I named this sequence Origin Story on the fly and was a little embarrassed about it at first. It implies a sort of self-aggrandizing that I really hope I don’t do! But the idea of the origin story was in my brain for mundane reasons: I go for a daily walk with my kid and since his brain gobbles up info a lot faster than mine, we play storytelling games on the way.
One game is to come up with a name, strength, weakness, special power, and origin story for an original hero or villain. Usually, he wants me to be serious about it (‘Make it like a real Marvel character, Mom, not something dumb!’) and sometimes it’s just goofy. But lately some of those characters have been echoing in my brain for days afterward. Most often it’s the villains, who are — at their core — a product of misunderstanding or tragic events. Both heroes and villains inevitably have some fatal flaw that could completely destroy them, and it’s not always material, but the heroes tend to get a little flat. The villains, on the other hand, always seem on the cusp of something much, much greater than their present framework. That is, they have the capacity for works of good far greater than the heroes – if only they could see past the walls they’ve constructed for themselves.
So, assuming I’m my own villain-containing-a-hero, let’s get into the origin story: How did I become a witch and priestess, what are my self-constructed walls, what am I doing about them, and how does this process further shape my identity as a witch and priestess moving forward?
As a child (from about eight through my early teens), I was drawn to the Horned God and to the Earth. I now associate these experiences with the gods of the Wicca but it’s a little bit square-peg-in-round-hole.
Back then, the Horned God was a little more nuanced than just a tutelary deity of the forest and the focus of my young ideas about sex, but that’s more or less how it boiled down. Meanwhile, the Goddess was way more nuanced and complex that the just ‘The Earth’, but it’s always been hard for me to verbalize my childhood feelings and identifications. In fact, when I was first started reading about contemporary Witchcraft (in my forties), I found books like Starhawk’s The Spiral Dance a little alienating. Don’t get me wrong – these are rich and valid identifications of Her – they’re just not mine. As a kid, my understanding of Her was highly non-verbal. She was the Earth, materially and aetherically, but she wasn’t some benevolent, pregnant, loving mother-figure. She was female, yes, but her femaleness wasn’t core to her manifestation or identity. That may be because my own femaleness was seldom essential to my self-image. Anyway, she was much vaster and more vibrational than the Horned God. She was all-encompassing of the world immediately around me, yet limited to the physical earth and its atmosphere. And the Horned God was both with Her and of Her. He was always somewhere in the woods with me as I reveled in Nature. At the time, I didn’t contemplate what was ‘beyond’ either of them – it just wasn’t in my brain space. Divinity existed in the very matter around me and, as a child, that was simple and self-evident – I never thought about them as ‘God’ or ‘The Divine’. They simply were. As I got older, theological questions became more pronounced and abstract. Now, as an adult, I sometimes feel like I’m really just peeling away the layers of worldly experiences to get back to that particular clarity of Them.
Anyway, I spent most of my time in the woods of the Northeast. This was partly to escape my dad (he had anger issues and possibly suffered from undiagnosed narcissism), but mostly because I just couldn’t not be in the woods! I’d come home scraped up from briars, my coat stained with pokeweed, owl pellets in my pockets, and odd bits of sticks and stones in my hands – the usual things for many kids who have access to forested lands and license to wander them.
As a child, you have a certain autonomy that lends itself to a deep, intense dynamic to the non-human world, and I reveled in it. I remember digging in the dirt (for whatever reason – burying something or digging something up, who knows – it was my kid version of solve et coagula) and having this extreme moment of clarity:
I hope I never lose this connection to Nature.
It was a profound revelation; I think because I knew that I would lose that connection. I remember knowing in that instant that I would remember that moment for the rest of my life.
And I have. And, in fact, I did lose that connection — I’ve struggled to reclaim it ever since, in many ways.
In my preteens (ten to twelve-ish) my focus on the forest began a shift towards books – that is, I began to see my experiences of the forest reflected in the writings of others. (Think Never Cry Wolf, not Witchcraft Today, though.) And my interests expanded, too. I’d go to the school library with my friends and we’d pour over books on the historic witchcraft trials, enthralled in a horror-struck kind of way. And we’d read about ghosts, the occult, faeries, gnomes, and the like. All of this eventually led to reading fantasy and science fiction novels. I think it was a ‘phase’ in some ways, but it gave shape to my interests later on.
And then, at the public library near my house, I found Erica Jong’s Witches with its astounding illustrations by Jos A. Smith. For my adolescent mind, Jong and Smith’s book was the perfect combination of poetry, prose, and rich imagery. And it both sparked and sealed something within me about witchcraft. In that one book, my world of the Horned God and the Vast Earth was suddenly both the door to and the residence of magic.
