The Witch

On a cold Sunday evening a few months ago, I left the warmth of my room and my lover’s side, threw a few books into my bag, and took a bus north to meet The Witch.

We’d corresponded a few times before but had never met in person. That happens often when you are a writer–you read someone’s words, you strike up a conversation with them, and talk for quite awhile without embodied relation. So many of the writers I enjoy live in far-flung lands, as do many of the friends I’ve made through my writing, yet we rarely meet. But The Witch was in town for a very brief stay, and I didn’t want to pass up the chance to see what had gotten so many others enraged at her existence.

InstagramCapture_678e3600-2c50-4484-8125-a2502bc22e3bThe Witch had written something about a goddess, and it made a few people very, very angry.

Many of those people were writers whom I generally thought highly of, who’d positioned themselves as authorities on that particular goddess. But Authority doesn’t like heresy, and the words of the Witch were heresy, and they decided she needed to be stopped.

The attacks mounted against her. Some said she was an idiot, others claimed she had no Authority to speak about that goddess. Others joined in, perhaps eager to appear loyal to the authorities, or perhaps just eager to join in the pogrom.

I really wanted to meet this Witch. The attacks on her writing had been so fierce that her ability to weather them made me suspect she possessed some intense magic. After all, the people who’d assaulted her public presence were quite formidable. Authors of books on that same goddess, powerful priests or shamans with secret initiations, charismatic men claiming endless years of training –the Witch’s power was certainly at least equal to theirs, if her words warranted so many attacks.

prisonsI entered the coffee shop and saw her sitting in a corner by the window. It was her, I was certain, but it was hardly who they thought she was. She had power, definitely, but not the sort that they had.

I wanted to laugh at myself for believing the fear of others, but I also wanted to cry.  Seeing her there, suddenly understanding what the war against her heresy had really been about felt like a death.

What particularly struck me, sitting across from The Witch in this cafe, was how different she looked from her critics. She was diminutive, almost elfish, Soft-spoken, a bit timid, but evincing exactly the sort of embodied power I’ve come to notice in people who relate with gods and the land. She didn’t dress the part of a priestess of a powerful deity; she dressed the part of a highly-literate, well-centered, deeply-embodied woman who had nothing to prove to the world, who just wanted to write about the really awesome experiences she was having with gods.

Also, I was in awe with her awe. A lightness of being surrounded her, a curiousity, a wonder unmarred by the cynicism and fundamental certainty of those who’d attacked her. That her open heart remained open despite the onslaught, the smears, and the violence marshaled against her ideas proved to me more than anything that she was, indeed, the Witch they had so feared.

We talked for an hour, this beautiful, timid, bookish, soft-spoken and graceful woman. I drank a latte despite the hour, she had peppermint tea. She had an interview the next morning for a librarian position at a University, and so we talked about books, and Seattle, and the city where she lived, and then I finally admitted the perceptual jolt I experienced when I finally saw her in person.

“That was awful,” she said, regarding the relentless attacks. “I had to stop looking at the internet for awhile, and wanted to stop writing.”

What we didn’t talk about was the other thing those priests attacked her for. The Witch was also a Jew, and as some stated she had no ancestral right to talk about her goddess because of this, very few defended her.

The Jew

InstagramCapture_eed3f908-ab7a-4bcd-a50d-f765f504a5ab Alley Valkyrie and I sat at the base of a Cork Oak in the Pyrenees, grateful for the unexpected cold beneath its branches. Along the Mediterranean side of those mountains, Cork Oak clings to ledges and cliffs, and where they stand they create a shadow deeply welcome in the early summer heat of southern France. The sun shines strongly, baking the skin and the bare rocks, but under the Cork Oaks the temperature drops almost 20 degrees, With the wind which whips through the passes, it can actually get quite cold.

We were glad of it, sweaty and overheated from the strong sun searing through our skin as we picked our way over loose rocks. We were following Le Chemin Walter Benjamin, an old smuggler’s path through the Pyrenees between France and Spain renamed for the most famous person to follow that path.

Walter Benjamin was a mystic, a Marxist theorist, a trained astrologer, and the bane of several Authoritarian regimes because of his theories on history. Also, he was a Jew.

Benjamin is responsible for two revolutionary–and thus dangerous–ideas. The first is that of the Jetztzeit, the mystical moment which coalesces at some point in time where the direction of the world can change. It’s the ‘revolutionary moment,’ before which the world is one thing and after which, if the moment is recognized and acted in, the world is an entirely other thing.

