Alabama and Reflections on Alex Mar’s Witches of America

alex marI’m in Alabama for Thanksgiving, hanging out with my parents, running, writing, and sleeping more than I usually do. Oliver always makes the drive with me, and it’s funny watching him interact with my mother’s three cats, who are comparatively huge and fancy (long-haired, Persian, flat-faced, totally uncivilized despite whatever she says about them). Oliver stalks around the house looking surly, hissing a lot, and staying close to me. The other cats do little more than watch him attentively, but he hates it. And, naturally, I have to take his side.

Thanksgiving break and then winter break are much-needed, and I appreciate them more now that I’ve finally admitted to just not liking fall. I can catch up on reading (in between grading student papers), do some blogging, and refocus on my own physical well-being (eating regularly, getting a lot of exercise, sleeping). I even set up a target in my parents’ backyard so I can shoot.

I’m finishing up Alex Mar’s Witches in America, which I’d been dying to read since seeing all of the horrendous, scathing, angry reviews floating around the Pagan Internet.  It’s been sitting on my table for weeks, and I finally got to read it yesterday, finishing up this morning.

There’s a lot in here that I recognize. Mar and I have similar educational and economic backgrounds (near as I can tell) and are close in age, so many of her questions and impulses look familiar to me. I understand how she feels when she doesn’t quite connect to the language prevalent amongst the Dianics she visits (it’s not her feminism, not her experience of womanhood). I understand that she feels self-conscious, surrounded by the kind of ecstatic religiosity at a large Pagan gathering, and later amongst the smaller groups she pursues. I understand wanting to suspend disbelief in search of a feeling that everyone else seems to have already achieved, feeling like you’re missing something. I understand the difficulty she has negotiating conversations about socioeconomic class, and the sometimes careless assumptions she makes about the people she’s studying.  And I understand the disappointment of having to go, “Nope. This isn’t what I thought it was or what I hoped it would be.”

So I’m empathetic, even if my experiences were different.

I can’t really comment on her relationships with her individual subjects or what oaths she may or may not have broken. I think it’s worth noting that (as far as I know) the people she describes by name have remained silent on the matter. Only they can say what boundaries were violated, if any. I’m not privy to the promises she made, and I don’t feel like that’s any of my business. I also think that when oathbound material is shared and vows are broken, it’s usually best dealt with by shutting up and not drawing attention, which only serves to let everyone else know the material is really oathbound.

When I first read Tanya Luhrmann’s Persuasions of the Witches’ Craft, I had similar reactions. I found myself thinking, “Jeez, I would never have been comfortable letting a scholar into my circle like this.” But that’s their business. It’s not up to me to tell them what’s secret and what isn’t, because every group is different. If I disagree, they only way I can protect material is to keep my own mouth shut and use their experience as a cautionary tale. As for open rituals, I think having writers present is a risk that everyone takes. These are public, after all. How many church services have I written about myself? How many open rituals? Even when you go through IRB clearance (as I did), individual consent from a large body of attendees is often not required, especially if the event is open to the public (like most Pagan festivals). Whether or not that’s personally ethical varies by individual, and the outsider’s position (whether she’s a scholar, a journalist, or a blogger) is usually different from the insider’s.

Friends and colleagues have commented that they found the work to be dismissive of certain kinds of Paganism (especially eclectic Wicca) and also somewhat body-shaming. I didn’t get that impression, myself. If anything, I thought most of her descriptions were a little cliché (“pendulous” breasts abound). When she avoided eclectic Wiccans, I understood it to be because she was personally on a quest for something organized, lineaged, and appealing to her desire for intimacy. Her avoidance made sense to me, and didn’t strike me as dismissive.

As an ethnographer, I can also empathize with the fact that subjects almost never feel perfectly represented. They often feel you’ve missed the point. They often feel slighted. Usually—for religious groups—this is rooted in the ethnographer never totally giving up her outsider position. The Christians I worked with knew that I couldn’t possibly have gotten them, because if I had, I would have been saved.

At best, I’d say this is an interesting memoir from someone who thirty-something spiritual seekers may recognize. At worst, it’s just kind of rehashed and self-indulgent—pretty standard fare in popular journalism. I think the mistake some people made was assuming that this book was designed to be representative or descriptive, but this is obviously not the case. It’s very clearly a memoir. I can’t imagine how someone could pick this up after reading the dust jacket and opening chapter and think this book would tell them how to be a witch, what Paganism looks like in the United States, or what really goes on in a witch coven. This is one more volume in the growing library of “seeker” memoirs—popular for the last several years—akin to Kevin Roose’s The Unlikely Disciple or Lauren Sandler’s Righteous: Dispatches from the Evangelical Youth Movement. Fascinating for the mildly curious, but clearly not intended to be objectively scholarly.

