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At the Temple of Apollo

I stand at the door of Apollo’s shrine–I’m not sure why I have come. Whether I am simply drawn by the energy of this place, or by the serendipity of a short line, I know not.

The Pithia is at the door. She’s the mysterious prophetess of Delphi, and the most powerful women in the world. She invites me to share in her fumes–a heady incense that would take me ages to recognize. It goes straight to my head. She speaks to me, but her words make no sense. By the time she motions me to enter the shrine, my doubt clears and I enter the door. I glimpse the mosaic ‘Know Thyself’ as I commit myself to crossing the threshhold.

Somehow, my frivolous hat with kitty ears seems woefully inadequate to wear when you stand before a god. I couldn’t take it off fast enough.

He is glorious. A young man in a shining chiton of pure white and gold. Clean shaven and well groomed–he looks like that hot professor I never actually had in college. Behind him, a sparse altar with symbols sacred to Him; a vase, a bust of Himself, a crown of laurel, some soil from Apollo’s own birthplace, and several offerings of poetry and writing.

For the scarcity of time, two are allowed inside, and when Apollo the Sun God asks kindly what brings us here, I defer to the woman next to me. She is to be the caretaker and healer of young boys who have seen real trauma and experienced great loss. Boys who have had violence against them and no true father figures in their lives as they were in and out of the system. Suddenly my own desires for Apollo’s blessing seem shallow and contrived. I turn my gaze to the young Sun God, joining in this woman’s beseech, “Lord Apollo, can you heal them?”

“Although I have felt many heartaches and pains that mortals normally bear alone, I am compassionate to your blight where other Gods cannot be. But I cannot heal these young men. I can offer my love, empathy and protection,” he touches the woman, “but you must heal them.”

I can see her breaking down–the weight of such a responsibility is heavy, yet she knows Apollo will be standing behind her, guiding her actions as long as her intention is pure. She straightens herself and seems so brave to me. I know of Apollos loves and losses from my mythological studies. His understanding is real.

He turns to me to ask why I have come. I wring my cat hat and shuffle my feet–I wonder if Hermes has stolen the words out of my mouth, for suddenly I seemed to have more words than I could edit coming out of my mouth at His shrine not fifteen minutes ago. Now I stand before the God of decorum, right action, poetry…and my words and body language reflect none of these things.

“Er, it’s like this…” I begin, “I have all these projects–too many, really. I went to your sister Artemis to ask for her help in finishing what I start. And She said I should see you about, er, getting organized with my writing. Or something.”

That sounded dumb, so I try again, “I’m writing a book, you see. Several, actually. I’m well blessed by your inspiration, my Lord. I just can’t seem to accomplish anything.”

Apollo, the God of inspiration, of song and civilization seems to contemplate me a moment, “Is it one thing you wish to accomplish, or one big thing?”

“It’s huge!” I gesticulate widely in demonstration, “A big idea–a vision–I want to give to the community. It involves several separate writing projects.”

“I see.”

I thought his statement ironic.

“What is the action you must do to begin and sustain this project?”

My mind races–research, interview, find time, support myself, keep the lights on, make the computer work for me…

“No.” said Apollo, reading my mind, “You have to write. What is a book but an accomplishment of chapters? What is a chapter but an accomplishment of pages? Empires and encyclopedias are gained and created by a thousand accomplishments inside a thousand accomplishements inside a thousand accomplishments. Begin with the page. Write what you know. What you put there will be honest, true and perfect for you at that moment. If, when it is done, you find it not to your standards, then you do one of two things: You might honor Athena and delve into research. Or you might honor my sister Artemis, and accept is as practice, and try it again.

“If you are open, I will keep you well inspired, but to become overwhelmed by the big idea and never make accomplishments toward it–that is failure. But looking where you are and seeing how far you have come shows your many accomplishments. It is not a failure simply because you are not at the end.

