Witch at Large: Ruminations from a Grey Perspective

Seeing Paganism in terms of being a movement, explorations of our history, societal context, comparisons to other religious movements, and general Pagan culture.

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Claremont Pagan Studies Conference - III (2016)

This year's theme was Social Justice.

Sunday, January 25

Keynote:  Nikki Bado, “The Athame Cuts Both Ways: Pagan Responsibility and Social Justice 

Through the modern miracle of electronic communication, Nikki was able to speak to us from the facility in Iowa where she was recovering from surgery.  I usually have a chance to visit with her at the AAR, but due to travel – she worked for a while in Japan – and health issues, she’s been unable to attend for a few years, and my not attending the last one because of a recent stroke, we haven’t seen each other in some years.

I love the title of her talk (even though I see the double-sided blade of the athame as a piercing, pointing, thrusting, stabbing tool rather than a cutter or slicer).  The root Craft tradition from which I sprang places a high value on expressing one’s spirituality, in part, in political and social involvement.  In a word, activism.

Nikki articulated three areas in which Pagans could serve their communities well in the area of Justice, the theme of this conference.  Nikki’s “3 Rs” are Religious Literacy, Respect, and Responsibility.

Religious Literacy:

The first is religious literacy.  Religious literacy is not something that Pagans learn in classes, study groups, or ritual work.  Nor is it, in general, taught in public schools, Ignorance of such common Biblical phrases such as, “as old as Methuselah,” or the distorted translation of “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” diminishes one’s fuller appreciation when such phrases appear in literature, or even in everyday speech. 

One Biblical quote, from the book of Ecclesiastes, is very common, and has the advantage of working for nearly everyone, Pagans included, since it reflects the Wheel of the Year as well as the five stages of life articulated by Robert Graves (birth, initiation, consummation, repose, and death): 

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;

Yet how many know its source? 

Neither are theological notions of immanence and transcendence paid much heed in standard secular education.  Who ever emerged from an American high school knowing the concepts of, and differences among, monotheism, polytheism, pantheism, atheism, and henotheism?

Pagans, on the other hand, arrive upon a Pagan religio-spiritual path after plenty of searching and sampling.  Few Pagans were brought up in practicing Pagan households. (This is true of adults, and less true for Americans, especially those reared in metropolitan and/or academic environments.)  So we learned about various religions on our own.  I think it’s fair to say that Pagans generally have greater knowledge of non-Abrahamic religions than most people have.  I’ve also learned a lot through my involvement in interfaith.  I wish I could say that curiosity about religions that are not one’s own were more in evidence within the mainstream.


Which brings us to the second topic Nikki addressed, respect.  Again, speaking in generalities, and more particularly from the point of view of my own vintage, Pagans are countercultural.  Our movement in many ways grew in the soil of the 1960-70s countercultural revolution (hippies), which evolved from the Beat Generation, preceded by Bohemianism, itself preceded by Romanticism.  As such, our religion(s) is oppositional in nature.  Which tends to make us disdainful of the orthodoxy and dogmatism of mainstream religions with their established institutions. 

This disdain had its place in the arc of growth, but is less serviceable as one matures (both personally and in terms of religious thought and practice).  It loses its usefulness in the pluralistic society in which most of us live today. 

Speaking for myself and other Pagan colleagues who involve themselves in interfaith (more aptly, “inter-religious,” since Paganism(s) is not based on faith or revelation, rather, on experience), I have scrupulously observed this convention.  I only wish some of my non-Pagan interfaith colleagues were less presumptive about belief.  (See the last section here.)


The third R is responsibility.  To illustrate these ideas, she spoke of the care we must take to avoid cultural appropriation.  We need to be mindful of unconscious racism.  We need to remember some nations’ tendency towards colonization.  A good rule of thumb if you’re not sure of the provenance of a practice and accepted use is to ask, “May I?”

(Dr. Sabina Magliocco offers a useful overview on “Folklore, Culture & Authenticity.”  Note: Video is longer than one hour. 

Nikki also referenced Kareem Abdul Jabar and the Skeptics dictionary.  I’ve found this to be an excellent resource, if a bit cynical.

Kahena Dorothea Viale, founder of the Claremont Pagan Studies Conference -- praise be her name! – spoke in “Kali Dancing in Justice,” about the value of dance as prayer, and as a fun and healing activity, regardless of grace and skill.  Better, of course, when a dance has grace and skill of expression, but valuable to the dancer in any case.


Joseph Futerman spoke on “Justice, Fairness, and Balance in Polytheistic World.”  He pointed out that the Universe is without justice yet infinitely fair, and cited Albert Einstein’s quote that “God doesn’t play dice with the universe.”  (The Born-Einstein Letters 1916-55).  Abstract justice is human notion.

He said that balance is a vector, not a still point; it’s motion.  Therefore, when it comes to Justice, we are better served by applying a vector instead of a scale, as shown in ancient images of the Titan Themis, Egyptian Ma’at, and Lady Justice herself.

In the field of Logic, “a statement that is true by necessity or by virtue of its logical form.”  Joseph claims that most human thought is “monotautalogical,” yet justice involves a feeling between two entities and therefore “polytautalogical.”  Justice is non-institutional (although often institutionalized in terms of having legal and court systems), individual, community-based, and direct.  (I apologize for what may be misperceptions or imprecise descriptions of this talk.)

Joseph also mentioned the Anglo-Saxon and Germanic concept of weregild (“man price“), and the notion of reparations in general.  Reparation leads my thinking towards current efforts at restorative justice within our criminal justice system.

Although I don’t feel qualified to comment knowledgeably on chaos magic, I merely mention that Joseph, who himself practices chaos magic, included it in his talk, and his citing of servitors, egregores, and fetches. 

* * * * *

My accounts of these presentations do not address every talk.  They are recountings of those that had the strongest impression on me.


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Aline O’Brien (M. Macha NightMare), Witch at Large, has circled with people of diverse Pagan paths throughout the U.S., and in Canada and Brazil.  Author of Witchcraft and the Web (2001) and Pagan Pride (2004), and co-author, with Starhawk, of The Pagan Book of Living and Dying (1997), Macha has also contributed to anthologies, periodicals, textbooks, and encyclopedias.  A member of the American Academy of Religion, the Marin Interfaith Council, and the Nature Religion Scholars Network, Macha also serves as a national interfaith representative for the Covenant of the Goddess (CoG) and on the Advisory Board of the Sacred Dying Foundation.  Having spent the last eleven years developing and teaching at Cherry Hill Seminary, the first and only seminary serving the Neopagan community, Macha now serves on its Board of Directors. An all-round Pagan webweaver, she speaks on behalf of Paganism to news media and academic researchers, and lectures at colleges, universities and seminaries. www.machanightmare.com


  • Lisa Allen
    Lisa Allen Wednesday, 04 January 2017

    I will be attending the 2017 conference, can't wait to meet all of you! http://PaganConference.com for details :-)

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