As usual, I think our reactions say more about us than about the work itself. Maybe she really gets it wrong. Maybe looking in the mirror is uncomfortable for us Pagans. Maybe she broke her oaths. Maybe we’re offended that she didn’t feel what we feel. Maybe we wish she’d worked with different people. Maybe we just wish she’d picked a better title.

I think it’s worth reading, though, and considering the problem for yourself.

Drawing Lines: Musings on Categories, Labels, and Representation

IMG_6554Drawing Lines: Musings on Categories, Labels, and Representation.

Is there a Pagan uniform? With so much interest in organized representation, how do we decide who to exclude?


 

Okay, please bear with me while I try to figure out how to effectively share Patheos posts in an aesthetically pleasing way.  I really will refrain from double-posting, as promised, but the option to follow my postings on Oathbound isn’t quite up and running yet (it’s dependent on having a minimum number of posts, apparently).  Until then (later this week), here’s my most recent blog for those of you who may have missed it.  If you like it, please share it with people who may also like it!  My schedule there entails posting about twice a week, so updates will be frequent!  There’s also a lively comments section for those of you who enjoy sharing your input!

Blogging at Patheos!

photo-4In just about a week I’ll be writing on Oathbound: Witchcraft and Magic from the Gut, my brand new blog over at Patheos. I’m super excited, because I’ll be sharing space with established authors whom I’ve followed for a long time (Jason Mankey, Lupa, Aidan Kelly, Peg Aloi, and Lilith Dorsey, among others).  So hooray!  It’s a big deal for me because I’ll have the opportunity to write for a larger audience and get more critical feedback on both my writing and my general line of thinking. It’ll also give me an excuse to finally attend Pantheacon, which I’m mad stoked about.

I’ll be writing about a lot of the same topics: traditional Wicca and witchcraft, Paganism in the academic world, generally humorous stories about being Pagan in the wild, and tales from my own work operating a coven and trying not ruin the tradition with which I’ve been entrusted.

The new blog is still under construction, but look for a link in about a week. I’ll continue to post at Thorn the Witch, but it’ll take some time to figure out exactly what the divide is going to look like. I expect that things may get a bit more personal and swear-y over here (because saying fuck a lot and trying to revive the word “cowan” isn’t going to go over well on Patheos, probably), but hopefully not less frequent.

In the meantime, please check out and like my brand new Facebook page! You’d be doing me a big favor (and tricking Patheos Pagan into thinking I’m really popular and cutting edge so no one regrets letting me do this).

(And isn’t my blog banner badass?  It was made by Lore over at Ecstatick Magick, who is a fucking wizard.)

Everyone is Sort of Terrible: On Taking Breaks from Community Participation

Sometimes I really just don’t want to be around other Pagans. Part of it is my introverted personality. Part of it is the stress that just naturally comes along with running a group. And part of it is genuine irritation at the pettiness of other people, bringing out my own pettiness.

There are times when withdrawal from a wider community is necessary. I think it’s easy to blindly get caught up in patterns—that’s the nature of any social group. We’re people; it’s what we do. There’s always some kind of (sometimes subtle) hierarchy, some kind of covert measure for determining authenticity (oh, he’s not really one of us), speech patterns, memes, outfits…it starts to feel gross after a while. I stop feeling like I’m progressing. I get caught up in the dramas of other people and lose sight of my own objectives.

It’s not personal. I mean, sure, the Pagan Community™ has its share of brokenness, but I’m not convinced it’s really more prevalent than what goes on in other spaces. Everyone is sort of terrible sometimes, whatever freak flag they’re flying. Abandoning one group for another doesn’t usually solve much because fundamentally people follow the same sorts of behavioral patterns just by virtue of being people. Withdrawing entirely can be equally problematic because isolation doesn’t usually help anyone in the long-term. It’s worse if you’re prone to depression.

For me, it comes in waves. I get excited about participating in a wider community right around summer and sustain those feelings through fall (LET’S GO TO ALL THE FESTIVALS). Winter and spring, I don’t want anything to do with anyone (EVERYONE IS SO DUMB OMG). It’s normal, I think, to want to take breaks.  And it’s especially important to be aware of your own waves to keep from being caught off guard by shifting moods.

I start feeling drained and the depression gets worse. I don’t have as much energy for new connections or casual acquaintances. I get irritable and start speaking in sweeping generalizations. I roll my eyes a lot more. It’s unpleasant for everyone involved.

