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.

Witch by Design

Jack’s on a business trip right now, so I feel comfortable making a public announcement, knowing he won’t read this and have an aneurism until at least Thursday afternoon.

I want to become a NeoPagan interior designer.

Okay, yes, I freely admit that my taste levels have been questioned in the past. And I also admit that I’ve been watching too many reality competitions on the Bravo network while thinking, “You know, that doesn’t look so hard. Slap on a fresh coat of paint, bring in a new sofa set, help Kelly Wearstler remember how to use the muscles in her face… child’s play.”

But I did briefly work in the industry. And I’m looking at how the triptych of equal-armed Celtic crosses next to our sliding back door blends brilliantly with the ceramic decorations on our balcony. I’m looking at how the reproduction I picked up at the Museum of Fine Arts compliments my green devil Maurin Quina print (which, in turn, compliments Jack’s Cafés Chocolats). I’m looking at how the framed pieces of artwork leading to our bedroom–as well as the magnets on our refrigerator–create captivating, viable eyelines.

Even Jack will agree with me here. When I came home with a set of yin-yang candle holders, he rolled his eyes: “Great, just what we need. More crap.” Then, five minutes later, after he saw them installed in the master bathroom: “My God, they set off the shower curtain beautifully!

Oooh, and back when Jack’s brother lived with us, I had to move my altar into the living room. With a few subtle, well-placed religious symbols and a couple of pillar candles from Target, I created a practical, accessible devotional space that, at first glance, came across as an innocuous end table with some thoughtfully arranged knick-knacks on top. It totally fooled Co-Witch A., and she knows from altars.

I’m good. I could so do this.

All I need is some rich patrons to get me off the ground.

And I think I know how to find them.

When it comes to NeoPagan retail, the Houston area is cursed with abundance. There’s the Magick Cauldron, Elemental Magick, Simply Magick, Lucia’s Garden, Metaphysical Matrix, Rhyandra’s, Tranquil Thymes, Temple’s Gate and the Witchery, plus (should your occultism lean towards the Diasporic) the Blue Hand, the Stanley Drug Co., Botanica Elegua and thirty or so yerberias. But there’s also a New Age boutique, located in one of the city’s high-end shopping district, which caters specifically to wealthy socialites who want their country club acquaintances to think of them spiritual: Antique singing bowls, $3000 statues of Kwan Yin, The Secret on DVD, that sort of thing.

Those socialites are my moneymakers.

Here’s my business model. I get a part-time job at the boutique, learn enough about Feng Shui to sound like I know what I’m talking about, and make astute décor recommendations to the clientele decked out in diamonds and Hermés peasant skirts. People will talk (“He changed my life! And the billiard room!”), customers will start asking for me, and eventually, someone will want to know if I’d be so kind as to redo their summer home.

The rest, as they say, will be gravy. High-end gravy.

Look for me on Bravo, circa 2010. I’m going to be the next new thing, possums; I’m going to own this town. And I’m bringing you all along with me.

Evn on the Eve of the Election

My polling station is a Catholic Church a couple of blocks over from my apartment complex. After placing my vote, I ducked into the sanctuary for a quick prayer.

I will admit to feeling a little guilty about praying to the Goddess of the Witches in the middle of a Catholic Church. But they’ve got this amazing, floor-to-ceiling Queen of Heaven mosaic along the back wall, depicting the Virgin Mary in the standard Artemis at Ephesus pose, that frankly couldn’t get any more Pagan if they tacked a “Please Remove Clothes Before Venerating” sign to it. So I figure no harm done.

I did not, as my Strifemongers might assume, pray for Obama to win. It just was my usual daily devotion, albeit carried out in a different venue. However, I did make a deal.

If Obama wins…

[Jack, you’re going to want to sit down for this one.]

If Obama wins, I promise to stop expressing my political views in ways that mortally offend the people around me.

For example, I will no longer scream, “Fuck you! Fuck you, I hate you!” at the television while Jack is trying to watch the news. I will no longer make proclamations like, “I don’t care what you think: If he willingly represents the entire republican party, then he is, in fact, a bad person.” I will no longer suggest that the world would be a better place if Sarah Palin were to be eaten by wolves.

