Monday, November 19, 2018

A Crisis of Faith: Coming to Terms with the Toxicity of Paganism and Witchcraft (Updated)

I've been sitting on this entry for some months, fighting back and forth as to whether I should post it.  It's sure to earn me some ire but I think it's also important to show that, no matter how far involved you are in your own Craft, these feelings surface.  Ignoring them isn't an option.  They have to be brought into the light, dealt with and, ultimately, decided upon.

Since my leaving the circle and the community, I’ve been struggling with a crisis of faith. I thought, for the longest time, that it was because I lost factors I considered essential to my spirituality: Volunteering, organizing, and teaching. For me, a religion is only worth undertaking if you can give a piece of yourself to it.  But I've come to realize that it's more than that, deeper rooted than that.  That my feelings involving a lack of contribution are merely a symptom of my crisis of faith and not the cause.

I find that, in the past few years, I have become increasingly disillusioned with paganism and witchcraft as a whole. At its core, it is based on a bunch of made-up egocentric bullshit from misogynistic men with a taste for sex and -isms. Of course, this is a generalization. Yes, there are pieces of truth and authenticity, but those pieces are so interwoven with the shit that is the abusive, appropriative, racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic nature of the neopagan community and its extensive history. No matter how much I separate myself from the community, how much I personalize my solitary practice, I have to live with the fact that these things are not only connected at the root but synonymous with the community as it is currently.  And I don't know if I can.

Yes, some of this is based on recent posts re: Sarah Anne Lawless and her issues with modern Neopaganism.  You can read some of them here but, be forewarned: They are triggering.  I don't feel like getting into the argument of whether her history and analysis is sound.  I find that those who criticize her history are nitpicking terminology while missing the bigger picture: Pagan and witchcraft practices have historically set the precedence for abuse.  There's a reason it festers within the community - and it isn't a new concept.  It's all good and well if you don't agree with her historical analysis, but then dig yourself and figure out where it started.  Because it started long ago, well before Sarah, or you, or I entered the community.

But that's just a portion of it.  Lawless's article was the feather on top of a lot of weight I have been holding for some years.

I don’t talk about it much but, in my college years, I really didn’t have time to practice. I was working three jobs, getting my degree, and building a career. The last time I had practiced, even within the confines of my childhood bedroom at midnight with the hopes that no one discovered me, had been years behind me. I didn’t identify as a witch anymore. I identified at best as agnostic but more likely verging on atheism. After I quit two of those three jobs and graduated, I found myself with more time on my hands. Witchcraft was a familiar friend to fill the void. It also coincided with the rock-bottom of the Great Recession, the loss of both of our jobs and our apartment, and the start of a long period of floundering for me. While I’m sure the connection isn’t necessarily hand-in-hand, it’s hard to separate the two.

Even when I reentered witchcraft, I held on to pieces of my agnosticism/atheism. I’m nontheistic and logical to a fault within my craft, often associating scientific uses with correspondences more than the mythos behind the item. And the more I studied, the more I gripped those pieces with a fierce strangulation.

The more I descended into the pagan community, the more I spiraled on my own. The more I spiraled, the more I was susceptible to the kinds of power play and abuse that’s rampant within the community, from people showing up to my house party who were not invited and should have never had my address, putting my family's safety at stake, to the piggybacking of racism within the community to out a member everyone had personal issues with rather than tackling the actual issue of racism (and other isms) within the community itself. I have been roped into appropriative rituals without my consent in front of hundreds of people and I have been antagonized by members asking if I felt "safe" in a way that intentionally did not make me feel safe.  Those are just a select small number of the experiences I have had within my own local community. And yes, sexual abuse and coercion also play a large role. I am one of the lucky ones to say that I’ve only ever been cornered once in a sexual nature and my husband rescued me, but again - I am lucky. I know so many who weren’t. I also so desperately wanted to believe that my coven was immune to it when it wasn’t. While the relationships were stated as mutual, when one coven member is dating literally half of the coven, we're facing the same relationship power dynamics that we witness within the greater community. I wouldn't say it's abuse per se, but it is a concerning issue that I should have addressed much sooner.  I wish I hadn’t let it slip under my nose as “consenting adults." And that makes me, in a word, compliant in all of that. For that, I truly apologize.

