Magic, Religion, and Reality Part 4 – What is Really, Like, Real?


The semester is over, it’s the New Moon, and I’m finally wrapping up this series! If you just came here, I recommend you visit Magic, Religion, and Reality Part 1 – The ‘Big’ Questions for context to the following essay. If you decide to skip it, however, please still take a moment to jot down your own answer to the following: What is real? (And how you interpret the ‘what’ will be insight as well, I hope.)

Francisco de Goya’s Witches’ Sabbath

The Mysticism of Legal Theories

In Part 1, I mentioned that Seeker’s email, in which they asked me how I knew what was real. Usually, that question is about discerning if a particular ‘woo’ experience with a spirit is real or one’s imagination, but not in this case. They were asking, “How do I know which is The Truth™? Christianity or Wicca? Because obviously, it can’t be both.”  

Parts 2 and 3 cover my thoughts on magic and religion, in which I effectively say, “Actually, obviously it must be both.” In my previous definitions, all religions/spiritual practices/magical practices are real because people practice things, believe in things, and engage with others in things – and that’s good enough for me!  I’m very comfortable with the plurality of religions and beliefs in the world. More than that, I adore that there’s such a rich plurality!

Juno butterflies at Jaraguá State Park (Brazil). Photo: Renan R. Mattos

Not flipping cars and lighting them on fire. Yet.

And I view religions like civil liberties. As my old social studies teacher used to say, “My rights end where your nose begins.” Sure, some individuals who adhere to certain religions and belief systems definitely aren’t comfortable with witchcraft and/or Wicca. It’s a bummer, but it’s also okay. They don’t have to be comfortable with my practices, they don’t owe me anything. Their discomfort doesn’t bother me or impact my practice, which is entirely my own (and very private anyway).  People can even gripe about things on social media (*gasp*) and this still doesn’t impact my practice, not really. And if I decide to obsess over social media debates, well, that’s entirely on me, isn’t it?

But the minute somebody comes in and takes down my altars, or burn my BoS, or threatens me with incarceration or physical harm for practicing witchcraft, well, that line is definitely crossed then. But it’s important to be realistic.  For me, personally, as a financially stable, cishet white woman in a large and progressive city in the United States, this hasn’t come close to happening (no matter how spicey Twitter gets).

But, it’s important to be realistic as well.

The Satanic Panic of the 1970s through 1990s was a real thing. Lives were destroyed and people were hurt. There was real physical and legal harm done to innocent people, some of whom practiced witchcraft, but most did not and were simply accused of practicing something ‘not normal’.

And this still happens in the United States all the time.  Practitioners of diverse African Diaspora Traditions seem to be perpetually taken to court and forced to defend their right to religious observance. This is harassment. Let’s be clear, this is racist harassment, and it’s using religious harassment as a tool towards that end. As witches and Wiccans, however, it’s critically important to remember that most ADR practitioners would never in a million years call what they do either witchcraft or magic. The harassment is racist. Religious exclusion is the cudgel.

I include this example, however, because others decide what looks like magic and witchcraft, and then take them to court over those practices. But the complexity of this in terms of magical practice is why it’s critically important for everyone (including occultists) to be religiously literate. In order to support a thriving plural society, we need to recognize when civil liberties are being chronically violated, why, and then take collective action to stop it. We need to vote, protest, and write angry letters when civil liberties are violated – especially when they are the liberties of others. [1]

When folks want to know what’s real, this is the infuriating bullshit I point to. What’s real? The chronic and ongoing impacts of racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, bias, and bigotry upon our communities. Wondering which religion is most ‘correct’ is mu[2].  

But I don’t want to be a total a-hole and just skip over the Seeker’s question. So I’ll try to hybridize my response, since the realness of my religion and the realness of my magical practice are interwoven – not the same, but they impact one another in ever-surprising and fascinating ways.

1845 Seated liberty dime. (Wikipedia)

Religion is beautiful. It’s also full of shit.

Over the last year or so, I’ve sort of decided that witchcraft, as a religious practice (and, again, not all witchcraft is religious!) is deeply invested in paradoxes and liminal spaces. This is a very personal experience of witchcraft and Wicca, by the way, so this isn’t some sort of universal ‘truth’. But it’s true of my own, personal experiences so far. (And it’s 99% guaranteed to change because I’m a messy human and sometimes eat cold pizza like a heathen.) 

