Wiccanate Privilege and Polytheist Wiccans

I was not going to wade into the “Wiccanate Privilege” debate, but having read most of the posts on it, it seemed to me that one angle had been missed, and there was potential for misunderstanding.

Some Wiccans seem to have misread or misheard “Wiccanate” as “Wiccan”. As I understand it, the problem as stated is that the Pagan book market is flooded with “Wicca 101” books, which means that a lot of Pagan discourse is couched in the language of Wicca 101 books, and there’s a set of assumptions out there in the public domain about what Pagans do, based on these books – that all Pagans celebrate the festivals of the Wheel of the Year, that all Pagans think the deities are archetypes and expressions of a single underlying divine energy, that all Pagans do magic, and so on. And the complaint is that workshops at events are also based on these assumptions.

Whilst it is true that the market is flooded with these books, and that many people assume that Paganism means Wicca-lite, some of these assumptions are also problematic for Wiccans, especially Wiccans who don’t conform to general expectations and assumptions of what Wicca is about.

These 101 books often contain an assumption that you are a Wiccan if you have read one of these books and you do the rituals in them. If someone wants to identify as a Wiccan, but does not have access to a compatible coven and coven training, then who am I to stop them starting out on their own and doing what they can? That is why, in the UK, we refer to initiatory Wicca to distinguish it from the non-initiatory variety; and in North America, initiatory Wicca is referred to as British Traditional Wicca (this term does not really work in the UK, as various Cochrane-derived traditions are referred to as Traditional Witchcraft). There are also other forms of witchcraft, both initiatory and non-initiatory.

More problematic for me is the fact that books on Wicca often contain an assumption that Wicca is duotheistic; whereas most Wiccans I know are polytheists, pantheists, animists, or non-theists. But because it says in these books that we are duotheist, other polytheists often refuse to believe that a Wiccan can be a polytheist. But many Wiccans regard ‘the Lord and Lady’ as patron deities of the Craft, two among many; and many covens honour a different pair of deities as their coven patrons than the standard two, and honour a multitude of deities alongside them. I would really like never to hear “but you can’t be a polytheist if you’re a Wiccan” again. I have never heard it from a Wiccan, but I have heard it from polytheists.

Another problem is that books on Wicca are often heterocentric, and seem to have forgotten that the ultimate goal of the Wiccan mysteries (and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn before us) used to be seen as spiritual androgyny, or to put it in more Jungian terms, integration. So whilst one may perceive differentiated “male” and female” energies, there are energies of many genders, and (in my opinion) the ultimate divine source, which has no personality, both transcends and includes all genders.

Add to that the fact that these 101 books are often prescriptive about what Wicca involves, and you get the imposition of a set of norms which it is difficult to challenge in our particular culture (“but I saw it in a book so it must be true”) and assumptions from non-Wiccans that that is what Wicca is like. I often get asked by coveners to recommend a book about Wicca. It is really hard, because I disagree with most of the books out there. That is why I am writing one.

So, as a Wiccan and a polytheist, I think we should dismantle Wiccanate privilege as soon as possible. Let diversity flourish. If other Pagan traditions don’t want Wiccans representing them at interfaith events, then show up to interfaith events. Let’s not have Wicca-flavoured ritual at events. Let’s have devotional polytheism, liturgical Paganism, full-on Wiccan ritual, revived Eleusinian mysteries, Heathen blots, Druid rituals etc. And let’s not have assumptions about what Pagans believe – that way lies orthodoxy.

The ‘Wiccanate Privilege’ debate

(sorry if I have omitted your ‘Wiccanate Privilege’ post – please add it in the comments if you want it included)

UPDATE: Several people have asked me to define my terms better. The problem is that Wicca and witchcraft are very multivalent, especially in North America, and the terms used in the UK are a bit different. I am not trying to exclude anyone who wants to use the term Wicca.  I was just trying to make a distinction between different types of Wicca and witchcraft and the terms used for them in the UK and North America, not saying that one is better than another. If it works for you, great.

