Mystery Cults in the Age of Conspiracy Theories

I am the High Priestess of Hawkfire Coven, which is currently an outer court of Seekers from around the world who, for diverse reasons, are unable to seek with traditional, in-person covens.

(Okay, you probably know that already. Just bear with me.)

Hawkfire is Gardnerian Wiccan coven, which is one of the so-called Western Mystery Traditions. (I find this term anachronistic, but we’ll just have to roll with it for now.)

The idea is that this tradition maintains secret knowledge. Those who are drawn to this tradition — in theory ignorant of this mysterious knowledge but desirous of it and its potential gifts — are Seekers. When a Seeker is deemed ready to partake in this arcana, they are initiated into the cult. Initiation, means they begin the work of Gardnerian Wicca.

In my particular line of Gardnerian Wicca, starting Outer Court training is like a pre-initiation. It is a process of training before the ‘real’ work begins. The Real Mysteries™ are revealed upon Initiation and that’s when all the real magic really happens. For realz.

As you can probably tell; I take some issue with these assumptions.

But I’m also stuck in a bit of a paradox. I’m committed to fact-based decision making and inquiry that is honest and challenging. In my Outer Court, they’re ‘getting to know’ the Outer Court gods, but a big part of this process is learning discernment. When is it the god, and when is it just wishing it were the god? This is incredibly hard work and I struggle with it myself all the time. And I’m not sure it ever gets ‘easy’. But it’s incredibly valuable work that’s improved not only my witchcraft, but my job, my family, my relationships, and more.

Yes, discernment is as hard as it is valuable. It’s a method of checking one’s own implicit biases, a way of making sure one isn’t being ‘righteously correct’.

‘Cuz hubris is a thing (and may it always bite me in the ass).

So, if and when Hawkfire’s Seekers are initiated, I will (hopefully) have a good sense of their own, individual commitment to discernment, to self-honesty, to learning from mistakes, in order to transform and grow as individuals. And I will also have a good sense of their facility to keeping promises, to keep silence – to keep secrets. We are, after all, a Mystery Cult™.

Meanwhile, 400 miles away, a mob of self-declared ‘holders of secret truths, of real truths, not those lying media fake truths’, stormed my nation’s capital in a terrorist coup.

I won’t mince words: I consider them both terrorists and traitors. They’re traitors to our nation, to our Constitution, and to the very bedrock of this country. They can seriously go fuck themselves and go find some sinking island in the Antarctic to inhabit. Fuck you wholesale, you degenerates: I hope that island is covered in 10 inches of cormorant shit and rotting fish, you ass-wipe traitor terrorists.


As gratifying as that was, it’s just not very helpful to wallow around in my own self-righteous anger – it’s a coping mechanism. But it’s not helpful towards discernment.

The coup isn’t exactly a surprise; things have been building up to this for the last four years (and much longer, really). Those researching trends in journalistic and social media have been warning us for years about what dangers ‘post-truth’ presents to the fabric of society. To be clear, post-truth ideologies aren’t just dangerous to the democracy of the United States: it’s a global danger. Disinformation has flourished thanks to social media technologies and the ne’er-do-wells and ignoramuses ready to capitalize on our desire to see, read, and believe sexy and alluring disinfo.

QAnon seemed like a joke at first, but the realness of its danger is all too evident now. QAnon is a total fiction, a glorified choose-your-own-adventure, which is one of the reasons why so many were sucked into this conservative, conspiratorial LARP game. And let’s be clear: it’s not just white supremacists who have taken the bait: less rabid conservatives and even moderates have been sucked into the QAnon fabrication as well (listen to the Rabbit Hole podcast for a fascinating exploration of this phenomena).

Furthermore, many Trump supporters who are not followers of QAnon are nevertheless buying into connected fabrications. For example, our local newspaper interviewed some Trump supporters who went to DC for the protest and also witnessed the coup attempt. All the interview subjects were appalled by the mob and the destruction at the Capitol. Yet all of them also still repeated the same tired falsehood: ‘We went to DC to protest the vote steal’. This fabrication is no less dangerous than what’s coming out of QAnon, especially if it’s allowed to fester into the future. And I just don’t see how we can avoid that.

The real destruction isn’t in broken windows or stolen laptops: it’s in the wholesale belief of utter falsehoods that conform with the believers’ pre-disposed biases. It’s the belief that there are secrets and hidden figures in positions of power that are working against their own, most righteous interests. It’s the belief that they are the ones who ‘see the light’ and ‘know the truth’. It’s in the crumbling of belief in any possible truth.

These are the real dangers, and none of this is going anywhere after the inauguration. I’m deeply, deeply worried for my country, and aside from shutting down all social media to keep shit from getting worse, I don’t really see any solutions. It’s disheartening and frightening.

So, as a coven leader in a Mystery Tradition™, I’m a holder and promiser of secrets. And the events of this last week have made me deeply conscious of both my inordinate power in relation to my Seekers and the surface challenge of ‘Good Secret’s vs. ‘Bad Secrets’.

In a previous post I discussed the complexity of secrecy, privacy, and oaths, and events of this last week are making me look at that dynamic again. As a coven leader, I have a responsibility to my Seekers to be as honest with them as possible, while simultaneously maintaining my Oaths. And while I am a holder of Secrets to non-Initiates, I feel a huge desire to castrate that power, for the sake and well-being of not only my Seekers but, honestly, of the tradition itself.

How do you responsibly control social power that is founded upon the holding of Secrets, in an age of Conspiracy Theories? The myriad dangers of saying ‘I have a secret, and you’re part of a privileged few who will also soon know these secrets’ has seldom been clearer.

