Why is being a “witch” suddenly popular? What does the rise of the witch identity mean for actual witches? Why are capitalists trying to sell us stuff? And what are the dangers of this trend?
In Episode 4: The Witch, Alley Valkyrie and Rhyd Wildermuth look at the questions (and try to keep their focus while ravens call, a dog barks, and a door randomly opens while they’re talking about the dead…)
Those of us who know that this world is a mysterious place, who have not forgotten our place and inter-connectedness within it, who remember and hold dear the knowledge that the stuff of stars is also inside of us too, it will be us who must be ready to fight, when the time comes.
From Emma Kathryn
Something is coming.
I am an obeah woman. I have seen and heard things that frighten me, but that’s okay. When you grow up poor and on a council estate you learn from a young age that you have to face or fight those things that scare you.
I don’t write about my own personal experiences very often; never, in fact. But today, dear readers, I shall share with you a vision I had whilst in trance. I think it was meant to be shared with others, others like you, others who would take up the fight, others who want change.
And it’s obvious, isn’t it, that change is going to come? It has to, the world cannot possibly go on as it is.
Something is coming. I can feel it. Can you?
Mudslides, wild fires, earthquakes, pollution, climate change, politics, racism, sexism, capitalism, human rights, the list of problems we face is huge. These things have been around for years and years and years, but this feeling I have has only been simmering for weeks and months.
Something is coming, but I don’t know what.
I work with plants, and poisonous plants are a passion of mine. There’s something so beautifully alluring about those delicate blooms that have the power to kill. They have a duality, these plants, to harm and to heal. They have secrets to tell and it is the job of the obeah woman, of the witch, to hear those secrets, and if necessary, to act upon them.
Of all the witches plants, the Datura is my favourite, the one to which I feel the most connected, the deepest affinity. Such a beauty! It produces trumpet-shaped creamy white flowers. Their fragrance truly is divine. When the flowers die, they leave seed pods, which grow into huge spiny covered balls that burst open, spilling their seed. All parts of the plant are poisonous, but it is with the seed that I make flying ointment.
This ointment is psychoactive and is used to induce trance, for soul flight and hedge crossing, call it what you will. I make it and use it often enough to know what I’m doing, which makes the experience I’m about to relate all the more surprising.
After preparing in my usual way, I laid down on my bed and immediately entered a trance state. It never happens so fast.
It was like being in two worlds. I was in my bedroom, but somewhere else as well, where it was dark, just utter blackness.
But in my room as well.
I was freezing cold, and got beneath the covers, and curled up trying to warm myself. It didn’t help. It was like being outside in midwinter, naked.
There was nothing for it but to move forward, into the darkness. I didn’t want to, not at first. You see, that’s the thing about all of this, it’s fucking scary! It would have been oh so easy to get out of bed, to go to the bathroom and wash off the rest of the ointment, and part of me wanted to. It would have ended things right there and then. I would have gone downstairs and had a coffee had I wanted to severe the link I had made, to end the trance.
I did want to do those things, I can’t lie. But I just couldn’t. I knew I would regret it if I did, and not in any mystical sense, but purely because I don’t like to give in. It’s that same thing, the same grit that makes me get into the ring, that makes me fight. There’s always that what if. And besides, whatever is coming would continue to do so whether I chose to ignore it or not.
So I pushed forward, and the cold got worse. It came in waves, each one colder than the next, and with each pulse it became harder to go on, until at last I couldn’t. Turns out I didn’t have to.
A figure was kneeling down, as if brought to his knees by pain or grief. The figure had no features, wore no clothes. Was like nothing of this earth, of this reality. It emitted a glowing, swirling blue light that moved like mist. This man shaped blue mist was screaming, his hands held to his head, only his screams were silent. His screams were the pulses of cold. This close it was excruciating.
When I thought I couldn’t take anymore, a voice whispered in my ear, a familiar voice, one I have grown to love. She took my hand and I felt warm. As I turned away, the trance ended, and I was simply Emma again.
I slept that night and didn’t dream.When I awoke the next morning, I felt anxious and frustrated. What did it mean? I’ll be fucked if I know. I felt restless, like I needed to do something, but I had no idea what. That feeling lasted weeks. I still feel it now.
Something is coming. This I know, if only because it is inevitable. Perhaps it will be an accumulation of civil unrest, a financial crash, or perhaps nature will finally fight back against the pest she has spawned. Maybe it’ll be all of those things combined, a societal meltdown brought on by extreme climate change. Perhaps none of those things.
I do think this year will bring significant change, though for the better or worse, well, it’s too early to say.