I’ll try to describe this in practical terms:  I honor the two gods of the Wicca. I’ve had experiences with them after which I’m sure they’re real. But most of the time, if I’m brutally honest with myself, I’m just hoping they’re real. Additionally, I’m not sure their literal realness or my hope for that realness, actually makes any difference to the gods or my practice. I’ll never experience the world outside of my physical body or frame of reference. And for this reason, the hope is actually more manifest for me, in a more consistent way, than the individual relative realness of any particular magical experience.

A moment of alignment with a deity is fleeting (at least for me). But the hope for that experience fires and fuels the practices that make that experience happen.  My Wiccan practices look and work a particular way and then fuel a set of particular experiences. At the same time, I have devotional and magical practices to other gods and spirits. These practices fuel experiences that look very different from my practices in Gardnerian Wiccan and the experiences are different as well.  Yet my Wiccan and, err, non-Wiccan practices definitely inform one another. And all these practices and subsequent experiences are definitely much more similar to each other than, say, doing video tutorials to gain mastery of a software. The plurality of my practices weaves and explores both theurgy and thaumaturgy as cultural soulmates.

And, as with any religion, there’s bullshit too.  There’s some stuff in Wicca that I once found pretty repulsive. There are things that still make me roll my eyes. But people I really respected and, more importantly, trusted engaged with this practice and were honest with me about their own struggles. They were also honest with me, as much as it was possible to be, about how these struggles were transformative. This was enough to help me maintain an open mind as I pursued my initial craft training, and I’ve learned how to better engage with things that challenge me, with self-honesty and critical thinking, and have learned much more from the efforts. Wicca has been transformative and continues to be in ways that still surprise me. So when initiates say that Wicca is experiential, it’s not simply gatekeeping: it’s a mystery and secret we simply couldn’t divulge, even if we tried. (And goodness knows, I just tried with these last 150 words!)

There are things about being an American that make me embarrassed when I talk to folks from other nations. But I don’t renounce my citizenship – I try to be honest about it and work within my legal system to change the things that break my heart. Sure, I want to flip cars sometimes. The bullshit makes me fucking furious. But I don’t.[3] Instead, I protest, talk to others, vote, engage – I work within the systems of a nation I truly love. Acknowledging America’s horrible failings and fighting to make it better for my son’s generation is the truest expression of love I can think of.  It’s similar for me with Wicca, I guess, although religion is definitely different from a nation. But there are analogs.

“Drawing of the so-called Adam and Eve cylinder seal impression, a 22nd century BCE post-Akkadian cylinder seal.” from the Chaldean Account of Genesis (1876)

Fun with Magnets!

When I first began training in Wicca and dug into the things that made me leery, part of that work was making space for my own experience and understanding of things. This required honest inspection of (what appeared to be) essentialisms followed by thoughtful and thorough reframing. Awareness that I had my own biases – and that I likely wasn’t aware of their nature – was critical to this process. Having a very thoughtful High Priestess, High Priest, and coven mates were essential to this (and still is!)

Gender essentialism is probably the most obvious challenge for someone like myself approaching a tradition like initiatory Wicca. The Goddess of the Moon and Lord of the Hunt are discussed as being male and female in both Gerald Gardner’s texts and subsequent public works by initiates. But throughout my experiences with these gods, I’ve learned that this has nothing to do with the Divine Junk™.[4] For me, this would be reductionist of the gods, of myself, and of others involved in the Craft.

‘Polarity’ is a more useful concept, but early authors who wrote on Wicca conflated polarity with sex as well. Polarity can also be misconstrued with dualism (i.e “Good” == “Evil” = False, and also “Good” > “Evil”). For most Wiccans I know, the good-evil binary just doesn’t fit our theology (it’s another mu statement), but again, there’s a rich diversity of views between individual covens and witches. Wicca is a living-enough religion to hold a lot of different theologies and mystical truths, which is quite lovely, really.  Folks might have fights about these things on social media, (which I’m sure looks like a massive shit show to Seekers) but at the end of the day, it’s easier for all of us to get off our phones and just do the work.

