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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As a product of the counterculture, I tend to mistrust and avoid institutions.  I suspect this is a common attitude among “first generation”[1] NeoPagans in the U.S.  We found existing institutions, be they religious, educational, or governmental, to be oppressive, unfulfilling, and irrelevant to the conditions of the world in which we found ourselves.

Let’s face it: established religions such as Christianity in its many forms, were created and gained ascendency in other times and places.  There was no threat of nuclear annihilation, no looming environmental degradation, no water shortage, no organ transplants, no vaccinations against such diseases as smallpox and polio.  Those religions addressed the concerns of the peoples in other times and places.  Further, few of these religious institutions adapted to changing circumstances.  Nowadays some are trying to be more relevant, often by adopting practices, such as involving lay people in their rituals and dancing during worship. 

In the years since Paganism has become visible, particularly in academia and interfaith, we have gained credibility in the wider world, and although we remain a religious minority,[2] we have not done much in the way of establishing lasting institutions.

There was a time when I was still too close to that against which I was rebelling and too chafed by the institutions I was escaping that I resisted any talk of Pagan institutions.  Sam Webster has convinced me that by creating institutions, we will have a lasting legacy that will survive our individual lives. 

The institution to which I’ve devoted the most time and energy for the last 12 years or so is Cherry Hill Seminary, for many reasons, not the least of which is that I find intellectual discernment to be in short supply, drowned out by the noises of UPG (unverified/unverifiable personal gnosis) woowoo.[3]

Peter Dybing has been a beacon for those wishing to offer support to those in crises around the world: victims of natural disasters such as floods, earthquakes, fires, mega-storms and the like.  He has called for Pagans to think about disaster relief funding.

Smaller institutions like CoG do maintain disaster relief funds, never very big.

Most Pagans do as I do, and contribute to existing institutions that were created to address certain crises, like the Red Cross or Doctors Without Borders.  And to other nonprofits related to environmentalism, the pursuit of peace, seeking cures for specific diseases.  I’m comfortable that those institutions are established, organized, funded, and run more efficiently than any smaller Pagan organization could be to achieve their stated goals.

Having said all that, I come to the subject that is the immediate incentive for this post.

I have been meeting with the Wiccan circle at San Quentin State Prison. This service has led to my encountering

Federal law mandates that all inmates in any prison in the country be afforded religious worship and counsel of their choice.  This is what allows this circle to meet.  The Wiccan circle at San Quentin meets in what is called the minority faith chapel, which is shared with Spanish-language evangelical Christians, practitioners of Ifa,[4] and others.  Our “chapel” is a fairly dismal place that we try our best to decorate when we meet.

So here’s my problem: financial and other support for the few Wiccan inmates.  It’s obvious that mainstream religions, particularly some Christian sects, have a much easier time doing their thing.  They appear to me to be given priority over minority religions as to meeting space, resources, and time.

Christians have the Gideons distributing Bibles.  Depending upon their particular Christian sect, inmates are provided with missals, rosaries, images, and all manner of study and meditative literature.  Jewish inmates have Torahs and Muslims the Koran.  Abrahamic inmates have access to a plethora of Abrahamic literature.  And although we Pagans have no “book,” per se, we do have plenty of books and other writings.

Prison libraries, like those in our communities, experience the frequent disappearance of Pagan or Craft-related titles.  The Jewish chaplain at San Quentin, who supervises our particular minority faith, and thereby me, has offered to keep books in her office and lend them to individual inmates.  This is not ideal, but it’s better than nothing.

Individual Pagans have helped me set up this ministry by donating books they’ve written.  For instance, Christopher Penczak sent me two of his books, which I will use to the extent I can[5]

The previous incarnation of this circle were devoted specifically to Isis and Ra.  Wishing to provide these men with meaningful materials, I bought the newly published tenth anniversary edition of Isis Magic, by M. Isadora Forest.  If this book proves helpful, I will see if I can get a copy donated to the small Pagan library in the Jewish chaplain’s office.

I am also considering providing them with two of Ivo Dominguez, Jr.’s books, Spirit Speak and Casting Sacred Space, in addition to exploring other books and sources.

Currently I bring in photocopies of a page or two each time – a meditation, a drawing or chart, an image and/or prayer, a song.  This isn’t the most efficient way to provide them with literature, one reason being that I myself have limited resources and copying costs can add up.

I’m aware of at least two recent publications created to address the training of Pagan inmates, but I’m unsatisfied with them and do not wish to use them.  One is more formal and “high episcopagan” for my taste and the other lacks a cohesive approach.  Therefore, I’m seeking sources harmonious with my approach and talents.  Bear in mind that inmates cannot have such things as candles and incense in their cells, nor can they have any images of the divine that are unclothed.  They are, for instance, allowed to have a deck of Tarot cards, but most Tarot decks show at least a breast or two and therefore don’t meet prison restrictions.  I understand that Raven Grimassi has designed a deck specifically for inmate use and will check this out further. 

