Incense Magick: Art & Ritual of Incense

Incense fanatic Carl Neal walks you through the joys, wonders, and science of making and using natural incense. From making your first basic cone to creation and use of elaborate incense rituals, Incense Magick is your guide to the sometimes secretive world of incense and incense making. Every article explores different facets of incense, incense making, ingredients, rituals, tools, or techniques.

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Let Us Out of Your Broom Closet

It’s a sad fact that there are a few Pagans among us who have to hide their beliefs because it could cause them to lose a job or they feel their religion might be used against them in a custody battle, or an assortment of other legitimate reasons.  Before the explosion of Paganism into the public realm in the 1980s this wasn’t really an issue because most covens were kept secret and there was little public information about Paganism or Witchcraft.  Since that time, the term “broom closet” (borrowed from the LGBT community’s term) has grown in use.  It contrasts those of us who do not hide our Pagan beliefs (“out of the broom closet”) versus those who do (still “in the broom closet”).  As more and more of us stopped hiding our beliefs (which is not at all the same as advertising them), this term became more and more common.

As a Community, we have been very respectful of those who are “in the broom closet”.  We ban cameras at events, we hold events that are closed to the public, and often go so far as to keep secret the location of events, even from participants, until the last moment.  Much of this is a holdover from the days when Paganism was hidden.  It is also a legacy of basic practices of many covens, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that we have simply incorporated this idea of “hiding in plain sight” into almost everything we do in some Communities.  I think it’s time for a new dialog around this issue.

The vast majority of the Pagans that I know are not in the broom closet.  Most don’t make their beliefs known unless asked, but I have known fewer and fewer people in the broom closet every year.  I want to say again that I believe there is a very small percentage of our Community who has a very legitimate reason to keep their beliefs private.  There is also a percentage of our Community who are not worried about being “outed” but who want to keep their Paganism a personal matter.  I respect both of those groups and would never “out” someone intentionally.  The question for us now is what is the “norm” and what is the Communal responsibility?  The bottom line for me is how should our Community, as a whole, act based on the needs of a few to remain hidden?

My first thought in this regard is to ask of those who are firmly “in the broom closet”: is this really necessary?  Is your job in actual danger if someone at work got wind that you went to a Pagan festival?  Would your “ex” actually be able to persuade a judge that you are unfit simply because of your religion?  If you believe the answers to such questions are “yes”, and you have carefully evaluated the situation, then I completely respect your desire to be “in the closet”.  However, if you want to stay “in the broom closet” because your Aunt Berta will preach to you at Thanksgiving dinner, then I think you are punishing the rest of our Community because you don’t want to be uncomfortable the few times of year that you see your aunt.  In the LGBT community they used to (and still) have regular “coming out” days.  Perhaps this is another tradition that the Pagan Community should adopt.

As I mentioned, from my perspective, there are two types of Pagans that could be said to be in the broom closet.  One of those categories, to me anyway, shouldn’t even be called in the broom closet.  Those who simply wish to keep their spirituality private, those who believe that magick and Craft should remain “occult” and out of the public eye are not in any closets as far as I’m concerned.  They have made an informed decision to keep with deeply held traditions of secrecy.  I completely respect this perspective while recognizing that it is not for me.

Those in the other category – those who fear the ramifications of their Paganism becoming public knowledge – are a little less clear.  As someone who works regularly with judges, attorneys, victim’s rights advocates, and others who work in our legal system, I think that some people who feel this threat are overreacting.  Having lived in the South for most of my life, I know that there are the occasional exceptions.  Overall, however, the folks in the legal system truly don’t care how you pray nor to whom.  They care about if your children are clean, safe, and fed, but they don’t care if you wear a cloak 8 times a year.  Cries of “she’s a Witch” have little or no impact in most courtrooms in America.  Sadly, we have to acknowledge that there are those rare cases where this can indeed be a serious danger.  For those in that situation, you have my hopes for changes in the near future.

To both of those groups, however, I have the same basic question.  If keeping your spirituality private is so important, why are you taking chances by attending public events?  If you could lose your child because someone knew you were a Pagan, if you might lose your job, or simply have people know more about you than they should – why would you ever go to a publicly-advertised Pagan event?  There are private events held all the time where it would be safe for you to attend, but why take a risk at a publicly advertised event?  If the risk is so grave to you that even capturing you in the background of a photo of someone else puts you in danger then why are you even going to attend the event?  Surely attending a festival isn’t worth the risk of being exposed.  The odds of someone seeing you go into the event, or out of it, or see other evidence of your Paganism because you attended are about the same as you being spotted in a photo on Facebook, so personally I would never take a gamble if being in the broom closet was such a critical need.

If it isn’t a critical need, then I hope you will re-examine your place in that cramped closet.  It will remain cramped as long as we, as a whole, continue to assume that everyone is in the broom closet unless otherwise stated and the consequences of being “outed” are believed to be so dire.  Until then ALL OF US are stuck in the broom closet with you.  We can’t snap photos, record video or audio, at the vast majority of Pagan events.  This is in spite of the fact that those same events are advertised on WitchVox, put on flyers plastered all over town, in the local community calendar, and on the bulletin board of every New Age shop within 100 miles.  If you want to remain in the broom closet, I will stand guard and fight to keep your secret safe, but can’t you meet me half way?  If you need to be in the broom closet, then be more careful and don’t attend public festivals.  If anyone can buy a ticket and attend the event, you are in danger of being outed.

