Sunday, July 4, 2010

Open letter, part 5: my response

So essentially, we're not debating linguistics at all. That is, we both see language as something that changes over time. Which means that what we're discussing is far more pragmatic. Basically, we're asking the question, Is it better for the word Wicca to be taxonomic--used to categorize religious practice by an established set of criteria--or not? If we allow it to become non-taxonomic, then I suppose the word would become something like the word "art," which in the contemporary sense at least, has no boundaries, and can be applied to just about anything. And many have said that as a result "art" is now meaningless.

Now this is a debate that I think could go on forever, because it has been going on forever. It hasn't always been about Wicca, but there has always been some label that has been debated in this way. A word is created, its meaning gradually expands through the various ways the word is used, and, if this expansion isn't stopped, the word becomes "meaningless" and is eventually replaced by a new word or set of words.

So it seems to me that our difference of opinion is this: you refer to yourself as Wiccan and want to lay down boundaries for what it means to be Wiccan, so that that word won't become meaningless and meet its demise. I call myself Wiccan (though not exclusively; I use other labels too), but I'm okay with the idea that that term may sooner or later die and be replaced. To be or not to be? That is the question (at least from the perspective of the word and it's existence). Which is better? It's an ethical question.

What I can readily say is that I can't answer this question. Better for whom/what? I'm not really bothered by the idea of the word passing away, mainly because new words would take its place. But is that for the greater good? While I believe that ultimately it is, I don't think I'm very qualified to argue that, because I'm not an ethical philosopher.

So I have to leave it to anyone reading this to decide what they believe. What I would encourage for them, though, is to read philosophy, from the ancient Greeks right up to the postmodernists, and see where that leads them.


Saturday, July 3, 2010

Open letter, part 4: response from Matthaios

If you have even a vague definition of Wicca, then you acknowledge at least something that distinguishes Wicca--some sort of border which, if crossed, means that one is or is not practicing Wicca.

Sure, "Christian" has a broad meaning. Christianity, though, in all its forms, through history has had one thing in common--one thing that said you are or are not a Christian: that Jesus was exceptionally holy and the Messiah. The dividing line has become even more clean-cut since the Enlightenment: that Jesus is the son of God and the Messiah.

As covered in my Vox article, Wicca cannot claim such uniformity of belief. Rightfully so. We are a religion of Priests and Priestesses: we have our own links to the Divine and our own interpretation of Them, the rituals, magic, and the world around us. Ritual--and the eight characteristics outlined in the article--are the vehicle by which we discover the Gods. A different vehicle will take us down a different path. This is fine...just don't call a Hyundai a Honda.

As for "Witch" and "Wicca" being the same word, philologically speaking, that is a stickier point. In the spirit of evolving language, the two words have grown apart in meaning. So much so, that Wicca has come to mean anything Gardnerian derived and Witchcraft covering not only Gardnerian-derived Wicca, but the practices which are not Gardnerian derived (ie Cochran-based, Anderson Feri tradition, etc). What do I mean by Gardnerian derived? Not specifically with lineage back to Gardner, but stylistically derived from Gardnerian Witchcraft.

Is it evolution for "Wicca" to become this undefined catch-all? Or is it simply the result of someone not being taught correctly by teachers without a backbone? Consider this imaginary conversation:

Student: I want to become a Wiccan.
Teacher: Okay, well, first let's learn how to cast a circle.
Student: You know, I really prefer squares.
Teacher: Well, I guess. I don't have a right to say what you're doing isn't Wicca. Okay. Well, Since there are four corners to a square, we can still talk about calling the guardians to guard, square.
Student: Yeah, I read a little about these guardians in a book. I don't know. I just don't think I need to call any guardians. Besides, it seems kind of rude to demand they show up to my square just because I ask them to.
Teacher: Huh. Okay. Well, scratch that. Let's talk about the God and Goddess.
Student: The All.
Teacher: Huh?
Student: Well, since I don't think the God and Goddess are physical, and therefore they neither have chromosomes or genitalia to establish their sex or gender...I just prefer to call It...whatever It is, the All.
Teacher: Well...I'm polytheistic, personally...but I do know a number of henotheists in Wicca...and pantheists. So, I guess that's no problem. What about magic?
Student: I just don't want to risk harming someone, so instead of taking some sort of moral stance, I'm just gonna sit out on that game all-together.
Teacher: So, you prefer to cast a square without magic and without any sort of protections to worship an ambiguous, undefined Deity.
Student: Right.
Teacher: But you want to be a Wiccan?
Student: Right.
Teacher: So, what is it you think Wicca is?
Student: I dunno. You tell me, you're the teacher.

