of being a witch—and I don’t mean “there are different traditions of witchcraft.” The differences I’m talking about cross traditions and often exist uncomfortably side by side in a single tradition. I had initially been trained in a late twentieth/early twenty-first ethos of the Craft (ethos is the characteristic spirit of a group or culture, especially as exemplified in its beliefs, practices, customs, and ethics). For the purposes of this essay, I’ll call this ethos the “New Way.”
When my eventual initiator and I began working together, though, my eyes were opened to the existence of the “Old Way”—a Craft ethos that is internally coherent and, importantly, not particularly compatible with the New. In the Old Way, I found what I had been so earnestly seeking. I was lovingly initiated, and the Old Way became my own.
I write this essay because, although there is nothing wrong with either of these ways of doing the Craft, many people seek to practice witchcraft without realizing that these differing ways exist. That lack of awareness leads at best to confusion among people who try to work together, and at worst, ethical violations and ongoing conflict.
My purpose here is to explain the Old Way and the New Way in broad and even deliberately oversimplified terms. These two ways have some basis in history—the New Way is rooted in the Human Potential movement of the 1960s and 1970s, while the Old Way harkens back to traditional societies of many kinds. However, I don’t see these as “pure paradigms” that witches should strive to emulate. The reality of life is that almost no one practices the Craft purely “the Old Way” or “the New Way” (my own practice, though tipped toward the Old, contains elements of both). However, in defining these two ways of doing the Craft for myself, I’ve been able to unpack my own confusion when I, as a witch trained in New Way workshops, first encountered Old Way witches. This model has also helped me understand the philosophical differences that underlie persistent conflicts in our traditions, as well as uncovering where ethical pitfalls lie when combining Old and New Ways.
I’ve tried to avoid politicized terms such as “New Age witchcraft” and “traditional Witchcraft,” as I find they cause readers to bring too many pre-existing assumptions to the discussion. I hope that readers will allow themselves to recognize similarities between the ways I define here and these other concepts without leaping to the conclusion that they are identical.
TL;DR: “The Old Way” and “The New Way” are categories that I have created to help readers think about differences in approaches to the Craft. They are not meant to be definitive or 100% historically-based, and it is normal for an individual witch to have elements of both.
Time and Justice
The New Way: Time may be thought of as linear or cyclic, but in either case, it is ruled by a myth of progress (cyclical time might be modeled as a rising spiral, for instance). The New Way is often millennial or apocalyptic. The human species is thought to be approaching a cusp or already in the middle of a great change, the beginning of a New Age or New Aeon. Witches may see themselves as trying to influence humanity to make particular choices and alliances in order to avoid a species-wide extinction. The New Way’s sense of time is that it is short, and spiritual action in the direction of justice is urgent. Witches may see themselves as attempting to steer great natural forces with planet-wide survival as the stakes.
The Old Way: Time is cyclic, and claims that a New Aeon is at hand are seen without urgency. For a witch practicing the Old Way, every Aeon is a New Aeon and every time is one of great change. Although witches of the Old Way may care greatly about justice issues, they are skeptical of governments, ideologies, and organizations, seeing them as fundamentally ephemeral. For Old Way witches, social movements and ideologies—as well as disasters, famines, and wars—are like waves in the ocean: to attempt to alter their path only results in being swept up by them. Old Way witches are concerned with riding the waves, and helping those around them do so too; they are unlikely to claim the power to steer. Their justice work is most likely to focus on the land on which they live and on their families, friends, and neighbors: the sphere in which they have the most power.
Self, Community, and Training
The New Way: The development of the individual self is a primary goal for New Way witches. Embracing the feminist motto that “the personal is political,” the New Way witch sees hirself as the first thing s/he must transform in order to bring about harmony in the community and the world. Because the foundational work of witchcraft is individual, New Way witches don’t tend to see a cohesive group as essential to their Craft. Individual distance training as well as short-term trainings such as workshops and classes are considered effective methods of conveying the essence of the Craft. Each individual’s self is seen as unique, and training is often aimed at uncovering the authentic self. Much attention may be given to the question of identity and to building political or spiritual alliances with identity groups, from whom co-practitioners may be drawn. Authority and any credentials the witch claims are usually granted by teachers rather than by peers or students.