Anyway, I have problems with ‘polarity’ as a catch-all and it isn’t the perfect word for how I experience the gods of the Wicca, but it’s a much richer and more fluid idea (pun intended)! It gets closer to an ineffable ‘truth’ about the gods as I experience them. A magnetic bar exhibits polarity, for example. It has a north and south and yet is one object. And you can feel the shifting of that polarity as you gradually run another magnet along its side. In my experience so far, the gods of the Wicca exhibit polarity, because we each also exhibit polarity, we each have a north, south, and connecting middle. That’s not a great metaphor, really, but it’s what I’ve got!

I love a good bacchanal as much as the next red-blooded American, but I’m more a Saturnalia kinda gal.
(Roman sarcophagus showing Dionysus approaching Ariadne. Ca. 230-240 AD. Louvre, Paris.)

Truthiness

Lately, I feel like the Circle itself is an even better way of describing the gods of the Wicca. When casting the circle, you start somewhere and keep going until that circle is complete.[5] But the circle doesn’t have a beginning or end – it’s a microcosm. When I think about the Lord of the Death and the Goddess of the Moon, “force and form” comes to mind as a more accurate description than their gender identities. The concept of force and form as the great universal duad is also familiar in many Western magical and esoteric traditions. And still other Wiccans are more informed by ideas from New Age or Theosophy. Again, a hundred Wiccans in a room, you’ll get a hundred ‘truths.’ But this doesn’t prevent us from having a coherent tradition that is passed down from generation to generation. This is not a paradox this time, and Wicca isn’t unique to this.

Earthworks by the late Cuban-American artist Ana Mendieta. Mendieta was most likely murdered by her husband, artist Carl Andre, who was acquitted in 1988. https://www.sleek-mag.com/article/ana-mendieta/

While many (but not all) religions have a strong community element (and initiatory Wicca is one of them) it’s useful to remember the difference between what you read about a particular religious practice in a book or online somewhere, and what is happening on the ground within a particular group or on an individual level. I’m not a clone of my coven mates any more than my neighbor is a clone of his fellow UCC congregants[6]. He has his own experiences within the church and his own relationship with God; I have my own with my Gardnerian practice and the gods of the Wicca. My neighbor goes to his church most Sundays to worship God with the congregation and share a sense of fellowship in that devotion. I’m not sure circling with my coven is much different. But my neighbor’s church is a very progressive one (and my neighbor is uniquely progressive even among them), and while they are Protestant, neither he nor his church looks anything like the Southern Baptist Church just down the road, which is also Protestant. They all share the Bible and common important holidays, but sometimes I wonder if it goes much further than that. If I had decided that all Christians looked like my neighbor, or that all Christians looked like the Southern Baptists down the street, I’d be missing worlds and worlds of richness and nuance in the human expression of religiosity. Initiatory Wicca is a very small religion compared to the Christian faith. But I’d argue that, when brought to scale, Wiccan covens and individuals are no less diverse in the breadth of their theological interpretations and experiences with the same core practices.

So reducing discussion of the gods’ identities or the roles and representations of the High Priestess and High Priest to gendered terms is, once again, mu for me. It’s simply not how I’ve ever experienced the gods, magic, or this religion. I mentioned this in the footnotes, but have to emphasize it again: for some Wiccans and occultists gender identity and sex are essential parts of their practice. This is none of my business, but I’m not going to pretend that doesn’t exist. It’s simply not part of my practice. Just as my neighbor would be cordial with a Southern Baptist, but likely not share much in common, so too would I likely not have much in common with a Wiccan or occultist who genders or sexualizes their magical practice. But I’ll always be friendly and cordial and assume they’d be the same! Now, would my neighbor show up at an abortion clinic and act as a bouncer against protesting Southern Baptists to make sure pregnant women can safely access that clinic’s services? You betcha. (He’s a great guy!) Would I do the equivalent if it came to that? You betcha.