Also, for those who are new to this debate, I did not coin the term “Wiccanate”. John Halstead explains:

“Wiccanate” is a term coined by Johnny Rapture, and it refers to American Neo-Pagan theological ideas and liturgical forms common to large public Pagan gatherings and rituals, which are derived from Wicca, but are perceived to be “generic” or “universal” to Paganism. “Wiccan-Centric” is a related term. “Wiccanate privilege” is a phrase that has been going round in polytheist circles recently. It refers to the ways in which Wicca-inspired ritual and theology are assumed to be normative for Paganism as a whole.

Old magic versus new magic

Morgan le Fay, by Frederick Sandys

Morgan le Fay, by Frederick Sandys

Recently I received an enquiry from a seeker in Eastern Europe, where much of the traditional magical practices and folklore were wiped out under Communism. There are many seekers in the area, but not many experienced practitioners. The seeker was especially interested in older forms of magic, and asked how to tell the difference between fake and real techniques.

I replied that we don’t know everything about what people did in the past, so have had to supplement with other techniques. Also, Wicca is not an ancient religion, but an outgrowth of many different strands of magic and spirituality coming together (see Triumph of the Moon: the rise of modern Pagan witchcraft by Ronald Hutton).

Even reconstructionist traditions have had to supplement the writings they have with a lot of personal gnosis (which starts life as unverified, but may become substantiated, either by matching it up with traditional lore, or by finding that the experience has been shared by others).

I must also point out that not all Pagan traditions practice magic; but I do think that if you are going to practice magic, it is best embedded within a religious tradition.

Some books of magic from the medieval period survive. Some 19th century handwritten books survive; they are not books of shadows in the modern sense.  Avalonia Books are translating and publishing some of them.  One very interesting book documenting 18th century fairy beliefs is The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies by Robert Kirk. Another very interesting book is by a Finnish traditional witch, and is called Snake Fat and Knotted Threads by Kati-Ma Koppana, describing what survived of Finnish witchcraft. I also recommended Practical Magic in the Northern Tradition by Nigel Pennick.

The Pagan revival is a new thing building on old ideas. Paganism was wiped out in Europe by forced conversion and (in some areas) slaughter and persecution. However, many of its ideas, stories, and techniques survived – written down by Christian monks and antiquarians like Snorri Sturluson, or retained as folk customs and practices. The Christians who wrote down these ideas sometimes did so from second-hand hearsay, and sometimes tried to explain away Pagan deities as ancient kings and queens. Folk customs only began to be recorded systematically in the late nineteenth century, so in many cases, it is not clear how old they are, or how much they may have changed in the intervening centuries. The good news is that Pagan traditions are a human response to the land and its other-than-human inhabitants; even if all the books and stories disappeared, Paganism is inscribed in the land itself and our response to it, as John Male once said to me. That is why the old deities and the old customs would not, could not, lie down and die. People will always respond to the land in a magical and mystical way.

If you want old and traditional, start by researching the folk magic of your region. The seasonal festivals; the protective magic people did for their crops and livestock. If this information is not available from older people, it may have been collected by folklore collectors in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But bear in mind that tradition is dynamic and fluid and always changing – it is not a fixed thing.

Older descriptions of magical techniques are not necessarily better than newer descriptions, and in any case, the newer books are generally based on older books, and draw upon them. The trick is to distinguish between fake and real. If it claims to be an old and unbroken tradition, it is very likely to be fake. If it has references to academic works, it is probably real. If it is realistic and moderate in its claims, it’s probably real. If it claims to be the solution to all your problems – that’s fake. If it wants to charge you money for Wiccan training – that is fake. Real Wicca does not cost money; face-to-face participatory coven training is free, though you would be asked to bring food to share, and perhaps contribute to the cost of candles and incense. You would be charged a modest fee for things like workshops and day courses, to cover the speaker’s time and travel expenses.

People assume that older traditions are better than newer ones, but this is not necessarily the case. Everything was new once. For me, the test of whether any tradition is any good is: does it work? does it help (in the long term as well as the short term)? Is it a coherent system? Does it both challenge and empower its participants? If you want to understand the underlying theory of magic, I would recommend Isaac Bonewits’ The Laws of Magic.