Perhaps I know nothing at all.
All I know, or feel to be true though, is that we must make our actions count. No matter how small. Part of that for me includes my connection to this site, to the writers and the readers and all that we may hope for, everything we aim to achieve.
I know we must stand up for the oppressed whenever we can, in whatever way we can. I know that we must do more to live in a way that doesn’t kill the earth. I know we need to look out for those we care for, and sometimes even those we may not even like very much (but that shit is dependant, we ain’t no walkovers either!). I know there’s a lot of work to be done, and a lot of it dirty.
I also know that when the shit hits the fan, I’ll be glad to have allies like G&R, its writers and readers.
Since having that trance, and this is the first time I have told anyone, other than my sisters, I just cannot get away from the idea of forming networks with like-minded folk, people I can rely on and trust and who can expect the same from me. It is the wide variety of skills, of the learning from one another that excites me about this. The possibility of taking for ourselves our own futures.
I am a fighter, always have been. I love to fight, and when the challenge is huge, the victory even sweeter. We will have to fight for what we want, for the state is stacked against us. Many will want to stick their heads in the sand, and do so already, blissfully ignorant of the challenges we face, kept quiet with their iPhones and the glamour of technology. The screen is king in today’s world.
Those of us who know that this world is a mysterious place, who have not forgotten our place and interconnectedness within it, who remember and hold dear the knowledge that the stuff of stars is also inside of us too, it will be us who must be ready to fight, when the time comes.
Something is coming and we will be ready. I’ll meet you at the crossroads.
My name is Emma Kathryn, an eclectic witch, my path is a mixture of traditional European witchcraft, voodoo and obeah, a mixture representing my heritage. I live in the middle of England in a little town in Nottinghamshire, with my partner, two teenage sons and two crazy dogs, Boo and Dexter. When not working in a bookshop full time, I like to spend time with my family outdoors, with the dogs. And weaving magic, of course!
In the dark of the night, we gather in the center of Salem Square, a green that has existed in the middle of Old Salem since the district’s construction in 1766. The cold light of the Moon Hirself pierces through the old pines and bare-armed oaks to illuminate our faces and signs with an eerie glow not unlike our phones’ flashlight apps. Three people become four when I walk through the dark to join them. Four become a dozen when together we walk back to the fence surrounding the green.
A dozen becomes thirty-something by the time we’ve circled up back in the center, and more will keep joining us. The organizers open the space for folks to share their feelings about the election. A lone FUCK TRUMP breaks the silence of our paused circle and the nearly sleeping city around us, and the rest of us laugh.
After a few moments more, we start off marching. A journalist for the local paper has joined us and is struggling to interview participants, record our answers, and snap photos while keeping up with the hike. He seems sympathetic, yet guarded, neutral, or even muted. A friend of mine agrees to answer some of the journalist’s questions, and intrigues the man by explaining he neither supports Clinton nor Trump.
Some of the organizers are not-yet-defeated liberals and Clinton supporters. Commenters and critics of the journalist’s article will later assume that most of us voted for Clinton. Of course, the article left out that some of us are involved in the International Socialist Organization, and that all of our fliers were distributed to eager and searching protesters by the end of the night.
Our march carries us up through Old Salem towards the cement white phallic Wells Fargo tower, and our chants of BLACK LIVES MATTER and DUMP TRUMP ricochet up the cobblestone walks and stone buildings all around us. Forty voices are magnified to a booming hundred.
Hearing my friend and the journalist discuss the historical toxicity of the U.S. presidency, from Washington to present, and later recounting his participation in protests of the Bush II installation, I am reminded that it is the office of the presidency and it is the state that I am opposed to, not simply the face that humanizes the system of power.
I remember that I have consciously rejected nearly every President I have lived through. I was too young to hate Bush I while he was in office, but I recall Clinton, I recall DOMA and DADT and NAFTA and the crime bill. I remember Bush II. I remember learning that calling him just Bush instead of President Bush made my father furious. The reign of Bush II was the first time I uttered the phrase NOT MY PRESIDENT. His administration and supporters brought me out of church and into the streets.
And I remember that Obama has never been my president either. I remember his refusal to support same-sex marriage equality. I remember the militarization of police that happened under his administration, the renewal of the Patriot Act, and I remember that “hate crimes” legislation, then DADT repeal, were pushed ahead of comprehensive civil rights legislation for LGBT+ people.
