Monday, February 19, 2007

Witches, Wiccans and Pagans

I call myself a Pagan these days. Regrettably, if I were to call myself a witch, people would just think I was peculiar. I tried calling myself a Wiccan for awhile, but found that this got me in trouble with certain others who believe that term is theirs; I have, you see, never been initiated into a coven. I always disliked the term "Neo-Pagan" simply because I dislike the common use of the particle "neo"; happily, neo-Pagan is really unnecessary, because modern Pagans are really the first Pagans, Paganism a modern system born out of the spiritual inspirations and epiphanies of Old Europe and the Mediterranean. So I am a Pagan, qualified by “modern” when some qualification seems called for.

I regret that I cannot call myself a witch. The image of the witch has fascinated me since I read Frank Donovan's Never on a Broomstick around 1971. Donovan's image of witches as secretive rebels tending the flame of ancient tradition through the dark ages of persecution charmed me and was the seed from which my grown-up opinions sprouted. Yes, I know, good sober scholarship has cast the theory of the great Pagan underground derived from the writings of Margaret Murray, Charles Leland (and Gerald Gardner, for that matter) into question, and no responsible Pagan will admit to clinging to it (or so one hears), but it was at least a useful and instructive myth. (I suspect that the historical validity of this idea has been too easily abandoned, too, but that's a topic for another day.)

It also mattered to me then that Donovan's witches were sexy and frequently nude. I read somewhere that you might be giving Paganism a bad name if one reason you became a Pagan was the chance to dance with naked witches; at 14, I was guilty. I can't say I am ashamed of that, because the idea that sexuality and sensuality could be sacred was a revolutionary one to the Southern Baptist boy that I was, and it is still a revolutionary idea and central to my kind of Paganism. (Even though, alas, I have yet to dance with naked witches.)

"Witch" is also attractive to me because nothing is more directly defiant of the more militant and intolerant kinds of Christians than to identify oneself as a Witch.

Unfortunately, words mean what great numbers of people generally understand them to mean. The meaning of "witch" as it is mostly widely known these days, derives not from Pagan speculation or even from Christian paranoia, but from popular movies, TV and children's books. And witches in the most popular of those pop culture sources have some common characteristics: They are not religious, pagan, infernal or otherwise; they are invariably females; they have magic powers acquired by heredity or happenstance, rather than study or divine/infernal dealmaking; and they are usually not exactly human.

In pop culture, there are bad witches, like the Wicked Witch of the West, or the witches in old fairy tales, or some Disney movies. Often you can tell they are not human because they don't look human, i.e. the Wicked Witch of the West and her clones, the Halloween witches, have green skin. The evil queen in Sleeping Beauty turns into a dragon under stress. And, as I realized while reading bedtime stories to my grandchildren, the "witches" in traditional fairy tales are often described extreme physical deformities that mark them as something other than human.

The there are the good witches -- Samantha Stevens, Sabrina the Teenaged Witch, the Charmed Ones, the distaff magic workers in the Harry Potter novels -- who look human and are often pretty, but still are not quite human. The witches and warlocks in "Bewitched" referred to Darren and other non-magical humans as "mortals" and it was implied that the witches were hundreds of years old. (The Charmed Ones also refer to non-magical folk as Mortals, although they seem to be pretty mortal themselves.) In the Harry Potter novels, only those born with the capacity to do magic are witches/wizards; muggles and squibs can't do magic no matter how many years they may study; Witches and Wizards live an existence unknown to and separate from the muggles. Sabrina was actually native to a sort of alternate universe that she entered through a hall closet.

So in the popular imagination the Witch is not a person at all, but a supernatural being. When we call ourselves "witches," we are inevitably classed by the public at large with people who claim to be the reincarnation of Cleopatra or the bastard child of Elvis and a UFO pilot.

