A Witch By Any Other Name

“I was raised a Catholic, so sometimes I feel a little conflicted about my witchy tendencies”

Joanna is one of our coven darklings and shared this observation in the comments after the Hecate ritual. It inspired me to share my thoughts on the intersection of witchcraft and other religions, a personal opinion I hope will get you thinking about how you feel when it comes to crafting a personal spirituality.  Our coven is a curated space for you to explore yours. One pointy hat adorned with symbols most certainly does not fit all heads nor the minds housed therein and yet so many different faiths have them for their leaders to wear. Curiously enough.

I write a great deal about how nature is my church. As a pagan and a card carrying witch who lives her personal faith out loud, this is hardly surprising. When I practice its rituals and observations, I feel connected to all that is. I watch the goddess wax and wane and the sun god move across the horizon. I feel their cycles in my body. I observe daily the perpetual rhythm of life, death and rebirth in the seasons and in my garden. I tend my contribution to nature fervently and know that all of it, including my connection to my own spirit, will wither if I don’t. My faith brings me great joy and comfort. It has room for transcendent states and a personal felt sense of an all encompassing power, vast and innate and inherently unknowable. It cultivates mystery and magic. It is my bedrock. A feeling shared by devotees of any faith that satiates the soul’s hunger for states of grace.

The term pagan was coined in the early fourth century by Christians and its origins are rooted in the Latin words for rural and rustic. It was used to describe people in the Holy Roman Empire who still practiced polytheism before it was outlawed. Those who worshiped many different gods and whose practice was rooted in the natural world and their ancestral heritage.

There is a curious thread that streaks through so many organised religions that decrees there is only one true God with just the one consigned and heavily gated path to him. Theirs. It is an unholy justification that has relentlessly been used to enact war and murder and atrocities in God’s name. Trotted out since men were arguing around fires in furs claiming their imaginary friend to be scarier and more superior, and their way to be the only right one. Mansplaining and trying to control the innate human connection to divinity since the beginning of time.

As a child who constantly asked questions in an effort to understand the conundrum inherent, it struck me as violently hypocritical. I went to a Church of England school where critical thinking was encouraged. Still, we had to attend chapel once a week and had religious studies timetabled into our curriculum. Our school chaplain – who was genuinely as old as God – would be shuffled out on Fridays to sermonise in a phlegmy monotone about the stories from the bible and how we had to be like them. Except that all the women were evil temptresses or completely subservient, if they got a mention at all while the men killed their brothers, constantly went to war and stoned people for being different. There was nothing in that for me.

However our religious studies master (don’t even get me started on that one) was a wise man with a deliciously wry sense of humour. Quick witted with a sharp eye for bullshit, the Rev Butterworth was a brilliant teacher and more than happy to debate the toss with his teenage heretics. Which was fortunate because religious studies was immediately followed by science in our timetable. Creationism in period three and Darwinism in period four. I realise now that so many of my beliefs are rooted in both mythology and science and I do not see the two as mutually exclusive. Rather, they are complementary learning and proving grounds for me that have always enlarged the frame, satisfying both my mind and my spirit.

When I began to explore my own spirituality once I left school and its one track pony, there were elements of other religions that made more sense to me than the guilt and judgement laden faith I had been fed. I was enamored with eastern religions that seemed to be more about kindness and humanity than their brutal western counterparts, whose many gods reflected individual aspects of the human condition back to me. At the same time I was studying herbalism and learning about astrology and nature deities. Still there was nothing that felt like a perfect fit for me until I stumbled, via the world of fairy and flowers and the Celtic mythology that was the domain of my ancestors, into witchcraft.

For me it began with an old history book, as all my learning has, called The History of Witchcraft. If you want to call yourself a witch it is imperative to know the history of this tradition. I read it cover to cover after it fell into my hands at just the right time and I was struck dumb with horror. Though I did not know it then because the term was yet to be coined,  the old psychic scar that was my witch wound had begun to throb painfully. I was equally angry and astounded that witches were tortured, demonised, outcast and murdered for knowledge their ancestors had passed down to them for centuries, that was then stolen to form the basis of modern medicine and religion.

Make no mistake about it, the execution of witches at the hands of truly evil men was always about power. One of the key requirements of any colonisation is for the customs, beliefs and religions of the natives to be extinguished. This is a violent and bloody business that at its core holds no regard for history or lore or tradition nor for individual life or freedom from persecution. It is a mindset that underpins discrimination of any kind throughout human history, whether racism or sexism or any of the other malevolent isms.

