One of the rituals of inclusive Wicca is the two chalices ritual. This has evolved over a couple of decades to become something more than I originally envisaged, as is often the way with traditions, which are evolving and fluid. It started life as a ritual for women-loving-women, and evolved into a ritual for everyone, but retaining its original symbolism.
In 1983, when I was in my teens, my best friend came out to me as gay. The world was very different back then: no same-sex marriage, no civil partnerships, no Internet, no mobile phones, no sat-nav, and obviously no social media either; not even digital cameras.
I have just moved from Oxford, England, to Cambridge, Ontario, Canada. As you can imagine, this will cause some emotional upheaval. I feel very rooted in England, and am concerned about the issue of land stolen from Indigenous people in Canada, and the effects of colonialism on their wellbeing and way of life.
Syren Nagakyrie asked…
How do the gods move with and through you? How do you live your life as a polytheist? Where do you walk the knife’s edge and where do the labels blur so much as to be unrecognizable? That is where our power is found.
Gods move in mysterious ways
Some days I am flat and empty and feel disconnected from the gods. These are the days when I most need the solace of their touch. The days when I despair at social injustice, at the slaughter of Black, LGBT, and indigenous people, at the destruction of the environment, the loss of solidarity, and all the ills with which humanity plagues itself.
When I stop and remember to breathe, to be in the presence of the gods, to reach out for them, then they come to me. Some days I sit in the presence of a specific deity; other days, I wait to see who shows up. The other night, when I was wrestling with something particularly difficult, an unexpected deity showed up. I have felt that he wanted to contact me for a while but nothing definite has happened until now. I installed a small statue of him on my shrine and waited.
In Wicca, we invoke deities, and this can be a really powerful experience, as they inhabit your body and speak through you. It’s the most amazing feeling in the world.
Life as a polytheist
One of the things I really like about polytheism is its inherent plurality. Gods and spirits are not one single entity, but a multiplicity of identities, local and finite and specific and particular. They can be the consciousness of rocks and trees and water; or deified humans; or forces of Nature, spirits of place, emerging from the complexity of the universe (or multiverse).
I am a mystical polytheist, and as such, I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about defining or describing the gods or indeed polytheism. The gods have managed to look after themselves all this time, so I am pretty sure I don’t need to defend them from people who think they are all one, or don’t believe in them at all. They speak to those who are listening, and sometimes to people who weren’t listening.
Walking the knife’s edge
It is in liminal spaces and places that we can find power. The interstices between day and night, between civilisation and wildness.
There are people who say you can’t be a Wiccan and a polytheist, because Wicca is supposedly duotheist. I am a Wiccan and a polytheist, so they are wrong.
There are people who say you can’t be committed to social justice and be a polytheist – but for me, gods and politics are the warp and the weft of my polytheism.
Things are frequently not either/or, not simple binaries – often they are both/and, or a multiplicity of choices: a spectrum, or a scatter-plot.
The knife of the witch cuts away illusion, enabling us to see into the heart of things. If we do not walk the knife’s edge, we will never enter the castle of the mysteries.
Find out more
See more posts exploring the glorious diversity of polytheism at MyPolytheism.com
I am a lucky woman, and much gifted. Four gifts in particular I received this year:
a perfect July peach
a knife that fits my hand
a heartmeant compliment from a teenage son
and an argument for which I did not apologize
These things exist in our world, but they are exceeding rare. I know their value and will wear them forged and braided as adornment and strength. I am a lucky woman.
A woman grown so quiet here, in this space where just a year or two ago I was all enthusiasm. For a while my silence worried me. A theologian, I’ve had to learn trust over the months as my thought moves down, into the body. Into my body. A poet, I’ve had to face the fact that language flattens and distorts when tossed about too quickly. A woman, I’ve had to find a way to understand my silences as active and alive, rather than passive and inert.
All the myths and stories tell us the gift exists to be transformed and passed on, or it loses its power.
A Poem for Women with Birthdays
It has taken me decades to learn to love
the way I pour each night into bed like a Midwestern river,
soft and insistent and ripe, effulgent with summer rain,
here and there paused and pooled
with minnows, with trout. Then too I am the voracious,
toothy carp jumping into the next boat that passes.
I was taught to play my breath out with care,
To run it over and through the knotted cords of my throat
like wind through a young grove of aspen,
to sing and laugh like the spring breeze that flirts
and lifts the hair playfully on a hopeful morning.
It’s a gift, that grace, but there are other gifts too.
By now I know we are equal parts joke and broken,
luscious bluster and blister, so very unspoken,
so very real. Silver and gilt. Sisters, tell me
how will you exult
in your gristle, the meat and fat of your flesh,
how will you rest in the mud of your marrow,
where important and ephemeral things go to be born?
Nameless and slippery, crunched and wiggling,
dark in the sockets of bone,
against all odds and cultural narratives,
we have time yet to locate each element and ore, here,
and here, and here again. Come closer.
Gender is a difficult concept. I literally have no idea why some activities, clothing styles, thoughts, and behaviours are labelled “masculine” and others are labelled “feminine”. It all seems very arbitrary to me. In some languages, objects are assigned a grammatical gender. The designation of assertiveness as a “masculine” trait, or receptiveness as a “feminine” trait, seems just as arbitrary to me as saying that a car is “masculine” and a table is “feminine”.