Meanwhile, if 1 in 500 Pagans truly need to be in the broom closet, that means that the 499 of us who are out (or who just don’t care) are restricted from doing something as simple as uploading a video of last night’s drum circle to YouTube or Facebook.  And for those who do need to remain in the broom closet, I hope you realize that public rituals, festivals, faires, and other events that are openly advertised may have rules against picture taking, but the reality is that it happens all the time.  With the explosion of high-quality cameras integrated into everyone’s cell phone, it is often impossible to even tell when someone is snapping a picture or sending a text.  Simply attending an event of this nature is taking a sizeable risk that your photo will end up on the Internet somewhere.  Personally I would never do such a thing.  When we attend an event, it means we agree to whatever rules the organizers have set out.  Not everyone feels that way.

While rules against cameras might provide the illusion of security, if you attend a large gathering like PantheaCon or Heartland Pagan Festival, there is a very good chance someone standing near to you is snapping pictures or recording video.  The fact is, in the early 21st Century, it is almost impossible to do anything without being observed, recorded, and cataloged.  I know of shop owners who will open their shops during off hours to people who are in the broom closet.  This allows them to shop in secret, but keep in mind that even in the dark of night there is an excellent chance that you will be seen on half a dozen security cameras.  If someone can find out accidentally that you were shopping there by just reviewing routine security footage, then is it safe to do at any hour?

Let me end with an example I heard a few days ago.  I was chatting with an event organizer who was talking to me about the attendees who were still in the broom closet.  I told her about this upcoming blog and she immediately wanted to correct me.  There are legitimate reasons to be in the closet (which I have always acknowledged) and she gave me an example.  Someone who attended the event has an elderly mother who is a devote Catholic.  She is very frail and if she ever found out her daughter was a Witch it would devastate the old soul.  Even appearing in the background of a photo could tip her mother off – apparently because someone who takes a photo with her in the background might post it to Facebook and one of this woman’s cousins or siblings might stumble upon that photo and then that person might notice her in the background and then might feel the need to call the elderly mother and devastate her with the news.  So if she is that concerned I fail to see why she is willing to take any risks by attending the event.  What is so important that it is worth this risk?

Let me say again that there are a multitude of legitimate reasons for people to not want to be seen at Pagan gatherings.  I don’t want to deny anyone their right to privacy nor do I want to convince people to “get out of the broom closet”.  I think it is a personal choice, albeit one that needs to made with great care and reflection.  If that is the choice you make, for whatever reason, then I will support you and defend your right to stay in the shadows.  I just hope that you will now reconsider if the broom closet is where you belong and if you decide it is, then I hope that you won’t ask the rest of us to stay in there with you. 

Please encourage the organizers of all events that are openly advertised to discuss this topic.  Let’s at least try a dialog about this issue and see if perhaps a few events – especially the larger, very public ones, will reconsider their policies on this topic.  I am not attempting to single any event out with the examples I listed (I actually listed my favorite indoor and favorite outdoor events).  This is something that all event organizers need to talk about.  Can’t “camera/recording permitted” zones be created at the very least?  There are many of the teachers and authors who do workshops at these events who would love for photos or video to be taken of their work but currently it requires a signed waiver from each person in the audience to accomplish this at many events.

I love all Pagans and don’t want anyone to be at risk.  All I am asking is that you re-evaluate your risk level and do so realistically (just consider the example I mentioned – I think the odds are better for winning the Power Ball lottery jackpot than for the elderly mother to find anything out).  If you do need to stay in the broom closet, no matter the reason, is it worth risking discovery by attending publically advertised events?  Is it worth the restrictions on everyone around you as well?  I would finally like to remind everyone that we just passed through the national Pagan Pride Day season.  Tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of Pagans came out in public at hundreds of different PPD events, had their photos taken (cameras are openly permitted at PPD events), and nobody died as a result.  Nobody, to my knowledge, has been outed nor harmed in any way as a result of being in the background of a photo or video taken at PPD.  If someone knows of an example to the contrary I ask that you please relay it to me. 

Making it safe to be out of the broom closet is one of the primary reasons that I started the Magick Moment and The Pent O’clock News television shows.  We are just one part of a large support network who may be able to help if anyone (in the broom closet or not) has serious problems because it is known they are Pagan.  Until it is safe for everyone to be out of the broom closet, I will continue to call for the protection of those who require it.  I will continue to try to make the world a safer place, but until then I hope that those of you in the broom closet will begin to let the rest of us out.

Last modified on
  Carl Neal has walked a Pagan path for 30 years. He is a self-avowed incense fanatic and has published 2 books through Llewellyn Worldwide on the topic. For many years (and even occasionally these days) he was a vendor of altar tools and supplies which led him to write The Magick Toolbox for Red Wheel/Weiser  


  • Taylor Ellwood
    Taylor Ellwood Wednesday, 09 October 2013

    I've been out of the broom closet for a long time and haven't suffered adverse effects. As you say most people don't care and if they do, there are always to handle it.

  • Carl Neal
    Carl Neal Wednesday, 09 October 2013

    Thanks for the comment Taylor. If I wasn't out of the broom closet before, I certainly "outted" myself when my first book came out in 2003. Since that time, I have been denied a promotion because I was Pagan, but that was almost 10 years ago. I also wasn't too upset because I could only imagine what it would have been like to have worked for that Pagan-fearing woman. I think the gods protected me from getting that promotion. That was the last time anything negative has happened because I am out (as far as I am aware). Some people do need to hide and protect themselves, but many in the broom closet are there needlessly as far as I can tell.

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