I have often kept quiet in the past about issues I have faced in the community because multiple members have made it clear that I "intentionally play the victim," so I simply don't raise my voice unless the issue is happening to a group rather than just me. In reality, those words are yet another power play, a way to control those who are experiencing abuse and need to speak up.

No, my crisis of faith is based on the toxicity of the greater paganism and witchcraft.  At its core, the practice is manipulative, abusive and misinformed.  We have worked hard over the greater part of a century to change that, to unbury the truths and find the real history.  However, it has been too little, too late.  The community itself is structured for power plays, abuse and petty drama - more than other communities I have been a part of in the past.  In fact, I've never witnessed such damaging behavior as I have within the greater community.  And the reality is that I cannot separate my practice from it.  It's ingrained in every part of it, from its core history to its current varying practices.  Perhaps I felt like I was doing something good with the coven by ensuring our Novice classes were wrapped in the truth, no matter how grating it could be.  Perhaps I felt like this blog was my way of remedying it.  I don't know.  What I do know is that I don't want to be "fixing" it anymore.

Coming out of the other side of this, it feels… unsettling. To use the metaphor I used with my therapist: I feel like paganism and the community lit a spark within me. What I didn’t realize is that it was lit from a massive house fire I was standing right in the middle of. It took me getting burned many times to finally make it out of the mess. I won’t go back inside and that fire isn’t going out any time soon. In fact, people keep tossing kindling on it. There are individuals with small buckets desperately trying to put it out but it’s not working because there’s just not enough. And, right now, right in this moment, I’m standing in the cold of the night watching the blaze, nursing my wounds and wondering how I even ended up here. I’m looking back at the roaring fire and I have to decide: Is this MY house?

And I don’t think I want it to be anymore.


Community leaders' "vaguebooking" response to my article:

These posts do not deny anything that I wrote about in my article. These posts make no mention of remedying the issue.  The appropriate response to concerns about rampant -isms and abuse within the community is to look inward - not to blame those who fell victim to it. Instead, they insist on perpetuating with the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality: "If you can't handle the fire, get out of the kitchen."  These posts normalize this kind of abusive behavior listed above and insist that I'm "playing the victim," as I knew full well they would (and as I mentioned in advance).  Admitting your community has problems would require you to admit that it is overtly flawed and require you to relinquish the power you so desperately cling to in order to fix them.  Instead, the community as a whole is only willing to admit there are issues upon personal vendetta - not for the actual issues that stand.

Also, "don't blame the hill just because you aren't capable of hiking up it" is the most ableist metaphor I've seen yet.  No one should have to climb (read: "deal" with -isms, abuse and safety issues) when there are other ways around this.  You're choosing to use the hill.  Stop using it.

Update two:

I wanted to copy and paste some responses I've gotten from this article.  The only ire I have drawn so far has been from the community leaders above.  Other members within the community I was once a part of and those outside of my area have a different story to tell, and I think their voices should also be heard.  I have removed the names but, if you want your quote to be attributed, let me know.  This is not a cherry-picking of comments.  This is every comment I have received other than what you see below and the two leaders above:

"This pretty much sums up my sentiment. I had one member of the Pagan community try to groom me. Naturally when I didn't couple with him but had sex with those outside the community my sexual morality was questioned. I had several more try to make me a pawn in their power plays, including essentially taking ownership of spiritual centers I would run in name only. Naturally I didn't go for the bait. I had some try to brainwash me into so-called positive living because it was easier than believing I was in an abusive situation and needed help. Then when I hit hard times some would try to exploit me. When I stood up to it those same people would trash my name, make up horrible stuff about me and my then partner to isolate me, then deny all my spiritual work I put forth. I too grow weary of this form of Paganism. And, no, it won't go away like you said. At best it can start to change when our generation takes over more. That would require the "elders" to step down, though, and that isn't happening anytime soon." - A local community member.

"I saw that and I knew they were responding to you. It's terrible that they can't recognize that there is a problem within the community....why chastise those who have been hurt by this? I hate the "pull yourself up by the bootstrap" definitely blames the victim." - A local community member.