Initially I found the concept of a spectrum of gender and sexuality quite helpful as a tool to think with, but even that reinforces the idea of a binary, and treats the concepts of biology, identity, and expression as distinct and essential traits which can be classified as “masculine” or “feminine”. I just read a critique of the genderbread person which explains very effectively what’s wrong with thinking about gender as a spectrum: it assumes that “male” and “female” are at opposite ends of the spectrum, and that genderqueer is somewhere in the middle. You could also have a spectrum from zero gender to 100% gender – but all of these are meaningless unless you accept that personality traits are somehow gendered (which I don’t). Certainly personality traits are often regarded as being associated with a particular gender, but they are not essentially or inherently gendered. Here’s an identity-bread person and a GSM diagram which doesn’t present identity or anything else as a spectrum (my only criticism would be that the line for sexual attraction points to genitalia, and I am attracted to the whole person, not just what they’ve got in their pants). Gender is more of a random scatter plot than a spectrum. So I apologise if my previous efforts to describe gender as a spectrum were actually reinforcing a cisnormative model.
The thing is that both biological sex and gender identity are social constructs. However, a social construct can have real effects and correlates in the way the world is constructed. Consider the effects of dividing toilets up into toilets for people designated male and toilets for people designated female, for example.
Our society arbitrarily assigns gender at birth based on physical characteristics (usually, having a penis or a vagina). If a child’s genitalia are different, the medical establishment reconstructs them to be more like either a penis or a vagina, and the child is then assigned a gender based on the modified genitalia. A person who accepts the gender they were assigned at birth, and who lives according to the social expectations attached to their assigned gender, is cisgender. A person who does not accept the gender they were assigned at birth, and does not live according to the social expectations attached to their assigned gender, is transgender. Some transgender people want to be the other side of the gender binary. Many transgender people are genderqueer, non-binary, genderfluid, metagender, etc. (The “etc” at the end of that list is not meant to be dismissive of other identities, but inclusive of them.)
How gender is socially constructed
As a child grows up, they are treated differently based on their assigned and perceived gender, both by their families and society in general. Parents who have tried to break out of this binary by giving their child a gender-neutral name and not revealing the gender on the child’s birth certificate have had varying degrees of success, due to lack of co-operation from people around them.
I was fortunate in that, although I was assigned female at birth and raised as a girl, my parents encouraged me to choose hobbies and interests and clothing based on my preferences, rather than because of my assigned gender. I have also spent most of my life hanging out with people who don’t conform to gender stereotypes.
I was a bit surprised when I joined the lesbian society at my first university in the late 1980s and found it included many lesbian separatists. I suspect they frowned on my bisexuality. I asked why we didn’t hang out with the gay society. “They’re still men” was the reply. Nowadays every university has a LGBT society, thank goodness.
Gender essentialism in the Pagan movement
When I first got involved in Pagan groups (in the late eighties and early nineties), I remember discussions about whether there were gender stereotypes in the kinds of magical or Pagan groups people chose. Perhaps Wicca was a “girls’ subject” and chaos magic was a “boys’ subject”? (The people who were asking these questions wanted to do away with these gender stereotypes.)
Then I started reading second-wave feminist books, many of which were gender-essentialist. Women were nurturing and peaceful, according to these books, whereas men were warlike and aggressive. I didn’t really buy into these stereotypes, but they were insidious because there were a lot of them about.
In the 1990s, people started organising women’s circles and men’s circles within Pagan groups. (Maybe they existed before this in some groups, but in Wicca, I think it started around the mid-nineties.) To my eternal shame, for a short time (maybe six months) I was one of the people who wanted to deny trans women access to women-only circles. I am totally embarrassed about this now, but I mention it as evidence that people can change.
Around this time I also encountered people who made claims like “you’re not a real woman unless you have given birth”. This is easily dismissed by the fact that many trans men have given birth, and many cisgender women haven’t. Many people who have spent a lot of time in gender-essentialist women’s circles report that women who have given birth get extra kudos in these circles, and even more kudos if they gave birth to a girl. This sort of attitude has always seemed to me to be the mirror image of the kind of extreme patriarchy which only values women as potential carriers for sons.
At the same time, because I don’t see gender as being an “essence”, I was worried that the existence of transgender people made the distinction between male and female a hard boundary that could be crossed by a change in physical characteristics, rather than a fuzzy boundary that could eventually be abolished. Thinking of both gender and biology as a spectrum (from masculine to feminine, and from male-bodied to female-bodied) helped me to get over that worry. I reasoned that a person who is physically at one end of the spectrum but mentally at the other would naturally want their physical characteristics to match their gender identity. I accept now that this is still overly binary, but it helped me to get my head around it. If people have still got their ideas firmly attached to the notion of a gender binary, shifting them to the concept of a spectrum is still an improvement on a dualistic binary. We are also up against a huge backlash from people who actually think that the gender binary is real, so things like thinking of gender and sex as a spectrum are what we might call “baby steps” in moving away from binary thinking on this. But we still have to remember that it is only a model.
Energy doesn’t have a gender
Another deeply entrenched concept in many Pagan groups is the concept of “male energy” and “female energy”. Personally, whilst I have been able to experience energy, I have never experienced it as gendered. I have found that energy can be created in a variety of ways with different people. We could label these ways polarity (making energy with someone based on the tension of opposites), resonance (making energy with someone based on the alignment of similarity), and synergy (bringing the energies of a group of people together) – but I think this is probably too simplistic as well. Sometimes the creation of energy relies on erotic tension (which could occur between any two people); sometimes it is created by friendship, or trust, or just the coming together of two or more people and a moment of openness between or among them. The problem is that we as a species like to label and categorise – it is how our brains work. Problems occur when we forget that the map is not the territory.
I don’t think sexual and social attraction has as much to do with gender as people think, either. For me, attraction is based on a person’s competence and confidence and integrity, as well as physical attraction (and a person doesn’t have to be conventionally good-looking for me to find them attractive).
