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.