Importantly, the Jetztzeit is a moment recognized best not by political theorists or authoritarian regimes, but by the poets, the artists, and the bardic current in any social struggle. That is, only those with a mystical awareness can see in the shifting tide the point at which the act can change the world.

The Jetztzeit, then, is the moment of the heretics.

While much Marxist and Anarchist thought at the time sought to distance itself from mysticism, Walter Benjamin danced between those worlds and others, or the Other.  And regarding that Other is the other concept for which Benjamin is best known, the “Angel of History”:

240px-Klee,_paul,_angelus_novus,_1920A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

Benjamin saw plenty of wreckage in his lifetime. He was friends with the Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt (another whose ideas I use a lot in my writing), and both watched the relentless pile-up of carnage in Europe as war broke out. They were together in the city of Marseille as France unsuccessfully fought the German advance. As France fell to the Nazis, the Vichy government forbade exit permits from the country for Jews, trapping him and many others.

Benjamin had received a visa for the United States and had hoped to escape there. Because he could not leave from a French port, the only way to do make the voyage would be to travel through the mountainous regions of Spain (by then fully ruled by Fascist dictator General Franco) to Portugal, where he could take a boat across the Atlantic.

Banyuls-Sur-Mer from Le Chemin Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin left Marseilles for a small town on the border with Spain called Banyuls-sur-Mer. Some communists knew of a route across the mountains to the Spanish town of Portbou, earlier used by leftists in Spain to escape the Fascist round-ups of anarchists.

That’s why Alley and I were on that mountain. We left Banyuls-sur-Mer in the early afternoon and followed his route, past massive Heather, Juniper, Broom and Cork Oak, across loose scree and sudden explosions of wildflowers.


InstagramCapture_895ca90a-0883-42ff-918e-81485b9e1301Every guide had stated it was a four hour, 7 kilometer hike across the Pyrenees.  Every guide had lied. It’s 4 hours and 7 kilometers to the top of the mountain. We didn’t know it at the time, but It’s another 7 kilometers and three more hours to the end of the trail in the Catalonian town of Portbou.

We’d already drank most of the several liters of water we’d brought with us. We had to catch a train the 50 kilometers back to our campsite in a few hours. We maybe should have turned back at that point. But Walter Benjamin had made that journey as a 48 year old man with a severe heart condition, fleeing from the Nazis with a large suitcase containing his most prized possession, a completed manuscript which did not survive any longer than he did.

It seemed hopeless for us to get there on time, but it had been more hopeless for him, so we continued.

Where really could he have found sanctuary? His Marxism made him an enemy of many in Francoist Spain, his anarchist leanings made him an enemy of Stalin, his Jewishness made him an enemy in France and Germany. Had he even made it somehow through Spain to Portugal, entry into the United States was hardly a guarantee even with a visa, especially because he was a Marxist. No other country in the world has a longer history of violent suppression of Marxist and Anarchist thought. It was no country for heretics.

Walter Benjamin died when he arrived the day after he arrived in Portbou. The Fascist government in Spain had just passed a law that day which would require him to return to France. He could not escape, and he died in his hotel room, possibly of an overdose, possibly by assassination from Stalinists or the Gestapo.

Quoting Kafka on his last day, Benjamin wrote in his journal:

“There is plenty of hope, but not for us.”

I think every heretic has been so hopeless. I was, until I met the Anarchists.

The Anarchists & The Queers

A spring along Le Chemin Walter Benjamin

I’m drunk and fucking happy. He’s in my arms, soaking through my skin. I can taste his soul, I’m drinking in his magic. The world has fallen away, or become more world, our bodies locked, our jaws locked in feral mauling. All is passion, all is joy.

We’re in Rennes, France, outside of an anarchist bar. I’d just met my companion a few days before, an anarchist witch like myself, and gay, and hot. He’d taken me the night before to this bar, we were now there with Alley, sitting outside with Breton anarchists laughing, drinking, playing music, discussing revolution and magic and the rise of Fascism in France and America.

Things are bad for leftists everywhere, and really awful for anarchists. In Rennes, though, even as their hope dwindles, Alley and I could see how strong they still are. That day was gay pride, and the government had forbidden demonstrations to punish the leftists. But instead of obeying the Authority of the government, the gays marched anyway, supported by large leftist trade unions and anarchists.

Here, for at least a little while longer, heretics stand together.

Dionysos Rennes
Anarchist graffiti on a church in Rennes, France

My companion and I were being a bit…exhibitionist, perhaps. Never in the US had I felt so comfortable with another man on the street, nor had I ever felt that I was amongst so many people accepting of our passion.