I remember watching the trans community be thrown to the side time and time again under all of these presidents (and the advocacy orgs that grew to power with them). I remember the conversion manual presented to my parents when I came out in family therapy. I remember the steadiest steps I ever took, walking out of their church in front of a mortified congregation. I am numb, as we sit here on the verge of a vice-presidency that constituency was sold, backed in the state only by a spineless and toothless minority party that just spent the last year demanding entitlement to our votes for two candidates who built their careers campaigning against our rights and emboldening the Right’s assault at the state level with “states’ right” talk Clinton is yet to express any deviation from.
When I say that TRUMP IS NOT MY PRESIDENT, I do not mean that Clinton is. I mean that there is no one who is my president. I mean that I reject the notion of this office and I reject the authority of the system behind it. I mean that I am ungovernable and that I am sovereign. I mean that I do not consent to the authority invested in this political structure. I mean that I have no gods and I have no presidents.
When I say that TRUMP IS NOT MY PRESIDENT, I am saying that I reject the idea that 26% of the country electing someone to govern the rest of us constitutes “democracy.” I am asserting that 46% of this country is also tired of this shit and too tired of morally bankrupt parties vomiting candidates on us, rather than “too lazy,” to vote when everyone knows the stakes are so high. I am affirming that neither my liberty nor my security come from this state which has systematically denied me and threatened me with both. I am affirming that we have power, and that our minds and hands and voices shape movements that don’t require elections.
When I say that TRUMP IS NOT MY PRESIDENT, I am opening the next chapter of our story, not just concluding a paragraph we have read and re-read for generations. I am daring to dream Queerer futures. I am placing my hope and faith and patriotism in comrades who join me on the streets, and all our friends who haven’t made it out there yet.
As our march carries us back to Salem from downtown, Aradia whispers a chant in my ear. I share it with those around me, but its radical notes fall flat to the left of the crowd. Still, I won’t give in to worry. I won’t give in to isolation. The Moon peeks through the pines and around a chimney, reminding me of persistence, patience, slow education, and long visions.
The next chapter remains unwritten, but so many spirits are assembled. The revolution will be spelled out. Not long now. Not long.
Pat is a writer living in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. His interests include post-capitalist economics, psychogeography, alternative religions, and contemporary life in the U.S. South. Pat presently serves as secretary for Mountain CUUPs in Boone, and is an organizer of Hoof + Horn Collective in W-S. Connect with him through https://patmosley.wordpress.com/
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We Pagans are a conquered people. Our people have been systematically tortured, murdered, domesticated, and exploited. Our tribes have been displaced and scattered; we now live in tiny, redundant, inefficient and resource-hungry enclosure-cages creating an illusion of self-sufficiency and rugged individualism, while plugged in to the matrix with its feeding-tubes and thought-machine programs. Our traditions of dwelling with nature have been mutated, assimilated into the dominant culture of exploitation and resource extraction. Our gods have been relegated from vibrant, living beings and companions in relationship with us to mere characters in old, forgotten stories. Our magic and wonder have been dismissed as superstition, while the hegemony of the laboratory masquerades as wisdom, replacing Truth with mere facts. Our sacred connections to the land and its ecosystems have been severed, made so abstract that only a tiny handful of us could survive away from the infrastructures of civilization for more than a few days, or only a few hours in adverse conditions.
We Pagans are a conquered people. The conquest of Paganism is so complete, so fundamental, that it’s obscured from our view: many of us couldn’t even identify our conquerors. Today, while we sort our recycling bins, putting the refuse-relics of our consumerism into the proper containers for “disposal,” our culture argues about whether or not Climate Change is real, whether planetary rates of extinction are happening 10,000 times faster or only 1,000 times faster than the natural extinction rate. We get online, sipping our lattes, and we argue about whether a vegan diet or a paleo diet is healthier for people or the planet.
We Pagans are a conquered people. We don’t even know who we are anymore. Getting Pagans together is like herding cats: we joke, we celebrate our diversity, and gossip about our witch wars. There are many types of Neopagans today, and all of us have been conquered. It doesn’t matter what kind of Pagan you are, which specific tradition, subculture, or set of Pagan values you embrace, we Pagans are a conquered people.
What kind of Pagan are you? Not that it matters….
Are you a Druid? The Druids were wiped out by Romans, though there have been attempts to revive the traditions. At best, we are guessing at what the Druids were, and the ways of modern Druids — connecting to the land, being in relationship, guarding the stories of the tribe, and questing Awen — are in opposition to the mainstream culture. We are no longer aware of our direct relationship with the land and its ecosystems. There is only property to be exploited, to be conquered and “improved” for private gain subject only to the laws of free-market mythology. The Awen of direct experience, of intimate relationship and engagement, is being replaced by vicarious, secondary experience. Rather than gather by the thousands to wander in the wilderness, we gather in stadiums to watch other people run on artificial grass, elite athletes clad in kevlar armor. Rather than commune directly with the wild divinity in nature, we gather in megachurches to listen to other people sing & tell us about God, passing around a collection basket. The “tree wit” of Druidry lingers, but we must learn to see it.