Polarity can definitely be made in other ways than the coming together of a male-assigned person and a female-assigned person. At Witchfest 2015, I ran a workshop/ritual on gender and sexuality, and I mentioned various pairings that could make polarity: morning people and evening people, tea-drinkers and coffee-drinkers, people who love Marmite and people who don’t. The one that got the biggest reaction was the mention of Marmite, so that was the one we chose for the ritual. The room divided up into people who liked Marmite, and a group of people who didn’t. We decided they needed something nice to focus on, rather than hating Marmite, so they chose chocolate. A few people defected from the Marmite group to the chocolate group at this point (splitters!). The Marmite group focussed on the yumminess of Marmite on toast with butter, and the chocolate group focussed on the yumminess of chocolate. During the whole focussing session, a car alarm was going off in the car park. As soon as we brought the polarised energies together, the car alarm stopped. We sent the energy raised in the ritual to empower trans people, as it was around the time of the Transgender Rite of Elevation and Transgender Day of Remembrance.
There are many polarities (spirit and matter, inner and outer, life and death being among those we might consider “ultimate” in some way) but it is not particularly helpful to think of “male” and “female” as being opposites, nor as ultimate or cosmic. It certainly isn’t helpful to think of them as being mutually exclusive, or essentially constituted in a particular way. It may be useful to think about yin and yang instead, as long as you don’t think of them being essentially masculine or feminine, but rather more like hot and cold, or expansive and contracting. The thing is that one person may be more yang than another person, but less yang than a third person; so they are yang in relation to the first person, but yin in relation to the second person. Further, this can vary on any given day and in any given situation. It is not a fixed characteristic. Some days, you might be in the mood for Marmite and butter on toast; other days, you might really want chocolate. But there are people who always prefer chocolate, and others who always prefer Marmite.
It is understandable that sometimes, people would want to come together on the basis of shared experience, such as having given birth, menstruating, or the menopause. But to then claim that these experiences somehow represent the essence of “femaleness” or of what it means to be a woman, is to reduce identity to biology. Trans men and genderqueer people can also menstruate and give birth.
I don’t quite understand the need to only talk about menstruation in front of other people who menstruate, or have menstruated. For various misogynistic reasons, menstruation is regarded as taboo in our society – so wouldn’t it be better to break down that taboo by talking about menstruation with everyone, rather than only among people who menstruate? I guess we might need to talk about it in menstruating-people-only spaces to start with, to help break down our internalised taboos about it, but after that, why not talk about it openly? (I suppose the not-menstruating people might feel excluded, but only if it is talked about in an excluding way.)
The same applies to talking about giving birth. I have experienced this kind of talk as excluding when it veers towards “you’re only a real woman if you’ve given birth” but I don’t mind if people want to talk about it. I do mind if they get all superior about it. Not having done it myself, I can’t contribute much to the conversation, but it’s OK.
Another excuse for cisgender-women-only groups is often that they are safe spaces for rape survivors, and that a rape survivor may be re-traumatised if she sees a woman with a penis. The people making these claims tend to forget that LGBTI people, including trans women, may also be survivors of sexual violence. And most women with a penis are aware that other people may be confused by their penis. Here are some helpful suggestions from Zinnia Jones for what to do with your penis if you are in that category. She writes:
People like to assume that our bodies are still essentially men’s bodies, and therefore work the same way. However, as any trans woman can tell you, this just isn’t the case. From social situations to sex to surgery, the standard dudely dick dilemmas simply aren’t all that relevant to our lives. So, for the sake of my fellow trans ladies (but mostly for any confused cis onlookers), I’ve assembled my own 10 semi-serious tips for wrangling a girl penis.
Take particular note of points 7 and 8: if a trans woman is taking oestrogen, then it is very difficult to get an erection.
The truth is that running estrogen on unlicensed hardware can scramble almost every aspect of sexual response. Things just don’t work the way they used to: orgasms change or disappear, your whole body reacts to touch in different ways, and the entire structure of arousal-erection-climax may break down. Traditional techniques might not cut it any more, and new approaches can be non-obvious.
So a trans woman with a penis is quite literally not a threat. I can understand rape survivors not wanting to see any penises at all during the immediate aftermath of the rape, and that the trauma could last for a long time, but I doubt that it would last for the rest of one’s life.
Another key point in all of this is that if you want to create a group or a ritual that is only for a particular category of people, try to do it in a non-essentialist way. Many marginalised and oppressed groups want to create a space for empowerment (people of colour, LGBTQIA people, and women, among others) but if you create these spaces in a public setting in a way that marginalises another oppressed group, then that is oppressive. If you want to create a ritual for people who menstruate, that seems reasonable, but don’t insist that only people who menstruate are women, or that all people who menstruate are women, because that is essentialist. I menstruate; I am genderqueer.
And if you do a rebirthing ritual (where people crawl between the legs of other people in a symbolic rebirth), have everyone in the group crawl between everyone else’s legs, regardless of gender.
What about the people who do identify as male or female? Good for them. No-one is stopping them from doing so, but it would be better if they acknowledge that other genders are available, and that your genitalia and socialisation process do not determine your gender. However, even cisgender identity is fluid and changeable, and not fixed to a specific mode of being or social interaction, so don’t assume that a masculine-looking person automatically likes stereotypically “masculine” pastimes and topics of conversation, or that a feminine-looking person wouldn’t be interested in them.
Since gender is all a bit of a mystery to me, I am happy to use whatever pronoun anyone prefers for their gender identity. (But as a grammar nerd, I do want to know how to use it in all grammatical contexts. And yes, you can use ‘they’ as a singular word; people have been doing so to refer to an unknown person of unknown gender for decades; and pronouns have often changed from singular to plural and back again, as in the use of Sie in German to mean they plural and the polite form of you singular; and the use of vous in French to mean you in both the singular and plural forms; and you in English to mean both singular and plural. Anyone claiming to be a grammar nerd should know this; so anyone claiming to be unable to use singular ‘they’ for reasons of grammar nerdiness is just a bigot.)