The Old Way: The Old Way witch is defined primarily by hir role in community, which grants hir whatever authority s/he holds. Maintaining community cohesion is an important goal, and it may be pursued even when doing so disadvantages the witch. Old Way witches make their living as others in their community do (for example, in rural communities, by farming or producing goods; in urban communities, by pursuing a profession), but they also take on tasks that discomfort or disturb others: treating the sick and the old; adjudicating disputes; preparing the dead for burial; looking into the future; casting or removing curses; advising the desperate. Perhaps because their loyalties are not solely to the human community, witches who serve in this way may find themselves set apart from others. Further, the nature of their work is marked by the particular community and land that they serve. Any training that they grant, therefore, is deeply personal, a product of their specific time and place. For them, there is no generic “Craft” that can be taught outside of that context. Individual self-development work, if pursued at all, is seen as secondary to forming relationships with land and neighbors of many kinds. If the witch has a coven, this small group of fellow outsiders may be treated as a sacred haven, the only place the witch feels fully seen.
Secrecy and Silence
The New Way: The New Way witch usually sees little to no useful role for secrecy and magical silence. Bigotry is believed to be based on ignorance, the antidote to which is knowledge. For the New Way witch, being open about witchcraft practices protects witches and helps to secure them their rights under the law. Secrecy is thought to have been useful only in the past, when mainstream culture was more overtly Christian and witches were in danger if they were exposed. Now that witches can safely be public in many parts of the Western world, it is the duty of all witches to band together to support any witches who are still being discriminated against. As for magical secrecy, it is generally irrelevant; the mysteries of witchcraft traditions have to be experienced and can’t be fully conveyed in a book or on a website, so there is no need to keep them secret. The keys to the mysteries can be hidden in plain sight, since only those who are ready for them will see them.
The Old Way: The Old Way witch sees women’s rights, gay rights, movement toward racial equality, and protection for non-dominant religions as extremely recent developments. Given the patterns of domination and violence that have marked the course of human history, these rights are viewed as potentially fleeting and not to be taken for granted. Secrecy and circumspection still provide protection for the witch, whose community may fear hir as much as value hir. Further, magical secrecy is part of what builds the container of intimacy that the witch may share with a few carefully chosen students or peers. This container deepens the intensity of shared magical work in much the same way as confidences between lovers deepen a sexual relationship. When peers are absent, secrecy may sometimes make a witch lonely. The Old Way witch, however, assumes that most people will not understand hir work, much of which others find uncomfortable or disturbing. S/he also must guard against those whose interest in the Craft is purely self-motivated, rather than in service of community. It is better to be lonely than to see sacred knowledge mocked or misused.
The New Way: New Way witches are accustomed to living in a capitalist economy, where money is the default basis of exchange and education happens formally at schools or universities. For them, charging money for training in witchcraft helps to legitimize the Craft in the public eye and makes it more accessible to the modern world, which deeply needs its insights. Teachers who are paid for their work are thought to be able to focus more completely on their Craft and raise the quality of their material and their instruction, which creates better value for students. New Way witches may also sell spiritual counseling sessions, spellwork, witchcraft supplies, witchcraft instruction books and videos, and more, either in person or over the internet, and they may use modern marketing techniques to do so. For New Way witches, nothing is profane except that people make it so; money is simply a form of energy exchange and can be made sacred with fair trades and good intentions. These witches work to make such training widely available because they see themselves as serving a global community. Most believe that anyone can become a witch, and that most people should.
The Old Way: The Old Way witch often makes a living doing work that complements her witchcraft (for example, growing food or herbs, nursing, teaching, counseling, scholarship, arts or crafts, etc.), and s/he also may take money or barter for spells and remedies. Old Way witches, however, often dislike anything but the most perfunctory advertising of their witchcraft, as calling undue attention to oneself can be dangerous. Though they may write about the Craft, they are more likely to self-publish a plain-looking pamphlet than to offer up a colorful trade paperback from a major publisher. This is both to avoid attention from seekers who are not serious, and also because books are considered a poor substitute for person-to-person training. Old Way witches do not teach students for money, both because their Craft is so personal and because it is considered a calling, not a profession in the modern sense. Their teaching style is apprenticeship, in which the apprentice may be fostered in their house and takes on the status of a family member. A personal relationship is formed in which energy exchange is continuous: the student learns by assisting the witch in hir work. An Old Way witch wants to pass hir Craft only to a loved one, to a person who will care for the community they both serve after s/he is gone.