Are you a Heathen or an Ásatrúar? In most places you will be seen as a racist, a white supremacist, or simply as deluded. The hagiographers say that Olaf The Saint, one of my ancestors, was responsible for converting Norway over to Christianity. The Gods of the Northern tradition endure, even if we must look deeper than portrayals of Thor as a blonde, hot-tempered hottie who is merely a quaint albeit archaic member of an elite group, aloof from humanity, who fight the evil space-aliens bent on their own agenda of colonization.
Are you a Polytheist? Two thousand years of hegemonic monotheism means that you are not likely to be taken seriously in most places in the Western world when you speak of your gods, and your relationships with them. No longer is the question of many gods up for debate; instead it is which god is real, with the rest being imaginary with frauds or infidels for worshipers. And even this is among those who acknowledge the possibility of divinity at all — for many others, talk of divinity is madness and delusion.
Do you work with magick? Your work will be derided as superstition, under the epistemological monopoly of science. Indeed, a favorite tactic of modern, fundamentalist pseudoskeptics is to reduce an idea or a concept to mere “magical thinking” so that it can be dismissed entirely as folly.
Are you a Goddess-worshiper? You are a threat to patriarchy, by even having the audacity to suggest that the feminine can be on the same plane as the masculine, and that a divine feminine is even possible. There is no room for the Sacred Feminine in Father, Son, & Holy Ghost, in Allah and His Prophet, in YHVH, much less in the “human resources” departments responsible for writing smaller paychecks to its female employees.
Are you an Animist? A Pantheist or Panentheist? Then you live in a place, on a planet, that has been systematically disenchanted, desacralized, and despoiled, a place that almost certainly bears little or no resemblance to what the place looked like a few short centuries ago before Capital got its clutches onto it, extracting all the resources it could for private profit without regard to the intraspecies genocide it left in its wake. Anyone who spends enough time out in nature has heard its call, its lament, crying out to anyone, anyone who will listen, in a language not audible to domesticated ears.
Are you a Reconstructionist? The reason you have to reconstruct your spiritual path is because it was wiped out in the first place. That these old, Pagan ways of being are not glaringly obvious even to a child in our culture is perhaps the biggest indicator that we Pagans are a conquered people. Some ancestral wisdom has been lost forever, wiped out by a mere few hundred years of colonialist hegemony, and its reconstruction will require another few thousand years of indigenous human experience as part of their ecosystems.
Are you a Witch or a Wiccan? Untold thousands of Witches were burned at the stake for over a century, one of the most widespread examples of genocide in human history. This genocide was not limited to one nation-state or one single power-structure, as one of the first historical examples of a unified, global assertion of power. The ways of the Witch are beyond forgotten, they were deliberately and systematically stamped out under direct threat of death and torture, replaced by other mechanistic social orders ripe for exploitation.
The smell of smoke lingers
Even today, the smell of smoke lingers. To those who learn to be attentive, to quieten the mind and pull one’s awareness away from the thousandfold distractions of modern life, the past will whisper its stories into the ears of the present. We must look at our history to discover all the layers of our identity. Who are the Pagans? What stories from the past helped to shape who we are today? I am convinced that our history reveals a very strong characterization of our tribe & our subcultural identity in the 21st Century. We Pagans are a conquered people, and we have largely become so within the past 500 years.
The Pagan ways-of-being were much more intuitive and apparent to people living 500 years ago, before the Scientific Revolution, the birth of Capitalism, and the beginnings of European Colonialism. Modernity itself rose from the ashes of the Pagan ethos as it was systematically and globally incinerated from popular consciousness on thousands of pyres and stakes of the victims of the witch hunts.
Indeed, even today the smell of smoke from The Burning Times lingers. This period in history remains the paradox of our age: at the same moment that the prevailing worldview was turning to those core values that we fetishize — the Enlightenment, the Reformation, the rise of science as the best (indeed the only) epistemology, the rise of capitalism and its notion of property and profit as the fundamental organizing principle of society and the planet’s resources — there occurred some of the most brutal examples of repression and genocide ever witnessed, a brutality that was unprecedented in its scope and scale:
In this “century of geniuses”—Bacon, Kepler, Galileo, Shakespeare, Pascal, Descartes—a century that saw the triumph of the Copernican Revolution, the birth of modern science, and the development of philosophical and scientific rationalism, witchcraft became one of the favorite subjects of debate for the European intellectual elites. Judges, lawyers, statesmen, philosophers, scientists, theologians all became preoccupied with the “problem,” wrote pamphlets and demonologies, agreed that this was the most nefarious crime, and called for its punishment.