Some sort of conclusion
I guess some sort of conclusion is expected at this point. I guess what I am trying to say is, can we all listen to and respect each other’s unique experiences and identities, and not put them in some grand overarching category? Categories are only useful insofar as they help us to find other people with similar experiences, and help us to communicate our experiences and intersecting identities to other people using a word or phrase; beyond that, they are confining and constricting. The more we regard categories as monolithic and unchanging, and somehow representing an essence, the harder it is to see the individual person and their lived experience. In short, can’t we all be nice to each other for a change?
This was an address at Memorial (Unitarian) Church, Cambridge, on 29 May 2016. In it, I explain what Wicca is, situating it in the context of other historical and cultural developments, and then talking about why I love Wicca.
Order of Service
- Chalice lighting: This earthen chalice by Edwin A Lane (UUA)
Opening prayer: From the rising of the Sun (A NeoPlatonist / Taoist / Unitarian version of Psalm 113), by Yvonne Aburrow
- 1st hymn (147 Purple book): Spirit of earth, root, stone and tree, Lyanne Mitchell
- Reading: Circle, by Yvonne Aburrow
- Prayer: Mother Spirit, by Yvonne Aburrow
- Story: Where is God, by Anon – Bengali folktale
- 2nd hymn (104 purple book): Name unnamed, by Brian Wren
- Reading: The Charge of the Goddess, by Doreen Valiente (Wiccan)
- Meditation: grounding and centering
- 3rd hymn (207 in UU hymnal): Blue Boat Home, by Peter Mayer
- Address: Why I am a Wiccan
- 4th hymn (164 purple book): The secret pulse of freedom throbs, by Yvonne Aburrow
- Closing blessing: Mothering all the way down, by Andrew Brown
What is Wicca?
Wicca is primarily a religion where the practitioners interact with the world on many levels – physical, spiritual, magical and emotional. Initiatory Wicca is essentially an esoteric mystery religion in which every practitioner is a priestess or priest. A mystery religion is one in which the dramas of the psyche are enacted by and for the benefit of its initiates, but because these mysteries often involve non-verbal concepts, they cannot be communicated.
There are three degrees in initiatory Wicca. After the first degree initiation, the initiate is responsible for their own spiritual development (a priest unto themselves); in some groups, the period between first and second is where the new initiate is helped to develop their spirituality by their Coven and High Priestess and High Priest; after the second, they may take on responsibility for assisting others’ development; after the third, their psyche is fully integrated with itself.
Modern initiatory Wicca has many variants (Gardnerian, Alexandrian, and offshoots of these) but all share an adherence to a similar ritual structure and the practice of initiation.
The contemporary Craft both draws upon its roots in the Western Mystery Tradition, and looks to traditional forms of folk magic, folklore, and the pagan traditions of the British Isles for inspiration. The structure of rituals remains reasonably constant, but the content varies quite a lot according to the inclinations and tastes of individual covens. Only initiations remain fairly standard, in order to ensure that they will be recognised across the whole Craft, should a covener wish to transfer to another coven.
Wicca is practised in a sacred circle, and most rituals have a structure broadly based upon the Western Mystery Tradition. This involves consecrating the space, orienting it to sacred geometry, raising some power, performing the ritual, sharing consecrated food and drink, and then closing the circle and bidding farewell to the beings and powers that have been called upon. Coveners usually bring a contribution to the feast.
The basic structure of a ritual is similar to that of a story. It has a beginning (the opening of the circle), a middle (the purpose for which the ritual is being conducted be it celebratory or magical), and an end (the closing of the circle).
There are eight festivals in the Wiccan year: Samhain or Hallowe’en (31st October); Yule (21st December); Imbolc (2nd February); Spring Equinox (21st March); Beltane (1st May); Midsummer or Litha (21st June); Lammas or Lughnasadh (1st August); and Autumn Equinox (21st September). The dates, practice and meaning of these vary according to where the coven is located, when particular plants actually come out, and the local traditions where the coven members live.
Most Wiccans practice magic for healing and other ethical results. The intention behind the working of magic is not to impose one’s will on the universe, but to bend the currents of possibility somewhat to bring about a desired outcome.
The Wiccan attitude to ethics is mainly based on the Wiccan Rede, “An it harm none, do what thou wilt”. I think this was originally meant to show that it is impossible to do anything without causing some harm, so it is necessary to consider carefully the consequences of one’s actions. To my mind, the most important aspect of Wiccan ethics is the list of the eight virtues which occurs in The Charge of the Goddess. These are beauty and strength, power and compassion, mirth and reverence, honour and humility. Each of these pairs of virtues points to the need for balance.
Most Wiccans believe in reincarnation, with the possibility of rest between lives in a region generally referred to as the Summerlands. Some believe that the spirit joins the Ancestors, whilst the soul is reincarnated.
My experience of Wicca
When I was about six, I had a series of visions, or maybe dreams, I am not sure, where I met with a god. It wasn’t clear to me at the time who he was, but I now think that he was Odin. He inhabited a rocky and hilly landscape which was fairly arid.
Later, I read the Narnia books, and all the Pagan elements – Talking Trees, Talking Animals, dryads, river gods, fauns – really stood out for me. I think I first tried talking to trees when I was twelve.
But the book that really made me realise that I’m a Pagan was Puck of Pook’s Hill by Rudyard Kipling. It turns out that Gerald Gardner, the founder of Wicca, was also influenced by this book, as he included one of the poems from it in his Wiccan ritual for Beltane, the festival of spring, merriment, and love.