The New Way: The purpose of witchcraft is to change the world and remake it in the image of justice.
The Old Way: Witchcraft has no externally motivated purpose. It is done for its own sake, because we are here and in relationship with all beings around us.
If you have read these comparisons thinking that the Old Way only makes sense in a pre-mass media, rural setting, while the New Way sounds specifically adapted to the urban twenty-first century—well, you have a point. It’s a struggle to practice witchcraft of the Old Way in a society dominated by the internet, where most people live in cities and have limited contact with the seasons and the land, and in which people routinely move across the country for education and jobs.
But here’s the thing—the Old Way and the New Way are not equivalent. They produce different kinds of witchcraft, and different kinds of magic workers.
If the New Way makes sense to you, go for it. It’s a coherent way of working magic. And similarly, if the Old Way feels right in your heart and in your gut, then please do join those of us trying to preserve its intimacy in these rapidly-changing times. The Old Way, we believe, is a way that made sense to witches three, five, ten, fifteen generations ago; it’s a way of working magic that draws on the things that stay the same even as times change.
What I earnestly ask you not to do is to hybridize these two ways without deep reflection. The truth is, the Old Way and the New Way are already all mixed up in modern witchcraft traditions, and the fact that they reflect two separate and largely incompatible ways of being has not been recognized. The results have often been destructive.
Take, for example, the practice of teaching oathbound witchcraft material for money. In the New Way as I described it, the belief is that the mysteries are in plain sight, available (for example) in nature, in the rich literature of the Western occult tradition, in mythology, in poetry, and in the world’s religions. In the New Way, payment is meant to reimburse a professional teacher for their time and skill. When you add the concept of “occult secrets” to paid training, the teaching model becomes incoherent. If the mysteries are all in plain sight, then to sell “occult secrets” is at best misleading and at worst, a scam.
Some New Way witches nevertheless believe that Old Way witches have secret knowledge that should be available to the public. Attempts to infiltrate Old Way groups to steal their oathbound lore and then sell it in the spiritual marketplace, however, are sleazy and exploitative. Further, these attempts reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of oathbound material under the Old Way. Old Way “secrets” are passed from mouth to ear because they are the product of intimacy between witches, their gods, and each other. They are context-dependent and deeply personal—the magical equivalent of pillow talk between lovers. To sell these “secrets” for money is much like selling a family’s heirloom love letters while claiming they will help the reader have better sex—an invasion of privacy that does not bring the world anything genuinely new, no matter what the marketing claims.
Witchcraft of the Old Way is often not served well by New Way approaches either. Because we are all living in the twenty-first century, and most of us are Americans and heir to the United States’ heritage of rabid individualism, it is the rare witch who understands what it means to be defined primarily by one’s community role. Most of us struggle to imagine how de-emphasizing the individual could be a good thing; we have probably noticed that without self-work, one tends to get mentally unbalanced, unstable witches who are little good to those around them.
In the past, perhaps, the fact that one could not choose one’s community and must cleave to it for survival molded witches differently. Today, in an era defined by individualism and mobility, some kind of explicit self-work seems necessary for magical workers. Our emphasis on unique individual identity, however, complicates “self” and “ego” work and has undermined our ability to maintain stable communities and small groups. The willingness to compromise and negotiate on matters large and small has waned as people’s perceived options for distance community have increased. Many self-identifying witches now practice without in-person teacher or peers, preferring to seek out others who share their niche interests on the internet. Because no local group fits the practitioner’s highly specific sense of identity, no local group can ever be “good enough”—and the witch’s opportunities to experience intimacy in practice are much reduced. The modern sense of disconnection, of true community always just beyond reach, plagues witches of all types, regardless of whether they find themselves attracted to the Old or the New Way; but is it particularly destructive for Old Way witches, whose practice requires local, embodied relationship.