—Silvia Federici, Caliban & The Witch, (New York: Autonomedia, 2004) p. 168.
This past, once we clear the irritation of the acrid smoke from our eyes, will begin to speak. As we learn to listen, we begin to understand that this time is best described as a turn from Pagan values, resulting in the wholesale slaughter of entire populations who embrace these values, the marginalization of Pagans within the new power structures created at this time, and the demonization of these values within our consciousness.
The new power structures used fear both as a means of social control and to engineer this shift in values. They cultivated fear of the witch-hunters and the Inquisition, who could exercise nearly complete power-over in the most horrendous and unspeakable ways, and ultimately fear of that which they claimed to be eradicating: witches, demons, devils, and magic. Pagan ways weren’t quaint practices or ignorant superstitions that faded away because now we know better. They were deliberately and systematically repressed until they were all but stamped out. We must now reconstruct them.
In this culture of fear, our Pagan values were nearly lost. Today, the signs of this loss reveal themselves to souls attentive to the world’s condition. The first hint is a vaporous sense that is hard to put a finger on: something is fundamentally wrong with the world, with the way the world is organized, with the flows of power structures in the world. As we look deeper, they become more apparent.
First, there is always war. From the massive mobilizations and armaments of World War II, to the development, use, and threat of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, to the wars against hidden threats such as communism and terrorism, to the resource wars seeking to control supplies of oil across the globe, to the political and economic dominance of the military industrial complex, to the War on Drugs, to the War on Poverty. War, war, war. No sane person wants it, yet it is all around us, organizing much of society.
Second, there is habitual, widespread, and systematic deceit by those in power. These are most easily spotted in the various antics of the US government, but it is hardly a new phenomenon. From the destruction of the USS Maine in Cuban waters leading up to the Spanish-American war, to the Reichstag Fire preceding Hitler’s seizure of power in Germany, to the Patriot Act, the Department of Homeland Security, the illegal “detainees” of Guantanamo Bay following the attacks of 9/11, to the Watergate scandal, to the empty rhetoric-posturing in any political “debate” preceding an election, it is clear that those in power do not say what they mean, much less do what they say. Indeed, it is fundamental to the preservation of their power that they don’t. This is not a problem of either side of the US power structure; both Democrats and Republicans systematically operate from this place of deceit, and for both parties the main goal is to preserve, consolidate, and expand their power bases, each serving the larger power structure in slightly different but related ways.
Third, there is an unprecedented stratification of wealth that continues to widen the gap between rich and poor, for individuals, businesses, corporations, and nations. As the saying goes, the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer. An economy exists to help regulate the use and distribution of wealth, which can only be created through labor and enclosure of natural resources. Awareness of these injustices reached a crescendo in 2011 in the various Occupy movements, and continues today with Strike Debt and countless other movements.
Fourth, humanity’s relationship with food is completely out-of-balance. In some places of the world, people starve, barely eking out adequate sustenance for survival. In other places, food is not a way to sustain life, a gift of nature of which humanity is a part, but rather a mere sensual pleasure, packaged in plastic, with a myriad of choices as to which flavor variety will suit one’s whim that day — indeed thrice daily. As a result, nearly a billion people struggle with getting enough food (to say nothing of adequate nutrition), while nearly 2 billion people are overweight or obese. There are many causes for obesity, and the problem isn’t this simple, but the poor almost never get adequate nutrition whether they are consuming too many calories or too few. In addition, because of the way food is produced on our planet, there is alarmingly little quality topsoil left, and it is deteriorating 10-40x faster than it can be replenished. The aquifers of the earth are running dry, due to both irrigation and the bottled water industries, to say nothing of fracking.
