The 'W' Word (Witch), What Does it Mean?
The other day I sat down and again tried to define what it is that I am doing. We are talking about beginning our church next year, but a church of what? I am the type that is most comfortable with a clear and complete understanding, so I began at the beginning.
I am a Witch. OK, fine. That means I am also a High Priestess. Great! Of what? Oh, yeah – I am a High Priestess of the Gods. OK, so this is a religion? Well.... It's a philosophy, I'm not certain it is a religion. But it acts like one.
Religion, according to the dictionaries I can find, is a combination of philosophy about our world and a set of social guidelines for people to live together. In research I found several different definitions, but one fact always came across fairly clearly – religion always acknowledges power outside ourselves.
Now for Pagans this can be very difficult to incorporate as a concept. We are fiercely independent critters, and do not seek anything that smacks of that old time absolutist system where someone stands above you and tells you not only what is right and wrong, but also that you are going to catch hell – literally – if you don't obey. Obey – there's the difficulty. Systems that demand obedience, in the name of knowing better than you, do not recognize the innate authority of each individual to run their own lives. Authoritarian systems dishonor our choices of what to learn and what to experience. They also provide a fairly predictable community, which has advantages.
However, what Paganism, Wicca and Witchcraft have in mind is broader. Rather than tell you what you can and cannot do, it seeks to provide guidelines within which you can do whatever you like, without infringing on anyone else's similar pursuits. What the hell does that mean? Well..... Let's go back to those basics I spoke of.
We are a community/religion/culture/group because of certain commonalties. We as a group favor a life focused view – we do not experience our lives as a `veil of tears' which we must suffer through in order to arrive at a glorious afterlife. We also do not see life as some sort of a trial we must undergo and pass through with a minimal of screwups in order to qualify for eternal bliss.
Pagans see life as a celebration of a series of mysteries. Most religions tend to ignore life transitions in favor of focusing on attaining some pre-defined perfection. Paganism celebrates life, birth, growth, proficiency, and attainment identified in three stages – maiden/youth, mother/father, crone/sage. These stages represent many diverse aspects of our humanity, but the explorations of learning-exploration-warrior energy, then the discipline-nurture-stability energy, and finally knowledge attained – wisdom/non-manipulative judgment and acceptance phase. We do not rail against the ravages of time on our physical self, we watch with fascination the changes we experience and personify as we move through the circle of rebirth, life and death. This is not to imply that all of us are yet comfortable with these cycles. Most of us are the product of strong death-centered religious philosophies and are only now incorporating the joy of all facets of life into our world-view. We value things that are not a commonality in the broader cultures we inhabit, but are becoming more defined in our Pagan/Magickal communities.
What are these values? Well, at the basic level we certainly value independence and strength of purpose. Even if we don't always agree with someone's goals, there is much admiration for people who can get things done, people who tend to have things arranged to their preferences. We are only now beginning to produce the caveat that success should not be engineered at the expense of another's choice of path. We value experience. We are developing a reputation as one of the world religions that has respect for Elders. Certainly later we will be accused of worshipping them, veneration and respect are very similar to worship, so why quibble over details. We value our children, but there are some differences here as well. Our children represent the cycle of life, the turn of the wheel in action. We are able to share what we have attained that they might start further up the ladder, but we do not compel. We view our children as being entitled to a complex combination of potential and self-directed life and spiritual choices. This tends to exist whether the parent is a reincarnationist or not. It's part of our cultural beliefs.
Our values are expressed through a process of anthropomorphization onto our Gods. That (if you think it's hard to read, try to say it out loud!) is jargon for the process where we project our human characteristics on things that are not human. In the attempt to make the divine comprehensible, we give them attributes we understand. Just as people call their cars – him, or large ships are she and subsequent occurrences on that ship are interpreted as though the ship is a living entity – we have Goddesses and Gods which represent important things in our lives. Artemis/Mars for the ability to bring force into play when it's needed. Aphrodite/Pan to allow indulgence into physical love without apology for being divinely engrossed in its effects. We look to Mary/Inanna/Isis/Hera and many others to represent the confusing combination of nurturance, love, teaching, discipline and patience which most female parents provide. Our male parenting figures are largely underrepresented for some reason. Herne and other male gods of the forest provide us with a male figure of that age that acts as procurer of necessities and provider of strength. But we'll probably find male nurturing figures as time goes by. And then we have Hecate, Selene and the gods of age, wisdom and death. And one of the most important figures, Loki/Coyote, who personify the forces of chaos and unpredictability which explain misfortune and random acts in our lives. Through these Goddesses and Gods we make the world and its forces explainable, understandable and predictable.