"Nothing says, "pagan communities are not inherently toxic!" like vaguebooking, right?  I mean they're not being outright mean, just said enough to prove you right.  Both responses reek of ableism." - A local community member.

"Marietta, I wish you could hear the thunderous applause I would be giving you right now if I had read this in your company.
Western esotericism is poisoned at its core. Its roots are directly from racist, misogynist, wealthy white cis men who used their power for the direct purpose of sexual, racial, Jewish, and queer abuse. That is a fact. It just is.
Anyone who wants to practice it today as an ethically aware endeavor faces a tremendous uphill battle. I know of people who are trying to do that in a truthful and honest way, and best of luck to them. But for me, it’s always been too much, and it’s the reason I never got involved with paganism and my practice is almost entirely non-spiritual. It’s hard to see spirituality in something with such a dark history, and in many circles even a dark present, for me. Even just trying to go to a meetup group for magic users, I could see the toxic dynamics going on within 2 events. And so, I have always remained entirely solitary.
Partly, it is that it reminds me so much of so many other subcultural groups I’ve been in: punk kids, poly, kink, even some activist circles. They are all poisoned with this exact same disease. The people who tend to flock to them are often vulnerable and feel outcast, or in some unfortunate cases, really are outcast. And because of that, abusers flock to them as well, looking for young, vulnerable people to brainwash and take advantage of.
I learned many years ago to stay away from these groups, because as a young woman, I was a magnet for the predators that ran rampant, and everyone just looked the other way and did nothing, because to admit their community was abusive would mean they’d have to face the fact that they weren’t perfect. It’s been an extremely difficult thing to come to grips with, because the whole reason I used to seek these spaces is because I didn’t have any home in the mainstream. And to find out the communities for people like me were mostly poisoned with molesters, racists, and sometimes even fascists was horrifying.
And there’s an added element of danger when it happens in witchcraft and paganism specifically, because the very concept of the group is based upon things like spirituality and sometimes altered experiences – things designed to make you vulnerable. Not that vulnerability is inherently bad, but it’s certainly bad in the presence of wolves. The very nature of spirituality makes it something where you have to trust those around you in order to experience it safely.
And I’m so sad for you that you’ve had to go through this with your former coven. And I’m so impotently angry that your story of what happened sounds so fucking familiar to me and this shit never gets any better. No matter how woke everyone pretends to be, no matter how many token gestures they pay to cultural sensitivity or inclusion or community accountability, it never fucking changes, and I don’t know what to do about it.
I don’t know what the point of this was. I just wanted to let you know I hear you and I support you and you’re not the only one." 

"They spoke to it directly and yet completely obliviously. You clearly said you are often told you’re playing the victim and what do they do but repeat themselves. I find it more a hypersensitive soul to abuses and emotional manipulation, and we need people like that around to be aware and help us be aware."

"From the outside, I had the impression that "paganism" was very feminist, forward thinking, female centered and respectful. But it seems to have been poisoned at the very core by toxic masculinity and misogyny. Add to that the cultural appropriation (which the article makes a very convincing point as to why it's completely ridiculous in the first place and that the attempt to co-opt any outlier faith is laughable) and that seems like a fairly terrible mix. And unfortunately, it seems that poison also seems to have reached the circles you created, despite your efforts to make them as remote from this as possible.
So I understand much better now why this loss of faith. And if it's a loss of faith towards whether you want to still be a part of this, then that seems perfectly reasonable.
I will say this though, from what you posted recently you also seem to have lost a bit of faith in yourself. If that's the case, I hope you can crush that. Because the truth is it's neither your duty nor your burden to change things, especially if you don't seem to find sincere allies willing to fight this with you. You're a badass woman, a talented artist, someone that I sincerely admire for your capacity to take charge and the obvious monumental effort you put into every aspect of your life. You're amazing. Put that faith in yourself."

"…that was a strong and well-written essay about people’s abuses of each other within pagan/witch communities, and they… think people who don’t like getting abused and manipulated… should just skidaddle… as if abuse and manipulation are healthy and normal parts of magical/pagan communities?