I somehow managed to check Witches out of the library (I’m pretty sure they had no idea just how many penises are in that book) and immediately started doing the spells, raiding my mom’s garden and modding the required materials to match my resources.
I remember trying to make a wand from that book. All I had was a pocket knife, and the book called for hollowing the core of the wand, stuffing it with cotton, and infusing the cotton with your blood. I realized very quickly I’d never be able to core the length of the wand with my pocket knife, so I drilled a perpendicular hole through the center instead, stuffed it with some cotton ball, and picked at a scab on my knee until I had enough gore to get some trace DNA on the thing. Ta-da, my first wand!
I also remember worrying that it wouldn’t work because I wasn’t doing it by the book. Firstly, my conception of magic was pretty unrealistic: I was still imagining Disney-esque conjurings. But the idea of intention wasn’t on my radar, either. As I said, I was eleven or twelve. These ideas wouldn’t be in my brain space for nearly a decade.
I think it’s totally possible to struggle through severe doubts and still make a very powerful magical object. I even wonder if maybe that’s necessary. Part of the power of a working is manifesting the courage to Do The Thing despite the doubts. It’s akin to the idea that a person who acts with bravery is nevertheless still afraid at heart. But as a pre-teen, I’d decided that the wand wouldn’t work long before I even started making it. Sure, I made it anyway, but it was almost like my mental invocation was to make sure it wouldn’t work. I wanted to make the object for the object’s sake. And, in fact, I don’t think I ever tried to use the wand after making it. Most of the spells I did from that book were better attuned, and a few worked, but I remember the wand most vividly, probably because of my magical sabotage.
A few years ago, I bought a copy of Jong’s Witches and it’s very dear to me. Smith’s images speak directly to me in ways that are hard to describe. I’m a professional (and academic) artist, and my best magical workings tend to end with something tangible and visual. I’m better at visualization proper than ‘hearing’ entities, although I also have a harder time parsing my own thoughts from others – and it’s an ongoing practice, not unlike maintain a healthy diet and exercise.
What’s also interesting about Witches is that, while it’s largely a poetic evocation of ideas about historic witches, the text (as a whole) is largely framed through the lens of witchcraft as a living, breathing practice. A Neopagan, Modern Witchcraft clearly breaths through the poems and imagery of that book. At the time (the mid-1980s) I had no idea that Witchcraft or Neopaganism was ‘a thing’. (Hey, it was pre-internet and I depended on my mom for rides.) But it’s funny in hindsight just how geographically close I was to some vibrant (though still rather hidden) Pagan and Wiccan communities. We’d sometimes get a parent to drop us off in New Hope, PA for the day, so we could wander through the shops and curiosities. It was then (and likely still is) a hub for New Age and Magical cultures. We mostly ogled crystals and giggled at phallic carvings, and I’m sure the proprietors couldn’t wait until we left (because obviously we had no money). And to be fair, I wasn’t ready for Wicca until I much, much older (forty, to be precise). Like many kids, I was drawn to fairies, the occult, witches – all things magical. But it wasn’t a religion for me: it was simply mysterious and alluring.
But that’s not to say I didn’t have a religion of sorts. Religion, for me, was watching a herd of deer bound away in the woods, their white tails flashing exactly like stars. It was merging the uncanny with the natural. It was finding a seagull high in a tree, tangled in fishing line, and rallying adults to cut it down and free it. It was realizing that I, even as a child, had a Will and Focus to gather adults to do this Thing that I could not do on my own.
I didn’t think of it in those verbal terms, but that’s what it was. And I think this is something most of us learn as we gradually become adults. But it was also the very small beginnings of understanding how intention can be focused on a target and achieved. For me, this is key to all magical workings.
For many, witchcraft and magic are not a religion, and I absolutely respect and appreciate that. (Shoot, I’m still looking for a completely satisfactory academic definition of Religion!) But for me, personally, witchcraft and magic are deeply spiritual acts at the heart of my devotional practice.
And I think Wicca is big enough to encompass many takes on Religion. There are certainly lots of people in the U.S. who practice witchcraft but also identify as everything from Atheist to Christian, and Polytheist to Nones. It’s an incredibly rich and fascinating time to look at the diversity of beliefs and practices in this country, and Witchcraft and Magic weave in and out many faiths in myriad ways.
Today, Gardnerian Wicca is just one type of witchcraft. It’s definitely not the ideal fit for every witch or magical practitioner, and discerning that takes time — years really. But for those who are called to it (as I have been), the journey is worth every step.
Anyway, that’s the basic story of Baby Wren (or Chicklet, if you will).
In the next posts, I’ll dig into how religion proper played into all this, and how I’ve lost (and re-found) magic several times throughout my life.