So that’s my offering; my sacrifice. I agree to muzzle myself, so long as the situation at hand resolves itself in a truly necessary change.

That said, should things work themselves out otherwise, I have free reign to develop a spontaneous, acute and unstoppable case of Tourette’s, the likes of which this world has never seen.

So, for me, it’s win/win. But I’d prefer things get better for everyone.

Moon Worship and the Modern Witch

“Happy Assumption!” I said to my Eastern Orthodox employee as she sat down at her desk. Today is the Feast of the Assumption, after all, marking the date that the Virgin Mary ascended into Heaven from her house in Ephesus, Turkey. Which, according to legend, is where she moved after she retired, Ephesus being the Florida of the first-century Jewish world.

E.O. looked confused for a second, but then her brow cleared. “Oh, you mean the Dormition! Thanks! Happy Dormition to you, too!”

“Dormition?” It was my turn to look confused.

“We call it the Dormition instead of the Assumption.” she explained. “Catholics believe that Mary was bodily assumed, and we believe that she… well, you know, died. But she definitely went to Heaven after that.”

Yeah, not quite as romantic as the Catholic version. What I (wisely) decided not to mention is that the early Church fathers scheduled the Assumption/Dormition/Whatever on August 15 in order to replace the Nemoralia, the ancient Roman Festival of Torches held annually in honor of Diana, Great Goddess of the Moon.

Eight Sabbats and thirteen Esbats aside, the Nemoralia is my favorite holiday. I’ve got a little altar set up in my bedroom, featuring a framed print of Erté’s Queen of the Night and a couple of Virgin Mary votive candles (La Virgen de Guadalupe y La Virgen de San Juan respectively, both easy to find when you live in South Texas), and every August 15, I rededicate it as a shrine to Diana. It’s a ritual that’s become a personal touchtone, and I get unreasonably giddy about it.

Granted, me huddled over a small chest of drawers in the corner of an urban apartment doesn’t have the same visual impact as, say, hundreds of devotees wreathed in flowers, carrying torches, led by garlanded hounds and waiting with baited breath to be ferried across the smooth, dark waters of Lake Nemi under the bathing rays of the Full Moon. But I’ll light some jasmine incense and say a few prayers, and pour an offering of willow water. And for a fleeting, lovely moment, time, space and my ugly tan carpet will be rendered irrelevant.

Buon Nemoralia, Loyal Strifemongers. Happy Assumption, Merry Dormition, and to all a good night.

Nobody here but us Pagans. I mean, chickens.

One of the big chewy beefs a lot of NeoPagans have with Christianity involves assimilation: the idea that over the centuries, Christians undermined local folk and nature religions by incorporating their practices and turning their Gods into saints. “St. Bridget was originally Brigid, the Goddess of Fire and Poetry,” the NeoPagans will aver, possibly pounding on a table to accentuate their point. “Until the Church Christianized her.”

The thing is, assimilation isn’t really the Church’s MO–historically, it’s always leaned more towards smash-and-grab. So let’s take a quick gander at the Real and For True (insofar as I think it’s true) process by which Pagan deities wind up as Christian saints:

Christian: “Hey! Are you people worshipping false idols?”

Pagan: “Oh no, of course not. We’re… uh, we’re venerating… Catherine. Saint Catherine.”

Christian: “Are you sure? That statue looks a lot like Cerridwen, the Welsh Mother Goddess I’ve been reading about.”

Pagan: “No, it’s definitely St. Catherine. She’s, um, new. We checked.”

Christian: “Well, as long as she’s a saint…. carry on, then.”

Pagan: “Right. Blessed be.

Christian: “Excuse me?”

Pagan: “I said, Amen.”

Ain’t that sneaky? Those Medieval Pagans sure were a plucky bunch of unbaptized savages. Now, as to how Brigid became St. Bridget…

Priestess 1: “Uh oh. The Christians are back.”

Priestess 2: “You know, I’ll bet if we tell them we’re all nuns now, they won’t start stabbing us again.”