"So, I’ve called myself pagan for a while for a lack of vocab, but I have distanced myself more and more from the image and presence of pagans as I have grown due to the unsavory (read: sexual and questionable) reputation the community has gained however, with the white supremacy rep that heathen has gotten, I’m not really there either. Odd and witchy is true, but not easy to define.
You have been and are such an inspiration. When you were the leader of a Coven, I had hope for covens.  It’s not you that’s wrong. I think that a lot of witches have found that there’s a ton of shit that we don’t have time for. You tried to do a lot of good. You DID a lot of good. It’s not on you if the shitty things your former [community] do snip and snipe about in your speaking truth to power are shitty. You are a wonderful gift to this world. Don’t let people who haven’t grown past shit drag you..."

"Why do they fucking care so much about what you're doing? Not involved with them anymore, yeah? Reeks of manipulation."

"Dear Marietta,
I see you.  I hear you.  This is me validating you.
As someone who has practiced their entire life, it sometimes feels like this house has become a tomb.  I get lost, even after 30 years.  I wonder if I have been traveling a fruitless path.  But then I remember why I am a witch:
My power.
I acknowledge the power inside of me.  The power that was given to me by ancestor after ancestor.  The power that was nurtured by my mother.  The power that wakes me every morning.  The power I utilize to continue to change the world…even when, at times, it seems as if I am climbing a 90 degree slope.
I hate that you have gone through this.  I hate that these people are making you feel unworthy of your power.
So don’t give it to them.  Fuck them.  And fuck what they have to say.
You are a goddamn titan on your own.  And no one can take from you what you know to be yours, to be true.
Take back what is rightfully yours."

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The Shortest Day: A Little Book of the Winter Solstice Review

Long-time reader Vixxia Wyrdwritere has sent me a few parcels over the past year packed with some wonderful goodies and thoughtful gifts.  Recently, she sent me a tiny book called The Shortest Day by Karen Cater and asked if I'd review it.  I'm always happy to oblige a review, especially when the item is particularly review-worthy!  Let's dive in!

The Shortest Day is a small book written and illustrated by author Karen Cater.  When I received the book, I was surprised at just how small it was - barely the length of my hand.  It truly is a little book.

But don't let its size fool you; big things come in small packages!  This book is chocked full of information about the upcoming holiday. A total of 63 pages, Cater makes the most of her limited space to provide a comprehensive look at the meaning of the solstice.

The book begins with a scientific view of Midwinter, explaining the name, the appearance of the sun's stance int he sky and how this cycles every year.  Cater then dives into the history of the solstice in Britain by visiting a number of neolithic sacred sites.  From the well-known Stonehenge to the village of Avebury, the author pinpoints the role of the solstice at these locations.  She continues on to the role of the Mistletoe plant in Yule and rounds the book out with historic customs and how they've evolved over the years.  It's surprising just how much information Cater was able to pack into 63 pages.  Even I learned something new!

While The Shortest Day overflows with information, you can't mention this book without also talking about Cater's fabulous artwork.  Bold, colorful prints grace the pages of this tiny book, highlighting new sections and chapters with a peek into the sites and historical lore.

Overall, I found The Shortest Day a fascinating read, perfect for the budding Pagan looking for some scientific and historical insight into one of the eight common holidays of the year.  The tiny book surprised me with just how much information is stored between its mere 60 pages.  Combined with vivid illustrations, this book would make a lovely addition to a Yuletide stocking or gift box this upcoming holiday!

It is also Familiar Approved!

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Natural Samhain Altar 2018

The air is cool and crisp.  I feel no breeze - only a chilled stillness as the world sits in an eerie silence.  In the wake of the morning, my footsteps in the blanket of dead leaves that line my yard are the only sounds to be heard.  Even my dog sits, calm yet attentive, at the foot of the stairway to the deck.  This quietness is a mark of the thinning of the veil that divides the living and the dead.  I can feel the tingle down my spine, the hairs raise on the back of my neck, and my awareness is heightened.  Samhain is indeed here.