But then I heard from behind us:




I turned to look at them, three men walking by, disgusted by our heresy. How could two men do such things with their bodies? How could others tolerate such profaning of the sacred? I rolled up my sleeves. I didn’t have my passport on me, I knew what would happen if I got arrested for fighting these men, but I didn’t care. And I knew that in France, just like every other country in the world, Authority does not give a shit for sexual heretics.

But just as I steeled myself, ready to defend my world, I watched all the people around me stand and shout.

I was, after all, sitting at an anarchist bar.

What happened after was the most beautiful thing I’ve seen in my entire life. The homophobes hurled bottles at us, glass shattering at our feet. I was still ready to fight, but before I could even move eight men tore after them faster than I could ever hope to run.

The attackers fled, running just as fast, terrified of what happens when heretics defend each other, stand together against those who would stamp them out.

The Pagans

How tame we have become. How polite about our witchcraft. In our desire to harm none we have become harmless…How much have the elders sold us out, genuflecting to the academy, the establishment, the tabloid press. In return for this bargain we have gained precisely nothing…

…I will not be part of this process, because to do so is to be complicit with the very forces that are destroying all life on earth. It is time for Witchcraft not to choose, but to remember which side it is on in this struggle.

Peter Grey, “Rewilding Witchcraft”

When Gods&Radicals dared confront Fascist and Authoritarian sympathies within Paganism & Polytheism, we got a chance to see precisely the hatred that Authority has for heretics.

A former leader of a Druid tradition warned of the death of Paganism because of our challenge to self-proclaimed elders squatting on their tilting thrones. Polytheist leaders called me and others enemies of the gods and Marxist infiltrators, declaring crusades against the heretics threatening their Authority over the gods, over witchcraft, over druidry, over the sacred. Someone bought the URL’s of my name to sabotage my identity, others called for boycotts, some made threats against supporters of Gods&Radicals and its writers…all because we challenged their Authority.

But while white American Pagans and Polytheists try to protect their petty empires from heretics, the world around us is in a greater conflict.

Capitalism is confronting a crisis of its own making. Climate change is undeniable, mass extinctions increasing. Capitalists know they are the cause, and are starting to realize that the heretics know this too.

When the rich are threatened, they rely on Authority to sustain it. And we don’t need magical sight to see how governments everywhere have tightened their control of their citizens, even as resistance against their hired thugs and murderers explodes in increasing fury. The uprisings of Baltimore and Ferguson in the United States are siblings of the uprisings now in Europe, and on both sides of the ocean Authority tries to displace that rage, strengthening the Nationalist and Fascist tendencies I warned about.

Capitalism needs us to be exhausted, terrified, eager to work for little, eager to fill our worlds with products to replace what it has stolen from us. It needs us to ignore the damage it does to our lives, to nature, to the sacred. And it needs us obedient, docile, afraid to resist, eager to blame whatever scapegoat is puts before us.

It needs us to stop questioning its Authority, and it needs us to hate the heretics who dare suggest otherwise.

Once, Paganism and Witchcraft dared challenge Authority. Once, Pagans and witches knew who they were, enemies of the religion of Capitalism. Once, we knew the weapons we held in our hands and the power of our magic.

Once, we were also heretics.

It’s time to be heretics again.

The Witch I mentioned at the beginning of this essay survived all the attacks against her, becoming stronger as those who who tried to silence her were shown for the thugs they were. Walter Benjamin did not survive, but the heresies he bore into the world are a foundation for everything I write. And in watching a group of anarchists show love for the desire of two gay punk witches against thugs, I’ve seen the seeds of the revolution.

Authority and Capitalists need us to doubt ourselves. They need us to think we cannot experience the world without them, cannot think for ourselves, cannot do for ourselves. They need us to fear death, to fear each other, to fear ourselves.

But it is they who should fear us.

They should fear our magic and our will. They should fear our ability to create a world without them, to create a world where there is no place for Authority or Capital, no place for the rich, no place for the state, no place for the Fascist or the homophobe, no place for the racist or the anti-Semite.

They should fear such heresy.

And they will.

Rhyd Wildermuth

Rhyd AuthorRhyd is the co-founder and managing editor of Gods&Radicals. He’s usually in a city by the Salish sea in occupied Duwamish territory, but he’s currently trekking about Europe for the next three months. Follow his adventures at: PAGANARCH.