Priestess 1: “That’s just crazy enough to work.”

Better than a Ricola

February 3 is the feast day of St. Blaise, protector of livestock and healthy throats, and patron of those who work with wool. On this day, Catholic priests perform the Blessing of the Throats. Two white tapers, blessed the day before (February 2, i.e. Candlemas, i.e. the Feast of St. Brigit, i.e. the Pagan festival of Imbolc) are crossed into an “X” formation, then tied together with red cord and held against the throat, while a traditional invocation to Blaise is recited:

Ain’t no other man can stand up next to you,
Ain’t no other man on the planet does what you do. (What you do!)
You’re the kind of guy a girl finds in a blue moon. (hey)
You got soul (yeah), you got class (ohh).
You got style, you bad ass (Oh Yeah!)
Ain’t no other man it’s true (all right)
Amen

[guitar solo]

Blaise is one of the 14 Holy Helpers, a group of legendary saints invoked against the Black Plague during the Middle Ages, all of whom are Christianized perceptions of older Pagan Gods. Veneration of Blaise traces back to the Slavic horned deity Veles (whose name means “wool”), God of earth, water, cattle, magic, wealth and the Underworld. It’s fairly obvious to see why Blaise is the patron of livestock and woolworkers, although the healthy throats thing seems to come out of nowhere. But according to legend, a little girl was choking on a fish bone, and Blaise miraculously saved her–possibly by miraculously whacking her on the back until she miraculously yacked it up.

If you look at photos of priests blessing throats, you’ll notice that they grip the candles with one hand, in a manner suspiciously reminiscent of la mano cornuta contro il malocchio, i.e. the corna, i.e. “Hook ’em Horns,” i.e. that hand gesture people make at Metallica concerts. Historically, the corna is a symbol of protection, used to ward off bad luck and the evil eye… or, in this case, to ward off the evil throat.

So, to sum up, making the sign of the horns and invoking a wooly God of the Underworld is good for what ails ye, provided the whole thing takes place under the auspices of Jesus.

Don’t you just love Catholics? I know I do.

Happy Vappu To You

Tonight is the Eve of Beltane, an ancient Celtic fire festival marking the end of the first planting and the beginning of Summer, and in current times one of the big annual NeoPagan holidays (the others being Samhain, Lammas and Presidents’ Day). Beltane Eve is also called Walpurgis Night, a name I truly adore. I love saying “Walpurgis.” Try it: Walpurgis Walpurgis Walpurgis. Isn’t that a fun word? Or, even better, “Walpurgisnacht.” Oooh, but that’s a satisfying series of consonants. If you hit them right, you’ll totally clear your sinuses.

The name Walpurgis (“Walpurgisnacht!” “Gesundheit!”) derives from St. Walburga, who’s feast day falls on May 1. St. Walburga’s an actual historical figure, but she has a whole bunch of Pagan baggage attached to her–most notably, she’s one of five saints to whom legend assigns the Grain Miracle, which is in itself a remnant of pre-Christian agrarian ritual. Ah, to have been a fly on the thinly-veneered wall back then:

Medieval priest – “What have I told you people about venerating Pagan idols?!”

Medieval Pagans – “We’re not. We promise. We’re just celebrating the fact that St. Walburga had the power to make the grain grow as she passed by, which was a miracle and certainly not any kind of ancient fertility magic.”

Medieval priest – “Oh. Um, I see. It just looked… I mean, what with the corn dollies and orgies and all… well, you know…”

Medieval Pagans – “It was an honest mistake. We understand.”

Medieval priest – “Good, good, I’m glad we’re on the same page. So I’ll see you all on Sunday for the feast of St. Phallus the Foliate-Headed?”

Medieval Pagans – “Sho ’nuff, boss.”

Other names for Beltane include Vappu (see title of this post), May Day, and my all-time favorite… Varbolg. I am unable to speak the word Varbolg. Anytime I try, it comes out as a deep-throated shout, followed by a raucous demand for wenches and grog.

And strangly enough, I have the exact same reaction when I try to say “Pentecost.” I was the crappiest Episcopalian ever.

Varbolg!