I decided that I am a Pagan some time in 1985. I was pondering my values – of celebrating life and pleasure and the Earth – and realised that Paganism was a good label for my value system.
I first discovered Wicca in my final year at university. I had read Dreaming the Dark: Magic, Sex, and Politics, by Starhawk, and liked its message that darkness represents the rejected feminine side of life, and that darkness and light are equally sacred. I had always found the idea of the witch attractive – the idea of a healer, a shaman, and a woman who stood in her own power.
So, when I was introduced to a real Wiccan, and eventually got initiated into Wicca after I moved to Cambridge in 1991, I felt a sense of homecoming.
When I heard the words of The Charge of the Goddess for the first time, I found them overwhelmingly beautiful and resonant.
And whilst I have had moments over the years when I have disagreed with aspects of Wicca: especially the simplistic theology of a God and a Goddess embraced by some Wiccans, and the need for secrecy, and the way that some Wiccans are insufficiently inclusive towards lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people… I have always come back to that beauty, that sense of connection and homecoming, the feeling that I have found my tribe. A tribe of people who are individual and interesting, independent thinkers and wonderfully creative, who celebrate sexuality and wildness and the sheer joy of being alive.
I am also a polytheist, because I believe that divinity is manifested in many forms, and that the idea of an all-pervading single deity doesn’t stack up alongside the fact of the infinite universe. If the pantheist’s deity is the mind of the universe, it must be either so huge that it can’t be aware of our tiny consciousness, or it can’t be conscious in the same way that we are. So it would be difficult (as far as I can see) to have a personal relationship with it. With polytheism, I can have a personal relationship with a huge number of different deities, with different perspectives on life. There’s Mercury and Athena for intellectuals, Cernunnos and Artemis for those who like forests, Odin and Bragi and Brighid for poets and bards, and so on. Pretty much everyone has difficulty relating to the idea of the ultimate divine source, or to an infinite being – so people need to relate to something smaller.
In ritual, we express our deepest yearnings towards what we hold to be of greatest worth. In Wicca, it’s possible for a polytheist and an atheist and a duotheist and an animist to circle together, if we share the same values and a similar practice. Our theology is fuzzy, and there is a greater focus on experience than on theology. There is plenty of room for mystery in Wicca. We don’t know what the nature of the gods is, so all our theorising is probably inadequate, and most Wiccans acknowledge that. We are aware that we don’t know everything about the gods, and that we only see the faces they choose to show us; that sometimes it may be more illuminating to say what the gods are not than to attempt to say what they are.
In a Wiccan ritual, the words, the energies, and the space are beautiful and resonant. We have crossed a threshold into a new realm, a realm that feels closer to the gods and goddesses. This is the place between the worlds, where we walk on the edge of time and space, with one foot in the otherworld. The circle is a space where you can commune with the universe, develop the self, engage in sacred play, and honour the divine with each other. There is freedom from unnecessary social constraint. We celebrate the beauty of the night and the human body, and the firelight flickering on the naked flesh. The ecstatic leaping across the fire, wild and free. The flames, symbolic of life and passion… The feeling of journeying together to other worlds, communing with the ancestors, the land, and the spirits of the land. Walking with gods and goddesses.
I have now been practising Wicca for twenty-five years. After that amount of time, the cycle of seasonal festivals becomes part of how you see the world, and everything is seen in a Pagan perspective – looking for the most life-enhancing option in any given situation, seeing everything as a spectrum rather than as two poles of a binary choice, trying to ensure balance, create harmony, and care for the Earth and all beings upon it.
What if Planned Parenthood is defunded and shut down– where should women and men go for the other 97% of funded services PP currently provides?
What if we notice a dropped stitch? What if we don’t?
What if we’re all more genderfluid than we admit?
What if sexuality isn’t a wound?
What if the nuclear family is not the only available model? What if it isn’t the best?
What if Black lives matter?
What if a question mark is a fish hook?
What if abortion is allowed to be an ambivalent and uneasy act, safe and legal?
What if women live into their sexualities as a source of power with, not power over?
What if men do that too?
What if you could say how unhappy you are?
What if a woman’s voice is the tree falling in the forest?
What if women’s voices weave another forest?
Epistemology of Mother, A Cloud of Permeable or #PinkOut
Wendy Vardaman and Sarah Sadie
Few topics have stirred as much passionate response
now there is a plank in the platform of the Republican party denying any place
in the short time I’ve belonged to this listserv as the one that exploded over the seemingly innocuous color pink, and
for abortion even in cases of rape or incest. This feels like the final thundering chord (although I know
although I didn’t join the discussion, I, too, feel strongly about the subject. Reading the posts on the color
it’s not—there is so much more they could try to do, try to take from us) of their grand crescendo,
and its associations—Cinderella, Barbies, stickers,
building for a year now. A year when
I was surprised by the emotional and political
terms such as “birth control”
connotations it carries
“sluts” “vaginal ultrasounds” “vaginas” have been bandied about
for so many of us and disturbed by the way
we debate the difference between “legitimate” and “forcible” as applied to
pink got tossed back and forth as if it were some uniform monolith
the act of rape.
when a moment’s reflection serves to demonstrate this obvious fact: pink is not one color.
What other qualifiers shall we hear?
