Thursday, January 29, 2009

From Witchcraft to Wicca in Two Easy Decades

Several years ago, an enthusiastic new seeker introduced herself on one of the Houston Pagan lists, expressing interests in Wicca and Egyptian mythology and looking for some direction. Before anyone who actually gave a shit could offer so much as a book recommendation (Circle of Isis by Ellen Cannon Reed, in case you were curious), our Self-Proclaimed Grandmaster of All Things Occult spoke up:

"Wicca is a made-up religion. Gerald Gardner invented it."

Now, a good chunk of the list members identify as Wiccan, so I expected some sort of negative response to this statement. Instead, it was an almost unanimous, "Yep, pretty much, what he said, case closed." The few people who attempted to offer alternative perspectives were quickly shot down, the degree of vitriol utilized dependent upon their individual histories of dissent.

As you may have guessed, an upcoming point in our continuing discussion will involve Wicca as everyone's favorite metaphysical whipping boy. But before we delve into that hot mess, I think it's important to understand how a practice originally described as Witchcraft ended up with the name Wicca.

The word "wicca" made its first modern print appearance way back in 1891, as an etymological footnote in Charles Godfrey Leland's Gypsy Sorcery and Fortune Telling:

"As the English word witch, Anglo-Saxon Wicca, comes from a root implying wisdom, so the pure Slavonian word vjestica, Bulgarian, vjescirica (masculine, viestae), meant originally the one knowing or well informed, and it has preserved the same power in allied languages, as Veaa (New Slovenish), knowledge, Vedavica, a fortune-teller by cards, Viedma (Russian), a witch, and Vedwin, fatidicus."

Margaret Murray, the next author to write about Witchcraft as pre-Christian religion, never used the word "wicca" at all in her works (although as an Egyptologist, she probably would have enjoyed Circle of Isis, too). Instead, she consistently referred to the "Witch Cult," as did Gerald Gardner when he began writing on the subject in the late 1940's.

Gardner wrote five books during his life: three about Witchcraft, two of which were non-fiction. The first, his novel High Magic's Aid...

...I have to interrupt myself here. If you've never read this book, it's worth checking out, if only for its historical significance. And the fact that anyone who was that bad at composing hideous, faux-medieval dialogue more than likely did not have the wherewithal to create a supposedly "ancient" religion out of whole cloth. Seriously. But back to what I was saying...

... his novel High Magic's Aid described a secret brotherhood of Witches (no mention of "wicca"), while his next book, Witchcraft Today, detailed his personal speculations on the history of the modern Witch cult, specifically the one into which he'd been initiated.

This is where things get a little confusing. But stay with me.

In general, Gardner referred to the people who initiated him as Witches, although he sometimes called them "The Wica." Critics often latch onto this as a spelling error, citing that he probably meant to say "The Wicca," and that's certainly a workable theory... except that in his following book The Meaning of Witchcraft, Gardner does use the word "wicca" a total of five times when discussing the etymology of the word "witch," just as Leland had done. Five times, compared to mentioning "The Wica" 17 times in the same book and three previous times in Witchcraft Today. The possibility of spelling errors aside, it seems clear that Gardner saw a distinction between the Anglo-Saxon wicca and "The Wica" of his tradition.

So how did we get from "The Wica" to Wicca?

Proofreading, apparently.

In 1970, transcripts of a series of lectures given by Alex Sanders were circulated among students of the Alexandrian tradition. In this series, Sanders talked extensively about being one of "The Wicca"; whether by Sanders or his scribe, the debatable "spelling error" had been corrected. In 1971, Stewart Farrar, himself an initiate of Sanders, compiled these lectures, added his own thoughts and experiences, and published the now-classic What Witches Do, in which he used Wicca (no "the") and Witchcraft interchangeably.

The name stuck. And so we find ourselves today.

This is why I get so apoplectic when the local know-it-alls blather on about how "Gardner invented Wicca." Gerald Gardner was just a Witch. Alex Sanders and Stewart Farrar, though, now they invented Wicca.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

On Abandoning Wicca - a Preface

Last week, Thalia noted that across the blogosphere, a number of Pagans, specifically Wiccans, are re-evaluating their beliefs, and, in some cases, walking away from them. I've got mixed emotions about this phenomenon. On the one hand, I’m always happy when people can be honest with themselves. On the other, it’s sad to witness disillusionment. On the other (I’ve got, like, five hands), it bothers me that the people who are currently “outgrowing” Wicca seem to be blaming the religion itself for not offering enough spiritual support.