To close, I will simply repeat that the “Old Way” and “New Way” as defined here are primarily meant as tools for thought. They are a product of my observations of modern witches and of my own evolution in understanding of the Craft, not the result of historical research. However, I think they help to untangle some common debates in witchcraft. Rather than seeing our debate opponents as necessarily wrong, we could instead see them as working within a different, internally coherent ethos of the Craft.
Additionally, I’d like to suggest that both Old Way and New Way witches would benefit if they respectfully declined to work together, at least closely in a coven or circle. While Old Way and New Way witches have the potential to be allies, in intimate working situations, their contrasting values set them up for bitter conflict. As in many areas of life, distance can be healthy.
POSTSCRIPT: I’m a little surprised to hear readers describing the Old Way as “apolitical” or “disengaged” or “not interested in social justice.” To quote from the above: “witches of the Old Way may care greatly about justice issues… Their justice work is most likely to focus on the land on which they live and on their families, friends, and neighbors: the sphere in which they have the most power.” Having a purely local focus for one’s service (and perhaps a pessimistic outlook on our effective reach as individuals) is not the same as having no interest in justice.
I see this as a misunderstanding among witches of different approaches: there seems to be a perception that if service work doesn’t have a national or global focus, or if it doesn’t use the language of activism, it’s not really justice work. My own justice work (primarily in advocacy for sexual minorities and around sexual ethics), has resembled more the New Way than the Old; but I would like to see people who do their service locally–perhaps without talking much about it or formally joining a justice-oriented organization–given more respect.
Additionally, I see some readers assuming that despite all the nice things I have to say about the New Way, I don’t really mean them; what I *really* think is that the Old Way is the One True Craft. Well, I don’t think that, plain and simple. I continue to have some New Way elements in my practice–for instance, I’ve taught witchcraft workshops for money before, and I might do it again if I felt that a professional, short-term teacher/student relationship was the appropriate one for the material. I also still greatly value my relationships with particular Reclaiming practitioners and communities (love you, TejasWeb!). I’m glad that witches are walking a New Way path, even if I’m not walking it myself anymore. The fact that I wouldn’t join a Reclaiming coven at this point in my life is not because I don’t think Reclaiming witches are awesome, but because the core of what we want from witchcraft is different; and if we tried to circle together we’d probably all get really frustrated!
Additionally, just to be clear, this essay has nothing at all to do with Pagan traditions that don’t consider themselves witchcraft, nor with the Pagan community as a whole. The intended audience here is one that doesn’t think of “witchcraft” as strictly Pagan, and definitely not as synonymous with contemporary Paganism.
Further, I am sure there are more ways of doing the Craft than just two! However, when I think about the witches I know who have broken each other’s hearts, who are still curled up around betrayals or perceived betrayals that happened years or decades ago, thinking about these two Ways (with their differing expectations and obligations) has often made the cause of the conflict clearer. Although often not fully articulated, one or both narratives have informed all of the Craft communities I have been part of (Faery/Feri, Reclaiming, BTW).
In any case… Please don’t make this essay be about how one group of people or another suck, because that is very much NOT what I think. This essay is about how some witches are really different from each other, and that is not because one set or another is wrong, wrong, wrong. In fact, THEY CAN BOTH BE RIGHT. If we can acknowledge our differences and respect them, I think the possibility of mostly-Old Way witches and mostly-New Way witches being able to be allies (at least in certain areas) would be much greater.
That’s not possible, though, so long as we cannot conceptualize each others’ positions in positive terms. The New Way and Old Way as I’ve described them here are both GOOD THINGS. That’s how I see them, anyway–though I am beginning to realize that some readers see some of their qualities as obvious flaws; so obvious, in fact, that surely NO ONE could EVER think they were virtues. And it’s right there that communication breaks down… To understand one another, we need to be able to imagine that some way of being that would be terrible and broken for us could be beautiful and healthy for someone else. (BDSM educators, I’m sure this point sounds familiar!)
