Witchcraft as Religion

I was originally going to write something about John Michael Greer’s article in Witches & Pagans about “Methodist envy” (fucking brilliant) and Paganism, but then it turned into an only tangentially related response to the common assertion that witchcraft is a tool or a craft as opposed to a religion.

The (often somewhat angry) assertion goes like this: Wicca might be a religion, and there are witches out there who might also practice some religion or other, but witchcraft by itself is secular. You can be an atheist, a Christian, a Buddhist, or whatever and still practice witchcraft. JEEZ PEOPLE WHY SO CONFUSED.

This argument is a problem from the scholarly perspective for a couple of reasons. First, it presupposes that we have some kind of universal definition for what constitutes “religion.” Usually, people’s reasoning is that, because witchcraft doesn’t by itself (necessarily) incorporate gods, spirits, or supernatural beings and doesn’t (necessarily) have some kind of moral creed or formalized institution, it’s not religion. Interestingly, this is a definition of religion rooted very strongly in Protestant Christianity. If your definition of religion depends on something looking like Protestantism, then it’s understandable why you would insist that witchcraft is “a craft and not a religion” (although it sometimes looks like Protestantism more than many of us would like to admit).

Second, people who practice witchcraft by and large behave like other religious people. Admittedly, my own approach to the study of religion sways strongly toward ethnography and otherwise considering what people do rather than what they say they do. And contemporary witches of practically any stripe I can think of behave like people we would usually consider to be religious. They dedicate enormous amounts of time to their witchcraft, they form communities of various kinds devoted to witchcraft, they spend money, write books and make websites, build various kinds of hierarchies, engage in ritual practice, and make major life decisions all with witchcraft at the center. That’s not a definitive checklist, merely a list of things off the top of my head that scholars often look for when debating whether or not we can fairly consider something as a religion. Those of us who aren’t stuck in 19th century Europe aren’t necessarily interested in whether or not you think that you’re worshipping anything.

And let me jump the gun and anticipate the, “Yeah, but by that definition football could be a religion” argument: Correct. Which is why increasingly religious studies scholars treat it as such. Along with New Atheism, Southern barbeque, fandoms, and American “civil religion.”

Arguing that witchcraft isn’t a religion—and getting so peeved about it the way people do—only tells us what your position is as an insider. It’s not actually reflective of any kind of inherent truth or objective reality. You don’t think of your witchcraft as religious? Cool. Buddhists in China often don’t think of their Buddhism as “religious” either. Not because it’s not, but because the concept of “religious” is generally quite a bit different once you get beyond our usual Christian (often mistaken for secular) models. And evangelical Christians rarely call themselves evangelicals. The Unitarian Universalists I just finished writing about don’t consider themselves Christian, either. But it would be bad scholarship to simply take the argument that “witchcraft isn’t a religion” at face value and leave it at that. Asserting that witchcraft isn’t religion only tells me what you think religion is. It doesn’t actually tell me much about witchcraft.

This is tied back to the conversation about being “religious” versus “spiritual,” as if those things were really objectively different to the observer. The distinction matters to insiders, and I’ll be sure to note your preference in my field observations, but you’re not spouting any kind of definition that’s universally applicable or even potentially very meaningful to anyone but you and (maybe) your own community.

And of course the reason we’re all so invested in what is and is not religion is because of power, in one direction or another, and social location. If we think religion is about strict morals and judgmental gods and being told what to do, then we’re more likely to prefer words like “spiritual.” Same if we think religion means being part of a formal institution or forking over time and money. If we think religion means having community respect, government recognition, and other kinds of social power, we’re more likely to want to be recognized as real religion and push for seminaries, chaplains, churches, and paid clergy. If we think religion is about gods and the supernatural, we might choose to bill our practices as “secular” or exclusively as “craft.” And our definitions are usually rooted in our own religious upbringings and cultural models, which is why so many of us still look like Christians.

None of this to say that definitions aren’t important or that we shouldn’t draw some boundaries.  After all, if anything is potentially religious, then what the hell did I go to grad school for.  But we need to accept that our definitions have subjective contexts.  Language isn’t some kind of untouchable, inherent other that exists independently of the people using it.

As a side note, Religious studies has ruined my ability to interact with religious people as a religious person.  My peers have become my data.