Similarly, I know my neighbor would have (and has had) honest and difficult conversations with fellow Christians about controversial topics (including abortion access as a human right). He does this because people can, you know, be mature adults sometimes. Additionally, it’s possible to actually have a good time talking about differing theologies and ethical stances, in a mutually respectful and honest way. We tend not to seek these conversations out: it’s a lot of emotional work, for sure. But if you have the spoons, it’s worth it. It’s one of the reasons I value my friendships with those of other religions and political leanings so highly. They help me in my pursuit of self-honesty, and I suspect I help my friends with the same.

“You do the dishes!” “But I took out the trash!!”
(The Temptation of Christ by Ary Scheffer)

People are full of shit. They are also beautiful.

At the end of the day, religion – including Wicca – was created by people.

In the case of Wicca, as a religion, this was created by Gerald Gardner, Doreen Valiente, and, presumably, whoever initiated Gardner into whatever it was and damn-don’t-I-wish-I-could-time-travel-and- -be-a-fly-on-the-wall. Nothing created by people stays the same, not society, not language, not art, not technology, and certainly not religion.  Wicca was also shaped and evolved by many other people, including Ray Buckland, Scott Cunningham, and yes, even the directors of The Craft.[7] Today, Wicca continues to be shaped and evolved by many people around the world. Authors like Thorn Mooney, Jason Mankey, Yvonne Aburrow, and many others are continuing to shape and evolve this religion we all find so meaningful, even as we all work to “pass down the tradition as it was handed to us.” There’s a deep mystical truth in that phrase, by the way, one that is still unfolding for me.  

And the shifting landscape of magico-religious practices happens broadly as well. Writers like Benebelle Wen, Jack Grayle, Josephine McCarthy, and Aiden Wachter (just to name the quick four I’m looking at right now) are shaping contemporary magical practices of others, whatever words we use to label those practices. There are so many amazing witches, occultists, and scholars producing truly astounding written material across huge breadths of practices, for all types of practitioners.

Y’all – we’re living through a fucking magical renaissance if you haven’t noticed! 

Some of these prominent voices within the occult and esoteric discourse have drawn hard lines between witchcraft and Wicca. Others have drawn them between magic and witchcraft. And still others have drawn them between magic and religion. And it’s all okay really, drawing a line is a form of discourse too.  You get to figure out you, you lucky dog. The point is, there’s plenty of material to help you suss out your practice and ideas. But you get to make those informed decisions yourself.

But I think it’s critically important for magicians and witches of all stripes to remember the vast plurality of what is shaping magical practices today and has always shaped them.  

It’s not published occultists who are shaping the future of magic and witchcraft – it’s the practitioners who are Doing The Thing.

The Magician photo mash-up by the amazing Corvus Mooney. https://www.corviniancoven.com/reading

That closeted 16-year-old in Alabama who’s mashing together what he can find on the Ars Goetia on Sacredtexts.com with excerpts from Ambrosia Hawthorne’s books at the public library? He’s shaping the craft. That exhausted soccer mom who just discovered crystals, intentions, and the sublime empowerment of calling herself a witch? She’s shaping the craft. And that thirteen-year-old on WitchTok who’s explaining to the vastness of teen TikTok how to dress a candle for a love spell, something she’s discovering as she’s recording the video? She’s shaping the Craft.

Some people may stop reading at this point, or groan and slap their foreheads.

Please, stay with me here. Humor me.

Because we can consider something radical for a second: that thirteen-year-old is defining her magic practice for the world, she’s owning it, and that is fucking amazing. Each of these individuals is discovering magic for themselves. And most important: each of them is Doing The Thing.

Remember my social studies teacher and his whole fist-versus-nose thing? How is their practice hurting ours? It’s not. And I haven’t seen a cogent argument yet that explains to me how it does.

Does their magic look like mine? No, but why should it?

Is what they’re doing a lived experience? Absolutely. It’s theirs and theirs alone.  How and if they share it with others, in person or online, is part of that practice as well – and their own. 