To remedy this I try to do a lot more art. I paint, I play music, and I journal a ton. It helps me to center and recharge. I run a lot more, and further. I usually cut down on my time spent online. I also like to plan trips, either to go backpacking in some backcountry somewhere or to visit close Craft family. Sitting around with my upline shooting the shit over cocktails is basically my idea of heaven. I can start feeling like I’m part of something worthwhile again. All of this leaves me with more energy for my coven—that tiny portion of the community that I’m directly responsible for.

I Worship Satan and You Do, Too

So there’s a thing that happens whenever vocal Pagans show up in prominent public spaces, either online or in the flesh. The narrative is cliché and we all know it, whatever role we play. It goes like this:

BIG PAGAN THING OMG WITCHES AND WICCANS AND PAGANISM!

Pagan #1: OMG me too paganism witches so great!

Pagan #2: So great wait ‘til Christians see LOL awesome

Christian #1: SATAN

Pagan #2: NO SATAN DUMMY

Pagans #3-15: OMG NATURE GODDESS WICCA NO SATAN SO IGNORANT

Christian #2-Infinity: SATAN SATAN SATAN

Online Pagans (all of them):  LOL DUMB CHRISTIANS [cue this meme]pagan-satan

The above might be a Facebook thread (like this one), a series of notes attached to a post on Tumblr or Instagram, a conversation at Pagan Pride Day, or the banter that takes place over coffee or booze at a Pagan moot (minus the interjections from Christians, usually). But the crux of the conversation is the same: Christians are dumb because they mistakenly think we worship Satan. We either get mad or have a laugh, but we leave thinking that the root of the problem is simple ignorance.

I spent two years working on an ethnographic project with an evangelical megachurch and focusing on contemporary American Protestant Christianity. It is through this experience that I offer the following:

When a Christian accuses you of worshipping Satan, the issue is not their lack of knowledge about contemporary witchcraft, Wicca, Paganism, etc. The issue is a difference of worldview. From the perspective of many Christians, the religious options are simple: Christ or Not Christ. Everything in the “Not Christ” box is the playing field of the Enemy.

Trust me. Evangelicals know about Wicca, Neo-Paganism, the New Age, etc., etc. They are not misinformed. Many of these folks (especially the ones publishing books and preaching) are well-educated, thoughtful people.  When a Christian accuses you of cavorting with Satan, they’re not misunderstanding you. They’re disagreeing with you.

Arguing and asserting that you really worship nature or a Goddess or are secular or whatever is almost always a waste of time. You could tell them you were a Catholic or a Jew and the reaction would be comparable, because we’re all equally occupying the box of “Not Christ” (or “Doing Christ Wrong” in the case of Catholics) and are, therefore, operating in the realms of the Adversary. You cannot win a debate if your position is “But we don’t even believe in Satan.” Belief is not part of this equation. You’re in the “Not Christ” box. The whys are not relevant within the evangelical worldview.

As a Wiccan, from this evangelical perspective, I worship Satan, who has deceived me and lured me further from God. You probably worship Satan, too. At the very least, you’ve been deceived or otherwise prevented from accepting Christ. Personally, I don’t have any problem with being called Satanic. I know it’s not personal and doesn’t actually have anything to do with my Craft, my gods, or how I live my life.

So, as a community (or at least as an assemblage of angry people), we need to find another strategy for dealing with the whole Satan thing. Because the issue is not misunderstanding. It’s disagreement over the fundamental structure of the universe. We need another game plan aside from the idiotic memes that mostly do nothing but advertise our own failure to grasp the basics of Protestantism.

As a sidenote, Internet Witches, let’s stop using this meme to defend our communities:

10911462_10205795121068102_2284239552457400829_o

The above illustration is from an edition of Florence Laughlin’s children’s book The Little Leftover Witch (1960), which my mom used to read to me when I was little.  It’s the story of baby-witch Felina, who finds herself living with blond white suburbanites after being stranded. After struggling with the grossness that is witchcraft, she finally finds love and happiness at the end of the book when she gives up and joins the status quo. So irony. Find something else.

A Video and Musings on Seeking

(And can we please appreciate the thumbnail for this video.  I love it when it’s this awkward.)

Back in my Teen Witch days I longed for a coven with the sort of desperate urgency that can only be generated by out-of-control hormones and the bewildering lack of self-awareness characteristic of overly-privileged suburban white kids. I needed people to understand me. To appreciate my latent talents. To spur me on in what I just knew in my soul was my fated path. My bones fucking vibrated with destiny. I was coming home. Wicca was who-I-was-oh-Goddess.

