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Wicca: One Woman's Story

(Originally published in Mensa Canada Communications (MC²), March 1993 and June 1993.)

I am a Witch. No, not a folk-tale hag with a pointy hat and a penchant for frogging the local supply of princes. Nor am I a Satanist by any stretch of the imagination, unless you insist upon defining any deity other than the Biblical Jehovah as Satan in disguise.

Modern Witchcraft (or "Wicca", or "the Craft") is a revival/reconstruction of the polytheistic and shamanic aboriginal religions of Celtic and other European cultures. Our own origin myths speak of unbroken traditions of worship stretching back over thousands of years. But in fact, the very few Witches who can legitimately claim a lineage that predates the twentieth century have so little in common with the mainstream of modern Wicca that most of them don't bother staying in touch with the neo-Pagan community. The forms of our rituals come partly from historic reconstruction, partly from various ceremonial magical traditions loosely related to freemasonry, and partly from the fertile imaginations of each new generation of its practitioners.

It takes intelligence to be a Witch. There are no orthodox doctrines to blindly follow. We are each our own priest/ess, responsible for our own beliefs and worship. We have Elders, whose experience and wisdom most of us respect, but no gurus, and no Popes. We're an anarchistic bunch, hard to organize even for our own good. The typical worship group is a coven, with a maximum of 13 members, because beyond this number small-group dynamics tend to fall apart. Many of us prefer to worship in solitude.

Wicca is a mystery religion. This means that the basic things Witches have in common are not ideas or intellectual beliefs, but experiences. They're very hard to talk about -- like trying to describe a sunset to a blind person, or sex to a virgin -- because they mostly function upon the nonverbal parts of the mind.

Our beliefs vary widely. I suppose that we all have in common some sort of awareness of the sacred, or we wouldn't be involved in a religion at all (at least, not this religion, which is more likely to get its practitioners firebombed out of their homes than elected to the school board). We all work within a polytheistic framework that tends to honour the divine feminine (Goddess) as well as the divine masculine (God), to acknowledge the immanence of deity in all people and all of nature, and to respect diversity. (And therefore, many of us are active as feminists and environmentalists.) Beyond that, we diverge.

Myself, I'm a pantheist/agnostic who prefers the metaphors of polytheism to those of monotheism. Whether the religious impulse is a recognition of something basic in the structure of the universe, or merely an artifact of the human mind, ultimately doesn't matter to me; it's still an impulse I need to acknowledge and act upon.

Reincarnation is a part of our religious mythology. Some Witches believe in it in the most literal sense. To me, it's a metaphor for the cyclical continuation of life in general and humankind in particular, but I don't expect any recognizable part of myself to survive my own death. One plant dies in the autumn; from its seeds another grows up in the spring. But it's not the same plant.

To me, the deities are human-shaped metaphors for the sacred. To another Witch, they may be basic forces of nature; to another, factual and personal entities who exist on a level mostly beyond human comprehension. To some, the magick we do as a part of our worship is a form of prayer to these deities; to some it is an attempt to harness natural forces inaccessible to modern technology.

Me? To me, magick is primarily a way of working upon the practitioner's own subconscious mind -- but who knows? Maybe my more "superstitious" colleagues are right, and I'm wrong. A few months ago, I walked barefoot on hot coals and received only a few small, quickly-healed blisters; whose definition of "magick" does that fit?

These differences of opinion don't really matter. I can work side by side with my fellow Witches who have all of these varying beliefs, because belief isn't at the core of our religion. Gut-level mystical experience is, but how we interpret that experience is an after-the-fact intellectual overlay.

Ultimately, a religion must satisfy both emotions and intellect. But sometimes the intellect has to acknowledge that "I don't know" is the only sane response to some questions.

How Did I Become A Witch?

I began as a fundamentalist Christian. When I was 22, I deconverted suddenly and painfully from Christianity. Losing my religion meant losing the philosophical and emotional foundations for almost everything that mattered in my life; it hurt badly enough that I spent the next decade as a firm agnostic/atheist, unwilling ever to risk another religion for fear of facing another such loss.

But the religious impulse was still in me; filling my life with other sorts of intellectual and social activity didn't satisfy it. I needed a framework through which to express that impulse, and after a decade of healing I was ready to start looking.