The thing is, if you need your religion to pat you on the back and tell you you’re a good person and offer an incorporeal mug of hot cocoa every time you’re feeling lonely or insecure... why the hell are you practicing Witchcraft in the first place?

That bit of cattiness aside, I want to be as careful as I can when approaching this topic, a) because there are a lot of issues at play here, and it’s going to take time to properly sort them; and b) because I’d rather not offend or alienate any of my Loyal Strifemongers along the way. So I’m thinking I’m going to write a series of posts on the situation at hand (that’s four), rather than tackling the whole thing in one fell swoop.

We’ll be covering some interesting ground over the next month or so. For now, suffice it to say that the modern Witchcraft revival is a lot deeper than its perceived failings.

More to follow.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Where the magic happens


My altar. An eclectic assortment of discombobulated tchotchkes that come together in a way that makes me content.

Granted, the various symbols featured here may not be universally compatible with contemporary NeoPagan tastes. But this is where I pray to my Gods. On some level, I feel like They and I have worked together to turn a small area of my home into a space that's sacred to everyone (and Everyone) involved.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Angel of Harlem Snarkness

This is how traditions get started.

A few days ago, on a Wiccan listserv, someone made a... well, snarky remark about how one of Deborah's downlines had been snarky to her. And Deborah responded, "All of my downlines are snarky. It's a requirement of initiation."

Then, later, Deborah posted a comment over here about how Basket of Kisses is the coolest pop culture phenomenon ever (it really is), and Co-Witch Y. was all, "Snark Line rulz." And Deborah was like, "Huh? Oh, wait, okay," and blogged about it. And the rest of the newly-christened Snark Line came out of the woodwork and went, "We love it!"

I, of course, maintained that of all her downlines, I'm the lone, perfect angel. So then Deborah called me a liar and Co-Witch Y. was all, "Yeah, the Angel of Snarkness," and the rest of the Snark Line went, "We love it!"

So now I'm the Angel of Snarkness.

I don't know how to say that in Welsh. But I guess I have to buy another domain name.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

A Mind for Sin and a Card for Business

Feeling a bit craftier than usual, I signed up for the 2009 Creative Every Day project, the purpose of which is self-explanatory. I've actually been doing a good job of keeping up with it, from writing to cautious cooking attempts to thoughtfully rearranging my bookshelves. It's been a creativity smörgåsbord over here at Chéz Evn, and I'm ready to get more ambitious... by designing my own business cards.

I'm not (that) ashamed to admit I've had a lifelong love affair with business cards. I collected them as a little kid, and on my seventh birthday, my parents gave me a photo album to display the several hundred I'd amassed. Soon after, calling cards became all the rage with the grammar school set, and I was thrilled when my mother dutifully whisked us off to the print shop.

My brother's cards were decorated with footballs, while mine sported tiny rainbows. Because even then I was a big homo.

As an adult, I keep my professional business cards on me at all times, and I proudly hand them out to anyone who gets within twenty feet of me. But I've realized that a card announcing me as "Manager of Online Customer Support" doesn't have quite the right effect at, say, a pub moot, or a psychic fair. Plus I don't want the Pagans knowing my legal name. And I'd like to be able to list the more esoteric titles I've earned over the years:

Priest

Witch

Ordained Clergyperson

Honorary Adviser to the Archdruids

Second Horseman of the Geomantic Apocalypse

Notary Public

My credentials may be firmly established, but now I need a logo of some kind, and I'm not having much luck in that department. I found this nifty dancing devil which I like a lot--I'm thinking the end of the pitchfork could be worked into a stylized "E." But then, most people don't have the same nostalgia for devils that I do. I briefly considered using that famous woodcut of Robin Goodfellow, the upside being that it simply screams Witchcraft, and the downside being that it also screams "Look, a penis!" So maybe not so much.

I'm currently toying with the various symbols associated with Efnysien in the Mabinogion--cauldrons, bags of flour, dead horses--but nothing is really jumping out at me. So, Strifemongers, I humbly invoke your aesthetics: If you were my logo, what would you look like?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

I never know when to stop talking

A friend of mine, one with no particular interest in Paganism, asked why my e-mails always show up as sent from "Evn."