My pinks are mostly dark, vivid, intense, like the other hues that fill the house of a recovering depressive
At last now we have it out: all abortion, any abortion, is never to be condoned, never to be pardoned,
avoiding medication. Color like exercise gives me a lift, so I have it everywhere and in unlikely combinations
never to be considered and never to be allowed. All of this has me walking in a cloud of permeable
that would probably overwhelm many people. Pink in multiple manifestations happens to be a favorite,
sadness, like a mist. It plunges me back to a time a few years ago
although I don’t like the pale variety by itself, any more than large doses of other pastels. I do feel nostalgic
when these questions were live for me on a very personal level. One summer evening, blue sky endless,
looking at 1960s’ hot pink—my mother wouldn’t paint my bedroom that color decades ago,
my husband and I were out for a neighborhood walk. It was
attempting to satisfy me with a bright pink velvet pillow for my orange bedspread. Years later I painted
the sort of weather, the sort of evening, that draws people out of their homes and out into their yards
my dining room an intense sockeye-salmon swirled with orange, a nod to the years my husband and I lived
and the streets and sidewalks. I don’t remember what we were talking about, but
in Seattle, and saved my favorite deep pink for the kitchen,
for a number of days I had been wrestling with
patterning walls and cabinets with combinations of
difficult questions. Finally, I turned to him in the middle of the
fuchsia, yellow, lavender and deep red-violet. Dabbling in textiles I’ve paired pink with navy and turquoise, and
sidewalk, stopped for a moment, and said “I have come to a decision. If I ever were to get
lavender, blue, and red in hand-woven table-runners. I’ve sewn curtains, pillow covers, and clothes that include its different shades and echo those
pregnant again, I would abort the baby.” And then I broke down crying, there on the street.
in my great-grandmothers’ quilts hanging on the living room walls.
This piece was written in collaboration with my colleague and friend, Wendy Vardaman. I am so grateful for her ideas, her example and her friendship.
But what about when someone has a crisis of faith, which may involve leaving the Pagan path temporarily, but where the person may eventually return to the Pagan path?
I had a crisis of faith in 2007, and I have always meant to write about it, but the time never seemed right, for various reasons. At first it was too recent to get any perspective on it; then it was too embarrassing, plus it is all very personal stuff; and then I got distracted by other things – like writing a book.
But I think it is worth sharing what happened, just in case anyone else finds themselves in the same situation. I actually think I went temporarily insane, or at least very off-balance – hence the title of this post, and the image of the cyclist.
However, I am not sure that my “wobble” makes sense outside the context of my spiritual journey… so here is a potted history of my path.
My spiritual journeyMy earliest spiritual experience was probably wanting to be a witch. At the age of eight, I went to a party at school, which I thought was fancy dress but turned out not to be, and asked my mum to make me a witch costume. I think I had got this from reading Gobbolino, the Witch’s Cat. Later, I read Cynthia Harnett’s novels and absorbed the idea of the witch as a herbalist and healer from her book The Writing on the Hearth.
As a child, I always loved nature and animals, and wanted to be able to converse with trees. I also loved Greek and Norse mythology, Narnia and Middle-Earth. I liked all the Pagan bits in Narnia – the tree spirits, the talking animals, the river god, the fauns, and the centaurs. (I did not notice the Christian bits, because I was immersed in Christianity already.)
I was brought up in the exclusive Plymouth Brethren till the age of nine, but fortunately my parents sheltered me from the worst effects of this. I used to sit in the meetings and read the gory bits and the stories in the Old Testament. One significant thing was that the Plymouth Brethren did not allow people to have Christmas trees, but my parents had one anyway, and told us not to mention it at the meetings. So I asked why we were not supposed to have a Christmas tree, and my parents said “because it’s Pagan”, so I asked what a Pagan was. They said that in the old days, people used to think that the sun might not come back after the winter solstice, so they would go up onto hill-tops and light fires to make the sun come back. I thought this sounded lovely, and wanted to be a Pagan.
However, I believed in the Christian stuff I had been taught, except I don’t think I ever really believed in the devil. And I don’t recall praying to Jesus, only to God (no idea why). Also, I never believed in ‘young earth’ creationism. When I learnt about the Big Bang and evolution at school, I asked my dad how it could be reconciled with the Bible creation account, and he said that God could have used evolution as his process for making things, and that a day in the creation story was like a million years – because elsewhere in the Bible, it says that a thousand years is like a day to God.
After we left the Plymouth Brethren, my parents attended some other churches, including a charismatic evangelical one, where I learnt to “speak in tongues” (also known as glossolalia).
After my parents stopped going to church, I left it for a couple of years and then I went to a United Reformed Church which had a charismatic fellowship group in it.
Around that time, two very significant things happened. I saw the film Gandhi, which made me aware that there were very wise and spiritual people in other religions (who, according to the Christians I knew, would not get to heaven). I had always thought it was unfair that people from other religions were supposed to go to hell just because they believed something different.
The other thing was that my best friend, whom I had known since the age of five, and who was a very spiritual and altruistic person, came out to me as gay. I asked my Christian friends about this, and they said that he would go to hell if he persisted in having sex with men. I was pretty sure that he had been born gay, so I thought it was massively unfair that God would create someone gay and then condemn them for it. I was also discovering my own sexuality around this time, and wondering why a “try before you buy” approach to marriage was condemned. And I had learnt about the Holocaust and concluded that good and evil reside mainly in the human breast, not as some cosmic force or being, and that if God was all powerful, why would he allow such dreadful suffering (free will notwithstanding)?
So at this point I became an atheist.
Coming home to Paganism
I then concluded that there must be some way – political or spiritual – to make the world a better place. I thought about this and decided that consciousness needs raising so that people are more empathetic and compassionate. I thought that one way to help with this was to raise my own consciousness, so began to look for a spiritual tradition that could help me with that. I rejected any tradition that was against life, sexuality, and the beauty of being embodied in this physical plane, and that seemed more interested in some other reality.
I had read Puck of Pook’s Hill by Rudyard Kipling, and concluded that Paganism was a good label for my beliefs – that life, sexuality, and nature are sacred, and that there is no all-powerful cosmic creator. I was attracted to Pagan mythology but did not believe in deities literally.