A glimpse of the Andanti tarot

As a companion piece to my article on Witchvox this week,* I thought I'd give my readers a glimpse at the Andanti tarot, since it's very different in some respects from most other tarot decks. For this post, when I say something about "normal" or "average" tarot decks, I'm talking mainly about the Rider-Waite tarot, since this is the deck on which the most popular tarot decks today are based.

The differences between the Andanti tarot and other tarot decks are primarily in the Major Arcana. Andanti symbolism differs, and in fact the order of the cards is drastically changed. Adding to this, the names of some cards vary from other tarot decks. I won't be telling all the details here (some things have to be kept a mystery!) but I'll take a few minutes to discuss a few cards from the Andanti Major Arcana.

THE FOOL: One thing that even most beginners know about the tarot is that the Major Arcana contains 22 cards.** Unfortunately, this isn't true. In fact, there are 21 trumps in a tarot deck. Most users make the mistake of including The Fool in the Major Arcana. But in the earliest tarot decks, The Fool was seen as a wild card, existing outside both the Major and Minor Arcana. This is why he was given the number 0 rather than 1. And in fact, the image on the card represents a vagabond rather than a fool. He is a rootless, wandering person, existing outside of all categories, orders, and class structures. He is treated as such in the Andanti tarot. Among other things he represents both beginnings and endings, the uninitiated and the wise, and the idea of defying classification. He is the beginning and the end of all spiritual journeys.

THE HIGH PRIEST: In most decks, this card is called The Hierophant. Andanti tarot deems him The High Priest, simply because "Hierophant" tends to give the card an automatically negative connotation. In Andanti, The High Priest's number is 4 rather than five. His symbol, appropriately, is the Celtic Cross--a cross inscribed in a circle. The oldest Celtic Crosses are actually not uniquely Celtic. They have been found in cultures ranging from Greece to the British Isles to North America. Generally, they have been used to represent two things: the Earth (the arms of the cross being the four directions) and the Sun (the arms being rays of light). In Andanti, both the Sun and the number 4 are linked to the God, and hence the High Priest in his capacity as a representative of the God and as part of the social order.

THE HIGH PRIESTESS: Normally, she would be #2 in a tarot deck, but in the Andanti tarot, The High Priestess is #5. Naturally, her symbol is the pentagram. This connects her to the heavens, as the pentagram appears to have originally been a symbol connected to the planet Venus, known in ancient times as the Morning and Evening Star. Doubtless, some people reading this will protest. Isn't the masculine connected to the sky and the feminine to the Earth? If The High Priest corresponds to the God and The High Priestess to the Goddess, isn't this backwards? Well, in the Greek sense, you're right. To the ancient Greeks, Gaia (the Earth) was female, while Uranos (the heavens) was male. However, to the Egyptians the opposite was true. Everyone in ancient Egypt knew that Geb (Earth) was a god, whereas Nut (the sky) was a goddess. I'm not arguing that one interpretation is correct and the other erroneous. But Andanti revels in such paradoxical reversals, especially with regards to gender.

Another reason for this reversal is to balance the other "couple" of the Major Arcana--the Empress and Emperor. In Andanti, they are cards 2 and 3, respectively. To many, this will be another reversal. Witches often say that 2 is a masculine number and 3 is feminine. Traditionally, though, it's the other way around.***

THE WHEEL: Called The Wheel of Fortune in most decks, this card is #8 in the Andanti tarot, and it should be easy for most Pagans to understand why. For most Pagans, the word "wheel" connotes the Wheel of the Year, and hence the 8 Sabbats. In fact, wheels are connected to the number 8 in other systems as well, such as Buddhism (though for different reasons). This card, then, is connected not just to fortune but also to fate and the passage of time.