Summer Plans

I have no idea what letter we’re on or what’s even been happening on the Interwebs because I’ve been too busy FINALLY FINISHING MY FUCKING MASTERS DEGREE. Graduation was Saturday, I submitted final student grades this morning, and am free and clear for the next forever as far as school’s concerned. I’ve still got two major projects in the works, but mostly all school has done in the last year is get in the way of my own research. I’m looking forward to working now with more care and without the hurry that leads to half-assed writing.

I’m also really thrilled at the prospect of being able to read pretty much whatever I want. I’m even a bit overwhelmed at where to begin. Do I keep on with my Capall Bann kick? Finish the Michael Howard pile (*blargh*)? Finally finish Scott’s Hanging from the Tree, which I’ve been plodding through for the last two months (in between paragraphs of my MA projects)? Choose things that complement my tarot work? Part of me is feeling nostalgic and wants to revisit Silver RavenWolf, just for the hell of it (American Folk Magick makes me think of summers in Michigan).  Right this moment I’m leaning toward Grimassi’s Horns of Honor: Regaining the Spirit of the Pagan Horned God because it’s been sitting on my shelf since he was nice enough to sign it for me and I’m curious about what he has to say.

I have a lot I could read. The problem is that I lose steam once I’ve hit the halfway point in a book and the novelty has worn off. Most Pagan and witch books are terrible, regardless of publisher, but I read them all because it’s worth it when you find that one thing you want to try. Or that tiny bit of whatever that helps you better formulate a nagging question (or, rarely, answer one). It’s worth it for the inside jokes you can make later. It’s worth it if it makes you appreciate your own practice or tradition in comparison (Hi, Bob! I love you!).

So I just make more coffee and push through.

I can also refocus on my tarot correspondence course and maybe finish it before the Amberstones are in their nineties or I have to use a Ouija board to turn in my homework.

I’ve also got some shorter essays in mind, which will end up as either blog posts or magazine/newsletter submissions once they’re completed.

Reading and writing aside, my big summer focus is prep for the fall hunting season. Archery practice is an almost daily occurrence, and I’m steadily becoming more active in my club (which is for traditional archery only). My state-mandated hunter safety course is set up for July and I’m researching deer (both in general and locally), field dressing and butchering, and local businesses that can help me process the body the way I want, if and when I find myself with a body. I’ve also been doing a lot of reading into hunting and ethics, which is very challenging and a welcome change from the usual Pagan-lite drivel about loving a nebulous, romanticized “Nature.”

In this latest chapter of Thorn Does All The Things, I find myself pushed magically and spiritually in ways that no book can touch. More on that as the season approaches.

What else? Well, now that the warm weather is here and school is out of the way, I can plant again. There’s foxglove and strawberry blooming in the garden, and this shall be the summer of finally planting trees in the back yard. Today I’ll also fill the feeders.

All is well.

Comprehensive Exams

Oh, and for those of you who are curious, these were my comprehensive exam questions.  I had one six hour period on each of three separate days within one week to answer each in essay form, without reference materials.  Each questions was formulated by a different professor on my advising committee:

The distinction between religion and magic is as old as the discipline itself.  What kinds of concerns and anxieties does this distinction reveal?  How have authors both reinforced and challenged the distinction (Durkheim, Douglas, Smith)? Using witchcraft as an example, show how the distinction between religion and magic is used to exclude/marginalize certain kinds of practices and bodies?

You have been asked to be Editor in Chief of an academic journal titled Witchcraft Past and Present.  The editorial policy explicitly requires that all four articles in each quarterly edition represent a mix of academic and “first person” interpretations and that each edition should focus on a common theme.   In a world where you can snap your fingers and make authors appear out of the air, map out a plan for the types of articles you would like to see in the journal’s first year.  Explain your plan in an introductory essay that would appear in the first edition.  Note in that essay some of the debates or tensions that the journal might entertain and how it will contribute to the understanding of “witchcraft” (which you might just have to define).

One issue in the study of contemporary revival movements is how relatively new traditions create and legitimate themselves as authentic.  For this question, pick two of the following contemporary witches and detail how each constructs their tradition as “authentic.”  Be sure to detail what constitutes “authenticity” for each: Raven Grimassi, Christian Day, Christopher Penczak, Michael Howard, Peter Paddon.