Part of magical practice is discernment. When seasoned practitioners (or even practitioners with a couple of months under their belt) react with hostility, laughter, worry, or dismissal to new practitioners, teen practitioners ‑‑ and most notably female-identified practitioners ‑‑ over their magical practices, it reflects upon those seasoned practitioners more than anyone else. That’s not a new revelation for sure. But it’s worth repeating. And it’s up to each of us with an anchored practice to discern for ourselves why we’re reacting strongly to someone else’s practice. It’s not our business, but we are allowed to have feelings about it.  But like anything in the world of mature adult communication, we should take care to unpack our feelings, biases, and assumptions before we launch into a tirade. Write it all down. And then sleep on it. This is a solid approach for angry or emotional emails too, by the way.

Whatever young, teen, or new practitioners are doing right now, it’s almost certain their practices will change and evolve over time. We’re human and we have a lovely capacity to learn from experience. And I’m 100% sure magic and occultism will look very different in 2040 (if I live long enough to see it!) Because Magic and Occultist looked very different in 2000, 1980, and 1960…. I find this organic evolution of practices and ideas both lovely and rich.

Humans are amazing, wonderful, messy, shitty, and beautiful things. And I really believe there’s a constant stream of divine inspiration, much of it too quiet to hear in our busy lives or too out there in left field to properly grok. But watching religions evolve— it feels like watching the gods. And like Maimonides observed over nine hundred years ago: G_d is wily.[8] 

Eris (Discòrdia / Discord), Antikensammlung, Berlin
Eris (Discòrdia / Discord) plate, 550-550 bC. Antikensammlung, Berlin. Photo: Sebastià Giralt

Voces Magicae

I really do think that parts of Wicca are divinely inspired. But it’s nevertheless ordinary people — just like you and me and that kid on Tiktok — who take in that inspiration, give it shape, and pass it on to others.

Sometimes, it’s a fucking shit show. Definitely, damage has been done via divine inspiration. But other times that divine inspiration is a rich twist of words captured by Doreen Valiente, a flick of oil on board by Ithell Colquhoun, a look of uncomplicated and all-encompassing love, passed from goddess to PriestX to witch during a full moon invocation. It’s a single flower beating the odds through a crack in the sidewalk: It is brilliant, resilient, honest, fragile, and raging against adversity, all in one small, perfectly lovely thing.

Again I don’t think Wicca is any more ‘correct’ or ‘true’ than any other religion. It’s just true for me, personally, at this given moment. I’m fully aware this could change someday. I spent much of my life atheist. Then agnostic. Now I can honestly say that I’m – umm, something else and there are lots of gods and spirits involved!

That is, my religion is defined by my practice, not how I verbally define the Invisible at any given moment. Wicca is my religion, yes, but I’m also a devotee of Hekate, of Artemis, of some murky-named thunder deity, and other gods I’ll just leave unnamed for now. I’m devoted to the spirits of the land I occupy and its human, plant, animal, and mineral ancestors. I’m devoted to the waters and winds of this place, and I love them, too. This last part of my religion is ever-evolving and slippery – the landscape around me is changing quicker than I can get to know it. 

My Wiccan religion I share with my coven, and a few other initiates with whom I feel a kinship. It’s a small religion, and my community within that is even smaller. But it’s a community nonetheless. My religion outside of Wicca is a religion of one, although as I study different traditions with others walking parallel paths, we do end up forming little pods, so to speak, little micro-communities.  So, this is also part of my religion.

But which is true? Well, what is truth?

These spheres of my lived religion are all very different from one another. And they’re very different from what most Americans would call a “religion.” But they weave in and out of each other like waves through rocks and reeds and tidal pools, and I am the beach, gazing up at the moon in her orbit, marking the stars and the seasons. Will my religion change? Of course. As surely as the arcs and outcroppings of the shoreline slowly shift through salt and rain, and quicker through storms and human action.  

But I can’t think of anything truer than how the ocean meets the sky. And ­­­­­I’m grateful to be at that nexus.

Gulf Islands National Seashore

[1] I highly recommend reading Banning Black Gods: Law and Religions of the African Diaspora by Dr. Danielle Boaz.  While Dr. Boaz is an academic and legal scholar, it’s a page-turner and I believe critical reading for anyone who is a member of a minority religion or spiritual path.  

[2] Mu is the Japanese concept of ‘no thing’, as I understand it from reading Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  I have literally no familiarity with Japanese philosophical-religious concepts, however, and I apologize if my (or Pirsig’s)d understanding of mu is incorrect.