What I should have said:

"It's my screen name."

What I said instead:

"It's short for Evnissyen. See, England's Anti-Witchcraft Law of 1735 was repealed in 1951, and in 1954, a retired civil servant named Gerald Gardner wrote a book..." followed by a 10-minute dissertation on the history of Wicca.

How I even have any friends is a mystery to me.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Sticks in the Mud

In response to last week's Hoodoo post, and inspired by her word-verification spirit guide Veridu, Strifemonger Never Moon wrote:

"My fave is the retroactive justification: 'This is mine now, and I am going to dig up horribly shaky non-credible evidence to point out that it was never yours in the first place.'"

To which I replied:

"AARRRGH, Druid Sticks!"

So as not to be mistaken as aphasic, I should probably give another quick lecture on geomancy.

Geomantic divination originated sometime between the 9th and 10th centuries in North Africa, spread to the Arabic world, and, over time, found its way to a very Christian Western Europe during the Crusades. As a divinatory system, it's about as non-Pagan as you can get. However, because of its relative obscurity (at least when compared to Tarot or runes), geomancy has become an easy target for enterprising authors looking for occult subject matter to mash up and spoon-feed to NeoPagan consumers.

A couple of years ago, one of the members of the Geomantic Campus e-mail list posted a link to a set of "druid sticks" she'd found online, and my co-moderator (who is, among other things, a Druid) remarked, "Well, yes, they're pretty, but WTF?" Being an investigative, scholarly bunch, we dug around and eventually uncovered a 1995 book called Omens, Oghams & Oracles.

From the publisher's breathless review:

"Although hundreds of books have been written about the Celts and the druids, no book has focused exclusively on Celtic divination--until now. Omens, Oghams & Oracles covers the most important and practical methods of divination in the Celtic and druidic traditions, two of which have never before been published: an original system of divining using the druidic Ogham characters, and 'Arthurian divination,' which employs a geomantic oracle called druid sticks."

Okay. I'm not druidically-minded myself, and I'm fully aware of how little we really know about the ancient druids. That said, I have a sneaking suspicion our wise Celtic ancestors were not up to speed on Islamic methods of prophecy. And what the hell is "Arthurian divination" anyway? If you can't pull the sword from the stone, is the answer to your question no?

Historical falsifications aside, the "druid sticks" are actually useful. They've each got one dot on one side and two dots on the other, so toss four of them on the ground, and boom, instant geomantic figure. Unfortunately, many of the basic interpretations of the geomantic forms presented in this book are watered down to the point where they barely mean anything at all, ensuring that any attempted reading will be inaccurate at best. For example, the figure that traditionally indicates dishonesty, anger and manipulative sexuality is translated as a time for contemplation.

Ew.

Back on the list, the geomancers traded Celtic Oracle wisecracks for awhile before officially banning the term "druid sticks" and moving on to other topics. Until a few months later, that is, when I decided to check out the weekly Reading Circle hosted by a metaphyiscal shop on the outskirts of town.

The idea behind a Reading Circle is that everyone brings his or her favorite form of divination and reads for each other, just to get some practice and hone skills. I ran several geomantic charts, and while most went over well, one of them just tanked: Nothing but random dots on a page, no decent insight whatsoever. I expected the guy getting the reading to be disappointed, so his growing excitement over the whole experience struck me as odd.

"This is so similar to how we teach Ogham in our Druid class!" he exclaimed.

"Really?" I asked, because I'm oblivious. "How so?"

"Well," he said, "We have these little sticks, see, with one dot on one side and two dots on the other..."

If we listen very closely, we'll be able to hear Bo's head explode.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Prezzies! Of the cuddly, demonic kind...

Thalia gave me a gift.

A remarkable, wondrous gift.

A handmade knitted Devil doll wearing a French maid's apron.

Officially, I'm delighted and speechless. Off the record, every dog in my neighborhood is howling, and Jack wants to know why all of our stemware just shattered.

PS: For more information on why I'm so happy, click here.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

It's an honor just to be nominated

In an interview with Esquire magazine, Sarah Palin had this to say about her online detractors:

"Bored, anonymous, pathetic bloggers who lie annoy me."