A bunch of girls heard random stuff somewhere in New York state and some guy was pressed to death at some point somewhere else.  Discuss.

That last one was a joke from our resident historian.


C is for Comprehensive Exams and Crying and Crap and Covens and the bottle of champagne that I’m about to open.

So let’s just pretend that I never said anything about putting myself on any kind of schedule as far as blog posting is concerned, because clearly that isn’t happening.  Right now “C” is for “comprehensive exams” for my MA degree, and now that they’re over I mostly want to lay on my face and never write anything ever again.  “C” is also for “counseling program,” which rejected my application after an interview last Friday.  I found out last night, and since then “C” has been for “crying into my wine” and “contemplating the Plan C that I never thought I would need.”

Sad thing first:

I am pretty bewildered at having been rejected for a second MA (“C” is for cocky, which, frankly, I am for good reason).  I was told that the program simply received “an unusually high number of qualified applicants,” which I find hard to believe given that the sorority girl sitting next to me at the interview had the word “imagine” tattooed on her hand and, when asked why she wanted to be a counselor, replied with, “Because nursing school was too hard.”  Also at the interview was the woman from the first round who couldn’t understand why her classes in physical therapy wouldn’t transfer to a clinical mental health program (“Um, those are different kinds of therapies,” the department head had to tell her more than once.).  Out of about 80 finalists, 65 were accepted and I didn’t even make wait list.  They found 65 people—most of whom had yet to graduate from their respective sportsball universities—in that room more “qualified” than me.  Which tells me that I must have done or said something during interview day that was so alienating that even I failed to register it as such.  So alienating that it canceled out an academic record that literally could not have been improved in any capacity short of a perfect GRE score(and before you say it, no, I wasn’t even given enough speaking time to be arrogant, I promise).  I’ve failed to get jobs in the past for being “overqualified” (and once had a man deny having espoused feelings for me the next time I saw him on the grounds that I was “too scary”), but can you be “overqualified” for grad school?

So, there goes that plan.  Which leaves me pretty much exactly where I was in 2007 (unhirable) except now I live in a town without even a Barnes & Noble within reasonable daily driving distance for me to apply at.  I can probably stay in UNCC’s religious studies department as a lecturer, but that job actually pays less than the one at Barnes & Noble (a whopping $2000 per class per semester, before taxes) and has no prospects whatsoever for benefits, raises, or promotion.  Awesome.

In conclusion, don’t go to college and definitely don’t get an MA because all you will get is debt, shattered dreams, and an apron at the Barnes & Noble Café (if it’s close enough to make $7-8 an hour worthwhile, which it isn’t).  And I can’t even make like other good Southern girls and land a husband because I’m, as they tell me, “too scary.”

/pity party

Okay, sorry about that.   I’m over it now.

Witchcraft!  Yay! There are at least some pleasurable things left in the world.

C is for Crap

My very dear friend Morgan said to me the other day something along the lines of, “I have a limited amount of time each day to devote to reading material on witchcraft, and I just want to know that I’m not wasting it on crap.”

Crap of course could mean a lot of things and be a lot of things to different people.  As far as Morgan and I are concerned, usually, crap means “totally fanciful and wildly irrelevant to my daily life.”  Or even “insulting to my intelligence.”  Crap is making it ten minutes into any Peter Paddon podcast and swearing that you never want to listen to Pagan music ever again because it’s all horrible (which it is).  Crap is people like Raven Grimassi or Christopher Penczak saying definitive things about witches without anything even remotely resembling a citation.  Crap is pretty much anything involving phrases like “real/authentic witchcraft,” “ancient witches,” or “hereditary tradition.”  Pretty much.

I sort of love the crap, though.  First, it’s kind of all crap, at least partially.  I can’t think of any Pagan writer or podcaster offhand that doesn’t periodically say something really stupid.  Every tradition has its fair share of absurdity and every individual has a potentially hilarious set of blind spots.  That’s why you have to read everything and sift out the periodic nugget of awesome.  Then you assemble your pile of awesome nuggets and *BAM* witchcraft is awesome.  Second, the crap just makes me really appreciative of the religious creativity of human beings.  We are fucking bananas sometimes, and that’s especially true amongst those of us who are a bit on the fringe.  One of the reasons I got into religious studies to begin with is this fascination with the human imagination.  We are weird and wonderful creatures.  It’s like watching hamsters in one of those brightly colored plastic tube mazes.