Fifth, healthcare is nearly impossible to navigate for many people in the world. In some parts of the world, there are not enough doctors, healers, educators, and above all, resources; in another part of the world, healthcare has become so profit-driven with costs so inflated that it is inaccessible to millions. The system is bogged down by the allopathic medicine machine — insurance companies driven by profit, actuarial tables, and entire departments of workers whose sole purpose is to find specific ways to deny coverage for its patients; pharmaceutical companies who hoard knowledge of health techniques through patents, who overcharge patients in certain countries so that it is more profitable, who advertise their drugs in mass media, promoting the idea that wellness can only come through chemistry, and reinforce that it is OK to profit from the suffering and misfortune of others. The witches used to be the healers. Every community had them. These healers were attuned to local ecosystems, and knew how to make medicines of all kinds. The community supported them. People didn’t lose their homes and everything they owned when they got sick.
Sixth, and related to the pharmaceutical industry, there is rampant mental dis-ease in the west. Depression, angst, and eating disorders (anorexia & bulemia on one side, emotional binge eating on the other) are everywhere one turns. Usage of psychotropic drugs are at an all-time high, including mandatory prescriptions for “difficult” (which usually means unusual or hard-to-control) children in public schools. This problem of overmedication stems from and reinforces the notion of “compulsory neurotypicality” explored by Sean Donahue, which “decreed only a narrow band of neurological experience and expression permissible, and demonized or pathologized variation from the norm.” Furthermore, these drugs are widely advertised on television, creating a sense of never-having-enough. No longer are commodified neurotransmitters and neurotransmitter modifiers tools to chemically assist people in navigating the emotional and psychological pain they are experiencing, but instead have become “happy pills” for millions of people, sold to exploit our culture’s deepening sense of unease and malaise.
Seventh, the problem of wageslavery is fundamental to western culture. There are a few who derive happiness from their jobs, but the vast majority of people would immediately quit their jobs if earning money was unnecessary. It’s one thing to expect people to contribute to society — including the unpleasant jobs that no one really wants to do — to the best of their ability, but how many jobs are truly essential to a healthy, well-managed society? Does society really need a fast-food restaurant on every corner, providing two-dozen underpaid jobs each, in order for people or the neighborhood, much less the ecosystems it extracts resources from, to thrive? Do marketing executives truly make the world a better place? Are corporate lawyers responsible for maintaining a smoothly-functioning society? In short, no. There are far more work-hours of labor performed each week than are necessary to maintain a healthy society. Our time performing these tasks should leave plenty of leftover time for adequate self-care and wherever our personal liberty takes us. It’s more difficult to enjoy and pursue one’s liberty when you have a work schedule during most of your waking hours. This is the opposite of liberty, or our culture’s promise of the pursuit of happiness, as Marcuse reminded us in 1966:
“I hesitate to use the word — freedom — because it is precisely in the name of freedom that crimes against humanity are being perpetrated. This situation is certainly not new in history: poverty and exploitation were products of economic freedom; time and again, people were liberated all over the globe by their lords and masters, and their new liberty turned out to be submission, not to the rule of law but to the rule of the law of the others. What started as subjection by force soon became “voluntary servitude,” collaboration in reproducing a society which made servitude increasingly rewarding and palatable. The reproduction, bigger and better, of the same ways of life came to mean, ever more clearly and consciously, the closing of those other possible ways of life which could do away with the serfs and the masters, with the productivity of repression.”
—Herbert Marcuse, “Political Preface 1966,” Eros & Civilization (Boston: Beacon Press, 1966) xiii-xiv.
Eighth, unprecedented weather patterns rage across the planet. The Earth’s environment — in terms of its ability to support human life — is rapidly deteriorating. The “global warming” debate rages on in yet another dualism, where each side thinks the other is somewhere between mad and stupid. Limiting this discussion to one parameter (temperature, ie, warming) or even a few (broadening it to include “climate change”) does not look at humanity’s relationship with the ecosystem. It is clear that humans are affecting the ecosystems of the world in a profound way; all one has to do is fly over the US and look down to observe the effects industrialized human activity has had. Everything is in muted colors or artificial, mechanical, geometric patterns attached the natural landscapes. Humanity is beginning to see the effects of a few centuries of industrialization, which accelerated the desertification of the planet by way of human domestication for the past 10,000 years or so. These effects have been all-too-easy to deny because they have taken longer than one lifetime to manifest.
How did this happen?
I could go on. Many do; indeed the present (not to mention the future) seems quite bleak.
What happened? Where are the ideals of scientific progress, of Enlightenment notions of “perpetual peace” and “equality and justice for all”? After 500 years of ostensibly chasing these noble goals of the “century of genius” — the triumph of the Copernican Revolution, the birth of modern science, the dawn of Capitalism, the first experiment with modern republics and “representative democracies,” the Bill of Rights — these ideals have not fulfilled their promise.