To return to anything in the Judaeo-Christian sphere would have been like trying to patch up an old relationship after a painful divorce: far harder than starting from scratch with someone new. Some of the metaphors of Christianity still tug at my gut -- to a certain extent the religion one was raised in is hard-wired in for life -- and I feel more kinship with Christians now than I did in my atheistic twenties. But you can't put the omelette back in the egg; Christianity is my past, not my future.

I looked at various Oriental religions. But they're all anchored in a very different group of lands and cultures from my own; I could acknowledge the wisdom in them, but none of them fitted me. The same proved true of native American spirituality. It's rooted in the land I live in, but not in the culture I come from. I can never hope to truly understand more than the surface of its symbols.

Christianity has been very effective, over the past two millennia, at eradicating its competitors in Western civilization. For a long time I thought that if I wanted to stay within my own ethnic roots, it was Christianity or nothing. I stayed with "nothing."

I stumbled across Wicca while looking at another question. I still associated all the usual, ugly stereotypes with the word "witch," but gradually I became aware that several of my good friends, people with whom I had a lot in common, called themselves Witches. If they were Witches, then obviously a Witch couldn't be all the horrible, perverted things I thought. Half-fascinated and half-repelled by the sensationalistic overlay, I finally got up the nerve to ask a couple of tentative questions.

Witchcraft is not an evangelistic religion. We're too accustomed, in North America, to pushy advocacy: the foot-in-the-door salesman, the missionary preacher, the street-corner huckster. When I got a short, straight answer to the exact question I asked, and then no follow-up, I assumed I was being politely told to mind my own business. Secret covens, mysterious initiations -- I was an outsider, and clearly doomed to stay that way.

A few years later, I dared ask another friend a similar question. This time, I was offered a couple of books to read. What I found in them wasn't as sensational as I had feared/hoped, but it was interesting. One bibliography led to another, and another. Some discussions, over a couple of years. Eventually, my first invitation to a ritual.

I still didn't know whether Wicca was right for me, but I'd reached the point where the best way to find out more was through an apprenticeship. Witches aren't eager to take on apprentices; a year of adequate one-on-one training costs the teacher a lot of effort, and a competent teacher always has more would-be students than time. But I was asking so many questions, I suppose I was already as much nuisance as a real apprentice anyway, so we formalized the arrangement!

I faced a lot of hurdles, that first year. I was used to intellectual learning, but not yet comfortable with the sort of knowledge that doesn't shape itself into words in a notebook. (There was plenty of book-learning to do, too. But it wasn't the important part.) I spent a lot of time struggling with the question of "belief," because by now I felt a strong gut attraction to Wicca, but found it impossible to believe literally in most of its primary symbols. Having grown up surrounded by belief-centred religions, I needed time to learn that this didn't have to be a problem. I set a thousand artificial barriers in my own way, because I was still afraid to risk committing myself to a religion again. I stuck my foot in my mouth far too often, before I learned the ritual framework and social customs of the neo-Pagan community. Not to mention the necessities of living in the "broom closet," of leading a double life for fear of the knee-jerk reactions of family, neighbours, and even some of my close friends. But by the end of that year, I was certainly a Witch; my initiation was only the formal recognition of a transformation that had already happened.

What Does Being a Witch Mean in My Life?

It has taught me a set of techniques for reaching and working with my awareness of the sacred -- and, not incidentally, for working with many other facets of my subconscious mind. This is the Craft of Witchcraft. It has brought me some truly memorable moments of joy -- and inevitably, a few equally memorable moments of pain. And a metaphorical language that lets me share some of these with my fellow Witches.

"An it harm none, do what you will." This is the one and only Law of Wicca. It is impossible to live without doing harm -- to oneself, to other people, to plants and animals and the Earth itself. But in trying to live by this Law, I have become more aware of the consequences of my choices, and have learned to accept responsibility for them. Wicca is very much a religion of personal responsibility -- and of the empowerment that comes with acknowledging that responsibility.

Deity is immanent -- in myself, in a blade of grass, in the rocks. In my more mystical moods, this lends a special glow to everything around me. In more practical moments, it teaches me respect for that which embodies deity. This makes me reluctant to stomp a spider or pave a wetland. It teaches me to pause in a moment's silent gratitude before I pull a radish out of my backyard garden to make salad. Immanent deity interconnects us all; if I torture the Earth or neglect my fellow humans, their pain will return to me amplified threefold.