THE MOON: Normally card 19, The Moon in Andanti tarot is 15. 5, as I discussed earlier, is a goddess number. Andanti, like most systems of Witchcraft, recognizes the concept of the Triple Goddess (though with less focus than other systems) and the Triple Goddess generally corresponds to the moon, hence the number 15 (15=3x5).

THE SUN: Card 16 instead of eighteen. 16=4x4. 16=2x8. The correspondence here should be clear. This card is connected to the God, especially in his aspect as lord of time.

THE STAR: This is one case in which Andanti agrees with other tarot systems about the number. The Star is 17. In Andanti, The Star connotes the Star Goddess, hence it is only fitting that it should carry a prime number.

This has been just a brief look at a few elements of the Andanti tarot. I hope you enjoyed it. You may have noticed the absence of any Qabalistic interpretation here. As I point out in my article,* tarot was not connected to Qabalism until fairly late in history, and Andanti does not incorporate the Qabala (or even monism, but that's a larger discussion). Anyway, I hope you enjoyed it and/or found something useful.

**Sometimes with 2 different versions of the Temperance card, to be alternated depending on situation.

***See The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Signs and Symbols by Adele Nozedar

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Open letter, part 3: my response to Matthaios

Hi Matthaios,

I'm not saying that should have no definition. Rather, what I'm saying is that it has always been a broad term, so it's bound to carry additional meanings outside of what you've outlined, just as the word "Christian" can convey meanings outside of what most mainstream Christians would like it to convey. It's regrettable that this causes everyone (including poorly informed teenagers) to be lumped together, but I see this as an inevitable process in the evolution of language.

My only reason for writing to you is that your article cited the same Buckland interview I cited several months ago in one of mine. Because your article was articulate and well thought out, I thought it might be interesting to debate this.

"If there is someone who has put in the years of work yet does not match up to all eight characteristics, then I would have to ask why using the word Wicca and not some other word (even just 'Witch', or 'Magician', or 'Cunning person') is so important. But, that's just my opinion."

Philologically speaking, "witch" and "wicca" are the same word, and actually I probably use witch more often. I never use "magician," but that's more of an aesthetic choice. It's not that I wish to use Wicca and no other label; it's more that I don't like the implications of denying someone a label he/she prefers to carry because of what are (taking the broad spectrum of Paganism into account) small differences.


Open letter, part 2: Response from Matthaios

"Words only have power in that they are a product of consensus--that is, they allow ideas to be conveyed."

That a word's power lies in its ability to convey an idea, I agree. If Wicca has no definition, if it conveys nothing, then what power or meaning does it have?

I wonder why you take such offense to what I've written? Who am I to you? Why does my opinion matter to you at all? Why do you care if I'd consider you a Wiccan?

I hold to my opinion because I think there needs to be some distinction between what the stereotypical teenager does after skimming through some poorly made websites on Wicca and what a person who has done some serious magical work over a period of years in honor of the Gods. To say what they're both doing is Wicca and is, therefore, in some way, the same, is a lie to one and an insult to another.

If there is someone who has put in the years of work yet does not match up to all eight characteristics, then I would have to ask why using the word Wicca and not some other word (even just "Witch", or "Magician", or "Cunning person") is so important. But, that's just my opinion.

I'm curious to know what your definition of Wicca would be.


Sunday, June 27, 2010

An open letter to Matthaios regarding his recent article on Witchvox

Hi Matthaios,

First let me say that I enjoyed reading your essay. It was well-written, and you obviously have put a lot of thought into your opinion.

However, I found your article sadly lacking. It is clear that you have little if any knowledge of semiotics or the way language functions. Words only have power in that they are a product of consensus--that is, they allow ideas to be conveyed. The idea that words in and of themselves have power is (in my opinion) outdated and overly Platonic. I recommend reading _After God: The Future of Religion_ by Don Cupitt for an erudite and postmodern look at the role of language in the history of religion. Most importantly, Cupitt shows that words are not fixed in meaning, but are fluid and constantly changing.

I also have to say that I take offense at your implication that people who don't subscribe to your definition of Wicca must be using that term with a lack of intent. While this may be true of some people, it is decidedly untrue of many others. There are many people who label themselves Wiccans who possess a vast knowledge of the history and etymology of the word, yet nevertheless would not meet many of the points on your checklist of Wiccan orthopraxy. I know, because I am one such person.