So yeah. I know it’s all too easy to perceive someone else’s very different point of view as a moral failing, rather than as a product of benign human variation. I’ve done it; we all do it. But let’s try a different way today, okay?
Old Way with a sprinkle of New, carefully considered. New Way with a sprinkle of Old, deeply contemplated. A concept of BENIGN HUMAN VARIATION, plus the realization that just as not everyone is cut out to be married to each other, not every kind of witch is meant to circle or coven together. Even in the wake of terrible witch wars and years-long conflicts… In appreciating difference, could there be a basis of friendship there, or at least civility? Perhaps the potential to work harmoniously on projects of mutual concern?
I hope so, very much.
POST-POSTSCRIPT: Initially when folks referred to these two ways as a dichotomy, I agreed, thinking, well, they have some oppositional qualities that are in tension, sure. But I’m rethinking that. Just because these ways have been perceived as a dichotomy in various Craft communities doesn’t mean that they are.
Thinking in dichotomies is always tempting because they are such useful teaching tools. Anyone who has ever taught a small child knows the usefulness of pairs like big/little, quiet/loud, and yummy/yucky. Most child development books teach parents to present no more than two options for any given choice, because small children are otherwise easily overwhelmed or confused by more. (Heck, my kid sometimes looks at me wide-eyed when there are two — he’d rather there be one which he can accept or refuse.) Even the education of older children and adults often begins with a simplified model of a topic so students can get some signposts in places before they learn more. If one is studying Buddhism, for example, the most common way to introduce the topic is to contrast Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism — not because these are the only forms, but because they are historically important and present helpful contrasts. Knowledge of these major branches of the tradition can provide context for studying others.
The truth is, all dichotomies are false.
Shall I repeat that?
All dichotomies are false.
The world is a complicated place. Any contrasting pair leaves out myriad other options. Nor does a contrasting pair necessarily describe extremes that define a middle ground. Some pairs helpfully define a spectrum; others are more like areas on a grid.
I’m not sure yet what I think the relationship of this particular Old Way and New Way are to each other. Some facets are in opposition, such as their attitudes toward secrecy and whether or not the teaching relationship should also be a love or family relationship. Some are more complementary, like their approaches to justice, with the New Way being more big-picture while the Old Way is very locally-oriented. With that latter pairing, though, I don’t see the two categories as exclusive. I imagine few New Way witches engage in justice work with no local component at all; and similarly, in this age of mass media, I doubt any Old Way witch does local justice work with no knowledge of national or global issues.
Further, although the New Way is well-adapted to our current historical moment (in fact, I would say it is a response to it!), the Old Way reads like an artifact, a portrait of a way that fits uncomfortably with the demands of modern life. I think in the 1970s and 1980s, many witches saw the evolving New Way as an heir to the Old. Today, this conception of the two makes less sense to me, as the differences in their purposes and effects seem increasingly stark. The fact that New and Old Way witches attempting to circle together consistently spend more time fighting among themselves than actually doing their work leads me to believe that the distance between the two is more than a simple generational gap.
To connect this P.P.S. back to the main essay, I am still convinced that although there are some areas in which practitioners of these two ways can borrow from each other, there remain many areas in which attempts to combine the two ways result either in ethical problems or in a loss of effectiveness. Witches who are attracted to the Old Way, I think, would benefit greatly in talking among themselves about how an intimate Old Way ethos can be best translated into a modern world dominated by communications technology.
Since I am no longer an active part of a witchcraft community practicing the New Way, I can’t speak to what witches practicing that way most need. What I do know from my time there is that some New Way witches are anxious that something essential to their Craft has been lost with the decline of the Old Way, which is what has driven the publication of so much formerly oathbound material. I don’t believe this is the case; I think for those who are called to it, the New Way really is complete unto itself.
Do the Old Way and the New need each other? I think they do not; just as in love relationships, to need someone often comes with the desire to control them. Instead, I continue to dream of a relationship based not on need, but on mutual respect and friendship.
[Thanks for Yvonne Aburrow for a thoughtful response to this article and to those who commented there.]