A number of recent posts in the Pagan blogosphere, including Lisa Wagoner’s first post in her new Patheos blog Witch, Indeed? and John Halstead’s recent post on why people may have good reason to make fun of Wiccans and witches, have me thinking about the labels that I put around my spiritual practice. I plan to explore the topic in a series of posts, but for today I want to focus on why I identify as witch and when it might be worth it to say so. Why use the W-word at all, when I’m likely to be misunderstood and disrespected for it, even by other members of the NeoPagan community?
It’s worth considering whether I can claim the W-word in the first place. What makes a witch? Ask five different witches, and you’re likely to get five different answers. For me a witch is as a witch does: they do ritual involving work with the Elements, they revel in connection with Divine Nature of which we are all a part, and they serve their communities.
As I’ve written before, my ritual practices have more in common with folk magic than with ceremonial magic. I’ve completed some Reclaiming core coursework in recent years, and I continue to circle with other Reclaiming Witches and members of my local Feri community, but I have no desire to seek initiation in a hierarchical, initiatory tradition of the Craft. Usually the rituals I perform are done only for myself, to express personal union with the Divine. I don’t need printed liturgy or a priesthood to intervene in the process; the world as it is, where I am, tells me what to do.
Holy is the World.
Holy am I.
When I breathe,
the World breathes.
Although personally empowering, the craft that I practice is highly individualistic and honestly often slow and tedious. I can’t really recommend it. Identifying the stories that resonate and cobbling together meaningful ritual outside of established tradition is a lot of work. (Yet this points to another characteristic of the path: the witch’s rituals are usually not sanctioned by the politically powerful overculture.) Truly connecting with and committing to your communities, both human and other-than-human, involves more listening than speaking and also often service offerings that stretch you past what is comfortable.
I’d have no claim to the W-word, in fact, if I weren’t answering a call to actively mind the balance of my community. My commitment to a lived wisecraft calls me to vote, for example, to respond to my neighbor’s call for help with learning to breastfeed her newborn, to take a share of what I cook for my own family to the widower down the street, and to compost the onion peels after preparing the meal. I like to think that I’ve left the Catholic concept of sin behind me, but in my personal, unwritten book of wisecraft, missing voting day, using plastic straws, or choosing not to compost or recycle come pretty close.
In the Yellow Room of Vince Hannemann’s Cathedral of Junk
So does making fun of or insulting others for how they express their identities, provided they aren’t harming anyone. For example, wands and robes are fun on Halloween, at Ren Faires, and birthday parties (all of which I deeply enjoy), and not directly related to my practice of wisecraft. But inclusivity and freedom of expression are foundational to my feminist thealogy. Most other witches are women, who, like me, have been instructed their entire lives on dressing and otherwise presenting themselves in ways that are pleasing and non-threatening to the male gaze. Many of my sisters choose to wear colorful ritual robes, jewelry, and makeup as outward expressions of their identities, and although these aren’t a part of my regular personal practice, I get what they’re about, and I will be the last to shame anyone for them. I refuse to Other those whose practices don’t look like my own.
W.I.T.C.H. Someone who seeks harmony with Nature, who knows how to nourish herself, who serves her community, and who, in spite of the risk of shame or other violence, chooses to speak and love freely. I aspire to the state, but I often choose not to use the W-word. What’s my goal for the conversation, how much background and how many values do I have in common with the listener, and therefore how likely is it that I’ll be understood and respected, if I use the word? These are questions I ask myself, when I’m present and on my game. If I’m not sure, if it’s not important or relevant to identify myself as witch, or if I have reason to think that doing so will evoke a hostile response, I simply go on doing what I do, without saying the word. Knowing when to speak and when to hold silence is one of the juiciest edges of the craft, after all, and the truth is that we still live in a patriarchy, one that operates even under the big umbrella of NeoPaganism. Everything in context.
However, not saying that I am witch out loud in public doesn’t make it any less so.