The uncomfortable truth is that the words "wicca" and "witchcraft" both predate Gardner by centuries, and even if Gardner did not create his own tradition, there is no reason to think that the term "wicca" originally implied anything resembling Gardnerian witchcraft or contemporary Wicca. Gardner himself was assigning a new meaning to "witchcraft" and "Wica" (as he spelled it) when he applied these terms to his tradition. In light of this, I find any argument for purity of terminology woefully unpersuasive.

Blessed Be,


"Words Have Power--Defining Wicca," by Matthaios:

Friday, June 25, 2010

How (and When) to Approach a Teacher

Lately, I’ve been reading several books at once. Actually, I have a habit of doing this. It seems I just can’t limit myself to a single volume; as soon as I find one that interests me, I see several others I’d like to read, and I just can’t wait. I’m the proverbial kid in a candy store when I go to the library. Lately, all of the books that I’m reading--one on mythology, one on psychology, one on occult symbolism--seem to touch somehow on the Biblical stories of creation and Adam and Eve.

As a Pagan, I don’t put too much stock in these stories. I’ve read too much about evolution, geologic history, and the dubious historicity of the Bible to take any of it as literal truth. Not only that, I see the vague pre-Jewish paleopagan references in the creation story.

For example, consider the line from Genesis that says “and the spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” Few people realize that the Hebrew word we translate as “hovering” can also be translated as “brooding, ” suggesting a hen incubating her eggs. And these primordial waters that are mentioned are interesting.

Many other Indo-European cultures also mention the primordial waters--except in these other traditions, the water is linked not to a masculine sky god, but to a (sometimes dark) mother goddess, such as Tiamat or Danu. Likewise, when the Biblical authors say, “And there was evening and there was morning, the first day, ” I can’t help but wonder if this is a remnant of goddess worship. After all, “evening and morning” could refer to the Morning Star and Evening Star, both of which are in fact the planet Venus, which has been associated with goddesses since before the Bible was written.

What truly interests me, though, is the story of Eve eating the apple (well, at least later traditions say it was an apple, which could be another goddess reference*) . It fascinates me, because in many ways it is a tale of initiation. According to the story, Eve ate the apple because she desired knowledge (and the apple looked tasty) . What is curious in this story is the way this comes about. It isn’t Eve who approaches the serpent in the tree, but the serpent who offers her the apple. This is interesting, given that we’re dealing with a Jewish story. ** After all, in Judaism, when a prospective convert comes along, seeking initiation into the faith, it is traditional for the rabbi to refuse her. This is one of the things I admire about Judaism. The refusal isn’t meant to drive students away. Instead, it’s a tool for determining how serious the prospective student is.

Though I’m not--nor have I ever been--Jewish, I can sympathize. As a teacher, it’s impossible to know at first if a student is serious, so you often have to use challenging questions to determine this. Some think about these questions and respond thoughtfully; others disappear, never to be heard from again.

But I also sympathize with students. Finding a teacher is hard enough; often it’s nearly impossible to locate one within a hundred miles of you. Making things more difficult, it might be unclear how to approach a teacher. After all, most Pagan traditions (like Jewish traditions) don’t proselytize. So when you think you’ve found a teacher, how do you begin that relationship? Well, there is no definite set of rules, but here are some suggestions.

1) Before asking for instruction, try mentioning a few books that have influenced your practice, and ask for recommendations for further reading. A good teacher should be able to recommend quite a few books. These books should not be limited to the so-called “Wicca 101” titles; a qualified teacher may also include books on history and mythology, even philosophy and other religions. On that note, I’ve included an example of the type of books I recommend at the end of this article.

2) Explain to the teacher why you feel you need instruction. What do you hope to gain from the experience? Initiation into a tradition? Greater ritual experience? Maybe you’ve read a few books, but have trouble understanding how to translate the knowledge you’ve gained into a working practice. Maybe you’ve been practicing for some time, but haven’t felt the energy or seen any results. Or, maybe you’re simply having trouble with certain things, like meditation. Be honest about what you know and what you don’t.

