Follow Kenny from the levees of New Orleans to the whirling chaos that is the Pagan festival circuit and beyond. Musings, rants, and just plain Pagan talk.
Paganism, Witchcraft and Fantasy
(Image by shade-of-nekura)
My GF Lauren, looking for Pagan groups in Louisiana the other day (for her social media networking efforts for our PPD) came across an interesting entry on a very popular Pagan/Witch social media site. She pointed out the group's statement to me: "The purpose of this organization or coven is for the reporting of violations in accordance with The Rede, or reporting the use of magic to harm another in any religion path."
I was a little appalled. The Pagan police? Really? Until I read further: "Any spell, magic, or energy powered means or way of causing harm to a mortal, vampire, etc.... Offenders may be brought before a council of Magistrates and local representative of whatever race type that was harmed. (Ex. If a vampire is harmed, the local vampire sheriff will be contacted)."
My first thought was, why would a vampire follow the Wiccan Rede? But that aside, this is a page right out of True Blood or Buffy, yet there it is on a serious Pagan networking site. These people seem to either have a skewed sense of humor (I wish, but doubtful) or (more likely) a vast disconnect on the difference between Pagan religious practice and fantasy.
I have thought for a long time about the connections between Paganism and fantasy. Many of us came to our religion or spirituality because of our involvement with fantasy or re-enactment. When I posted my blog here about what I feel defines a Pagan event, I got several comments defending Pagan involvement in the SCA and in Renaissance faires. While I stand by my statement that these are not Pagan events, they certainly attract Pagans (and Christians, and Jews) and are a place where Pagans might meet and socialize (my own experience, from thirty years of working Renaissance Faires, is that the people I have met at faires who wear a pentacle seem to know the least about Paganism, but that is, again, my experience). I daresay that cons are also rife with Pagans, as are science fiction, role play, and fantasy groups. Many of us came to where we stand now because of fantasy.
Of course, this is not true of all Pagans. Many Feminist and activist Witches, such as those in Reclaiming, came to Witchcraft through their activism, their Feminist beliefs, or their political contacts. Many traditional Wiccans came searching for a religion without the fantasy element: I know I did, though the coven I found, I later learned, had met in the SCA. It seems that whatever path you came from to get here, many of us came from the path of fantasy and role-play.
In the mid-90s I lived in Kansas City. As I do when I find myself in a new place, I reached out to any Witches and Pagans I could find. So one night I found myself in a circle with some local Witches. They seemed nice, and seemed to take the Craft seriously. That is, until the circle began. Suddenly they all had Dick Van Dyke British accents. the Priestess turned to the Handmaiden and said "Handeth me the Besom, ye Handmaiden." The whole ritual was conducted this way. When it was over, everyone spoke like Midwesterners again.
Fantasy is a very important element of traditional Craft (and any other traditional Pagan path). One must be able to visualize the astral plane, and have a clear vision of our Goddesses and Gods; one must enter a trance state and communicate with totem spirits; even casting the Circle requires visioning the elementals and the energies one is evoking. All of this requires a vivid ability to imagine, to focus on things unseen, and to call to mind images that are not based entirely in forms we see in the physical world. In short, one must use the same skills that one employs to write or read Fantasy, to role-play, or to Cosplay. Without imagination, one cannot clearly visualize the result of a spell, an essential element in making a spell work. Without imagination, one cannot clearly sense the energies at work in a Pagan ritual.
These are just some of the reasons that Pagans tend to be involved in Fantasy, role play, and re-enactment.
But can it go too far?
At a large Midwestern Pagan festival, I happened to take a woman up on some flirting that had been going on. I took her to my tent (isn't that the way it goes at Pagan festivals?) and we began to, um, get acquainted. But just as things were going very sweetly, the woman began howling. Like a wolf. Loudly.