Sure, most Mystery Traditions, including Gardnerian Wicca, don’t proselytize, and we certainly don’t promise truths that will affect government or society in any way, shape, or form. Ideally, once Initiated, the new Witch and Priest(x) begins a process of transformation, of discovering Mysteries™ on their own. But these are things that are highly dependent upon the individual’s own efforts and actions. I’m very up-front with my Seekers about that. In many ways, they are already experiencing Mysteries. Shoot, learning that witchcraft is even a thing can be a Mystery.

I can count the Mysteries I’ve experienced on two hands. And I could tell you all about them because me telling you about them could never even begin to reveal anything of the experience.

Proposing to my husband. My wedding. The birth of my son. The death of my mother. The death of my father. My cancer scare. The first time I hunted and killed an animal. My initiation into Gardnerian Wicca.

In the case of the last Mystery, I was aggressively ignorant of the mechanics of what would actually happen. I literally stopped reading certain books and websites when I realized I might be in danger of having certain ‘mysteries’ revealed to me. I didn’t want to know, and I wanted my initiation to be a true surprise, to be utterly new, to be a revelation of secrets.

But was this willful ignorance or respect for secrets? I dunno, and it probably depends on who you ask. But the point is, I didn’t quite grok the difference between an occult rite and Magical Knowledge™, between a mystery and a Mystery™. And I didn’t grok that maybe, just maybe, people have actually kept their oaths.

Now, on the other side of Initiation, I have mixed feelings. Part of me wishes I had known. Part of me wishes there were a ‘sanctioned and official’ [ha, as if!] way of discussing things ahead of Initiation, mostly just to empower Seekers to make their own best decisions, but also to assure that coven leaders are fully comfortable with all aspects of consent. I know some coven leaders have figured out ways of doing this, and I applaud them [and, yeah, drop me a line and let me know how you handle it, I’d love to know!] While I’m still personally on the fence about it, I know I’ll figure something out in time. And whatever I decide, it will be between me and my Seekers because: Coven Autonomy. Which is, really, just another form of oath-keeping.

On the other hand, knowing the mechanics of Initiation ahead of time really wouldn’t have impacted the Mystery of the experience at all– I know that now. I could have known, word for word, every single thing that would happen, I could have memorized the whole ritual ahead of time. But it wouldn’t have really changed a thing for me. The Initiation itself still would have been one of the most powerful experiences of my life. Which is a Mystery.

I could tell you word for word about the birth of my son. About the death of my father.

And unless you had those same experiences yourself, you could never, ever have any idea of those Mysteries. And even if you shared those same life experiences, everyone’s experience of a particular Mystery is nevertheless unique. Even if we’re both Initiates of the Wicca – our individual experiences of Initiation will always be different, unique, and ineffable.

I find this utterly, and indescribably beautiful.

I feel a huge responsibility as a Holder of Secrets, especially in an age of conspiracy theories, lies, disinformation, and propaganda.

I need my Seekers to know that the greatest Secrets could never be revealed to them by anyone. They alone experience the most important Mysteries over the course of simply living their lives.

I need them to know they don’t ‘need’ Wicca. They just need to live their lives with discernment and self-honesty.

That’s it. That’s all.

I feel the need to disempower myself as a Priestess of the Wicca, to make myself smaller, less important. Seekers: I’m a grubby little witch in the woods, stirring a pot, and muttering. It might be an infernal spell, but it’s probably just Thursday’s dirty laundry.

It’s not that I don’t believe in the incredible experience of being a Gardnerian Witch and Priestess. As I said, my Initiation into Gardnerian Wicca was one of the most profound experiences of my life. And I can’t begin to describe how grateful I am that these things are part of my life. I feel the same way about my kid. You wouldn’t have a baby just to know the Mystery of childbirth, right? So too, one shouldn’t Seek Initiation into a Mystery Tradition just to know ‘secret stuff’. That’s why I really do believe the Outer Court reveals its own Mysteries, long before the work of Wicca begins. You’re living life. You’re doing the thing. That’s the palace of secrets, yo.

But I’m keenly aware of the dangerous allure of arcane knowledge, that the secretness of Initiatory Wicca can turn it into a video game, where you’re just trying to get to the Next Level, to find out the secrets, to win the game.

And as much as I respect the mystical power of gameplay, Initiatory Wicca isn’t a game you play until you win; there is no winning or losing. It’s something you’re called to experience, and by pursuing it with honesty and discernment, you are experiencing the Mysteries.

Anybody who promises you ‘the truth’, ‘the secrets’, or ‘hidden knowledge’ should probably be kicked to the curb. That shit is a conspiracy theory and dangerous as fuck.

I’m really anxious about what 2021 will bring. Shit, I’m anxious about the whole next decade.

I really, really hope my country has the capacity to weather whatever comes next. But I’ve studied enough history to know that nations often end, empires fall, ‘dark’ ages and ‘golden’ ages come in cycles.

I’d just prefer the U.S. to not end just yet. I really kind of like America. And I think America even likes me. But for all these reasons, I need to do this ol’ Brit Gardnerian Wicca thing in the most American way I can – with razor-sharp self-honesty, creativity, ingenuity, and a giant, giant slab of the crassest humor I can muster. Godsspeed.

Recommended Listening/Reading

Rabbit Hole
8-part podcast series from the New York Times by Kevin Roose. April – June 2020.

The American Abyss
New York Times essay by By Timothy Snyder Jan. 9, 2021.

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