* * * * *

Circling back to the notion of Pagan institutions:  Now that I’ve lived considerably more than half my life – I’m glad to be around and am hoping to reach 100 – I’m thinking about legacies.  What are we Pagans leaving our children and grandchildren in terms of our religions?  We already know that our Mother Earth is changing in a direction that’s not conducive to life as we know it.  Not meaning to be a doomsayer, just stating the obvious.  Climate change, however, is a topic for a different discussion.  In the meantime, assuming we adapt – and I really believe that Pagan values, perspectives, and minds have much to offer in the search for solutions – what kind of institutions, if any, are we leaving our descendants?


[1]             By “first generation” I mean those boomers and pre-boomers who grasped whatever threads of Pagan practice and thought they could find, wove them into a fabric of their making, and grew to become contemporary American Paganism. Many were disillusioned or unsatisfied by the religions in which they were reared, or came from secular or mixed-religion families. Some of these threads were tied to older traditions, such as Gardnerian Wicca, in Britain; however, in the main, we self-determined out of many sources (mythology and folklore, ethnic and familiar customs, environmentalism, feminism, and the zeitgeist in general.

[2]             It’s fine with me if we remain a minority religion.  We do not seek converts as many of the mainstream religions do.  I don’t hold growing our numbers as a goal.  Paganism is not for everyone, but for those of us like myself to whom it matters, we are entitled to equal treatment and a voice in our communities and governments.

[3]             I am in no way putting down UPG; I consider it akin to mysticism/the mystical experience.  However, since it is so personal, idiosyncratic, unpredictable, and cannot be recreated, UPG does not allow the kind of rational analysis that other religious phenomena permit.

[4]             Strictly speaking, a divinatory system found in Yoruba and other African diaspora religions.

[5]             Inmates are not allowed candles, for instance, and many of the exercises in Christopher’s books employ candles.  I, and we (inmates and myself) have to adapt as much as we can.

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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


  • Samuel Wagar
    Samuel Wagar Thursday, 05 December 2013

    I could donate a couple copies of my books. I went through an evolution around this, too, Aline. And came out with a strong commitment to building Temples and congregationalist associations- to collect and hold and develop cultural capital, even more than material goods. To develop beyond an elementary level we need seminaries, Temples, and communities not based on the enthusiasm of individuals but centred on institutions. Good or bad, the individualist only can do so much.

  • Constance Tippett Chandler
    Constance Tippett Chandler Friday, 06 December 2013

    I would gladly donate a GoddessTimeline, however it sounds like you are dealing with men. I'm not sure what they would think of that but if you want it , it is yours.

  • Judith Laura
    Judith Laura Saturday, 07 December 2013

    Aline: At your request I'm reposting my comment from FB slightly edited) that was in response to another person's request for info about temples, etc., open to the public in the US : Sekhmet Temple in Indian Springs NV,: Goddess Temple of Orange County, Irvine CA; Mother Grove Goddess Temple, Asheville NC; Ashland Goddess Temple, Ashland OR; Goddess Temple of Lakewood OH; Isis Temple at the Isis Oasis, Geyersville CA; Maetreum of Cybele, Palenville NY (which recently succeeded in a court battle). Most of these have attained tax exempt status. I try to keep an updated list on http://goddess.judithlaura.com/links.html where I also include some in other countries. Glastonbury Goddess Temple at goddesstemple.co.uk also has a list of Goddess temples in other countries. In addition to these temples, the Open Hearth Foundation in Washington DC recently opened a Community Center to serve people of many Pagan paths.

  • Christopher Blackwell
    Christopher Blackwell Sunday, 08 December 2013

    I think we need more books on the subject of practice in a prison setting. Most ceremony and practice can be done with little or nothing on hand, the important point in the person and intent. Sending in books that imply that yo can't do anything with out a lot of props is going to be frustrating for the prison Pagan. As there are more exprisoner Pagans, they are the very ones that may be the best to advise in writing what can be done with what is allowed within a prison setting. Meanwhile the rest of us can continue the fight to get them at least on par with prisoners of other religions as far as rights and practice. But she is right in suggesting we are at the loin where some organization is necessary to take care of things and raise funding for good projects.

  • David Oliver Kling
    David Oliver Kling Tuesday, 10 December 2013

    Institutions are important and Pagans need to raise their collective "self-esteem" and step out into the world holding their heads high. Volunteering is great and necessary and in time we should also be serving as "staff," whether that be prisons, hospitals, or other venues for "ministry." We cannot do this without our educational institutions and Cherry Hill Seminary is doing it right. Good blog post!

  • Samuel Wagar
    Samuel Wagar Tuesday, 10 December 2013

    I believe that people vote with their wallets. They vote to buy Pagan bling and to go to short-term Pagan communities / festivals more so than to long-term institutional commitment.

    For lots of reasons - but in that we are no different than the Christians. http://biblicalstewardship.net/statistical-research-on.../ - the average Protestant adult gives her church $17 a week. The key differences are accumulated capital (many years of giving adds up) and tax advantages and bequests (in Canada no Wiccan or other Pagan body is a charity but also as small New Religions we haven't had many elderly adherents die and leave our few institutions bequests). The difference is temporary - in fifty or a hundred years, if our institutions can be responsible stewards, they will have a solid financial footing.

  • Marissa  Bomgardner
    Marissa Bomgardner Thursday, 12 December 2013

    Are the inmates allowed the fake tealight candles that are battery operated? That's what my group used on the carrier (USS John C Stennis).

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