As the Holy Roman Empire spread like a pool of blood across Europe, the old was desecrated and new towns were founded on Catholic beds. Terrifying new unholy men claimed pagan rituals and beliefs and the consecrated land itself, stealing it all for their own purposes. Many of the key church sites in Europe are built on what were once pagan sacred sites used for ceremonies that aligned with natural power places and portals, songlines or leylines. Churches were the centre of any new settlement and the first built, places I always feel a sense of wonder within. Christmas and the baby Jesus replaced yule and the winter solstice, the church folding the pagan symbolism of hopeful birth in midwinter into its new narrative. Easter crucifixion was Ostara re-purposed, the spring equinox observation that petitioned the gods for rebirth and new life right down to the eggs and bunnies. In fact there is a pagan flicker still not extinguished in most all Catholic tradition, tucked behind a brutal war on any personal connection to it.

The word witch has its roots in Norse and Germanic words for wise and tends to refer linguistically to women. It infers through its heritage a knowledge of the natural world and how to make use of it as medicine and magic. It tapped into a power that their book of shadows (“the bible”) forbid because it threatened the empire’s power. And so in the mid thirteenth century, an army of roving priests from the privileged Dominican order of the Catholic church beset the lands to curb this insurrection. Men whose aim was conversion and whose means was murder. Their chief enemy and target was women, whom they demonised with new terms like heretic, aiming squarely for those who were the local village herbalists and midwives, wise and cunning folk, seers and visionaries. The witches. A woman was guilty as soon as the bone was pointed and placed in league with a devil her interrogators more closely resembled. Guilt by association with the thirteen cycles of the moon, the magic of plants, the predictable cycles of a woman’s body and the stars and seasons. The empire set out to divide and decimate and conquer.

The witch wound originates in those times and still strikes fear into our hearts. We have died for our beliefs and talents before. These days it is also the uneasy pulse of shame or guilt that comes via the cultural and religious bias we have grown up with. To my mind, any belief structure that cannot make room for the autonomy of the individual and their right to choose how their life is shaped and framed is dangerous in the extreme. I am not a fan of any kind of propaganda, religious or otherwise, that demonises those outside its prescription and rules. Nor do I have any tolerance of blatant hypocrisy and it kills me how many in religious circles preach what they do not practice. I feel the same way about Christians as I do about Buddhists or vegans or conservatives or atheists or breatharians. I live and let live and hope I will be met in kind. But if they knock on my door or invade my space with their my way or the highway-isms, they are fast schooled in invasion and persecution and history. Having a broom by the door limits the throngs.

In modern times, this same archaic belief framework has shaped misogyny and patriarchy and all the inequitable aspects of our societies. It still informs our power structures, crumbling and reforming as they may finally be. Because they have to. In Australia Catholics saw their church’s highest rank, a despicable cardinal whose name I will not note, imprisoned for the term of his natural life for long term pedophilia. And then released on appeal because of his friends in high (court) places. His vengeful God will get him in the end. Gross abuse of children particularly is a Vatican acknowledged cancer, rife within their ranks and dimensions outside the commandments they entreat their flock to follow. It is forcing people around the world to wonder and muse upon their relationship to their faith, which can never be a bad thing.

Humans crave a gnosis of divinity. Some believe that phrase forms the acronym of the word god, whose linguistic roots pull from ancient words for good. No doubt because a clear connection to that which is divine can only ever be a good thing. This knowledge is indeed powerful which is why it was outlawed and obscured, shaped and framed behind gates and judgement, hidden in the afterlife to cultivate subservience in the living. The good book even tells us that the kingdom of heaven lies within, in the heart and soul of those who believe. It is a common invitation writ in all the good books in so many different cultures and traditions. To cultivate a relationship to divinity in your own life, no matter how you see it or feel it or practice it.

“I realised that everything is magic. And it’s all holy. All of it. And I thought, the Catholic God of my childhood is probably just fine with me being a witch. When I started my car to go home Stairway to Heaven was playing on the radio.”

I am inclined to agree, Joanna. And perhaps it is true that god is indeed a DJ. Many will tell you what being a witch has to look like and sound like and feel like and be like. In the same way that far too many will tell you who and how your god is and the way in which you have to dial in. This coven space is for exploring, through the lens of witchcraft which is why you are here in the first place, how you personally connect to the sacred spark within you. The same spark that informs all of nature. It is a deep dive into the brackish waters between what you were born into and what you have discovered along the way. And there is absolutely no reason that you cannot marry a wide array of elements, traditions and beliefs to cultivate a spiritual form work that fits you perfectly. One moon at a time, darklings.

 

This post first appeared in the Bohomofo coven in 2019. Jump here to join us.