These deities provide for us the framework of values for our culture. Through the mythology surrounding these figures we define the ethics of our community in an applicable fashion. Ethics are the rules, the absolutes, the embodiment of our values brought into a form which we can apply to ourselves, our peers, the members of our community and our life situations/occurrences/transitions. We tell each other, outsiders and our children stories of our Gods and their experiences/adventures to illustrate what is right and expected within our culture. Paganism is operating at a disadvantage at this time because of the lack of definition in our mythology and culture – but we are beginning to provide it. Although we use the names and archetypes of Goddess and God's from many different cultures, they need adaptation to be relative to our existence today. My husband recently went on a trip to Scotland. There he bought a wonderful book on mythology. He found a special place to read, and as he settled his back to one of the smaller sacred circle stones that occur in many places in Scotland, the day was perfect. But he was vastly disappointed. The stories made no sense. They didn't touch anything inside of him. There was no connection to a greater understanding and empathy with the people in the story. Those stories were truths of a different time based on the emotional needs of that era. These stories don't incorporate cell phones, career ladders, working with technology. We have to create new stories to bring these issues into focus for our Pagan culture as it exists now. And the substance of this mythology would mean nothing to that earlier culture.
One of the fondest myths we have abroad in the Pagan/Wiccan/Magickal community is the myth that we are reclaiming a religion. There are aspects of this that may hold some validity, but in the main we are creating something incredibly different from Paganism of the past. While we are reclaiming the veneration for our natural world, its component ecosystems, creativity, sexuality, sympathetic magick, cycle of life, etc., we are shaping them in a way that reflects the abilities of our current technology, medicine, financial access, social needs, motility, education, communication and choices. These have changed vastly in just the last fifty years, never mind the incredible changes that occurred in the fifty years prior to that!
As our mythology has failed and become irrelevant, so too did the common Gods. We now demand more. And one of the areas which we must address at this point in time is the creation and definition of Ethics and Morals for our community. Why? Because these two areas will allow us to finally take our place as a conjoined force among the world religions, and allow formation of common goals which will provide us the opportunity to wield the political, social and philosophical power necessary to see the spread of the values that make up our religion and our philosophy – or at least to ensure we continue to have the right to believe and behave as we see fit, rather than conforming to the norms of other – less suited – religions.
One of the continuous cries I have heard over the last 10-15 years is the need for courtesies within our community. Etiquette. Manners. Appropriate social interaction. There is reason for this. When our culture shifted so sharply, there was a void in Ethics and Morals. There was new info on the horizon and so the broader culture's rules for social interaction began to fray and dissolve. This has prompted many discussions around the United States, and I am certain in many other countries as well. Over time I came to the understanding that etiquette was not a low level concern. In going through the same analysis process I had used to understand what and how ethics fit into our lives, I was startled to discover that etiquette was not only as important as ethics, but its companion and soul-mate. If ethics are the absolutes from which our culture develops it's history, mythology and definition – then its active component – etiquette – is the method by which we convey and weave those definitions into the social interactive methods of our people. Rather than being the fussy afterthought that imposed manners seemed to me in my youth, these social interactive styles are not the grease on the wheels of social interaction, but the composition of the wheels themselves. Only by conveyance of behavioral absolutes can we incorporate the substance of our values into day to day life. Wheeee!
What does that mean? Well, if our Gods are the anthropomorphization of our values, then Ethics are the ironclad rules by which we operate in order to honor those stated values, members of our community and our Gods. Etiquette is the indoctrination we provide newcomers to and members of our community in order to ensure we all are working out of the same book. This similarity in view allows us to operate within our defined culture with predictability of social acceptance, sexual customs, physical safety and success – or not – as we choose. This allows us to know that the basic emotional, physical, social and spiritual needs of our lives are provided for, and move on to experience our lives on a very different level than mere survival. Community is a method by which we humans are able to pursue evolution of our culture, race and selves.
Now, I am about the last person anybody ever expected to be talking about absolutes – ethical or moral. I have given many a lecture on Rational Emotive Witchcraft and have taught who knows how many, that absolutes lead to extremist thinking which is not productive for the individual. But, absolutes have their place in a society. Thou Shalt Not Kill – is an absolute. Thou Shalt Not Steal – is another. While these seem simplistic from a distance, they fulfill a necessary function – guidance for the development of morals. Defining morals was one of those difficult processes. The dictionaries seemed to move in circles. At the end of the definition, it would then bring in another phrase which we thought was nailed down earlier. I are using the word morals here to mean the individual interpretation of the ethical absolutes for personal application. What!??? OK, if we look at our first LAW mentioned above, thou shalt not kill, we can then see where the personal application and differentiation comes in. But what if he's trying to kill me? But what if he really needs killing? And looking at the second LAW – thou shalt not steal, we come to similar places on an individual situation. What if the thing I want to steal was mine, but somebody stole it from me? Can I ethically steal it back? What if my children are starving, and the baker has plenty – is it wrong to steal to save lives?