Even though I made that solemn promise to stop making offensive political comments, I have to say that Palin's statement completely warmed my heart. And it also got me thinking about Tina Fey's Golden Globe acceptance speech:

"If you ever start to feel too good about yourself, they have this thing called the Internet. You can find a lot of people there who don’t like you. I’d like to address some of them now. BabsonLacrosse, you can suck it. DianeFan, you can suck it. Cougar Letter, you can really suck it ’cause you’ve been after me all year."

So now I have this fantasy where Sarah Palin wins some award or other and gives the following address:

"If you ever start to feel too good about yourself, they have this thing called the Internet. You can find a lot of people there who don’t like you. I’d like to address some of them now. Huffington Post, you can suck it. Daily Kos, you can suck it. Lover of Strife, you can really suck it, 'cause you're a gay Witch."

Oh, that would be heaven. If Sarah Palin ever tells me to suck it on national television, I'll totally send her a muffin basket.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Hoodoo? You do. Do what? Annoy me.

The local Pagans about lost their damn minds when they found out some Houston-area churches were offering Praise Moves classes. Although billed as "the Christian alternative to yoga," Praise Moves is basically just yoga, with all the troublesome Hindu terminology removed. This way, the good, God-fearin' folk can get in shape and improve their flexibility without going to Hell.

Personally, I found the whole thing hilarious and futile: a downward-facing dog by any other name and all that. But the rest of the community was deeply affronted, and spent an unduly amount of time blazing up the message boards, ranting about how the Church constantly steals Pagan practices and repurposes them to Christian ends.

"To be fair," I replied, "NeoPagans do the same thing. Except we call it reclaiming."

I got a lot of squawks over that comment, but the fact is, it's true. I don't know if it's because we're not aware of how deeply entrenched we are in the belief systems from which we claim to have seceded, or because too many of us are just assholes. But regardless of why, NeoPagans have a very bad habit of co-opting and strip-mining the occult practices of other religious cultures. And while there's nothing wrong with curiosity and/or exploration, you've simply got to be respectful, without a sense of entitlement.

We're not good at that.

The big NeoPagan trend right now is Hoodoo--that is, Southern, African-American conjure and rootwork, as heavily influenced by European and Native-American folklore. It's a fascinating field, and I think Pagans could get a lot out of it... if only they could perceive it as something not open for their selective harvesting.

With that in mind, I've prepared a handy list of Hoodoo FAQs, culled from various discussions in which I've been embroiled:

I'm a Real Witch, and I'm really into in Hoodoo. But I’ve noticed that when it comes to spellwork, there are all these references to saints and psalms and the Bible. How do rootworkers reconcile the Christian elements of Hoodoo with their Pagan beliefs?

They don’t. The majority of Hoodoo practitioners are Christian.

What?! But Christians can’t practice magick!*

Actually, yes, they can. And do. And have done so for quite some time. If you look at the ancient Coptic texts...

I’m just going to stick my fingers in my ears and go “la la la” until you say something compatible with my personal worldview.

Fair enough.

So if all these rootworkers are Christian, why are there so many Hoodoo spells for causing injury and manipulating other people?

Well, just because you know how to do something doesn’t mean you’re actually going to do it. A physician has to know what effects a particular poison has on the human body in order to accurately diagnose a case of poisoning, but that doesn’t make him or her a poisoner.

Why would Christians be poisoning each other?

Um... try looking at it this way. As a Pagan, would you cast a spell that caused physical injury or manipulated another person?

Harm none! Harm none!!! La la la...

Okay. So it’s safe to assume that Christians probably aren’t casting those spells on each other, either.

Then why do those spells exist?

Because Hoodoo draws from a variety of sources and cultures, and because different magical practitioners have their own ethics.

But that’s wrong! All magickal practitioners have the same ethics! Karma! Threefold Law! Blessed Be!”

No, dear, they don't. Regardless of the type of magic being practiced, the only across-the-board requirement is that the magician be willing and able to take responsibility for his or her metaphysical actions. Any related ethical considerations are personal and subjective.

Oh. So then Hoodoo is whatever I want it to be, right?

I’m just going to stick my fingers in my ears and go “la la la” until you say something less inane.

STOP OPPRESSING ME!!!

And so on.