I was fucking determined, I tell you what. I combed the Internet (the second the Internet was a thing I could comb), posted ads on every witchcraft website that would let me, stalked the regulars at the local New Age store, and snuck off to open rituals with unwitting teenaged friends (“Hey I thought you said this was a book club.”) who had cars and less attentive parents. Before I got to college, I e-mailed every person within a fifty-mile radius who had a listing on Witchvox. Once I arrived, I tried to start a Pagan student group. Later on, I transferred schools and was able to join an already established club. I went to drum circles, open rituals, psychic fairs, and New Age book clubs, scanning for people who might have something in common with me.   I would talk to anyone who stood still long enough, and I spent more time with ill-suited people than I should have.

When I was finally old enough (well, and even before then), I sent seeker letters to every coven I could find in the state that even sort of looked like it might be functional (even a “Norse Wicca” group, I’m telling you because I feel like we’ve know each other long enough). I tried to sound mature and collected, but that feeling of desperation never really went away, even when I was smugly assuring people that “being solitary is just as good if not better.” When I finally did find my first coven, I stayed longer than I should have because I’d already worked so hard to get there. They weren’t quite right-—not traditional enough, not stable enough, not healthy enough—-but it had already taken me so long to just find them. What if that’s the closest I could ever get?

In retrospect, I can see that a lot of what I was looking for was validation. In searching for “real” Wicca I made a lot of unfair compromises, met a lot of astonishingly broken people, and became more disillusioned by Paganism, Wicca, witchcraft, and everything in between than I can meaningfully convey.

But I also found myself.  Haha, psych. No, what I found was that it pays to have standards. Because some groups and some people are just better and healthier and more effective than others.

There’s a lot to be said for the experience of seeking. Man, it can blow pretty hard, but it does make you more capable of recognizing worthwhile teachers, leaders, and groups. It also makes you more humble, slower to anger, and more patient with other seekers. Not to mention you acquire more mundane skills like recognizing good reading material from bad, asking worthwhile questions of the right people, and dealing with the constant barrage of naysayers (be they Christians or realer-than-thou witches).

I eventually found exactly what I’d been looking for (minus that scene in The Craft where butterflies pour out of the sky in happy acknowledgment from the gods). It’s easy to overlook, but there are stable, grounded people who identify as Pagan, too. Some versions of Wicca make more objective sense than others, leading to more useful places and more meaningful experiences. Some witches are more effective than others (and some are not witches at all, when it comes right down to it). Some people make productive contributions to your life and others should be avoided entirely. Sometimes it pays to wait it out instead of jumping into whatever comes along.

The sorts of judgments you make as far as identifying these things is totally up to you and your own agendas and experiences. I’m grateful for many of the opportunities I’ve had as a seeker—-I feel like they’ve made me a better coven leader, if for no other reason than I know what not to do—-but I also wish I’d had more patience. I’m a step or two closer to disillusionment than I would like, even though I can see now that there’s more good in Pagan communities than bad. I can also be cynical when meeting new people, figuring that I can quickly stereotype them and file them away without consequence (categories include “secretly misogynistic male witch chasing ass,” “self-hating New Ager trying to justify poor life choices,” and “know-it-all twenty-something guru who thinks tumblr reblogs constitute authority”).

The bad comes with the good.

But I think teenaged Thorn would have been pleased in the end.

How to make sure everyone at the open ritual thinks you’re full of shit

Just in case you were really determined to go to your first open ritual and alienate as many people as possible, I present these powerful tips. Also useful for sabotaging your attempts at starting your own coven, making friends online, or garnering any kind of long-term respectability amongst your local community.

1) Tell everyone you’re a hereditary witch/your ancestors died in a witch hunt/your grandmother was a witch or any variation on that theme.

This makes you sound really powerful and confident. We are all super impressed, especially given how few of you we’ve met over the years.

Hey, we’re all six degrees from Kevin Bacon or whatever, so there’s a fair chance that many of the other people in the room also have some kind of hereditary tie to the goings on of some historical witch whatnot or other. Depending on how we want to define “witch,” most of us could concoct some kind of magical ancestry that makes our being here tonight fucking predestined too. A half-century (give or take) after Wicca, witchcraft, and Neo-Paganism became popular in the United States, some of us actually were raised in a magical tradition.  You might genuinely have some kind of family lineage. Your grandmother might actually be an honest to god witch. It doesn’t matter. If that’s the first thing that comes out of your mouth when you introduce yourself to other witches, then get ready to be laughed at the second you leave the room.

