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.
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.
I don’t know if this is real, or what sort of metric you could even scientifically apply here, but I’ve read several times that in terms of stress moving is on par with a death in the family. I suppose that depends on who’s dead and on how far you’re going. In any case, it’s fucking stressful.
I’m feeling very unmoored, for many reasons.
Seeing all of your stuff boxed up and laying in piles really makes you consider how much it’s possible to acquire being stationary so long. I’m not even talking about the books, because, sure they’re heavy, but they’re at least relatively uniform and easy to explain. The giant pile of old program flyers from Pagan festivals collected in the last twenty years? That’s trickier. Magical tokens gifted from friends over the years, spells remnants, magicked objects that felt very necessary five years ago but aren’t so much now, and an ungodly amount of snake shed collected from outdoors and my own pet corn snake…that’s a lot harder to justify keeping. I have floppy disks containing old book of shadows information, and no way to access their content. What do I do with such things? Not only moving, but downsizing, means that some of it simply has to be let go. Along with furniture and dishes and art and hobby supplies and things that fall into more normal categories.
I’ve learned that, like the Wheel of the Year itself, my life moves in cycles. I can remember being a Blue Star Dedicant years and years ago and realizing—courtesy of my very astute teacher who told me I needed to keep track of these things, which sounds obvious now but totally was not at the time—that my interests, moods, relationship with my body, and connection to the gods all ebbed and flowed according to the seasons. I am the happiest and most ambitious over the summer. In August, I have to be mindful of depression, which will set in as school starts. Halloween is fun, but I tend to be sick or injured this time of year. December is a good time to talk to the gods and feel them most strongly in my life. Imbolc always has be gunning to start some new spiritual project that’s usually a little beyond my scope at the time. I spend too much money in May, because all of my Taurus is hanging out and I feel good about the coming time off. And so on.
Years of doing this, and I finally have a reasonably good sense of myself. I used to try to fight it, but I find that it’s easier to just flow and be patient with myself. Work isn’t going away, and neither is depression, tax season, or final exam schedules, so better to just do what I can to prepare and move through these things as gracefully as possible.
My coven has a cycle to it to: times when it’s easier to meet often, times when people need extra support, and times when I feel like the worst high priestess in the world because I have to relinquish much of the coven’s functional work to others for the sake of my mental health. It’s not a problem, but in the past it’s been very frustrating. When you don’t recognize patterns and respond accordingly, it can feel like everything is just happening to you beyond control.