“The sign above the door says “Know Thyself”, but unless you are a God, it is an impossible task. The goal is to strive toward it. Everything you do something to enrich that is an accomplishment.”

He seems done, but the magic is broken by noisy events outside the shrine. From my place in Apollo’s presence, I peer out the door over the green. I can see Ares stomping away from the shrine he shares with Athene.

“If you would just listen to reason!”

Without a word, but with many grumbles and a flare of cigar smoke, Ares pulls off his armor and kicks it to the ground, piece by piece, and heads straight for Aphrodite’s shrine. He pushes through the long line of worshippers, even shoving Her mermaid attendant out of the way. He swings open the door to Her shrine, and I swear I could see Aphrodite dismiss the Lord of War with a wave of her hand.

Apollo and the other woman and I look out. The young Sun God shakes his head, “My family is so…dramatic, sometimes. O dear. He’s not going into there, is he?”

Indeed, Ares slams the door at the shrine of his lover, and proceeds to a group of Sirens–fierce bird women who would sing to you lovingly as they play with your entrails. Their song lures Him in as they dance and sharpen their claws–the woman and I look at each other with worry.

“Fear not,” Apollo touches our shoulders and invites us both back into his shrine, “If anyone can handle their play, it is my brother Ares. Now, where were we? O yes.”

He blesses us both, and I leave the temple inspired by what I’ve heard and ready to write. But first, there are other Gods to visit. I step out of the shrine into Apollo’s glorious sunshine, and inhale the sweet air of optimism. I spare a glance back for the Pithia, who snakes into Apollo’s shrine–no doubt to drink up the words of prophecy he sends to her. I wonder what my destiny will be, and the outcome of this project. But first, I know, I must write…

Various Names and Guises of Witchcraft

January 26, 2010 2 comments

Dear Witchful Thinking

Greetings, I have been exploring Paganism and Wicca for a few years now and am still searching for the path that feels right. One of the reasons I was drawn to Wicca is that there are no hard and fast rules other than, of course, the Wiccan Rede which I follow carefully.  About Nocturnal Witchcraft. I have read about it a bit an it seems to be another form of Wicca, simply practiced at night, with night Gods and Goddesses. Am I right? I am most definitely a night person, always have been. I find the night to be more gentle, I feel a great sense of freedom at night, and also one cannot see all the “cracks in the pavement” if you will at night. The negativity in this world is all too visible in the light of day.  Anyway, what are your thoughts on this? I know that Wiccans do NOT worship Satan, do not even recognize his existence so I don’t believe that this type of Witchcraft has anything to do with Satanism.  I would very much like to explore Nocturnal Witchcraft and the only author that I seem to find is Konstantinos. I will understand if you aren’t comfortable recommending a particular author but any input would be most helpful. Also, thank you for your piece on Magickal names. I am searching for one that feels right to me, but don’t find having one necessary. I would use it for identity protection. I find that many folks who are new to Wicca and Paganism get caught up in the trappings.  Look forward to hearing from you.  Blessed Be

Emi M.

Dear Emi,

From "The Goddess Oracle" by Amy Marashinsky. Art by Hrana Janto. This is one of my favorite decks.

Welcome to Wicca! May the Gods bless your path and may you find what you seek.  The world of Witchcraft is a wild one, and it is very much like a landscape. There are many paths already made through lots of terrain, but one could easily create one’s own path. In the end, it’s a question of “where are you going” and your own choices that will dictate the direction you travel.

I dare say I’m a bit of a traditionalist when it comes to some definitions. Please do not think I am chiding you, for I’m not, and respect what you’ve already come to know. I only want to be clear in our definitions. I know I am going to get flaming hate mail for saying this (please be aware that I’m coming from an academic background as much as a spiritual one)–but there are certain things you MINIMALLY ought to practice and believe if you are to call yourself Wiccan:

  • Work with a God (often horned) and Goddess (often triple).
  • See all of nature and the cosmos as alive.
  • Include the use of ritual magic or spellcasting.
  • Follow the Wiccan Rede.
  • Celebrate the eight Sabbats on the Wheel of the Year.
  • Celebrate the Esbat rituals which often includes Drawing Down the Moon.