The key to dealing with crap for me is to not take it personally.  I sometimes have to take a deep breath and remind myself that nothing I read, hear, or see in the Community necessarily has any impact on my practice or my tradition.  Getting too hung up on what other people are up to has never served me in any kind of useful way as far as what I’m doing alone.  Even within a wider tradition, as far as I’m concerned, the only “family” I have is my immediate coven and those I know personally who are directly related (and even there that doesn’t mean I think we’re all up to the same thing all the time).

Of course, I’ve got a lot more time than Morgan does to devote to Craft stuff because that’s pretty much all I do.  But I do think that quantity makes for a better goal than quality (which is usually just disappointing).  The more dirt I sift through, the more likely I am to find precious sparkly things.  Even if you understand that some dirt is more likely to yield valuables than other dirt, you’re still left with a big pile of fucking dirt.

C is for Coven

Because pretty much everyone on the Internet who brings up the whole “coven vs. solitary” thing is a solitary with no real group experience.  The giveaway is when they say things like, “I’m a free spirit who doesn’t want to be told what to do or believe.”  Excuse me?  Because the rest of us are just subservients being told how to think?  Not even remotely.  I’ve been part of crappy groups in the past, don’t get me wrong, but using that as grounds for concluding that coven life is a bust is like saying, “I was in a really negative relationship this one time so I’m just never going to date again ever.”  Never trying it at all because you think the point of a coven is to boss you around just means that you don’t understand what a coven is.

You still might hate it, but most people don’t seem to ever really give it a shot.

I’m not going to tell you which is better, because both of them can suck and be awesome in equal parts.  The real point I want to make is that they’re not mutually exclusive, which is how people usually describe them.  When I get asked, “Are you in a coven or do you practice solitary,” the answer is both.  Any covened witch (I don’t know if that’s a term, but it is now) worth a shit is capable of working on their own.  I adore my HPS and HP like parents, but neither of them necessarily cares what I’m doing outside of coven circles so long as I’m not actively Ruining The Tradition.

C is for Cabinet

After I found out I’d been rejected from grad school despite my total awesomeness and perfect suitability, I got drunk and assembled this spectacular piece of sexiness from Ikea (which only goes to further show how remarkably capable I am):

IMG_4818Now instead of scattered willy-nilly all over the house, all of the most valuables are shut away behind glass doors.  I’m so fucking pumped about this thing.  Fuck you, counseling program, I’m going to just sit here and bask in front of my own personal witchcraft museum.



AAR Update

Many exciting things in the works.

First off, I’m in Baltimore for the AAR.  This was supposed to be a laid back year, as I’m not on a panel, not applying to programs or for jobs, and didn’t even have to drive myself or shop for properly-fitting dress pants beforehand.  Harvard’s reception—I’d heard—was being held at the National Aquarium by the dolphin tank.  Free booze and fucking dolphins.

But shortly before we hit the road, serendipity and karma and kismet and some other stuff that isn’t real collided and I found myself scheduling a meeting with Beacon Press’s executive editor, Amy Caldwell, to discuss an idea for a book.  Like, with pages and without a crescent moon on the spine.  J;AOIUQOPU4T0Q3[96OIH;L!!!!!!!

That happened yesterday, and I’m pleased to announce that I officially have a new project.  Amy has asked for a full proposal with sample introductory chapters, so when I get home my whole life is going to become centered upon refocusing my writing.  Beacon specializes in what are called crossovers, which in this case means academic-ish work for popular audiences.  I’ll say more as things develop, but for now suffice it to say that this is largely about being both a Pagan and a scholar and rationalizing the two (or consciously not rationalizing them).

Real post to follow.

“Oh, maybe Wicca isn’t as stupid as I think it is.”

I was chatting with a colleague this morning about our class’s recent foray into “paranormal” subjects (we’re reading Christopher Bader et al’s Paranormal America) and I mentioned that I could understand some of the conclusions that the authors had drawn from their fieldwork (not to imply that this is a good book, because it’s terrible and just goes to show how thoroughly sociologists can mangle data and, further, why Evangelicals shouldn’t be allowed to conduct national surveys), given some of my own experiences at things like psychic fairs and New Age festivals.  My colleague’s quick response was, “But you’re not like other Wiccans!  You’re reasonable and well-read.  Usually Wiccans are the worst sort of religious flakes.”