Now it takes a lot to freak me out sexually. Anyone who knows me IRL knows that. And I am no stranger to the Furry scene, to role play, or to interesting fantasy. But here I was in my tent, with a large number of my tradition's members just outside, being "friendly" with a woman who, I came to learn, believed herself to be a werewolf. And it was not just a personal belief: Upon further discussion, I was told that when her coven performs rituals, all of the members become werewolves. And when ritual ends, they resume their human form. It's part of their religious beliefs as Pagans.
These are things that, like consent and contraception, are best discussed BEFORE the action starts.
(Image by MichelleMonique)
So, we need fantasy to enact the Craft, or whatever form of Pagan practice you may conduct. We need visualization, imagination, the "inner sight." But when is it too much?
One issue I see here is that the overlap of fantasy into Craft makes it possible for the Craft to become a role-play, rather than a religious practice. I take the Craft, or the practice of Paganism, very seriously. Yes, I attend cons; yes I perform at ren faires; yes I write Fantasy, and I write books about fairy tales that are published and widely distributed. But my religion is my religion, and I truly believe with all of my heart and soul that my Goddesses and Gods are real. Real, tangible, and able to communicate with me. This does not seem to hold true for some people I have met who define themselves as Pagan: they believe the Gods are a fantasy, and that Paganism is a role-play. I had a woman say once in ritual "none of this is real, it's all religious theater." I know of another woman who, while the Priest spoke to her under invocation, stated "oh come on (name of Priest), this is not real." Now you see, I believe it IS real. I've spent two-thirds of my entire life believing that. So when I see or hear people who see the Craft/Paganism as a role-play, as religious theater, or as a fantasy, it causes me to wonder why.
In the '80s, while working Renaissance Faires, I met a woman who defined herself as a Pagan Priestess. She was beautiful and well spoken, and we began conversing. I came to learn that she had a very specific Pagan name. I then learned that she had a very specific role-playing name. I also learned she had a specific name when in costume at cons She had a name for her SCA character. Here's the problem, for me at least: they were all the same name (or variations of the same name).
There are many good reasons, of course: Witchcraft is portrayed in the media as supernatural, fantastic and beyond the ability of normal mortals. Movies like The Craft or Practical Magic, shows like The Secret Circle or Charmed, take Witchcraft well out of the bounds of normal life, and into a realm of fantasy and legend. True Blood and Twilight teach us that, like the coven that posts on the popular Pagan media site, Witches, werewolves and vampires are all the same, or are cut from the same cloth. We can throw wizards and dragons into the mix as well: they are all products of Fantasy, so in our minds, they become associated, linked, and when we access the thought of one, the others are brought to mind by the connections the brain has made.
A good friend of mine, a Ceremonial Magician, became interested in a group he'd met at a Pagan festival, where the group has a major presence as organizers. The friend went to their home, and was told he'd be given an insight into their practices. When he arrived, he was brought to a basement rec room. He was given several seasons of a well know Science Fiction television show, and told "watch this, and you'll know everything about our tradition."
What does this mean to us as Pagans? Well for one thing, if a person is a solitary practitioner, is not involved in a group where she/he represents Pagan practice to the group, is not in the public eye as a Pagan, does not blog, or comment on social media sites about their own practice of Paganism, then this is all irrelevant. Believe whatever you like. Believe that Wicca comes from the planet Wicky, or that you become a werewolf in ritual, speak like Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins, whatever. It's all cool.
However, if a person purports to be a Pagan teacher or leader, if they keep a blog on Paganism, if they offer insights into their practices on social media sites, if they lead workshops at an event, then that person represents Paganism and its practice. This is where reality needs to be considered.This is when a person needs to present the commonly held beliefs of Paganism, at least, perhaps doing so before diverging into their less accepted beliefs (and watch out, that coven who arrests vampires is watching you!).
So if a person is new to the Craft, or searching, what should they consider? (Like everything I say in any blog I post, these are my own opinions. Got that? I certainly don't want the central Louisiana vampire police knocking on MY door!).