There are, of course, many variations and manifestations of these beliefs. For example, many Dianic Wiccans only worship a Goddess, although they acknowledge the God, and are still considered Wiccan. I don’t think it is right for folks to cherry-pick the parts of the religion they like and call themselves Wiccan–they should call themselves something else, because there is already a definition of Wicca. It’d be like someone going to a Buddhist temple, but never meditating or following the Eight Fold Path and calling themselves Buddhist–it just isn’t accurate, and it is rude to those who actually follow the tenants of Buddhism. If you only like some aspects of Wicca, but don’t follow the others, and do not belong to an established tradition, then please label yourself accurately as a Pagan, or whatever is more accurate for you.

I think some folks feel their path won’t be taken seriously if they simply go by the term “Pagan”, so they use the safety of the word “Wicca” to validate their path to outsiders. “Pagan” is the catch-all word for what we believe, not “Wiccan”. Wiccans do not believe whatever they want and call it Wicca, rather, they worship in however way they want, based on the list mentioned above. The idea is to create your own unique and individual relationship with the Gods. No one can dictate that relationship to you. The ritual trappings, the tools, hierarchy and liturgy are designed to help you cultivate that relationship, grow as a person, and manifest the good from it in the real world. But Wiccans follow a similar path to do that, and end up with similar theology and ideas about the world and the Gods. Their beliefs are based out of experience which is based out of religious practices–not the other way around. Paganism requires no such beliefs short of being one who worships nature–with no dictation about how that should happen, nor does it require or nessicarily believe in a relationship with the Gods. Pagans may focus on nature spirits, the Fey, or work with specific pantheons, but if they aren’t following a Wiccan path they are not Wiccan. Many writers who are not in the community confuse the two terms, so start reading folks who are in the movement to help clear up any misconceptions.

Of course, no one should tell you what religion you are–that is your right to make that declaration. Soap box rant over. Let’s move on.

The author of "Nocturnal Witchcraft", Konstantinos. Cute, yes?

I haven’t read the book you mentioned by Konstantinos, so I couldn’t give it a hearty recommendation (but on your suggestion, it is now on my ever-expanding “to read” list!), but I did do some research about it. It looks like you are correct in your assessment that it is a Wiccan primer that focuses more on the “dark” aspects (literally, in the dark, not evil–which he makes a big deal about not being). In a sense, it gives a guide to those who are more attracted to the moon and stars and the cover of darkness. When you think about Wicca 101 books, they always talk about Lunar Esbats being at the Full Moon, but as you expand your practice, you might choose to do Dark or New Moon Esbats, and you may come across Deity that prefers to be underground or only comes out at night.

Although it is true that you can’t see the “cracks in the pavement” and the negativity that exists during the day, different dangers appear in the night which, to me, are much scarier. The darkness is where monsters live. Not only the literal crime and seedy underbelly of the city, but our own nightmares and fears. The challenge of working Witchcraft at night is to face those fears. I believe it is a much harder path, but one that well-rounded witches will come to at some time or another, whether they want to or not! So really, Nocturnal Witchcraft is….. (drum roll) Witchcraft!

Two things are happening here: 1) because we don’t have established rules or doctrines beyond the basics I mentioned above, our religious vocabulary lacks descriptions of specific kinds of paths. 2) because we do not have a class of those who are religiously trained in said non-existent doctrines, there are very few ways for those talented in the ways of the Craft to make money except for writing and selling books, which, as you know, are marketed by people who want to make money.