21 thoughts on “Heretics

  1. Whoo! This entry makes me quite happy! I’m especially curious about the connection between Jetztzeit and the idea of the “millenarian cult”- these are movements that often seem to arise on the cusp of great cultural change, frequently genocide. The classic examples are Oomoto, the Ghost Dance, the Huacas, or the Essenes. What’s remarkable is how similar they are, despite appearing in disparate cultures across great gulfs of time- they share a belief in the imminence of end times, a cosmopolitanism often out of character with the times, and the idea of a soon-to-return great magical figure who has, for some time, been away or sleeping. Frequently they also reject established authority and the accumulation of capital in the meantime, living communally in an egalitarian and agrarian manner. A Certain Druid spent much of the run-up to the Winter Solstice 2012 making fun of various millenarian cults through history…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was Lorna Smithers who first pointed me to the mystical aspect of the Jetztzeit, and of course you’ve read Heathen Chinese’s brilliant work on the millenarian cults, yeah?

      You know what’s interesting? When I first read that series by said Druid, I liked it until I started noting the severe thread of condescension with which he approached them. It was about a year later when I also started to notice that an increasing portion of his readership is associated with the New Right, ecofascist elements in the Northwest, or the racist trends in Heathenry and Celtic Reconstruction, as can be currently seen in the comment sections of his recent two ‘defenses’ against our work. That people who have actively called for violence against immigrants in Europe and the United States are his primary commenters shouldn’t just concern us, it should really concern him, too.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Damn but I love you, Rhyd. I’m re-posting this to our community because I know some ‘armchair pagans’ around my parts that needs a direct boot to the Bum. Thank you and Valkerie for this empowering and defiant shout of passion for the Planet.


  3. As a chronic outsider, I’ve always gravitated towards the heretics – or at least, accepted them with a lot more grace than most people can seem to muster. And as the foremost environmental/socio-political/historical/green-technological expert out of any circle that I currently run in, I’ve found people’s reactions to me have begun approaching that which might be saved for the heretical. People treat me like a Catholic confessional at times, like a guru at others, or at yet others, a symbolic representation for the Earth itself – someone who “speaks for the trees” and needs to be placated more than listened to. Sometimes my very existence, or the existence of my knowledge and my lines of inquiry are a burden to others – like my vegetarianism – or will spark no less than outright vitriol. It’s been a bizarre journey so far. I expect the anger and confusion to happen more often as my spouse and I move further and further away from prescribed thoughts and lifestyles. (We consider indoor plumbing to be a luxury – moreover, a luxury that we won’t need in our future home – and this alone has garnered priceless reactions.)

    The other side is that heretics are necessary – and a necessary evil at times – in fact, they’re a sign of a cohesive community. If there is no inside, then there can be no outsiders. Not every person will have access to every community or every experience, and I think calls for inclusion or leveling playing fields that have that sort of thing as an ultimate goal are hubristic.

    I don’t always agree with what you say, Rhyd, but as soon as I saw the irrational, frothing hate people had for you (As I said in response to someone else’s comment on Sarenth Odinsson’s post about it, “If he’s so useless and stupid, then why won’t anyone shut up about him and get on with their lives?” Of course, I never got an answer!) I knew you were necessary.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sarenth is a good person, and to honour our past friendship I didn’t read any his posts regarding how dangerous I was. I’ll admit, though, the extreme power that people were willing to ascribe to me during that time was frankly disorienting. Frankly, it reminded me of the power/fear aspect integral to anti-semitism: “Jews are in control of all the banks and wars, etc., and everything that goes wrong is on account of them.” It’s not much different from the welfare queen bogey, or the immigrant, or the witch. Of course, all those enemies of the state function as very effective distractions from the Capitalist and the politician, which explains Trump’s popularity in the United States.

      On plumbing, though–there’s a radical faerie who lives on one of the sanctuaries and is devoted to Cloacina and sees the maintenance of all the composting toilets to be an act of devotion. Which is fucking beautiful. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Rhyd, It must be rather amazing to hear of all this power and influence that you are supposed to have to be a great danger of taking over the entire Pagan movement and running rough shod over everyone.

        Sort or reminds me of my rumored self in the local small town rumor mill. That Christopher is so much more interesting than I myself am. He apparently worships demons, runs the local drug trade, and he is sneaky, as he lives right here on this property, and I have never met him. Darn it!