The complex web of problems we see today is an extension of this history of Paganism over the past 500 years, a history that can be characterized primarily as a move away from Pagan values. There is a disconnect between these core Pagan values and our daily experiences within our present, 21st century world, a disconnect which produces not only the global crises outlined above, but also a spiritual and psychic conflict and crisis within each observant, thinking Pagan whose life is all-too-rarely in harmony with these values. We Pagans are a conquered people indeed. But even worse, we have been assimilated, which means we directly participate in our own suppression. This is both the horror and the genius of colonialism.
We Pagans are a conquered people. But many questions remain, and indeed will be explored in future columns in these pages. Among them:
What exactly are the Pagan values that have been lost?
If Pagans are a conquered people, then who are the conquerors?
What benefit are Pagans getting from this relationship of conquest? What should we do about it? Should we resist, and if so, what are the most effective modes of resistance?
Will Pagans be courageous enough to decolonize themselves?
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When I took Iron Pentacle, one of Reclaiming’s core classes, I had only the vaguest idea of who the Morrigan was. I knew she had something to do with crows. There was an intense-looking statue in the shop that hosted the class. She was Celtic? I didn’t know. I didn’t think about it.
Overall I’m very happy in the Reclaiming Tradition, but our approach to deity–at least, in my particular community–can feel a bit like a gumball machine at times, with a different god and goddess invoked for every ritual, class, or planning meeting. At best, our relationships to these deities can feel a bit shallow unless we work with them personally. At worst, gods–whether they’re entities or archetypes–sometimes don’t even show up. Halfway through the evening you realize you’ve forgotten who was supposedly invoked.
That was not the case the night we worked the Power point of the pentacle.
Partly it was because the teachers’ invocation rocked. Partly it was because we did some especially deep work that night. But that session was one of the few times that the deity called was unmistakably present. Present, strong, and very interested in a roomful of witches.
After we worked with the Morrigan that night, I became obsessed with her. My classmates–soon to become my coven–did, too. It was clear that she was powerful and that she’d scooped us all up. But I was puzzled. When I’d started practicing witchcraft almost twenty years earlier, the Morrigan had been absent from all my books. Joseph Campbell and Robert Graves only mention her in passing. Granted, you access different information in your thirties than you do as a teenager, but it still struck me as odd that a goddess so rich with archetypal and magical significance, a natural ally for the burgeoning witchcraft movement, seemed relatively dormant until the beginning of the 21st century.
Isn’t that interesting? Global capitalism soars to new heights of oppression and destruction, and a goddess of sovereignty suddenly appears on the scene?
As I went through the process of becoming a devotee, I struggled to figure out what my relationship to the Morrigan was. Most sources I found emphasized her association with battle and nightmares, and I couldn’t figure out why I kept feeling her so strongly in my garden. I felt her in the twining of the jasmine plant and the spiders spinning webs over my pots. I felt her in a gale and a meteorite and the swaying branches of the jacaranda trees. For me, she was the breath of the wild world buried under a bloated civilization. I explored literal notions of warriorhood; I looked into some martial arts classes. But that just wasn’t the language she spoke to me.
The Táin is a very interesting myth. If you skim it, the Morrigan seems like a mean, almost petty figure, trying to bring Cú Chulainn down after he rejects her offer of love. After he injures her during each of her attempts, she has to trick him into healing her, and he grows indignant at having been fooled. Cue the trumpets: waah waaaah.
But the meaning of the story goes much deeper than that, of course. Here’s one possible reading: as goddess of sovereignty, the Morrigan is the personification of the landscape that forms a symbiotic relationship with its inhabitants. Usually this relationship is characterized by a symbolic marriage between the goddess and the king. Cú Chulainn isn’t a literal king, but as half-divine champion of the Ulstermen, he plays a similar role. The land offers itself to him in a spirit of partnership and love; Cú Chulainn rejects it under the misapprehension that he needs no such partnership; and the land subsequently hinders his efforts–not out of spite, but as an effect of natural law. In tricking Cú Chulainn into healing the Morrigan’s wounds, the land attempts to bring him back into that mutually beneficial partnership, although Cú Chulainn is still too pigheaded to see the benefit.
Here in the 21st century, one might read this story as a clear parable for capitalism. We’ve rejected the land and it’s begun to hinder us, sending us droughts and superstorms and deadly temperatures. The only way our story ends happily is for us to reestablish our partnership with the land by healing it–and, unlike Cú Chulainn, we need to do so willingly.