3) Proceed with caution if a teacher is too eager to teach you. The first teacher I approached was very nice and seemed eager to teach me, but after we met in person, I felt that part of his reason for wanting to teach me was that he was attracted to me. And quite frankly, I knew that would complicate matters, so I didn’t pursue his instruction any more after that.***

4) Remember that no teacher is perfect or infallible. If she isn’t right for you, you can politely tell her so. If something doesn’t feel right, remember that you are free to end your relationship with the teacher at any time. Also, remember that sex-positive religions sometimes attract less than reputable people. If you encounter any kind of sexual coercion or pressure, run the other way.****

5) If a teacher asks you some tough questions (remember that there is a difference between tough and inappropriate) , stand your ground and try to answer them. Most likely, she is trying to figure out if you are the right student, just as you’re figuring out whether she’s the right teacher. Carefully answering these questions helps her decide this, and shows her that you’re serious.

6) And don’t forget: not everyone needs a teacher. That’s right. Many Witches are fulfilled (and quite effective) without ever receiving formal instruction. And, as I point out in another article, we’re all self-initiates in one sense or another. If you choose to go the solitary route, make sure to read broadly, discuss concerns with other Witches, and listen to your instincts.

Reading List:

For beginners, I recommend first tackling Drawing Down the Moon by Margot Adler. It’s an in-depth read, so it may feel a bit overwhelming at times, but Adler is a top-notch journalist, and I’ve never encountered a comparable study of the history of Paganism in America. (I also have to admit I’m partial to Adler as a fellow New Yorker) .

To actually understand the workings of Witchcraft, try reading Buckland’s Complete Book of Witchcraft (a.k.a. the Big Blue Book) by Raymond Buckland, and Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner by Scott Cunningham. For a more feminist perspective, read Starhawk’s classic The Spiral Dance.

For an erudite but brief overview of the practice and history of Neopagan Witchcraft, try Witchcraft: A Concise Guide by Isaac Bonewits. I also highly recommend The Elements of Ritual by Deborah Lipp for an interesting look at the role of the elements in Witchcraft. As a simple desk reference for beginners (or even more advanced Pagans) , I like The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Signs and Symbols by Adele Nozedar.

Now for the non-Pagan books. This list could go on forever, so I’ll try to be brief.

Mythology: Edith Hamilton’s Mythology; Celtic Myths and Legends by Peter Berresford Ellis; Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race by T. W. Rolleston; Joseph Campbell’sThe Hero With a Thousand Faces (I can’t emphasize Campbell’s writings enough) ; Parallel Myths by J. F. Bierlein

History, Philosophy, Archaeology: The Closing of the Western Mind by Charles Freeman; The Bible Unearthed by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman; Witches, Druids and King Arthur by British historian Ronald Hutton, as well as his book The Triumph of the Moon; Sacred Britain by Martin and Nigel Palmer. I also recommend The Heroine’s Journey by Maureen Murdock (technically a book of psychology and feminist philosophy) , as a good counterpoint to the masculine biases in Joseph Campbell’s work.

Science: Cosmos, The Demon-Haunted World, and The Varieties of Scientific Experience by Carl Sagan (fair warning: these may challenge many of your core assumptions) . I also recommend the work of the “New Atheists, ” Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennet, and Christopher Hitchens. To balance them, read The Language of God by Christian biologist Francis Collins (his argument for belief in evolution is elegant; his argument for the Christian god is terribly unimpressive) .

Non-Western Religions: I highly recommend Oxford University Press’s Very Short Introduction series for the basics on various religions. Books pertaining to Eastern religions that may be of particular interest to Neopagans include Tantra: The Path of Ecstasy by Georg Feuerstein (no, it’s not a sex book!) , and The Three Pillars of Zen by Roshi Philip Kapleau.

Despite my ramblings having probably overloaded you, I hope that this article will be of help to beginners, students, and solitaries alike.

Bright Blessings,


* Apples were sacred to Aphrodite, and contain a pentagram in their core. Both Aphrodite and the pentagram are associated with the planet Venus.

**Perhaps the Jewish authors meant this to function as a warning against eager teachers?

***There's certainly nothing wrong with finding someone attractive, but it may interfere with the student/teacher relationship.

****See the ABCDEF (Advanced Bonewits Cult Danger Evaluation Frame version 2.6 by Pagan elder Issac Bonewits) for a method of evaluating new groups and teachers. Link below.