More and more traditional rootworkers are slamming their doors in the faces of invading Pagans, determined to protect their practices from (not my word, but applicable here) "Wiccanization." And of course, the Pagans in question are deeply affronted, not understanding that slapping a Pagan label on everyone and everything is not universally accepted as a compliment.

As this situation plays out, I'm going to do some stretches and brush up on my Praise Moves. Yes, the very idea of Christian yoga is horrifying. But at least the Fundamentalist who came up with it had the courtesy to say, "Here's what yoga is, here's what I've done with it, and here's how I understand the difference between the actual system and my interpretation."

Pagans could learn a lesson.

*I do not ascribe to the notion that magic needs to be differentiated from stage magic by calling magic "magick," or "majik," or "mah-jique." One can easily differentiate magic from stage magic by calling stage magic "stage magic."

Friday, January 09, 2009

Co-Witch Y. Hath a Gem

At this time, I'd like to direct your attention to Carbuncle of the Sun, a new alchemical blog crafted by the indomitable Yvonne Rathbone.

Hermeticize thyself, pumpkins.

In related news, Strifemonger Albiana has been blogging for ever, but I didn't find out until a couple of weeks ago, on account of I'm a bad Overlord. So please check out Flying Off the Broom Handle for a very refreshing dose of down-to-earth Witchery.

As Red Delicious would say, all for now.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Oh! Yes! That one!

An e-mail from one of our clients:

Hello! I stayed at a resort in the Bahamas about twenty years ago, and I'd love to go back. I don't remember the name, but it was on the beach. And near some shops.

I haven't the words.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

I'm making a list. And checking it twice.

A friend of mine hosted a semi-open circle last night, and the Co-Witches and I trekked out to participate. Despite my general misgivings about public displays of Paganism, I have to say that it was a lovely ritual, with only one glaring blemish to remind me why I never go to these things.

At a particular point in the evening, the officiating priestess asked that anyone feeling inclined to do so share a story, and one attendee spoke of a recently-passed friend, who, with his big belly and white beard, was routinely mistaken for Santa Claus by her children. We all laughed, and several people who knew the guy told similar tales. Finally, somebody quipped, "And if he were here with us today, he'd say, 'Stop calling me Santa Claus!'" Which inspired another hearty round of laughter.

"Yeah, because Santa Claus is Christian!" a rather heavily tie-dyed woman announced.

There was a brief, awkward pause, and then more laughter, but of the nervous, "um, what?" variety.

Blessedly seeking to avoid incident, a woman standing next to Tie-Dye chuckled gamely and said, "Well, not really..."

"Santa means Saint," Tie-Dye replied, her eyes defiant, her voice rising just enough to let the rest of us know she was Not To Be Challenged.

Co-Witch A., alerted by what she later described as the "waves of rage radiating off of you," reached over and gently patted my arm, which is the universal symbol for both "There there, everything's okay," and "Don't you dare embarrass me in front of these people."

So I bit the hell out of my tongue, but oy was I in a mood. Not only because of Tie-Dye's ignorance on the history of a specific metacultural icon (although that was part of it), but because of her arrogant approach to the subject. She was right, any dissenting perspective was wrong, end of story.

You come across this attitude a lot within NeoPaganism: Everyone’s a freakin’ expert, regardless of how little they know, or how limited their range of experience may be. Anyone who actually has a modicum of knowledge and experience is hailed as a guru for roughly five minutes, after which they’re condemned as a stodgy elitist.

Eventually, those with the aforementioned knowledge and experience learn to pick their battles. And then they start their own blogs. Which works out well for everyone.

But just for the record... “Santa” doesn't mean anything. “Santa Claus" is an English vulgarization of Sinterklaas, which is itself a Dutch vulgarization of "St. Nicholas." So yes, we have some Christianity thrown into the mix, but sinter doesn't directly translate as "saint." It does, however, mean "cinder" in German, which possibly connects to that whole “coming down the chimney” thing. But in the U.S. at least, “Santa” is understood to be nothing more than the quaint first name--not the canonical title--of one Mr. Claus, North Pole.

And we haven't even begun to scratch the surface of the correlations between Sinterklaas and Odin, the Norse All-Father.

Then again, I'm not a linguist, nor an anthropologist, nor an expert of any kind. So please feel free to challenge anything I have to say.