A is for Authenticity

Pagan Blog Project.  What the hell.

Authenticity is really fascinating to me because people go about constructing it in a number of really creative ways.  And Pagans are fucking obsessed with it, though we usually don’t talk about it so directly.  All of those tired conversations about who gets to call themselves a witch, what a Wiccan is versus a Neo-Wiccan, or whether or not you can be a witch and also [insert whatever thing here] are all fundamentally about authenticity.  And people become positively ENFLAMED about these things.

It’d be pretty self-deceptive to just play the scholar and pretend not to have a dog in the fight, so here’s my personal position in brief:

I’m concerned about what constitutes “Wicca” from the perspective of a Long Island Gardnerian high priestess.  I’m really, really good at compartmentalizing, however, and from a scholarly perspective I’ll be the first to admit that what I think of as “real Wicca” is pretty fucking debatable.  My claim on authenticity doesn’t have any kind of inherent truth to it, and I am more than capable of setting aside my Hard Gard bitchface and acknowledging the right of others to embrace the category.  I’ve even encouraged people to do just that.

But when I’m home alone and left to my own devices, or when I’m circling with either my coven or with Foxfire (the world’s most spectacular outer court), “Wicca” means my particular brand of Gardnerian Craft.  Period.  Note that I didn’t include Alexandrians in that statement.  So what does that entail?  Well, as you’re probably already aware, that’s mostly oathbound.  But I’ll tell you what it doesn’t entail: fucking Rede of the Wiccae.  Or that trite couplet about the Threefold Law.

As far as I’m concerned, there is nothing Wiccan about the “Wiccan Rede” or the Threefold Law.  Obviously, those things are widely accepted–even amongst some Gardnerian lines and by individual Gards–but, as far as I can tell, those things were additions that came to the table farther down the line.  Yeah, I realize that there were predecessors to both (so please don’t e-mail me about Good King Pausole), but when someone says, “The central tenet of Wicca is ‘harm none,'” and then starts spouting Gwen Thompson, I’ve got a problem.

See?  I’ve definitely got a dog in the fight.  And it’s a really unpopular dog, even if it’s really grizzled and mean.

But that’s not really what this post is about (because I don’t have nearly enough hubris to think that I either can or should convince anyone of anything as far as “real Wicca” is concerned).  This is just about authenticity amongst witches and Pagans more broadly, and what I see as some of the most common means by which we go about asserting our authenticity (plus snarky commentary).  Behold:

1) Initiation.  We’ve all heard this.  You’re not a real witch unless you’ve been initiated into some specific kind of group (Garnderian, Alexandrian, a family tradition, whatever).  There are ALL KINDS OF PROBLEMS with this.  It begs questions about origins (who performed the first initiation, etc.), it assumes a level of competence that may not be present, it assumes that we’re even particularly good record keepers as far as lineage is concerned (and many people are not), it assumes that we’re capable of reliably passing down some kind of “pure” tradition (we are not).

2) Magic Grandma.  Everybody knows one (or dozens) or those people who are somehow especially witchy because their grandmother (or whoever) was a witch.  I would have zero problem challenging pretty much anybody who claimed this, unless they happen to be a teenager who had grandparents coming of age in the 1960s or 70s.  Your Italian/Irish/Appalachian/whatever grandma might have been magical as fuck.  Hey, my people were magical, too.  They’re called Catholics.  Magic sauce recipes, spooky chants and charms, fortune telling, and using herbs for healing does not in any way equate to your relative necessarily (or even probably) being any kind of witch.  Especially not in the sense where it will be at all relevant to what contemporary witches do.

3) BUT WE HAVE A SKULL ON THE ALTAR.  These people are by far and away my current favorites.  The assertion here is something along the lines of, “Real witchcraft was about spirit travel, communicating with the dead, blah blah blah blood in ritual blah blah blah Tubal Cain blah blah blah Wicca isn’t real witchcraft because it’s watered down.”  Usually Emma Wilby and Carlo Ginzburg will come up.  This conversation has been raging since Gardner’s day, and it was just as absurd then.  The problem here has to do with ownership of the term “witch” and assumptions on both sides about what the other group is or isn’t doing.  It’s been my experience, for example, that American Hard Gards and Traditional Witches actually have a hell of a lot more in common with each other than either does with eclectic Wiccans.  To demonstrate, here are some things I do as a Wiccan: talk to land spirits, concern myself with hedgecrossing, use blood and body bits in magic, curse.  Because there’s nothing in my tradition that says that I can’t.

4) BUT IT’S TOTALLY ANCIENT.  I’m not anywhere near as up on my world history as I would need to be in order to refute the claims of any kind of reconstructionist (unless you try to argue that Ostara and Mabon were ancient gods or that modern Halloween is really based on the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, both of which are just demonstrably false with even the tiniest bit of digging into research performed by actual historians).  But I do know that, when you want someone to take a religious claim seriously, you have to make it sound old.  Because older=realer.  Can you imagine what would happen if we applied the same attitude to something like medicine?  Or the legal system?  Religion is a different kind of thing (maybe), but  the assertion that a thing is inherently more authentic because of its age is just obviously problematic.

And those were just the ones off the top of my head.  People get super creative when they need to argue on behalf of their personal legitimacy.  But the reality is that it’s all constructed.  Authenticity doesn’t really apply outside of our own contexts (see my point about how real Wicca = my Gardnerian Wicca).  So maybe we should all just stop sounding so desperate.  It’s mostly just unbecoming.