I had to laugh at his comment.  And then I was sad because (putting personal vanity aside for a moment) his assessment of Wicca more broadly is not totally unfair.  And how sad is it that when my friend actually encountered a Wiccan he could respect, his conclusion was not, “Oh, maybe Wicca isn’t as stupid as I think it is,” but rather, “She must be an exception.”

I’m not suggesting that we should collectively be altering our behavior to garner the approval of outsiders, but I do think it’s important to consider that the negative opinions that people hold about us are sometimes grounded in reality rather than in just random, senseless prejudice.  The complaints that I’ve made against my own Pagan community are not unlike those made by non-Pagans: we tend to be uncritical readers, we tend to be gullible and naive, we are usually (and I’m very comfortable with “usually” here) pretty shallow when it comes to constructing theologies and ethe, we frequently aren’t mindful of history (both our own and those of others), many of us have a very troubling persecution complex, and our community is overwhelmingly oblivious to its white, Western, middle-class privilege.

Throw in some healing crystals and lots of fetishizing talk about Native Americans and it’s no wonder that Fox News (etc.) can say what it does with relative impunity.

Again, I’m not advocating that we collectively give Wicca a social facelift (though I personally may think one is in order).  People, particularly when they have the means to do so, should live their own lives according to their own preferences and goals.  I’m merely suggesting that, given the preferences that many of us have and the way we often carry ourselves collectively, we should stop acting so surprised and scandalized when others think poorly of us.

Ronald Hutton, Cherry Hill, and Tarot

This past weekend was busier than most.  Morgan and I journeyed to the University of South Carolina for Cherry Hill Seminary’s symposium Sacred Lands and Spiritual Landscapes.  Beginning on Friday and running through Saturday, the symposium featured a keynote from Ronald Hutton as well as papers and responses from Pagan Studies notables like Chas Clifton and Wendy Griffin.

My feelings about Pagan Studies as an academic field are extremely mixed.  Cherry Hill, as a seminary, produces work that is confessional.  I feel like I spent the weekend mostly sitting through personal stories of divine experience and community building rather than things that would pass for scholarship in other circles.  There was an awful lot of self-congratulatory talk regarding the establishment of a Pagan Studies group at the AAR (rather than any much-needed conversation on improving said group) and all of the new degrees that can be earned through Cherry Hill.

I don’t mean to sound so critical.  This is a seminary, after all.  The confessional has its place and I can appreciate the impact that an organization like Cherry Hill can have, but I worry that the confusion of this sort of theological work with the secular scholarship that is going on at universities and in other AAR groups will stymie Pagan Studies in the future.  I wasn’t the only grad student present who participates in the Pagan Studies AAR group against the advice of advisors (on the grounds that this group is not, to paraphrase, engaging in critical scholarship).  There needs to be a greater place for secular scholarship within Pagan Studies, performed by people with appropriate backgrounds in relevant fields.  I left on Saturday, accompanied by my graduate colleagues, somewhat discouraged and disappointed with some of what we’d heard.  It pleases me that this is now a field and there are other people interested (and in the throes of) pursuing this work, but we cannot only do it from the standpoint of practitioners.  Rather, we cannot do it only from the standpoint of practitioners if we wish to interact with scholars in other field and be taken seriously.

But!  Ronald Hutton was brilliant.  And charming.  And very British.  I got a book signed, got to have a chat, and Morgan was kind enough to indulge my fangirl impulses and take a picture of Hutton and I together.

Sunday afternoon was spent reading tarot at Divination & Desserts, the local fundraiser for Pagan Pride Day.  I worked last year, too, and this year was a marked improvement, due primarily to location.  I’m not particularly involved in the public community in Charlotte (largely because, as you can see from the website, the community exists primarily outside of the city limits), but I do poke my head in periodically.  I enjoy this kind of event.  It’s laid back, there’s lots of time to chat and get to know people, and everyone is open-minded (I don’t have to do much in the way of explaining tarot to people who are completely unfamiliar).  Plus drinks and dinner followed!  Along with some intense conversation about building a stronger community here in Charlotte.