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.
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.
I 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.
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”:
A 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.
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.
Every 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
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.
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.
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 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.