Magical techniques include visualisation, invocation, protection magic, cleansing, sigils, talismans, and divination. These techniques are very old and were used by most magical practitioners from ancient times to the present. They have been presented in new styles by a number of different writers; but they are essentially the same techniques. I once bought a book about witchcraft and magic in Russia, called The Bath-house at Midnight, thinking that Russian magic would be very exotic and different. I was disappointed to find that it drew on the same sources and almanacs as much of the folk magic of Western Europe.

I also recommended that the enquirer should contact the Pagan Federation International to find like-minded people. If you are in a similar situation, I would recommend you do the same.

Drugs: it’s all about the context

Drugs and other mind-altering substances have been used in a sacred context for millennia. These include wine, tobacco, hallucinogens, soma, haoma, hashish, and many others. Indigenous Americans used tobacco as a sacred and medicinal plant. According to Wikipedia:

[R]eligious use of tobacco is still common among many indigenous peoples, particularly in the Americas. Among the Cree and Ojibway of Canada and the north-central United States, it is offered to the Creator, with prayers, and is used in sweat lodges, pipe ceremonies, smudging, and is presented as a gift. A gift of tobacco is tradition when asking an Ojibway elder a question of a spiritual nature. Because of its sacred nature, tobacco abuse (thoughtlessly and addictively chain smoking) is seriously frowned upon by the Algonquian tribes of Canada, as it is believed that if one so abuses the plant, it will abuse that person in return, causing sickness. The proper and traditional native way of offering the smoke is said to involve directing it toward the four cardinal points (north, south, east, and west), rather than holding it deeply within the lungs for prolonged periods.

It is only when drug use is taken out of this sacramental and communal context that it becomes a vice. If a drug is taken to alter one’s consciousness for a sacred purpose – to obtain information or abilities inaccessible to normal consciousness – then it is a rare occurrence, and for a good reason: in the service of one’s community. I have a friend who is studying to be a curandera using ayahuasca, and she is learning from a traditional South American curandero. All the consumption of ayahuasca is in a safe and sacred context, supervised by experts, and assisted by the spirits of ayahuasca. In Hinduism there is a sacred plant known as Soma, of which it was said “We have drunk Soma and become immortal; we have attained the light, the Gods discovered.” (Rigveda, 8.48.3)  The Zoroastrians have a similar substance known as Haoma, which also has a deity associated with it. The two substances are probably the same, as they are derived from the same Indo-European root word. A substance that is used in a sacred context is called an entheogen:

An entheogen (“generating the divine within”) is a psychoactive substance used in a religious, shamanic, or spiritual context. Entheogens can supplement many diverse practices for transcendence and revelation, including meditation, psychonautics, psychedelic and visionary art, psychedelic therapy, and magic.

As Nimue Brown points out, the reason drugs work is because they mimic existing brain chemistry. That is how drugs like anti-depressants work, and it is also how hallucinogens work. This means that similar (though often much less intense) effects can be achieved by using other ecstatic techniques. Sometimes, however, entheogens can alter brain chemistry and create new pathways for perception. So, my take on drug use is that we should always ask ourselves why we are taking it, and if there are better alternatives. If I have a bad headache, I will take a painkiller (aspirin is derived from willow trees, after all), but I will also try to ascertain the cause of the headache (e.g. dehydration, lack of sleep, poor posture, lack of exercise). If I have an infection, I will think twice before taking antibiotics, because over-use and mis-use of antibiotics can lead to the bacteria becoming resistant to antibiotics, and therefore more virulent. I will also take steps to restore the natural mix of flora and fauna that should be in residence in my intestinal tract, by taking probiotics. If I needed to perform a powerful ritual, I might consider the use of entheogens, but I would also consider other options. I have never tried ayahuasca because one of its side effects is vomiting, and I dislike vomiting intensely. If I was going to use any other entheogen, I would try to find out the correct rituals to get in contact with the spirit associated with the plant, and ingest the substance in a sacred context. I would also find out all the side effects of the substance in question, and make sure that it was safe to use. One of the things that has always struck me about the recreational use of cannabis is that a certain amount of ritual has developed around its use. People don’t tend to smoke it own their own; they tend to share it with others. There is an art to rolling up, and the joint is always passed around in a circle. People make sure that no-one who wants to partake misses out. It is a very social activity. I also think we should consider the ethical consequences of taking illegal drugs. Just as with Prohibition in the 1920s, when illicit alcohol was supplied by criminal gangs, illegal drugs are supplied by criminal gangs who also supply guns and harder drugs. If such drugs were legalised and controlled in the same way as alcohol, the criminal involvement would cease, or at least be massively reduced. The reason I don’t partake of illegal drugs is because they are not fair trade, and buying them means you are giving money to gun-runners and other criminals. We need, as a society, to have a serious conversation about our use of all drugs – medicinal, recreational, stimulant, and entheogenic. Sadly, when drugs are being discussed, their use as entheogens doesn’t tend to even enter into the conversation. But traditional, shamanic, and Pagan religions have always used mind-altering substances for sacred purposes. If this is done in a sacred manner, with appropriate safety precautions, relatively infrequently, for genuine purposes, then there is nothing wrong with it, and it is part of the panoply of ritual techniques available to magical and shamanic practitioners.


