It often surprises people to learn that I write my books and blogs by hand. Computers and phones have become so ubiquitous that I think it just doesn’t occur to us that this might be an option that some writers still choose—it sounds so antiquated and needlessly difficult. Maybe even pretentious. I admit that I was inspired to give it a try after hearing that this is how Neil Gaiman writes his novels, and because I once had the privilege to see the original manuscript of Dickens’s Oliver Twist, and I literally wept like a giant nerd (In public! Surrounded by worried colleagues and friends!). I had a similar reaction to seeing Ray Buckland’s beat-up wirebound notebook at the Buckland Museum a few years ago, containing the earliest draft of his Complete Book of Witchcraft (not to compare Buckland to Dickens, but both have been instrumental in the course of my life for very different reasons).
Like, holy shit, friends, people used to have to write everything by hand. I think that’s incredible. I remember learning about monks and illuminated manuscripts in middle school and thinking, “I want that job.” Being a Gardnerian—with our penchant for hand-copying the Book of Shadows and writing our own over the course of our lives—is about as close as I could manage.
Do you ever think about how little we actually know about each other? Like, how telling you I’m a witch doesn’t actually give you much information at all about what I’m actually up to? And how even words like “Wiccan” and “Gardnerian” don’t actually tell you very much, because lots of people use them differently?
I think about that all the time. When someone tells me they’re a witch, I have to follow that up with, “What does that mean to you?” It’s not much easier when someone tells me they’re a “traditional Wiccan” or a “secular witch,” or whatever other label we’ve got floating around now. I can make reasonable guesses (“Okay, they probably don’t believe in gods,” or “They don’t subscribe to the Wiccan Rede”), but I’m for sure going to be wrong about a lot of things, unless I really can sit down with the person and pick their brain over time.
Though it was triggered by Katie Gerrad’s recent blog post, this video is not about the issue of same sex initiation. Rather, it started with a seeker friend who asked in response, “How do we really even know who’s initiating who? Couldn’t people just practice however they wanted and then just let people believe they were actually doing something different? Do people ever just lie so they don’t rock the boat?” And…yeah. They sure do.
This video isn’t about any single point of controversy in the Craft. Rather, it’s about the weird assumption we all seem to have that we ever know what another witch is up to.
The second book is complete and in the hands of the good folks at Llewellyn! The tentative release is September 2021, and I hope to see the first round of feedback in a few weeks. I confess to being a little nervous about this one. Will they like it?
People always ask me how I go about researching my books, and it’s kind of an awkward question because, well…I don’t. There’s zero research involved in basically everything I write because I don’t write from the perspective of a historian or any other kind of scholar. I’m trained in scholarly techniques, and I’ve done academic work that is research-based, but that’s not who I am when I’m publishing as Thorn Mooney. My style is confessional. I write from my personal experience, I use anecdotes, I share a lot about my life and the people I’ve met, I draw conclusions based on what I’ve seen out in the wider community, and I make arguments for certain perspectives based on my own teaching experience and leadership. On a personal level, I’m interested in theology and contemporary religious culture, not in how-to manuals or histories. Where I do write how-to’s, it’s usually about widely applicable, not-very-sexy stuff like how to evaluate magical books and websites, how to find and approach a coven, how to avoid predators at Pagan events, and how to respond when someone on the witch Internet tries to feed you some hot nonsense.
So I tend to write very few spells and rituals. I’m more likely to offer mundane solutions than magical ones. I think most problems could be solved if people were better communicators than anything particularly mystical. I believe most people skip the guided meditations, so I don’t write them. I’m just not very woo, as a writer. Other people are way better at that, so I leave it to them.
That makes me self-conscious, though. What if my editors don’t think I’m spooky enough for the woo shelf?
But I believe that too often we neglect some of the more mundane skills that go along with advancing as a witch. They key to building a stronger personal practice and taking those next steps isn’t usually to just do more or learn more techniques. I think that being an advanced practitioner has a lot more to do with how you approach material, how you integrate it and evaluate it. Taking things to the next level usually means learning how to shift your routines, how to become a stronger reader, how to move in magical communities to get the most out of them, and how to incorporate magical techniques into meaningful regularity, rather than just throwing in a bunch of new or complex ones. So my chapter on ritual, for example, doesn’t contain the usual checklist of what goes into ritual and how to write a good one. Rather, it explores why we bother with ritual at all, how to integrate it into the lives we’re already leading, how to capitalize on failure, and why it might be worth throwing out some of the stuff we’re always told is so critical. Other chapters touch on devotion, notions of the sacred, community, study, and our most basic definitions of what it means to be a witch. It was challenging to write, too, because it’s written broadly. It’s not about Wicca, though certainly Wiccans will find it useful. The aim was to be relevant, regardless of one’s specific brand of the Craft.
I think it’s an important book that does something that hasn’t been done before. I’m proud of it. I also know that in ten years I’ll have new ideas about the things inside, and I’ll probably disagree with myself and have to write it again. That’s just how publishing goes, near as I can tell.
Anyway, I’ll post updates here as I have them! I’m sharing excerpts on Patreon, too, so take a peek if you have an inkling.
If witchcraft is a craft (in addition to being a religion, as it is for many of us), then what exactly is the “craft”? And how often do we have to be engaging in that craft in order to really be witches?