If "Witch" is untenable because it evokes absurd connotations to the general public, "Wiccan" seems a more likely choice; if it has less romantic resonance than "Witch," it is also bears less bizarre cargo of confusing signifiers. "Wiccan" has almost become respectable, and most fairly well-read people recognize that it stands for some sort of religious practice or belief. But a few years ago while participating in an on-line discussion of Wiccan Religion at a big well-known web site, I discovered that there are some folks who get really wrought up because people without the proper pedigree use the term. One woman who was posting to the board was startlingly bitter that anyone without a provable history initiation traceable back to Gerald Gardner would dare express any opinion whatsoever on a Wiccan board. She reminded of a Christian woman who once tried to explain to me why she objected to gay marriage. To the Christian woman, being monogamously and heterosexually married for life was a mark of her triumph her sinful nature, and was the great accomplishment of her life; she felt that honoring other arrangements as "marriage": somehow cheapened her accomplishment. To my traditionalist correspondent, her purely Gardnerian, properly documented initiated Wiccanism was a mark of her triumph over ... I never was sure exactly what, but it was apparently the great accomplishment of her life. I tried to elicit an explanation, wasn't terribly impressed with the response, tried harder, and perhaps became unnecessarily personal. I don't always play well with others in the rhetorical sandbox. The moderator kept bouncing my remarks, so I finally gave up.

Since then I've learned more about so-called traditionalist Wiccans. They're a strange bunch (as if the rest of aren't): Their position stands or falls on the uniqueness of initiations emanating from Gerald Gardner, possibly Alex Sanders. Unfortunately, Gardner claimed to have received his initiation from Old Dorothy of the New Forest, so either his initiation was not unique, or he was a liar. The traditionalists are, therefore, unique in human history: a religious movement bases its claim to authority on its insistence that its founder was a bare-faced liar.

Don't get me wrong: Gardner was a liar, a brilliant and original liar, clearly touched by the Lord of Wild Things, who is the god of con artists and tale tellers. But the god's lies and those inspired by him always disclose truths and liberate those with wit to understand them. What bothers me about the traditionalists is that, in their fear of uncertainty and ambiguity, are setting Gardner up as the
Mohammed of the new religion, the "onlie beggeter" whose authority is the touchstone of all that is good and true. Certainly, you can build a religion around such a figure -- most of the world follows such faiths -- but if that's the kind of religion Wicca is to be, I want no part of it.

"Pagan" is a better word. Not "neo." Virgil, Euripides, Hesiod, the Druids of Mona, the shamans of the steppes, the priests of ancient Egypt, none of them knew they were Pagans, or even that there was something common among their beliefs. Until the rise the desert monotheisms, there was nothing for them to define themselves against.

Virgil, Ovid, the Latin poets wrote about "pagani," the people who lived in the country and made sacrifice at the pagi, the boundary stones. The poets had a certain affection for those pagans, the country people who still believed in the old rituals, but they certainly didn't regard themselves, cosmopolitan sophisticates living at the heart of a burgeoning empire, as of those country people. But that's who I identify with, the people who sacrificed at the boundary stones, who were sunk into the earth and rooted to it, like the stones themselves.

Later, we hear, the Roman military aristocracy adopted the tern "pagan" as a term of contempt for people who were not in the army, people who stayed at home on the farm rather that going out to conquer the world. I admire those people who stayed home to raise crops rather than going off to fight stupid wars. those people were pagans, but they didn't know they were Pagans.

When the Christians came to power in the Fourth Century, they picked up the soldiers' slang and called those who resisted joining their "Army of Christ" Pagans, people who stated loyal to the gods of earth and water and fire and air, rather than floating off on dreams of heaven. I can certainly identify with those Pagans.

And "Pagan" has been used through as a term of abuse for rebels, free thinkers, free lovers, and weirdos of all stamps. I can identify with those Pagans.

So that is my chosen history and my chose identity; I am a Pagan.


Kai said...

I was just passing by when I saw your blog, I have to say I found it very interesting...

And to be true to you, I've learned that Pagan is someone that follows her/his own path to find the gods* and her/his spirituality into the Nature** that surrounds us, being guided by their "Pagan Heart"*** (what I feel you have been and still are)

while neo-pagan is someone that wants to "copy" the path and footsteps of that ancient times you wrote about (when there wasn't "no-pagans") rather than using their own hearts; because paganism has never disappeared, we just created the neo-paganism for the ones who can't find their way alone.

*I didn't wrote it in capital letters because of what you've said, but normally I do because of the Respect and Love I feel for them.

**The sacred creation They let Their Child live into, this place we call World, and the things outside it

***Was because of the name Pagan Heart that I found your Blog
I used it for 7 years before hearing this name spontaneously spoke for the first time... by you XD

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