The ethics of personal drug use is an ongoing topic at the Patheos Public Square. Click through to read responses from Pagan writers Nimue Brown, Peg Aloi, and John Beckett, as well as from writers of other traditions.

If you build it, they will come

As Pagans, what do we hope to build?

Much of the current dialogue in the Pagan blogosphere is about carving out ways to explain and justify our personal experiences and beliefs in relation to other traditions, but without a clear vision of the place our own traditions and experiences might have in an ideal world. Will the Pagan movement become one tradition-heavy set of religions with several “fringes”? Will it split apart into competing factions? Or will we find a way to unite using some shared cultural language? What institutions will we build, or will we build institutions at all? What rights or recognition will we have in the larger society?

What does your Paganism look like in 50 years?

~ Christine Hoff Kraemer

John William Waterhouse - The Crystal Ball

John William Waterhouse – The Crystal Ball  (Wikipedia)

I have entitled this post “If you build it, they will come” because the kind of people who will join the Pagan movement of the future will be determined by the kinds of structures and traditions that we build now. If we build traditions and institutions that empower and enable people to develop and grow, then we will attract people who want that; if we build inclusive traditions where diversity is welcome, we will attract a wide range of people.

Unity and diversity

I have written about the issue of unity and diversity before (in The Pagan umbrella is leaking and The varieties of religious experience) and so has Christine (in Three Legs on the Pagan Cauldron, or Must Pagans Be Polytheists?)

There are some key themes that unite Pagans and polytheists of various flavours, but we don’t have to agree on absolutely everything – where would be the need for different traditions if we agreed on everything? Not all Pagans agree that the environment is of paramount importance – but many do; those of us who do can work together on that issue. Other issues on which many Pagans agree (but not all) would be LGBT rights, reproductive rights, and freedom of religion. We might come together to work on projects around these issues, or we might participate in secular projects to further these aims; however, I do think it is worth bringing Pagan perspectives to the table on these issues, as we often have a different perspective that might be helpful.

In the future, I think that each of the current traditions might be strong and numerous enough to stand alone and only work with other Pagans and polytheists on selected projects. I don’t think that time has arrived yet. I think we still need “big tent Paganism”.  Those who don’t feel that we need it are of course entitled to their views, and to start building strong independent organisations for their particular path. There is room for more than one approach.

Building institutions

I would like to see visible Pagan temples and sanctuaries (we currently have only one in the UK – I know there are several in the USA). I don’t want to see building committees running these (because committees are the fastest way to kill spirituality), but I hope that they could be administered fairly and for all Pagans to use. I would also hope that all Pagans would use them responsibly. Many people say they don’t need a temple for their spiritual practices; however, practicising ritual as a group requires ritual space, and the weather is not going to be getting any better over the next few decades.

It would be difficult and expensive to get a permanent Pagan temple, and it would be difficult to know where the first one should be situated.  So I had an idea: the Pop-up Pagan Temple. It could be a yurt that is available for hire to Pagan groups around the country or region, to put up in parks (having agreed this with the local council).  Clearly it would need security to protect it, but it would not be up for more than a week in any one place, so the cost of that would not be prohibitive.