These are moral dilemmas. Ethics have already defined the practice as unacceptable, but morals allow individuality of response to the particular situation. Sometimes called situational ethics, these are the most difficult decisions to justify. Ultimately, it always comes down to making a decision and going with it – and later accepting the consequences.
Within our culture we have gotten into philosophical hot water, and seriously damaged the credibility of our stated values, by mistaking ethics for morals. If sufficient amount of the population understand and empathize with divergence from the ethical code, then the act is justified by the population as necessary and tolerable under the moral code. This does not compromise the ethic and value. It provides for one isolated aberration from the cultural standards that prevail. The very confusion in which we hold the terms ethics, morals and related terms show that we as a culture have no clear definitions from which to work. This acceptance of individual variances from the LAWS are what make our judicial and jury systems so incomprehensible from a distance. Again and again we look at the bizarre results of trial by jury and believe that it is an illustration of justice not prevailing. Not so! Many times it is an illustration of the society condoning moral choices within a framework of absolutes that simply did not suit the conditions within which the individual found themselves. In fact our legal system exists to allow for deviation and determination of appropriate moral choices. If the choice cannot be justified and integrated in the social values, then the individual is ostracized, penalized and set apart from the ethical and moral components of that society.
OK, back to the beginning. What is Witchcraft? Wicca? Paganism? Are these religions/philosophies only a set of working social guidelines, a reflection of wishful thinking, spiritual truth or the most important piece of humans living together? Yes. All of the above.
I have come to believe that we have seriously underestimated the importance of religion, spirituality, philosophy, mythology and all their ramifications in our lives. There is no secular. There is no mundane. From where I stand now I can see that all these items make up important components of our total world. These items together comprise our social, legal and religious environment. There is one definition of the word religion that links it back to a word origin of relinking. In its truest sense then, religion provides the commonalties in viewpoint needed to define individual members within its parameters. It links together predictable norms in terms of personal and interpersonal interaction, sexual ethics and morals, financial interactions, legal and judicial standards, interactions with the divine, and methods for transactions and contracts. Religion is the overarching concept that encompasses community, etiquette, spirituality, values and ethics. In a very real sense, where ever you have a group with common values, beliefs, and interactive rules, you are looking at religion in action.
The primary difference between other established religions, and the current status of Pagandom, is that we have yet to provide these definitions to our populace, and to those who ask who and what we are. We have gone to some lengths to avoid definition of our selves and groups, believing that to compromise that maverick and rogue energy will destroy what we most value in our religion. And we are coming to a place where we must provide guidance and standards to that new group of spiritual seekers, or let go of the concept of furthering Wicca and Paganism amongst the masses.
It seems most irrational to have come to a point where we must advocate absolutes in order to prevent absolutist behavior and customs, but we have arrived. When I began to discuss Pagan Church, a friend was caught between indignation and sarcasm. "What?", he inquired, "Are you going to bring dogma to Pagans?" "Yes!", I asserted, "If I can dogmatize the need for self-reliance, responsibility for one's actions, creativity, and tolerance for others, then, you bet!" If we don't provide these definitions now, then others, perhaps with less vision and scruples will. It is time for those who have tried to stay out of the limelight to contribute their wisdom that we might build and define the most important aspects of what we are trying to do for those who will come after us.
So that brings us back around to this church idea. A church is defined as a body of worshippers, a group in faith. I cannot think of any group of people whom I would rather be associated with than those in the Pagan community. And I want to provide quality access to those who are seeking knowledge of our mysteries, religion, and world-view. I would love to see the beliefs of our community become commonplace. It was never my intent to be a public figure, but if I don't agree with the messages other individuals are providing as Pagan representatives, then I have a responsibility to be accessible and provide my own messages. Ethically, I have pledged my time and energy. So where does that bring me?
I am proud to be a Witch. I have made my vows to the Goddess and God. I, with full knowledge, have undertaken the obligation to further harmony and growth in my world. Little did I know what strange waters it would bring me to. But I am still afloat, and invite all my peers to join me in the wildest trip to the new world. And we get to create that world. I'm looking for a world rich in variety, beauty and joy, and it's up to us to each put our oars in the water. I may not be going in circles, but we're not moving forward as fast as we could. Come on in, the water's fine!!
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