[3] Yet.

 [4] I do want to be careful and considerate of other views here. There are absolutely Wiccans for whom these gods are highly sexualized and/or heteronormative. As discussed earlier in this essay, I have no right to deny these witches their experiences. They’re just as valid as mine. However, they’re not ones that I share, and I can only speak from my own experiences. For Seekers, the takeaway should be that while a particular lineage will pass down the same materials and adhere to the same traditions, there’s still a vast diversity of frameworks when it comes to the gods and the Craft of the Wise. This is why it can take a lot of time and patience to find a coven that’s the right ‘fit’. This is a magical ‘fit’, sure, but it’s largely a pragmatic and practical thing. If you haven’t found the right group that fits your worldview, that’s okay. You’re not failing! Just be persistent and patient in equal measure!

[5] I highly recommend Debra Lipp’s Elements of Ritual for understanding the mechanics of Wiccan ritual. Not all ritual circles operate within the mechanical assumptions, and Elements of Ritual does a beautiful job breaking down what’s happening during a Wiccan circle casting, empowering the reader to make informed choices within an eclectic or solitary practice.

[6] UCC is the United Church of Christ. Looking at different Protestant denominations within the United States is a good reminder of just how vastly plural the same tradition can be. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/religions-support-abortion-rights-leaders-are-speaking-rcna27194  

[7] 1996 version, Dir. Andrew Fleming. 2020 version, Dir. Zoe Lister-Jones.

[8] This is my take away from Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed, as nicely summarized by an old college professor. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Guide_for_the_Perplexed

Emblem 12 from Basil Valentine ‘Azoth’ Series.

Addendum:

Recommended Reading

Okay, this whole essay series was probably a shit show for someone who hadn’t read anything about magic, witchcraft, or Wicca before. Sorry about that, but you get a gold star for slogging through it! The readings below came to mind as great starting points for a Seeker of initiatory Wicca wondering about religion, magic, and how contemporary practices fit in with religious history.

7 things I wish people knew about Wicca by Yvonne Aburrow
https://dowsingfordivinity.com/2015/07/12/seven-things-i-wish/
Note: Okay, this isn’t different — but it’s another Wiccan who is sort of is saying the same things I wrote above, just more briefly and effectively, ha!

What Exactly is Wiccaby Jason Mankey
https://www.patheos.com/blogs/panmankey/2017/03/what-exactly-is-wicca/
Note: There are lots of fantastic books, but for many new to Wicca, Cunningham’s Wicca for a Solitary Practitioner is still the go-to. And, well, Wicca has changed a lot since it was published! This article by Mankey gives a really good, historically contextualized explanation of the practice. I highly recommend Jason’s Transformative Witchcraft as the next best thing we have to Cunningham’s book. His book Witch’s Wheel of the Year is also a great ‘starter kit’ for observing the Sabbats.

Advice for the Absolute Beginner by Thorn Mooney
https://www.patheos.com/blogs/oathbound/2016/12/advice-absolute-beginner-wiccan/
Note: This is a perfect follow-up to Jason’s works on how to approach finding more information that’s current. I also recommend Thorn’s book Traditional Wicca: A Seeker’s Guide is an excellent resource if you’re thinking about seeking with a coven.

Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans edited by John Halstead
Note: This is a collection of essays by different Pagans (including several Wiccans) describing their atheistic or agnostic religious experiences in Paganism. When I was asking very similar questions several years ago, I found this book very comforting. But it also helped me clarify what I really believed and, also, what wasn’t quite as important as I once held. If you identify as atheist or agnostic but are also interested in Paganism and/or witchcraft, this is a must-read. 

The Path of Paganism: An Experience-Based Guide to Modern Pagan Practice by John Beckett
Note: John Beckett is a Druid but has experience with Wicca, and I just really value his take on things. When I read this several years ago, I found his experience of the gods and spirits helped me feel more confident in my own experiences. Writing that, now I think it’s time I re-read it — it was a wonderful book. 

Corvinian Coven Website Reading List
https://www.corviniancoven.com/reading
Note: My buddy Corvus has a wonderful resources page on her coven’s website. Besides books, this includes blogs, videos, and websites as well.


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