For a lot of people–both witches and non-witches–we immediately think of spells. Witches do spells! Of course they do, we think. But what exactly are spells? And how many do you have to do before you know you’re a witch? If someone picks up one of those cutesy turn-your-man-into a toad spell books and tries something once, or writes a wish on a bay leaf and burns it because they saw that meme on Instagram, or blows out their birthday candles and makes a wish, are they practicing witchcraft? And do those spells have to work? What failure rate is allowed before you have to throw in the towel and admit to being a non-witch? What if you never throw in the towel, and you just keep failing at spells your whole life? Is that witchcraft?
…and the questions keep coming.
It gets kind of ridiculous, really, writing it all down. But I think about these things sometimes, and often these are the questions I get asked the most by the witchcraft-curious.
I’ve made a lot of blog posts and videos in the past about favorite books: advanced books, beginner books, books for people interested in taking things in a new direction, classics I think everyone should read, and books that I’ve got in my personal to-be-read pile. But I was recently asked to share my thoughts on which recent releases were important, or would have an impact for people exploring witchcraft right now. In other words, if you couldn’t recommend anything written more than two or so years ago, what would you pick?
We’re lucky today, because there are so many exciting new books coming out all the time. It can often be difficult to choose (and if you don’t have to choose, please read them all)!
I decided to limit myself to four, but then through my own book in at the end as a fifth, because I wrote it to do something very specific, and I believe that thing is important.
One of my thesis advisors in graduate school told me, as I was working up my proposal and trying to figure out exactly what I was going to focus on, that building a new argument is a lot harder than tearing down someone else’s. In other words, don’t use this opportunity to only dismantle something. Say something new.
That struck me hard and has stuck with me into other parts of my life. I’ve been thinking about this early life lesson a lot as the New Year puts down roots.
Creating something—whether it is a book, a new coven, a tarot business, a blog, a painting, a ritual, a song—is an act of sharing one’s self. It’s challenging, and it requires a lot of energy. It’s also a sure way to draw criticism from others, even if that criticism is your own negative self-talk. After every open ritual that you worked so hard on, there is always someone who will whisper, “Well, I think you should’ve done it this way.” Every book gets negative reviews, and some of them will be unfair. If you run a coven or circle, someone in your community will eventually say something negative about it. You might even find yourself the subject of a rumor or two (often at the hands of people you’ve never even shared intimate space with, and maybe never even met at all). People in the audience will talk over you as you play your music, waiting for the next act. Your art won’t sell as fast as you want it to, or even at all. You will at times feel awash in a sea of competition as you set up your business, and you will worry that maybe you just aren’t good enough to be here. Your YouTube video or blog will eventually get thumbs down and nasty personal comments (it wouldn’t be the Internet otherwise).
My friend and initiate, Corvus, is in the process of starting a coven, and the other night we got to chatting about what it will mean for her to go forward, both as part of a community and as an autonomous high priestess. What if she does something that pisses off her upline? What if she gets out into the community and decides she doesn’t fit in? What if she has genuine encounters with the gods that take her in directions beyond where she went with me? What if she goes on to initiate someone who everyone else hates, and then no one else wants to hang out and circle anymore? WHAT IF SHE RUINS EVERYTHING.
Clearly, a lot of this is anxiety-driven and not based in our actual relationship. The whole reason she was elevated and given the support to go off and start her own group is because we knew she’d be great at it and would be a credit to the tradition.
A lot of this, no doubt, sounds totally ridiculous to some of you who are not involved in traditional covens, with their lineages and their hierarchies and all that hoo-ha. Maybe this is exactly why you’re not involved. It’s a tricky thing, having to negotiate belonging in a lineaged tradition. It can feel like you’re being watched all the time, and like you’ve always got to answer for your choices. Every one of us has heard horror stories about what happens to people who cause too much offense, stray too far from what’s accepted, or don’t build the connections necessary to ensure that you and yours are recognized at the community table.
Hi, Patheos readers! I’m not actually new here, but a lot has changed since I first came aboard back in 2015. I have a tradition that when I start a new journal or book of shadows, I always write an introduction, both to future readers (however imaginary they may be) and to my future self (who has a knack for forgetting details as time passes). Who am I? What am I doing writing? Where am I in my magical practice? What do I hold dear in the moment? It’s a great way to both measure progress and keep my personal struggles and triumphs in perspective. Here, it’s also a good way to let new readers get a glimpse into what they’re in for, and remind longtime readers how much ground we’ve covered over the years.
So hi! My name is Thorn Mooney. I know it sounds like a Harry Potter name, but Mooney is actually a pretty common surname in the American Midwest, from whence half of my family hails. The other half is from the pretty-deep South: Tuscaloosa, Alabama. I’m an Army brat, so I grew up in a few different places (mostly in DC and surrounding suburbs). Now, North Carolina is home, and I think of myself as a Southerner. I like it here, for all its problems. It’s a lot more religiously diverse than people give it credit for, and it’s a great place to be a witch.
My personal theological position has moved as my Craft has grown and changed, and I find that it loops around. For a long time, I identified as a hard polytheist. More recent experiences make me less sure. But ultimately, I appreciate the paradox that presents itself in so many magical traditions: one can hold multiple positions without being in a perpetual state of internal conflict. Here, I think out loud about the nature of the divine, how we experience the gods individually (and collectively), and why so many of our questions won’t ever get satisfactory answers.