As I studied the Morrigan, I learned that I wasn’t crazy: many scholars refer to her as an earth goddess. And her role of spirit of the land isn’t far removed, I think, from her roles of sovereignty and war goddess. Humans are creatures of earth, dependent on healthy ecosystems, and we see across the globe that oppression and environmental devastation stem from the same root causes. I’m not the first person to wonder if, in this age of mass, mechanized violence, the Morrigan isn’t gathering an army.
“Late capitalist culture simply does not care what our fantasy dress up life is like as long as we work our zero hour contracts, carry our mobile phones and keep consuming. The reason that social services are not taking your children away is that nobody believes in the existence of the witch….Marching in lock-step with what used to be called mainstream, but is now mono-culture, we have disenchanted ourselves, handed over our teeth and claws and bristling luxuriant furs.” -Peter Gray, Rewilding Witchcraft
“Witchcraft is a tool against oppressors. It sides with the oppressors at its own peril, for power is ever fickle, and our gifts ever mistrusted by the bullies and abusers who would make our power their own.” – Jason Thomas Pitzl, Witchcraft Today–Witchcraft Tomorrow: A Manifesto
Witchcraft is becoming synonymous with warriorhood.
How can it not? How can we practice plant magic when our plant allies are covered in pesticides? How can we believe in an immanent Goddess and let other human lives be destroyed? How can we “sing, feast, dance, make music and love” knowing what fueled the cars we drove to our secret places? At this juncture of history, to be a witch is to be a warrior. Diana and Aradia and Hekate are commonly known as Queens of the Witches; now, by necessity, the Morrigan is taking her place alongside them. Queen of sorcery and prophecy. She who sees the cycles of history.
But the Morrigan isn’t asking us to adore her with more trinkets and cosplay. It frustrates me when I meet holier-than-thou devotees who are eager to dress up as ancient Celts and call themselves warriors, but sniff at the idea of fighting any actual battles. Why waste your time phone banking or blocking freeways when you could be out shopping for replica swords? What on earth does a war goddess have to do with politics? (Yes, a real person actually said that to me, although they didn’t phrase it as a question.)
Let’s face it: about 90% of magical and spiritual work doesn’t involve cool costumes and elaborate rituals. It involves listening to your deepest self and doing what needs to be done. This isn’t to say that rituals aren’t important; I hear the Coru priests are as good at battlefield devotionals as they are at direct action. But if your rivers are being poisoned and your neighbors are being murdered by police and you’ve only got an hour to spare, then your priorities should be clear: put down the incense and do something.
Witchcraft is warriorhood. It wasn’t always. If I’m reincarnated as another witch in 500 years, I hope that my practice can consist of dancing in meadows and wearing flower crowns. But we witches of the 21st century drew the short straw: we got a poisoned earth and a rabid kyriarchy and an angry goddess. Yeah, it sucks. It’s our job to rise to the occasion.
It’s true that the Morrigan is also known as the Phantom Queen, and I’ve seen people warned away from her for this reason. “You can’t handle her,” the warnings say. “She’s too dangerous. Her name means nightmare, you know!”
If you don’t feel a need to work with the Morrigan, then obviously you shouldn’t. I’m not proselytizing here. I know many fine warrior witches who work with Hekate or Ceridwyn or Isis or Inanna. But if you’re feeling that tug from her–if she’s invading your thoughts and dreams and she’s not leaving you alone–then I’m going to give you some advice that runs contrary to what you’ll hear elsewhere.
Don’t be afraid.
Because, yes, the Morrigan is scary. Yes, I’ve seen some deeply disturbing things in dreams and trance. Yes, working with her might lead to physical or psychic injury (although if that injury isn’t transformative in some way, then something’s off).
But I guarantee–and I’m talking especially to you, white middle-class Americans–that nothing the Morrigan can do to you compares to the horror of human trafficking, drone strikes, militarized police, environmentally-caused cancers, nuclear meltdowns, or any of the other myriad effects of capitalism and kyriarchy that ordinary people deal with everyday. If you’re hearing her call, then listen to what she’s saying. Why be afraid of the Nightmare Queen when we are living in a fucking nightmare?
To be a witch is to be a warrior. This is not an ego trip, friends–it’s an obligation. Most of us didn’t ask for it, but we do have to own it. Even if we don’t know how to be warriors. Even if we’re not sure what the word “warrior” even means.
I can’t tell you what your warriorhood should look like. Suffice it to say that if it’s exactly what you always imagined warriorhood would be, with all the pomp and splendor you’ve always craved, then it’s probably not helping a whole lot. Seek out the unglamorous battles. Don’t strive to get your picture taken. Just do what needs to be done.
The Goddess has offered you her love; your job now is to heal her.