Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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The Witch of Madison

Novelist Terry Pratchett once observed of Über-witch Granny (excuse me, Mistress) Weatherwax: “Everyone knows that witches don't have leaders. Granny Weatherwax is the leader the witches don't have.”

In my experience, witches are by and large—like other predators—a competitive lot. That said, in most communities there does tend to be a collectively- (if tacitly-) acknowledged alpha, the Boss Witch, the one that others measure themselves against: the leader the witches don't have. “So, what did you think of the ritual last night, Mistress Weatherwax?”

Until her death in 2004, Serenity de Namaste was the leader the Madison witches didn't have. Like her or not, she was the genuine article, and everyone knew it. Her style of un-leadership was very subtle indeed. To watch her in operation was to learn the art of indirection.

She came from Irish, Roma, and Cherokee background. She's the only Wiccan I've ever known who talked much about Morning Star. (Morning Star is very important in Old Craft mythology.) Most people called her Lady Serenity; my impression was that this rather amused her. That, of course, didn't stop her from keeping the “Yes, My Lady” crowd scuttling around doing her bidding. Indirection.

So, the new coven in town invites her over for their first public ritual. Serenity girds up her robe and goes. (Noblesse oblige.) The ritual is terrible. They make every beginners' mistake in the book, and then some. It's an unmitigated disaster from beginning to end. Absolutely nothing goes right.

Serenity is sitting at the post-ritual backyard bonfire (probably, knowing Serenity, with a cocktail in one hand and a cigarette in the other), thankful that the torture is finally over. Suddenly the new coven surrounds her, agog with excitement. They loved the ritual, had a great time; think it's the best ever. (Ah, those distorting “high priestess” goggles.) So, Lady Serenity, what did you think?

Unbeknownst to them, they were breaking a pretty major taboo. Here in the Midwest it's a tradition of many years' standing that one doesn't discuss a ritual until the next day. (I personally am deeply convinced of the wisdom of this taboo, and observe it unfailingly.) They, of course, haven't been around long enough even to know that such a taboo exists, much less to observe it.

The disconnect between the experience of those who organize a ritual and that of those who attend it is proverbial, and experienced ritualists always take this into account. It takes a while to learn that it's the experience of the attendees that's the important thing.

The Saturday after Samhain I was talking with a friend of mine at the New Year's bash at one of the local witch stores. She'd been at the big public ritual I'd missed the night before. “How was it?” I ask. “Oh, more of the same,” she says. A while later, making conversation, I ask someone else. “Oh gods,” she says, “It was embarrassing, cringe-worthy. It was like a Sunday School Christmas pageant.”

Then I run into one of the organizers of the ritual. “So, how did it go last night?” I ask.

A dramatic pause. She puts a hand to my shoulder. “Oh Steve,” she says, breathlessly. “It was the first ritual I've ever been at where the earth literally shook beneath my feet.”

Must have been a pretty localized tremor, I think. But of course I don't say so.

Serenity racks her brains for something to say to these people. She could crush them with a word, but of course, that's not what you do. We all make mistakes, learning. She literally cannot think of one good thing to say about the ritual.

One doesn't get to be the leader the witches don't have for no reason.

Serenity takes a puff of her cigarette.

“What a lovely bonfire,” she says.


Photo: Artemis Namaste


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Tagged in: Madison Wisconsin
Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


  • Michele
    Michele Tuesday, 24 June 2014

    I am sad to say I had not known Serenity had passed.

    Thank you for the story!

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