If a teacher or group believes in the Gods/Goddesses they worship, this is a good sign. If they believe the Gods are not real, or that the Gods come from another planet, or if their deities are based on a movie or TV show, this might be a good time to bow out. Generally speaking, we know our Gods/Goddesses through mythology (the experiences of ancient Pagan people coming to know their Gods), and through revelation during trance or ritual practice. While sci-fi and fantasy writers may do excellent research on deities (the portrayal of Herne in Robin Of Sherwood, for instance, or of the worship rituals in The Wicker Man, are all excellent), this should not constitute the entirety of their knowledge of their Gods. A qualified Craft teacher will have you read many books on mythology and lore, pursue meditation, and seek out spoken folklore in creating your relationship with your Gods/Goddesses: a TV show may be supplemental, but should not be a primary source!
If a person or group bases their ritual practices solely on a work of fantasy or fiction this is not so good. Most Pagans follow a format of ritual based on Wicca and Ceremonial Magic, Native practices, and/or the teachings of well known Pagan ministers such as Starhawk, Selena Fox or Z Budapest who have devoted their lives to learning what works best in a ritual context. While being informed by the knowledge and experience of fantasy writers is just another source of ritual knowledge, presenting yourself to the religious world as a Jedi is just not a legit Pagan practice. (I'll remind you that Jedis send half their life studying rigorously under a master: many Pagans I know today consider getting entirely through a book to be an unrealistic expectation). Being a Witch, Wizard, Druid or Shaman in the real world of religious practice is hard, demanding and rewarding: if someone needs a title from a work of fiction, it's likely that they do not take their role seriously. (By the way, there is a very large, well known Pagan group who began in the '60s based on a work of science fiction, but that group quickly grew to espouse mythology, ritual practice and Pagan lore. They are now one of the foremost Pagan groups in the U. S. This can happen: common sense should be applied!).
New York City, the '80s. I met a couple who often spoke in a secret language that their borzoi dogs taught them. They ran a Pagan coven. During conversations, they would suddenly stop speaking and groan for a few moments. They explained that they had no control over this, that they would grow invisible wings every now and again. They also used General Foods International Coffees, brought to them by aliens, to receive their Witchcraft powers. Several of their students reported to me that their rituals consisted of their students taking them to McDonald's for dinner.
Many Witches work with mythical creatures. I know Pagans who honor dragons, sylphs, dwarves and ondines. Honest-to-goodness Witches also treat these energies with great respect. If you believe in these creatures, and work with them in a magical context, awesome. However, if someone believes they have one in their closet at home, I'd want proof. The "I can see it but you can't" excuse works in movies, but not so much for me (I really wanted to see those wings, and converse for myself with the borzoi dogs). At least, if I am asked to join a magical group, I'd like to expect that I will be able to visualize the energies I am asked to work with without the use of psychedelics. Of course this is a touchy subject---I honestly believe that in a trance state, I can see my Gods before me. So use your best judgement, and always be skeptical until you feel sincere trust in a teacher or group. Just 'cause they say they're ninety-sixth degree magi who are descendants of Aleister Crowly does not make them so: use discretion and see if they know what they're doing! That's my best advice for involvement with any teacher or group! And assess their attitude toward any magical creature they work with: how realistic is their belief (in magical terms, of course), and how much seems based on a shared fantasy? Again, this is subjective, and may be hard to determine. Go with your gut!
Sometimes the overlap between fantasy and magical reality can be hard to distinguish. But common sense, a good vocabulary gained by reading and attending Pagan events (such as festivals, PPDs and meet-ups), and discernment between what is really spiritual and what is fantasy, can lead you to make good, informed decisions. For myself, I liked having a human teacher who seemed to know more about Wicca than most women I'd ever met: I don't think I'd like to have learned the Craft from a werewolf, a vampire, or a visitor from the planet Wicky. I find it hard to relate to them.
Actual Witch... photo by me.
And may the Force be with you! Or at least the odds ever in your favor. Or something.
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