A gifted Craft teacher may have a path that they have well-traveled that is different from other peoples, and want to write about it and share it with others who might travel behind them. So they write a book, knowing the information will reach a great many people, and allow them a paycheck so that they might continue on with their service to the community (yay!). Then the editors look at the book and talk about how to sell it. They have to create a brand and protect the intellectual property of the author, whom they hope to make more money on in the future, so they give it a fancy name, without considering if there is already a path like it. Sometimes the name sticks, and sometimes it doesn’t.

But all religions have movements and denominations that come and go, or go by different names and actually believe the same thing. If you don’t believe me, check out the book Which Witch is Witch. I found a pattern when I plotted the regions the different denominations of Paganism did their work: in the Pacific Northwest, for example, there is a big Druid group, a hearty Heathen population, a Scottish family trad, reconstructionists, Dianic wyminns circles, Fairie trad, Wicca and Gardnerian covens, traditions started by solitaries, and a few off-branches of Gardnerians that go by various names–you will find this exact same list of types in each area of the country, but they go by different names and are run by different people. Of course, none of them would dream of conglomerating under one name! The groups have their own names, though they often have the same beliefs and similar paths–but they all have different histories and members, which vary by region.

Getting back to your question: Nocturnal Witchcraft is just one of many paths you can take. Personally, I don’t think you need to specify if you are practicing light/white or dark/black witchcraft, as it just confuses people, and a well-rounded witch works with both. If you like the phrase of it, you can choose to call your practice that. But I suspect the author has the name branded, so unless someone has read his book, they may not understand what you practice, so be ready to explain! I can definitely recommend the book The Dark Archetype for delving into ritual for “darker” gods. This book will guide you in where to get started for a handful of deities like Hekate, Anubis, the Grim Reaper, Baba Yaga and Lillith, among others. What I think you’ll find in your practice, however, is that most Godforms have a light and a dark side, but I suspect they start us out easy, and only show us their darker nature when we are ready to see it.

Hail, Diana!

Want an example? Pick any Greek God or Goddess and you’ll soon see their wrathful side. Zeus has more lovers than he can count, much to his wife’s chagrin, even solemn Athena once punished a girl who was raped in her temple. These Gods aren’t here for us to imitate–they absolutely do not model perfect behavior, especially not for mortals. But they do show us the whole spectrum of human relating, emotion and depth.

Most often, Wicca 101 books start with the easy light stuff, just like the Godforms do, to ease us into a new religion and not scare our parents. If you are already interested in finding out what goes on in the darkness, perhaps you are ready for the challenge of this kind of Craft. But remember to come into the light, too. Wicca is about balance, after all.

You are dead-on in your assessment about Satan’s place here–he has none! He is part of Christian (and a little bit Muslim) theology, of which we are outside. His terrain is not on our map, if you will. Satanism as a movement, too, belongs on the Christian map, and not lumped with us…no matter how hard some Christians try!

I think of all these names and traditions as places on a map. For those at home in one area might share a deep affinity with a place, even as they explore different locales, yet others might know it by a different name. Of course, there is night and day in all places. As Pagans and Wiccans, we are all sharing the same map, but we aren’t all going to the same place, and we definitely don’t take the same path to get there. That’s what makes it so different, so individual and wonderful.

The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that, the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

(and then check out this interesting interpretation)

Pagan vs. Wiccan

November 24, 2009 5 comments

Dear Witchful Thinking,

Their seems to be a lot of debate about what is Pagan and what is Wiccan, is their a difference, is it a big one?

From,

Kami J.

Dear Kami,

That is a loaded question that everyone seems to have an opinion on. Nobody likes to be told that the definition of the word they chose to call their spirituality is wrong. So much depends on who you ask, and in what context. Sometimes the words are interchangeable…and sometimes they’re not! So let’s get clear on some definitions.