While most celebrate Samhain on its traditional date of October 31st, I tend to feel the veil is at its thinnest at the exact midpoint between the equinox and the solstice.  This year, that fell on November 7th at an early 5:18 am.  A holiday of remembrance, we utilize our heightened awareness and that thinned veil to honor our ancestors, communicate with the spirit world and connect to our higher selves.  We might participate in a silent supper to dine with our loved ones who have passed, leave them food as an offering for their travels, or honor them with altars made of photos and trinkets that once belonged to them.  All things magical are strengthened on this holiday, so we turn towards spell work and divination as parts of our rituals.  As the first holiday in the darker half of the year, we look towards shadow work, poking around the darkest corners of our inner world to connect with our shadow selves.  For some, Samhain marks the beginning of the witch's new year, a celebration filled with goal-making and cleansing.  Whatever it is that you celebrate, this sabbat is certainly an exciting one!

During my end-of-the-year survey in 2017, readers asked for simple, more affordable and natural altars.  In response to that, I began a natural altar series on February Eve.  I continue that series today.  The rules are simple:

I cannot go out and purchase anything for these altars.
The altars must be made of natural items found around my house, in local parks and walking trails or items that I already own.
The value of already-owned non-natural items cannot exceed $5 and should be easily accessible.
The emphasis should be on natural items.
The altar can take no more than 10 minutes to put together and photograph.

For this altar, the only non-natural items used were the eight white candles that created one of many circles about the altar. 

Circles are symbols of cycles, be it life or seasons.  I wanted to create many circles to represent all these cycles we find within our lives, all the ebbs and flows, the deaths and rebirths that we experience.  I used eight candles specifically because that represented the eight sabbats - with this being both the last and the first for many witches who celebrate the Wheel of the Year. Eight is also a balanced number.  Balance is essential to managing these many cycles of our lives as well as balancing the living with the dead at this time of the year.  I chose white candles because, like the number eight, white is a symbol of balance.  It's also a cleansing color that is often associated with the spirit realm and the veil between their world and ours.

Inside the circle of candles, I placed a circle of toasted bread pieces.  This old bread would have gone to waste had I not toasted it up for use as croutons and stuffing later on.  Bread itself is a fertile symbol of life and earth.  The repurposing of this bread as it dried out and neared the end of its edibility is yet another symbol of death and rebirth, of balance, and of the cycles we find in our lives. Bread also makes a fantastic offering for the spirits that may visit during this holiday.

At the very center of these many circles sat an acorn squash.  In November, pumpkins are often far past their prime but sturdy squashes with hardened exteriors - much like that of the acorn squash - are still plentiful.  Squashes are a hardy seasonal vegetable often added to our traditional Samhain and Thanksgiving meals.  The way that squash grows, connected to one another in a community as they lie upon the ground, absorbing the element of earth, is a testament to how we ourselves live our lives: Connected, protected and grounded.  On the altar, I chose to display the acorn squash belly-up, showing off the rich orange color underneath the green.  This lively harvest color only comes from the shadows, the darkness, the earth, proof of connection and groundedness making us stronger and brighter in the darkest of times.

On the outermost edge of the altar, I placed a ring of rosemary.  Rosemary is known as the herb of remembrance and is commonly associated with dying and death.  We use the herb for incense, magical seasoning, and spell work during this time of the year. 

One specific spell often involves tying together three pieces of rosemary with three colors of ribbon: White, black and red.  The colors represent life, death, and rebirth - the cycle of life.  Upon the altar, I placed three sprigs of rosemary sticking upward and into the circles, showing how life, death, and rebirth often interrupt the other cycles of life.  They are the common denominator, the experience we will all have, the cycle that we will all experience in the end.

Finally, around the base of the stump, I added a large amount of toasted bread as a final offering to the spirits and entities of the holiday.

Overall, this altar is about cycles and balance.  As we go through our lives, we experience many cycles, big and small.  From the smallest cycle of our daily tasks to the yearly seasons, from the beginning, middle, and end of a good book to the ebb and flow of relationships in our lives, there is one common cycle we all will experience: We are born, we live, we die, and we are born again.  No matter what other cycles we experience, this is the common denominator, the connecting factor.  This holiday is a reminder of those cycles but particularly the one of our own mortality.

I'll leave you with a visual explanation of the altar.  Enjoy!

I hope everyone had a blessed Samhain!