I am ambivalent about the notion of professional Pagan ministry. I think that a more educated community is a very good thing, and I very much applaud what Cherry Hill Seminary are doing. I am not sure that I want to see a clergy and congregation model developing. We need to think very hard about the dependencies created by the congregational model, and what gets projected onto ministers and leaders. However, many Pagan leaders put in a lot of unpaid hard work, and it would be good to see that acknowledged and fairly recompensed. It is a tricky issue, and one that the Pagan community needs to start discussing.

One very important institution is the Pagan Newswire Collective, a group of people dedicated to improving news coverage of Pagan issues and events. The Wild Hunt blog is also a very important resource.

Another vital organisation is Cherry Hill Seminary, which educates Pagan clergy in ritual, theology, practice, and ministry. We need a similar project in the UK.

The Centre for Pagan Studies in the UK is doing a great job at getting public recognition for Paganism. They have put up a blue plaque for Doreen Valiente (the first blue plaque to a Pagan, and the first on a council-owned residential building); and they will be putting up a blue plaque for Gerald Gardner on 13 June 2014.

Pagan organisations are also important (and too numerous to mention them all by name). I would like to see more co-operation and dialogue between different Pagan organisations. The main one in the UK is the Pagan Federation. Pagan Federation International is also doing sterling work to help fledgling Pagan movements in other countries.

Rights and recognition

I would like to see Pagan weddings become legally recognised in England and Wales. I would like to be able to practice Pagan rituals in public without fear of harassment. I would like to see public bodies acknowledging Pagan holidays in listings of holidays both secular and religious. (In the UK, many employers send round lists of holidays from various faiths, but Pagan holidays are often not listed.)  I would like to see a Pagan student society in every UK university, and a Pagan temple accessible to every Pagan who wants it. I would like to see Pagan traditions covered in education about religion (not indoctrinating children into it, just teaching them the facts about it). I would like Pagan traditions to be full participants in interfaith councils and bodies.

Paganism in 50 years’ time

I want to see a diverse, vibrant, and non-dogmatic group of polytheistic, pantheistic, and animist religions, firmly grounded and confident in our theology and practice, all having equal space in the ‘big tent’, and even more inclusive of gender and sexual diversity than they are now; a world where Pagan contributions to public debates are valued and respected; a world where it is safe for all Pagans to be open about being a Pagan.

Pagan Tea Times with John Halstead and Fritz Muntean

My Pagan Tea Times spilled into March — but I hope they won’t be my last for the year!

John Halstead got a lot of baby face time, as I was bouncing the baby on my knee for about half our call, and that of course led naturally to talking about our kids and families. Most of the Pagans in my life (with a few valuable exceptions) don’t have children, so it’s nice to talk to other Pagans who have coped with similar limitations and had some of the same joys. John and I talked a lot of brass tacks — how to encourage writer engagement on websites, experiences writing for different web venues, etc. — but I also enjoyed hearing about how John was first inspired to start blogging and his trip to PantheaCon. Bonus: he’s now reading my latest book!

Next, I sat down with Fritz Muntean, a colleague from the American Academy of Religion and co-founder of NROOGD back in the 1960s. Fritz often comes off as combative online, and he confesses that he loves a good argument, but in person he’s soft-spoken, good-humored, and a big fan of babies. (My little one also joined me for the end of this call!) We talked about the potential role of humor in deflating conflict, the founding of The Pomegranate (now a peer-reviewed journal of Pagan Studies), and subcultural standards of what constitutes civility on the internet, especially related to the recent article in The Nation about “toxic Twitter feminism.” Reading that article later led me down a fascinating rabbit hole of criticism and rebuttal, some of which was mysterious to me, as the article left me with a positive impression of the WOC feminist (Mikki Kendall) that most opponents claimed the article was critical of. I suppose I already knew that what’s considered offensive relies heavily on context and on how the person doing the speaking is perceived. Much to unpack there — I’m adding another item to the list of articles I wish I had time to write. I also had a good time hearing about Fritz’ background as a carpenter, his pursuit of a Master’s degree in his fifties, and his love of drag. Perhaps most surprising of all, though, I found Fritz to be an excellent active listener — not what I would have expected from our online interactions.

May all your Tea Times past and future be this productive and fun!