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8 thoughts on “A is for Authenticity

  1. Love Planet Earth

    I was just on the rounds getting through a backlog of videos I wanted to watch and I decided to click here. You sound quite different from how you are on your videos, Thorn. I found myself agreeing with much of what you wrote. I would add some stuff but it’s fairly personal and tbh it will come across like a now non-Pagan criticising Neo-Paganism. Sometimes that can come across wrong so I’ll leave it.

    Reply
    1. thornthewitch Post author

      Hi! Yeah, my tone on the blog is really different than in my videos. I feel like my audiences are a little bit different in each place, and I worry that it’s easier to be misinterpreted in video form (since everything is unscripted and unedited), so I try to be gentler and choose my words with a lot of softness over there. I also know that my YouTube audience is both quite a bit larger and has a lot more young people, so I keep my temper, my swearing, and my snark in check. I’m a really non-confrontational person on the whole, and people are more likely to pick unreasonable fights on YouTube. So yeah. 🙂 Hey, and I’ve got no problem with the “non-Pagan criticizing Paganism” perspective. Honestly, I think we should be a whole hell of a lot more self-critical, and I welcome outside perspectives (even if they can be harsh). I love being Pagan, I love my wider Pagan community (even if I personally think individuals might be wrong/flakey/dumb/whatever), and I admire everyone’s creativity, but I think we’ve got a lot of maturing to do, too. That’s not a crime.

      Have a good day!

      Reply
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  3. Amber Louise

    I find it odd how some people seem to cling to the title Wiccan. Although people have every right to call themselves what ever they want ( I do agree with that), personally I don’t understand why someone would want to associate themselves with a religious group the aren’t actually a part of. On the other had if you do want to be associated with said religion then why not go all the way and actually be initiated. Often you will hear things like “Well I don’t want to work in a group” or “I don’t like having to follow elaborate rituals” etc. But all of those things are a part of said religion so if you aren’t interested in those things then maybe it’s just not the religion for you?… It’s just bizarre that someone would want to associate themselves with a religion yet have no interest, or even like the traditions of that religion.

    I feel like if you have any kind of respect for a religion you wouldn’t want to infringe upon it in any way negatively. I do believe that using the title Wiccan when you are not actually an initiated Wiccan does affect those who are negatively. Using the title so loosely makes the religion in my opinion seem like almost a joke to those who are on the outside and don’t know much about it to begin with.

    I do also understand the frustration of those who are deeply interested in Wicca but have no way of becoming involved with the religion as I am in that boat, but I don’t believe that the cure to that frustration is using the title anyways. Besides if all you are interested in is the title it’s probably not for you anyways. Personally I’m fascinated by the intimacy of it. Working with strict traditions and carrying them on with a close group of people. Plus I find the idea of working skyclad exhilarating… Although maybe these reasons aren’t reasons enough. Point being, if someone does care at all about Wicca I would hope they would have more respect for it…. End rant.

    Reply
    1. thornthewitch Post author

      I agree with you completely. It’s kind of mystifying–like deciding that you love Catholic Mass but don’t like Christ, transubstantiation, or priests. So you’re going to insert Thor, redo the structure so that everyone just sits in a circle and chants together as equals, and then share a keg of blessed beer out in the parking lot. All of which would be totally cool (actually, I think I just invented the most awesome religion right now), except you still want to call it “Catholicism” and you want everyone else to acknowledge it as such (and those priests are totally elitist jerks for not paying you the respect you deserve as a fellow Catholic. DON’T THEY KNOW THAT TRADITION EVOLVES?!?). By all means, go right ahead, but that’s really weird. Why not just call it “Super Awesome Beer-Drinking-Thor-Toasting Religion” (Asatru?)? I’m sure it’s an authenticity thing, again. Wicca has some kind of status that people want in on (for good or ill), even if that status is just something as simple as recognizability.

      But, this is kind of what religion does, whether I like it or not. And I don’t care as much as I used to, because it doesn’t impact my coven in any real way.

      I used to get really irritated when other witches and Pagans would mock Wicca and Wiccans over things that aren’t really, inherently Wiccan. But, you know, it just makes the secrecy a lot easier. Maybe everybody’s better off thinking that Silver RavenWolf and Scott Cunningham invented Wicca in the sixties to teach people how best to talk to crystals, balance their chakras, and harm none. Or whatevs.

      /rant 🙂

      Reply
  4. bennybargas

    I think one of the biggest reasons for this contention over authenticity is that individuals are seeking authenticity from others in ways that are irrational. There is absolutely nothing wrong–objectively speaking–with casting a circle, summoning the Ponies of the Quarters, and invoking the King of Atlantis and Queen of Avalon. But, as you put it, it seems many neo-pagans feel unrecognized or that they are being viewed as illegitimate if they don’t have a /name/ for themselves or what they do, particularly one that has some wear on the tread.

    It also both amuses and befuddles me that so many of these sorts are utterly offended if you do not recognize their claim to a name. I am not one to make an argument about who is or isn’t Wicca these days when someone makes the claim. I do not care if a self-dedicated (I can’t bring myself to say “self-initiated, being a contradiction of terms) Wiccan calls him-/her-self so but I reserve the right to not agree or recognize him/her as a Brother/Sister of the Craft. And yet, this, too, ruffles feathers as if my recognition somehow brings them validation, which I cannot understand.

    Reply
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