At this point, I thought that I was the only Pagan – I did not know that there were other Pagans. Then, when I went to university, I got involved with battle re-enactment and met other Pagans there, and also at university. In my last year at university, someone started a Pagan society, so I joined it. From that group, someone put me in touch with some Wiccans, and so in 1991, after I left university, I was initiated into Wicca. It felt like coming home. The wildness, the connection to nature, the rituals at night in the woods with fire, the honouring of women equally with men – it felt very much like the celebration of life that I was looking for.
I was happy with the coven I was initiated into, and stayed in it for 3 years, until I moved to Scotland. There, it was much harder to find a coven to join, though I tried a couple of different ones. It was very painful as I missed the closeness of my original coven and the style of the rituals. I got my second degree initiation in 1996, which meant I was then able to initiate others.
Then I moved to Southampton, where there were no existing Wiccan covens. I started an eclectic non-initiatory Pagan group, with a view to initiating them eventually. The various members moved away, and I moved to London to do a PGCE.
In 2000, I moved to Bristol and started a coven with my partner in 2003.
After a while, I began to worry about the effects created in the psyche by Wiccan oaths of secrecy (I felt that they created a block). I also wanted a more community-based religion, and tried Druidry for a while (alongside my existing Wiccan practice). I also started worrying about the very gendered nature of Wiccan deities.
By this time, I had started to believe in deities as something more than archetypes, and was a member of an online group of polytheists, most of whom were convinced that deities were discrete individual entities, and many of whom were convinced that they had a special relationship with a particular deity. I started to wonder why I had not been chosen by a particular deity.
In 2007, while I was doing an MA in Contemporary Religions and Spiritualities, I discovered that Christianity was not as homophobic as I had thought, and that in fact it had a less gendered view of the Divine than I had thought. Traditionally, God was viewed as being without gender. And it was less against the physical plane than I had thought.
I also began to wonder if the problems of the world could ever be solved by human means, since everything is so entangled – capitalism leads to war and oppression and environmental degradation, and if you fix one problem, you’re likely to cause another one.
Another problem that I experienced with Paganism around this time was the reburial issue. A number of Pagans were campaigning to have human remains reburied, and I thought this was irrational on several grounds: that archaeology had provided much of the data that enabled the Pagan revival to happen; that there were much more important issues to worry about, such as climate change, social justice issues, and the destruction of the rainforests; and that the best way to treat human remains was to recover their stories so that they can be remembered and honoured, and put them safely in museums, which are after all temples to the Muses. If you are interested in this issue, I have outlined the case for retaining human remains in museums elsewhere.
And the other thing was that in 1992, I had performed an exorcism for someone and seen the entity (grey, gangly and with orange eyes) that was doing the haunting with my inner eye, and in 2007, someone showed me a photo taken in a cave in the Middle East of something that looked very much like the entity (grey, gangly, and with orange eyes), and you could see the rock through its transparent legs. This freaked me out. I had always assumed that nature spirits were either benign or neutral, and any hostility to humans that they might have would be on environmental grounds. This thing just looked downright nasty.
Also in 2007, I was meditating at the Chalice Well in Glastonbury and had a vision of Jesus. I had no idea what to do with this, as I was a witch. I had been looking for my personal deity, having a crisis about the nature of the cosmos and what to do about the problem of evil, and admiring Christianity for its stance on social justice issues such as poverty. One of my main arguments against Christianity had been removed, and I also discovered that some Christians believed everyone would be saved (so that demolished the other argument).
I had also found that love was a really important transformative factor in healing, as our cat, Harry, was very traumatised when he came to us, and our love drew him out and made him better. I became almost convinced that the idea that ‘God is love’ was actually true.
Prior to this, I had had a huge reservoir of anger in my psyche that was directed against Christianity, and which would well up and spill over about almost anything. Now that the anger was removed, there was a locked box underneath it marked “do not open” which contained my fear that the Christian explanation for how the universe works was actually true. Even though I knew in my rational mind that it was not, the idea that it might be true still lurked in some pre-rational area of my mind. The fear caused me actual physical pain in my chest.
I could not bear the idea of rejoining an evangelical church, where my involvement with Paganism would almost certainly be seen as demonic, and where my in-depth knowledge of mythology would be in massive conflict with their simplistic world-view. So I thought I would try the Orthodox Church (lots of bells and smells, great ritual, icons, and had done very little persecution of non-Christians), which I did for two months. In many ways, I found their theology helpful and illuminating, as it was very different to western Christianity on issues like original sin and the meaning of Jesus’ death. I did not like their elevation of celibacy to a saintly virtue, nor the fact that they do not have women priests, nor their conservative attitude to homosexuality.
I lasted for two months and then found out they were much more homophobic than I had thought. So I realised I could not bear that, and thought, ‘Well, I have tried Orthodoxy for two months now, I will try the Unitarians next.’ So I went to a Unitarian church and there was a woman at the front talking about Zen Buddhism and cats, and there were hymns saying that all religions contained great teachers and offer the possibility of enlightenment. It was wonderful and felt like home.
During this period, I actually think I went temporarily insane, because I re-enacted the development of religious thought in Europe over the last 2000 years in the space of six months. I went from polytheism to Christianity, to universalism, back to atheism, and then eventually back to polytheism. It was a theological roller-coaster ride and I don’t recommend taking it so fast.
I am so grateful to the members of the Pagan community who held me steady during this time. One of those people was Cat Chapin-Bishop. The members of my coven at that time were also tremendously supportive, despite it being really difficult for them that their new high priestess was having a flirtation with Jesus. The other thing that was really important was Pagans saying that if I was on the right spiritual path for me, that was fine with them. That remains one of the great strengths of Paganism – that we don’t believe it is cosmically necessary to be a Pagan, and that the same spiritual path may not be right for everyone.