        Liked by 2 people

  4. i have personally been shocked by druid and pagan attacks. mostly on the issue of cultural appropriation. anglo pagans do not want to accept that other cultures may not be successfully borrowed without the effort of learned the language and customs, and when i have suggested to be leader requires a bit more than relying on translations people go ballistic. i am one foot out the door because of this. i am now experiencing the same bigotry at 63 that i experienced at 17 when anglo canadians used to calll nova scotia gaels, barbarians and heathens. literally. shamelessly.(see the globe and mail writers article about the bigotry in the sixties in the ottawa vlley–by john ibbiston. he remembers people calling is dogons, dirty catholics etc–i still don’t know what a dogon is)

    anglo culture has grown out of several hundred uears of militarism. that creates major class divides. class divide is the way of creating ranks, and obedience from the masses, so that the industrial military forces can keep their permanent war going. pagans and druids who don’t examine this phenomena are just repeating the oppression of the previous iteration of anglo imperialism. john ralston saul wrote a great book called “unconscious civilization? about how the intellectual establishment of anglo imperialist culture has perverted language and ideas so that only very independant critical thinkers are able to even consider these things. you have to be in a state of permanent revolution of the mind to question the basic zeitgeist of anglo industrial militarism. without that your paganism or druidry is just an extension of the military culture. and of course when reminded of this the high ranking people court marshall those who mutiny. and the rank and file get in line and join the witch trials.

    if there is a defining feature of anglo culture on a daily basis it’s bullying. the constant pressure to try to force cultural and behaviorial conformity. the things that brought group criticism used to astonish me, but now i have finally realized the panic that ensues at the thought of independent thinking, and alternative culture. pagan bullying is just an extension of anglo military industrial class ranking and control.


    1. You have an important point. The entirety of the criticism of our work has come from white, middle-class North Americans. Many European Pagans emailed us with messages of support and gratitude, recounting how they’ve been struggling against these elements for quite some time in Europe and offering solidarity.

      There is a deep provincialism and exceptionalism integral to anglo imperialism, more so I think than even seen with the French or Dutch. And you point out something I’ve never thought about (thanks!): class division mirrors the hierarchical structure of militarism. Would you consider writing something about this for us?


  5. just as quick example. the historical fact remains that anglo empires have invaded almost every nation on earth, but if you say that people go ballistic. total denail. an obvious plain fact brings immense hostility. they have reinterpreted these constant military actions as “freedom”, or “spreading culture”. i recent facebook post estimated that the actions of american presidents have killed twenty million people since 1945. raise that in a conversation ans see what happens.


  6. You have to surrender, if you want approval. If you don’t need approval, then you don’t care. Everywhere I go I am the outsider, even here, as I am not a Marxist, nor an Anarchist. It bothers me not at all. I enjoy the discussion, I happen to agree with most of the complaints about our present capitalist system and that it is going to fall under it’s own corruption. So be it, all systems and all civilization fall at some point and that is necessary for new systems and new civilizations to start and develop.

    The fall of the United States, or the fall from power of the alleged white race, bothers me not at all. I doubt any of it will bother most of the world. If fact they might be relieved and get a chance to create something for themselves without our interference.

    I have been quite amazed at the hatred against this group. To me it reminds me about the constant uproar over the alleged danger from “Muslim Terrorists” Yet in day to day life, we face better chances of being killed in a car wreck, yet we do not give up driving. We could easily find ourselves in a crime scene, but it does not keep us out of towns and cities. As we get older there is the dangers of sudden health problems, yet most of us don’t commit suicide to avoid that likelihood. All of these are more likely than being killed by terrorists.

    So goes their fear that you will take over and destroy Paganism in any of its forms. The dangers come from inside the communities themselves, not from the outside. They refuse to see, that they may destroy it with their push to orthodoxy. Did we learn nothing from the history of the Christians. Try to force sameness of status quo and the pressure to change increases, as more and more people rebel. If the gods are against it, the god will do what they do, but until then I don’t think that any of us is the official spokesman of the gods. I would not ever be so arrogant as to claim that I am.

    I am just a talkative old geezer with one foot in the grave. The future is yours not mine. Grab a hold and run with it.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Oh, but they do. They do fear us. Verily. For example, remember this threat made to Gilbride? It could just as well be read as a confession of fragility.

    Us heretics are not exactly powerful in any conventional way, few and far between, usually just scraping by. We shouldn’t be a threat. But judging by the reactions we’re getting when we speak up, we must be. Our very existence must be upsetting the system. More by its weakness than our strength. That implies, we may actually be able to push Humpty Dumpty off the wall in our lifetime.

    Be safe.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Don’t know if you’ll be coming to the North of Germany too, if you do, get in touch. Not that many Anarchist witches around.


  9. Once witnessed an elder suck the alcohol out of a full blown alcoholic, expel said alcohol, curing the patient instantly and they remained cured, unable to consume alcohol in any form from that day on.


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