Everyone who’s been around for more than a couple of years has heard a few of these stories, and they usually come attached to the inexperienced, the unstable, or the insecure. You might be a different case altogether, but many won’t give you a sincere chance in hell after that. I get so many witchvox seeker e-mails that start with, “I come from a long line of historical witches” that it barely even mentally registers anymore. Not once have any of these people been someone I wanted to invite to circle a second time. You might be the exception, but I would suggest waiting to throw that card down until you’ve come around more than once.

2) Make sure everyone knows you’re a high priest/ess.

You worked really hard to earn that title. I mean, look at all the books you’ve read. That is a shit ton of books.

You might actually be one (according to whatever the standard du jour is), but nobody outside of your own group or tradition cares. Rather, they might care if they believed you, but they’re so used to teenaged solitaries, self-stylized Internet gurus, and I-read-everything-by-Scott-Cunningham-yesterday types that they are physically incapable of taking you seriously. And if “everyone is their own high priest/ess” then why do we have to keep hearing about you?

3) Offer to teach. Make sure everyone knows how much you love to teach and that you’re always available to answer any questions.

The Craft (especially your brand of Barnes & Noble Wicca) is an oppressed, dwindling art form. If you don’t plagiarize every passage out of Scott Cunningham and distribute it online, how will the tradition survive? We need you.

I’m sure you’re plenty qualified, but the other six-dozen teachers who were here right before you weren’t, and they’ve already given you a bad name (and the only people who are going to take you up on your premature offer are people who you probably don’t want to hang out with in the long run anyway). It doesn’t matter how good you are. Unless you’ve already established yourself publically somehow (Book? Hugely popular website? Festival tour?), most are just going to assume you’re six-dozen and one.

I have no idea exactly why so many think they’re qualified to teach. It’s like witch puberty: you hit the year mark and suddenly it’s time to “share your knowledge” (Send me asks, guys!). I’m all for a group of peers sharing ideas, don’t get me wrong, but teaching implies a greater level of responsibility and accountability. And most people are bad at it. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been at your path for a year, five years, or twenty years. Some people are only suited to be teachers in the vaguest “the world and everyone in it is my teacher” sense. And that’s okay. It doesn’t have to impact your Craft at all. I’m fucking terrible at all kinds of things that have equally little to do with my effectiveness at witchcraft.

Good teachers recognize that they can’t effectively teach everyone at any given moment and wait for those moments that are appropriate. Good teachers don’t teach purely to drive their own egos or lord their superiority over students (and, often, other teachers). They especially don’t use their positions to sexually coerce others. This shit happens. It happens regularly. So if you show up at an event and immediately offer your services, don’t be surprised when folks start acting wary.

4) Talk shit about other local groups, individuals, or traditions, especially to people you don’t know very well.

It’s not like we all know each other and it’ll circulate. Especially if it’s on Facebook later. Nobody even looks at Facebook.

There are times when it’s appropriate to say something negative about someone else. But to strangers at an open ritual is almost never one of those times. Pagans and witches tend to know each other, even in big cities. And you never know who else is in the room. I sat next to a guy at a potluck last year and listened to him say disparaging things about Gardnerians for ten minutes, totally clueless that he was literally surrounded by members of the only Gardnerian coven in town. Nobody said a word, but he never received a warm welcome from anyone present again, Gardnerian or otherwise. You want to bitch about other people, do it amongst your friends.

Mind your own business and don’t be a dick to people when you don’t know what you’re talking about. Pettiness, envy, and gossip come with being human—we all do it—but be smart about where you drop your shit (hint: don’t do it on your Facebook wall).


This advice is at least partially solicited, if harsh. In running a group, attending open circles, hanging out at festivals, and living on the Internet, I hear plaintive questions about strategies for making Pagan and witch friends almost every day. Even when people don’t want to belong to covens or groves, they often still want some kind of community. We’re so obsessed with giving ourselves labels, and this is in part because we want to be intelligible to other people. We want to fit in with others occupying a category (however narrow), even if we have very little interaction with these others. We want to be accepted as authentic.

Many of us found our way to witchcraft, Paganism, Wicca, or whatever because somewhere along the line—however indirectly—we just weren’t very good at fitting in with other people. I have seen some truly incredible examples of social ineptitude at open rituals and Pagan events. I’ve seen people just fucking determined to start their own coven/make witch friends/build real community absolutely blow their chances (at least locally) by doing one (often more than one) of the above. So here’s hoping that this spares someone at least a little bit of public trauma, at the cost of a little private blog-reading embarrassment.