I eventually ended my relationship with Jesus – much to my relief and probably his and everyone else’s too.
The nice thing about Unitarianism is that it is inclusive enough to allow its members to be atheists, Buddhists, Wiccans, Pagans, Christians, Hindus, Jews, or just plain Unitarians, because it is about values and social justice and sharing your spiritual insights with others, not about adhering to a specific set of beliefs. You can also change your spiritual focus, or mix and match different traditions. It also has really great hymns, and is compatible with reason and science. I made some great friends among the Unitarians, and am glad that I went exploring.
In fact, I liked Unitarianism so much that I thought I wanted to be a minister. I enjoyed leading services, and I was good at it. I should think I ought to be after 20 years of writing and performing Pagan ritual. However, several Unitarian asked how it was possible to be a Unitarian and a Wiccan; whereas no Wiccans ever asked me how it was possible to be both Wiccan and Unitarian. They were interested in how it worked, but not critical of my choice.
At the end of 2009, I split up with my former partner and moved to Bath. It was an amicable split and we continued to work together as high priestess and high priest of our coven.
I still liked Unitarianism but in order to be a minister, I would have had to give up being a Wiccan priestess (not because of any theological conflict, but because one doesn’t have time to be a leader in two different religious traditions when one of those commitments is a full-time paid professional commitment). I also found that trying to present the archetype of minister was in conflict with my inner archetype of being a witch. Wicca celebrates the sacredness of the erotic, and (for the most part) Unitarianism doesn’t. So, after one week of being a ministry student – and many, many hints from the Powers that being a Unitarian minister would have been a really really bad idea for me personally – I quit the training. I am just not interested in mainstream Christian theology, or whether the Hebrew Bible is an accurate account of Israel’s history, or whether it is constructed from different texts (Priestly, Elohist, Yahwist and Deuteronomic), or how to do Christology, or any of the other topics covered in the required theology courses. At the time, I was suffering from spiritual burn-out. This was partly as a result of events before I joined Unitarianism, but the problem was exacerbated by trying to work as a congregational development worker – which seems to be a role like that of a minister but without the status and respect accorded to a minister.
As I approached the start of my training, I felt depressed, anxious, overworked, overburdened, and conflicted. I thought that this was because I wanted to leave my job, which I did, but once I had left my job, I realised that the feelings were still there. I think that this depression and anxiety was pointing to the deeper issues which I had with being in a religious tradition that wasn’t right for me, and which wasn’t spiritually nourishing for me (although it did heal me in many ways). There seems to be a general lack of clarity on what Unitarianism is. Each Unitarian knows their own mind, and their own theology, and I can see a consistency of values across the spectrum, but there does not seem to be a consensus on whether Unitarianism is Christian or not.
Shortly after this, I moved to Oxford and made a fresh start, which was really helpful for me.
Coming home to Wicca
I felt such a huge physical sense of relief when I quit the training. I went to a circle with my coven, and felt bits of me that had been clenched and withdrawn re-opening like desert flowers gratefully receiving rain. I went to a workshop event with a group of Wiccans, and mentioned the experience of sublimated eros in Wiccan ritual, and everyone nodded and smiled (whereas you would have to spend a lot of time explaining this to most people). I knew I was home again, with my beloved community. And strangely, everything in my life started getting better too. I had been unsure how I was going to support myself financially through the training course, where I was going to live, and this was a massive period of upheaval in my life.
Eventually, in August 2012, I realised that I couldn’t be a Unitarian and a Wiccan. I am a Wiccan and a polytheist, I honour and work with the Pagan deities, I look to the land and Nature for my spiritual nourishment.
I attended a symble run by a very dear friend, and vowed at that point to focus all my energies on Paganism. It was a powerful moment. It was then that I realised that Wicca is my dharma, my sangha, my tribe, blood of my blood, heart of my heart. It was also around this time that I started blogging at Patheos Pagan.
Also, in 2012, I met my new partner, who has been Wiccan since before he met me. We are very much in love. This helps greatly with feeling positive about life.
I spent most of 2014 writing my book about inclusive Wicca, and clarifying my thoughts about my Craft. During 2015, I have been working on the Pagan Consent Culture anthology with Christine Hoff Kraemer.
Wobbling makes you stronger
Sometimes, in order to truly experience a feeling, you have to go away from it and approach it from a different angle. You have to try to do without your connection to beloved community to know that they are really your tribe, your people. Having tested my faith in Paganism, the deities, and the power of Nature, I found that it bent but did not break, it tore but did not disintegrate. It was antifragile (thanks to Melissa Hill for introducing me to that useful new word).
There are numerous spiritual stories where the hero goes past the thing s/he seeks, mistaking it for something else, and then has to double back to find it again by accident. This is especially true of the story of Moses and Al-Khidr. That is often the nature of ‘spiritual’ treasure. It is not immediately obvious that it is treasure.
Many people find that they arrive at a universalist perspective on spirituality, only to find that it is really difficult to sustain the idea that “all is one” (perhaps because your mountain is not the same as my mountain, perhaps because spirituality works better when it has a specific context), and then move once again into their own spiritual perspective and homeland, with a new appreciation of its worth.
So, whilst having a wobble on your spiritual journey can be really painful and difficult: if you are having one, follow your bliss, whatever that turns out to be. Pay attention to what your body is telling you. Where do you feel most comfortable, most nourished? Who are the people who really support your journey, and who are the people who just want to control you? Who are you? What do you want? Whom do you trust, and whom do you serve?