And if deity is immanent in me, then maybe I ain't so bad.

I am a woman. I've never been 36-24-36, and now I am aging. But my religion honours a deity that appears as often in female form as in male. One of the most ancient and revered images of the Goddess is every bit as plump and saggy as I am. It took me a long time, but in learning to treat that image as an object of beauty, a focus of worship, I learned to like my own body -- something which years of feminist theorizing never accomplished for me. And the Crone is the symbol of age and wisdom and power; that gives me something to look forward to as my gray hairs multiply.

Nature moves in cycles: light, dark; birth, death; spring and summer and fall and winter and spring again. Darkness and death are never easy to accept. However, seeing them in their proper perspective, as part of the cycle, at least makes that acceptance possible. I'm not a vegetarian -- though many Witches choose to be -- because I see no point in trying to deny that all life feeds on death, even if only the death of a stalk of wheat. I'm not eager to cause pain and suffering; no sane person is. But neither do I pretend to myself that in a "perfect" world, all would be sweetness and light.

The celebrations of the Wiccan tear move in cycles, too. The solstices and equinoxes, the days halfway between each of those -- these are the eight great sabbats of the year, tied to the turning seasons. These rhythms are in our blood; even a modern city-dweller needs to acknowledge them. The six or seven week interval of the sabbats, the cycling phases of the moon: these are measures of time that suit us better than the stopwatch, better than the long dreary gap between Christmas and Easter. Mind you, once I've celebrated the spring equinox on the 21st of March, I get a bad dose of deja vu when our mainstream culture bursts out with bunnies and eggs (good Pagan fertility symbols, both of them) a couple of weeks later. Christmas a few days after out Yule, a second New Year's two months after Samhain... going against the rhythms of mainstream society can be disconcerting.

Wicca acknowledges, even honours, many of the natural human impulses that modern culture tries to suppress. We recognize no body / spirit dichotomy; good food and good sex can both be sacraments. This doesn't mean unbridled license. "An it harm none," remember? In some ancient cultures, the sabbats were the carefully circumscribed interludes of orgiastic release that made the strictures of everyday life bearable. Few modern Witches go to such an extreme; few of us feel the need to. Stuffing ourselves with Yuletide turkey is usually the limit of our excesses. But it's still true that our sabbats -- and, in fact, the entire concept of a "sacred space" in which different rules apply, which is at the root of our rituals -- allow a special and safe outlet for things modern society finds dangerous: childlike play, role reversals, emotional catharsis, "dangerous" thoughts and feelings. Much of the secrecy surrounding our rituals is simply part of the emotional safety net that makes this sort of work possible.

Wicca is a religion filled with laughter; sometimes for the sheer joy of existence, sometimes at our own foibles. Any religion that can't laugh at itself will soon go grim and narrow-minded.

Wicca is a practical religion, a religion of the real world. We don't just work rituals to heal the Earth; we go home and recycle our grocery bags, or go to the lab to research alternatives to CFC use. The monastic tradition of separation from the mundane world has no place in Wiccan thought or practice. An occasional religious retreat or weekend workshop is a welcome change of pace, but balance is the key. The mundane and the physical are at the root of spiritual activity, not a distraction from it. The more a Witch explores the altered consciousness techniques that are the working tools of our religion, the more firmly we must be anchored in everyday reality, for sanity's sake. Whether or not one is spiritually enlightened, there are still bills to be paid and laundry to be done. Rumours to the contrary, we can't just conjure up a dish fairy with a twitch of our warty noses!

Being a Witch is...interesting. It's not the One True Path; in fact, there are very few people that it suits. If Wicca ever becomes a mainstream religion, the "real" Witches will go off somewhere else, and find another name for what we do. Meanwhile, if you can possibly find another religion that suits you, do not consider becoming a Witch. Even in enlightened modern society, Witches still lose their jobs, their friends, the custody of their children, all because of other people's fear.

But being a Witch suits me. Now, if only I could find a good local supplier for pickled Eye of Newt...

Blessed be.

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