How are your SAT analogies?:

Paganism: Wicca:: Christianity: Lutheran

Paganism is an umbrella term. If you are a Christian, than Pagan means “anyone who is not Christian”. This would include Muslims, Hindu, indigenous religions and atheists. However, in the Pagan community, the word has a more specific meaning. At minimum, Paganism is a earth-centered spirituality–that is, Pagans believe the earth is a sacred place. How that manifests is where the diversity comes in. Some believe the sacredness is in the form of Gods and Goddessess (polytheism), others in a belief that the whole earth is alive (pantheism) with spirits (animism). Still others believe that it all comes from a sort of sacred One which may be masculine, feminine, or gender neutral (monotheism).

Most authorities do not consider other polytheistic world religions to be Pagan. Paganism is characterized by its lack of central organization, which would disclude Shinto, Chinese folk-religion, Hindu and Santaria, for example. Because of the confusion, most ethnologists do not use the term, or may differentiate using “Neopaganism” to describe our religious movement. So when I say “paganism”, I really am shortening “neopaganism”.

To borrow the terminology, Wicca is a denomination of Paganism. It is a dualistic religion which believes that all Gods are one God, and all Goddesses are one Goddess. This does not prohibit someone from being polytheistic, and does not limit them to a pantheon. It honors the earth with seasonal festivals on the Wheel of the Year. Another typifying aspect of Wicca is the use of casting a circle to create sacred space, and inviting the elements or quarters in to the circle. The most common rituals are lunar rituals called Esbats, in which the Priestess Draws Down the Moon. It is most commonly a coven-oriented initiation mystery religion, but many Wiccans are now solitary practitioners. All Wiccans follow The Wiccan Rede.

I am a traditionalist and believe that if you do not practice all of the above mentioned things, then you are not Wiccan. You are probably Pagan. Many Pagans cast a circle to create sacred space, even inviting in the elements. And many Pagans worship the Goddess and exclude the God. And many Pagans do Esbats and Sabbats. But Wicca is a specific body of ritual and liturgy with its own system of symbolism and ethics. Pagans, on the other hand, are free to define their ethics in other ways.

The media has utilized the word “Wicca” when a character makes any use of witchcraft. Take the movie “The Craft”: the girls utilize many actual Wiccan liturgy, but have no system of ethics–therefore not true Wicca. In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the character Willow becomes one of “the Wicca”, though she doesn’t do a single Esbat or Sabbat, nor follow any ethical code.

From the Buffy Episode "Storyteller"

Most likely, the Wiccan practices are used by other Pagans as a base for beginning. But Pagans use a variety of other methods. Wicca does not use ecstatic drumming in its liturgy, for example, but that is a feature of shamanism. Additionally, Wicca tends to focuses its pantheons in European mythological traditions like the Celtic, Greek and Norse. I have heard tell of Wiccans using Hindu, indigenous and Voudoun deities in their work, but I consider this to be cultural appropriation (unless you have genuine ties to those religions) since those Gods are still working and living in their own religious communities.

Some other “denominations” of Paganism:

  • Reconstruction: Hellenistic (Greek/Roman), Kemetic (Egyptian), Asatru (Norse), Romuva (Baltic polytheism), etc.
  • Goddess Worship: such as Dianic and Reclaiming, both out of California. These both use a Wiccan framing for their rituals, but seek to understand the role of the Goddess for personal power and transformation.
  • Neo-Druid: Ar nDraiocht Fein, and the British Druid Order are two examples of groups who recognize that what we know about Druid religion is too incomplete for a true reconstruction, so they utilize scholarship and modern philosophy to make this ancient knowledge applicable.
  • Witchcraft: All Wiccans are Witches but not all Witches are Wiccans! Witches are folk healers and mediators who practice folk magic. Wicca is sometimes said to be the religion of the witch.
  • Shamanism: Usually part of indigenous traditions wherin the Shaman mediates between the world of spirits and our world. They use trance work via drugs, songs, drumming and meditation to achieve their altered consciousness.
  • Ceremonial: New Reformed Orthodox Order of the Golden Dawn, Thelema and its offshoots. Many of these have roots in Masonic traditions.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. I’m sure everyone will argue with what I’ve written, but here are some books to orient you some more: