Dear Witchful Thinking,
I keep reading in rituals about the Watchtowers. I’m wondering where they come from and why they are important and what they actually do.
Dear Mama C,
Good question! They are all over, aren’t they? Did anyone else first encounter them in The Craft (1996)? Well, they’ve been around for a long time, so I had to do some research about where they came from.
From what I can tell, there seem to be several possible origins which sort of coallesqued with Gardner in his magical studies to the point where they seemed almost required to be included in a magical system. Possible origins include:
- Ancient Rome: small “watchtowers” were built at crossroads with little altars in them for the Lares, or local spirits. These small stone structure dotted the landscape, and would have been associated with ancient pagan ways.
- Elizabethan England: Dr. John Dee, the official occultist of Queen Elizabeth, worked with Edward Kelly to reveal the Enochian system of magic. They came up with different symbols for each of the directions, which they associated with different stars, colors, elements and angels. The angels were envisioned as guardians of these watchtowers.
- Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn: Because they were well-educated in existing magics, the HOGD adopted the watchtowers for a ritual used to cleanse the space.
- Kibbo Kift: This off-branch of Woodcraft and the Boy Scouts involved boys in the English countryside holding elaborate rituals in what they believed was the “Indian way”. It was well known that they did ritual in circle and called different elements representing the four directions. While we’ve never heard of it these days, this was a huge movement during Gardner’s time, and Woodcraft was set to out-pace the Boy Scouts if it weren’t for their internal politics conflicting with the two World Wars. These fake Native American ceremonies were popular, but probably not based on any actual particular Native religious ritual.
- Uncle Gerald: As you probably know, Gerald Gardner, the founder of Wicca, was also well-versed in the magical systems of the day, including the magical formulas used by the Golden Dawn.
Now-a-days, mostly traditional Wiccan groups like Garnerian and Alexandrian covens call upon the Watchtowers. However, you can still find them included in a lot of books, like Silver Ravenwolf’s “Teen Witch”, the Farrar’s “The Witches Way”, and Lady Sheba’s “Book of Shadows” to name a few. As a general rule, I suspect, Wiccans have moved away from the formal magical systems based upon older traditions, and have moved towards a more informal and intuitive practice of ritual.
The purpose of the Watchtowers is whatever you tell them to do. Typically, they might cleanse the circle, witness the rite, maintain the integrity of the magical boundary, and bring their elemental energy into the circle. Remember when you cast a circle, you are creating a miniature universe, so be clear about your purpose. Many traditions say something like:
Hail to the Gaurdian of the Watchtower of (direction), ye lords of (element), I do summon, stir and call thee forth to guard and protect this magic circle. (draw the correct pentagram) So Mote it Be!
The Watchtowers are important precisely because they connect us to this long history of magical ritual. When something is used the same way for a long time, it builds up power. The advantage of this for the beginner is that it requires less experience on their part to get the Watchtowers to do their jobs.
Be sure, however, to send them away when you are done with the Circle–if you take it out, you put it away! I occasionally hear ritualists dismiss the directions by saying “Go if you must, stay if you like”. This is a pet peeve of mine. Would you leave a candle burning unattended? No. It might burn the house down. Elementals, and the Watchtowers that house them, are not human minded, but Elemental minded. They seek to be their element, which is not necessarily what we want from them. Out of control water means flooding.
I have been to places in which the Guardians of the Circle had not been dismissed properly, and had the eerie sensation of being watched. Some people on Circle felt threatened by this energy that was just trying to do its job. The only way to get rid of it is to dismiss it. At the end of ritual, everyone needs to safely come back down to Earth, in our human place of existence in the now. It is the ethical responsibility of the ritualists to make sure this happens, and releasing the Watchtowers, Elementals and any other Circle Guardians (including the Gods) is important. It is polite to make sure everyone knows when to leave.
Always plan any magical act, including ritual, ahead of time. Think about the possible consequences of each action, and remember things get amplified in Circle. Whether or not you include the Watchtowers is up to you, but it can be an easy way to access a stored energy of power to lend to your Circle.
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I am often asked if I identify myself as a Witch, and I always say that I do. I’ve always wanted to have a shirt that said “This is what a Witch looks like” and I have a great idea for a children’s story on that very subject. Recently, a colleague of mine started to deconstruct the identity with me, which left me confounded and puzzled by my self-chosen label of Witch.
A Witch, he said, is a label given to somebody else–a way of identifying those on the fringe of the community. Witches are magic users who defy the church’s (read: Medieval Catholic) definition of reality, in favor of a more natural view of the world which may or may not include the Old Gods. Witches are said to be adept in herbal magic, but can harm as easily as they can heal, and be midwives, usurping the role of the church/science sanctioned doctors.
The church had created a doctrinal paradigm, and taught its followers to see the world in a certain way. It utilized the creation story from Genesis, and incorporated a whole host of angels and saints from local understanding of them, but Christianized it all. You had Christian monks going into local areas and building churches on pagan worship sites and Christianizing the Gods there. A quick way of discovering a pagan site is to look for churches to St. Michael, the archangel said to have brought Christianity to the pagans (I saw that on Rick Steves, so it must be true!). Christianity of medieval times was hierarchical, with everything existing on a vertical continuum with God at the top, and Satan on the bottom. Everything good was near the top, and bad near the bottom. The Earth was seen as a sinful place, where people’s basest instincts went wild, so any uncultivated place was seen as dangerous.
Witches had a place in that continuum as someplace between normal Christian society and those wild fringes, but were closer to the Devil than church officials would have liked. Anyone who spent time in those woods, moors or swamps were venturing into the uncontrolled and the unknown–a place without God. So Witches were understood, and had a place, within that paradigm. They were people worthy of saving if they weren’t too dangerous for the community. Anyone deemed too dangerous had to, for the sake of their soul, be sent to God for judgment and removed from a goodly ordered society.
So who the hell would want to identify with those people?
Old-school feminists see the European Witch Craze as being a Woman’s Holocaust. They aren’t wrong, but they aren’t all correct either. The death toll, record-keeping, and political climate varied drastically by region: where some areas killed exclusively women, others had more of a balance, and still other countries targeted more men–or at least, that is what their records show. It is hard to say how many Jim Crow-style vendettas were carried out during that time under the protection (even sanction) of the church.
At any rate, lots and lots of women were definitely killed, and some feminists attached to the word Witch to reclaim it. They re-imagined the medieval Witch under a modern paradigm. A Witch was powerful, self-supportive, a powerful judge of people and a compassionate healer–an early psychologist. People came to her for magic spells to control their own lives when the church offered no answer or solution to their desires. Witches knew the wild ways of the woods and the meaning of each plant in the garden. She held old customs for the village like a matriarch of the family, just out of reach of the church.
Did medieval women accused of being Witches feel this kind of feminist power? Very unlikely. People were generally poorly (if at all) educated beyond the church back then, and it is hard to tell where a woman might have gotten this knowledge of these big ideas.
Still, it is that feminist re-imagining that I identify with. The trappings of the medieval witch are absurd and funny to me, and by calling myself a Witch, I point that out to them. In my own community, we ironically both embrace the medieval identity and push it away. How many times have we said “we don’t ride on brooms”? Yet I keep at least two besom in the house, and have ridden the broom in ritual and in meditation. I have a pointy hat because it is fabulous, and striped socks to match the ribbons on it. I even have a black cat, but that was an accident.
If you came to my house, you would know I was a Witch because I announce it in my decoration, in the magic that protects my property, and in the cutesy Halloween signs I enjoy year-round. What must the neighbors think!
For me, being a Witch can be separate from being Wiccan. Witchcraft is the stuff I do in my practical life to align it with my magical intent. Wicca is the ritual and relationship with Spirit that I work with to make that happen. A Witch might never do a ritual of worship, or never contact the Gods for anything, but for a Wiccan it is almost essential.
My identity as a Witch is political. My identity as a Wiccan is spiritual. A Witch’s job is to challenge the status quo, whether it is the church, societal mores, patriarchy, or the government. As a woman, I challenge men who are afraid of strong women. I challenge women to make their own boundaries and not be stopped by limitations. I work on my Witchcraft to build my self-esteem, my own power as a human being. My worldview comes, not from a church dogma, but from the world around me, as I see it. I am empowered to see the world directly, not through another’s filter.
I think men can be Witches as much as men can be feminists. Feminism is really about equality of choice and opportunity for all genders. But Witches do it through magic and personal power. I think that is something a man can get behind and find empowering.
I don’t really know why Gerald Gardner chose to call what he and his friends were doing “Witchcraft” and later “Wicca”. Perhaps he too enjoyed the trappings of the medieval Witch but wanted to see it evolve. He could have easily made up another word to describe what he was doing. I suspect that he wanted to hearken back to that time and show how old what he was doing might have been. And indeed, Wicca as he conceived of it looked much more like a Witches Sabbat out of The Hammer Against Witches. Perhaps it is we who have changed the definition of the word as we continue to weave Witchcraft into our modern lives.
What does Witch mean to you?
This article is a twist on an old story. Instead of the Wiccan student being denied his religious freedom, the teacher is chided for not allowing him freedom of expression! It is important to note that the school chose to follow local, state and federal law in this instance, instead of assuming that the teacher is always right. Is this a move towards a more liberal and accepting school system? Is this just another way of taking power away from teachers?
Don’t let them fool you–the public school system is a white-washed Christian organization. Teachers are expected to be moral, but the part they don’t tell you is that they expect those morals to be Christian. I was a public school teacher briefly, and was regularly chided for mentioning my religious orientation, despite the fact that I only ever answered questions my students asked me, and followed the example of my Christian cooperating teacher. She was never chided for saying what she did over Easter weekend, but I was reprimanded when a student who shared my religion knew about what I was doing over Easter weekend. It was all off the books, of course–nothing official came out of it.
But although the school professes to be religiously neutral and the teachers are mostly Christian, the curriculum is void of any religious teaching. Not even educational and academic discussion of the subject. This wasn’t always the case. Our country started with local schools run by typically Protestant people and later Catholic when the Irish disagreed with how their children were being raised. Over the last hundred years, religion has been systematically removed from public school organizations. What we have is a generation of kids growing up who don’t have any role models of religious people in public spaces. The teacher’s religion becomes invisible–an important piece of their identity that is never revealed out of fear of overstepping boundaries, like the teacher in the article.
Because we can’t even talk about religion, certain subjects like history and literature, are stripped of their religious and even spiritual content. Instead of classics like Dante’s “Divine Comedy”, which expresses so much that has become a huge part of our culture, our kids read Salinger and Stienman, and other author’s who express a grim view of society and humanity. Even Greek mythology, a source of sublime human and natural understanding, is confined (read: condemned) to fourth grade curriculum. In history, the pilgrims were demoted to exploreres escaping some vague persecution, without exploring the idea that it is because of their religious story that the US even has freedom of religion. Students don’t know the difference between a woman wearing the Hadith and a man wearing traditional Hindu head wraps. It’s no wonder they are afraid of Muslims.
I am against teachers denying expression of a student’s religion. And I am against a teacher keeping their religious affiliation under wraps. But the teacher doesn’t have a right to enforce their own personal moral code over that of the schools–as an employee of the public, they must abide by the public rules. It’s unfair, but it is the price you pay to teach publicly. We should approach and teach about religion as a viable and academic part of human experience. It is something that can be explored and experienced without being forced upon students.
“Time and Space are Real Beings
Time is a Man Space is a Woman
–William Blake “A Vision from the Last Judgment”
Ninian Smart says that the study of Religion “is a six dimensional organism, typically containing doctrines, myths, ethical teachings, rituals, and social institutions, and animated by religious experiences of various kinds.” While this famous professor promotes a secular comparison of various religions, he also realizes that “each religion must also be seen essentially in its own terms, from within, as it were” (Smart). In order to look within Neo-Paganism and Wicca, we must look to these dimensions to understand its religiosity. The rituals and liturgy can give us insight into the doctrines of this modern religion that flies outside of Western Christian convention yet stays well within (and in some ways predates) the study of quantum mechanics and science.
Wicca, also known as “The Craft” and “The Old Religion”, is actually a newer religious movement and prides itself on having no central organization, and because of this has very little shared liturgy. However, the “Charge of the Goddess” is considered to be divinely inspired. Like the gospels of The Bible, its origins are shrouded in mystery, and there are nearly as many variations as there are publications. “The Charge”, as it is referred to, has its own unique history and experience which falls outside of traditional concepts of space and time. This short prose piece transmutes into other recognizable forms of literature, including ritual and liturgy, depending upon the reader and their intentions.
“The Charge of the Goddess” has a fairly specific place in a ritual. Leibnitz says that nothing exists in a vacuum, and this piece is no exception. It is a part of a traditional Esbat or Full Moon ritual first published in Janet and Stewart Farrar’s book Eight Sabbats for Witches, which has become a standard book to base ritual practice upon, especially Wiccan groups, because of the Farrar’s access to Gerald Gardner’s[i] own Book of Shadows. After creating sacred space, the High Priest helps the High Priestess to Draw Down the Moon, that is, to invoke the Goddess within the High Priestess. If all goes right, a shift in consciousness occurs, and the Priestess feels herself fill with divine energy and she allows the Goddess to speak through her, and what she says is “The Charge”. It begins with an invitation by the High Priest, usually, to “Listen to the words of the Great Mother” and reminds the listeners that the Goddess is known by “many other names[ii]”. The High Priestess is understood to become the Goddess, much as Catholics understand that consecrated wine becomes the blood of Christ.
At this point, “The Charge” ceases to become words on a page, but is a direct quotation of the Goddess manifest in her High Priestess. Sometimes the words come out differently, or with different emphasis, or are shortened or lengthened—all entirely depending upon the individual recitation or manifestation. Schrödinger reminds us, at this point, that much depends upon the observer: the personal experience of the listener depends very much on what they think they will get out of hearing “The Charge” spoken by an invoking Priestess. Whether it is moving or believable or not is entirely dependent upon the expectation of the listener. But having heard the words spoken, they cannot help but impact you some how, and you them. One author suggests “that the term observer fails to convey the new view of the relationship between reality and consciousness. [A Princeton physicist] offers participator as a more accurate replacement” (Broughton 356). In Wiccan philosophy, you only get out of a ritual what you put in, even if you have no pre-meditated part in the ritual: it is considered that your very presence and your personal, internal experience with the ritual is an expected contribution.
In an article by Ceisiwr Serith–a Pagan for over twenty years and a member of Arn Draiocht Fein, the nation’s largest Druid fellowship–he says “The Charge of the Goddess is the closest thing to scripture that Wicca possesses. Like scripture, it is used in rituals and to support beliefs. And like scripture, its origins are obscure” (Serith). Many publications do not even acknowledge the author. Doreen Valiente, a gifted poet and a student of Gerald Gardner, is generally accepted as the writer of this piece, and when she died in 1999, the copyright went to John Belham-Payne, who runs The Centre for Pagan Studies and was her working High Priest (Raeburn 194). But even armed with this knowledge, it still does not tell us much about this mysterious prose piece. Firstly, Valiente is rewriting it from Gardner’s Book of Shadows, making it much more eloquent. Secondly, “[one] thing that should be noticed is how little of this version cannot be traced to published sources. Except for the introduction, this version is essentially quotations linked with a small number of connecting phrases” (Serith). As you can see in Figure 1, the largest percentage of the word-count does belong to Valiente, and both she and Gardner pull lines from other “traditional” texts, which originate at different points in time, making it difficult to identify the “original” piece in time and space.
The author herself changes the content and form over time; especially after first writing an extremely unpopular poem that is awkward and clumsy in a ritual context. Then a prose piece was drafted and later changed to sound more archaic by adding “thou’s” and “ye’s”[iii]. And occasionally, when “The Charge” is reprinted, a writer might recall it from memory, having heard it at a ritual, or may change wording with which they disagree: “sorceries”, for example, is changed to “magic”, or Feminist undertones[iv] are added by reducing the role of the men. The speaker of the poem even changes, as it begins with the High Priest who also speaks again at the middle. He reminds us that the Goddess is known by “Artemis, Astarte, Athena” and “by many other names” thus incorporating many individual voices simultaneously and speaking with all of them at once. One can see the influence of the various Goddesses in the speech to create a whole pan-theistic piece. But even this can change. In the Farrar’s account of the Esbat[v] ritual, they advise that, “If you have a local Goddess-name, by all means add it to the list. While we lived in county Wexford, we used to add Carman, a Wexford goddess…who gave the county and town their Gaelic name” (Farrar 42). This dislocates “The Charge of the Goddess” from space, giving permission to make one’s local area and its deities as important as those of the great civilizations of the past. Philosophically speaking, all Goddesses are one Goddess, or at least have the same level of importance, and whether their specialty is self-hood, fertility or wisdom, the Goddesses ultimately have the same message for humankind.
One can read “The Charge” as a revelatory text, much as one reads other sacred texts like the Quaran, the Bible, or the Bhagavad-Gita. That is, the text contains words directly from Deity which reveals their existence to humankind and explains what is expected and for what purpose. Graham Harvey, a Senior Lecturer in Religious Studies at King Alfred’s College examined the purpose of “The Charge”:
Two primary things are taught by the speaking, hearing and experiencing of the Charge. The first is that deity is experienced in the ordinary things of life—a woman speaking, the Earth and moon, food, drink, dancing, the human body, humour and music. While there is wisdom to be gained (this is how “sorcery” [or magic] in the Charge appears to be understood) and learning to be done, the Goddess does not require “faith”, “belief” or assent to doctrinal “truth”.
This is analogous to the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy 5:6-21 in which God reveals to Moses the new covenant with mankind, outlining what God had done for the Israelites by removing them from Egyptian slavery, and what they must do to keep his favor. Unlike the Wiccan Goddess, this God requires faith and obedience because, “I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sins of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Holy Bible: New International Version. Deuteronomy 5:9-10).
God reveals himself in a burning bush, through Angels, the prophet Mohammed, Jesus Christ, and by many other means. But Wiccans and Neo-Pagans have different experiences with deity: “in the Craft there are two main ways in which people relate to and envisage deity. The first is in the way they hear the words of various “Charges”, especially the “Charge of the Goddess”, a form of self-revelation by the deity manifest in a Priestess or female leader….Secondly, deity is manifest (expressed, revealed, experienced, touched, tasted, incarnate, sensed, represented, immanent) in Nature” (Harvey 36). Students of the Romantic Movement, Transcendentalism, and counter-culturalists the 1960’s will be familiar with these ideas, and Paganism has its roots in all of these cultural mores.
The concept that this physical world is divine is completely opposed to traditional Christian thinking and also Platonic ideas about the nature of the world. In long-established Platonic thinking, there is a hierarchy of existence: all things exist as perfection in the realm of unchanging Forms. For example, in the realm of Forms is the perfect Chair. It embodies everything that is Chair-ness. When a carpenter makes a chair, he makes a copy of that Chair which only has some of the qualities of perfect Chair-ness. If an artist paints a chair, his painting is a copy of a copy, thus lessening its perfection (Soccio 147). “The Charge” says that “From Me all things proceed and unto Me they must return; and before my face, beloved of gods and men, thine innermost divine self shall be enfolded in the rapture of the infinite.” Our “innermost” parts (such as our true selves or souls) are holy, but so are our actions as, “all acts of love and pleasure are My rituals.” This includes our sexuality.
Platonic ideals have been expounded in Christianity in complete opposition to the Pagan philosophies in “The Charge”. In Christian theology, God is perfection (the realm of Forms, if you will) and is everything that is unknowable and good. He came down to Earth as Jesus of Nazareth. Thus we can see that the image of God is Man, proving what it says in Genesis 1:26, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over…all the earth.” So humans understand what God looks like. A woman looks dissimilar to man and is a flawed copy of man—“Now I want you to realize that the head of every man in Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. …Every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head…a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God” (NIV. 1Cor 3-7). For this reason, women of Abrahamic religions have traditionally been asked, or required, to wear a veil or hold a modest appearance. Yet it is man and woman together who have dominion over the animals. There is none of this Pauline hierarchy in Neo-Pagan thought. If our “innermost divine self” is intimately a part of the “rapture of the infinite” (which must surely include time and space), then there can be nothing above or below or separate about this life and existence. Men and Women are equal in importance, and women are not required to be modest or wear a veil. This is further supported in “The Charge” in that “you shall be naked in your rites”.
Moreover, the current notions of time and space of Christians in particular have been mused over by philosophers and great minds and recorded in detail. Augustine, who is completely immersed in Christian and Platonic ideology, came to the conclusion that “There was no time, therefore, when thou [God] hadst not made anything, because thou hadst made time itself. And there are no times that are coeternal with thee, because though dost abide forever; but if times should abide, they would not be times” (Congdon 97). In other words, God made time, but is outside of it because he created it. If he were in time, he would not be God because that would mean that he was created by something else. Augustine is also agreeing with the Greek philosopher Parmenides, who came to the conclusion that “only One thing can possibly exist and that this One Thing is uncreated, unchangeable, indestructible, and immovable[vi]” (23). His realization works well for Plato’s argument. For Augustine, platonic ideas and Christianity are very compatible and his writing has influenced priests, popes and intellectuals ever since.
While it is unclear if Doreen Valiente was familiar with Augustinian ideas of time and space, it is certain that she had her own ideas about the world. She recalls her enchanted childhood that stayed with her long after others grew out of it: “I saw what people would call the world of everyday reality as unreal, and saw behind it something that was real and very potent. I saw the world of force behind the world of form” (Knowles). One can only guess at her familiarity with the concept of Platonic forms, though she certainly was well read, and spent her childhood with very religious parents, who sent her to Catholic school when she was fifteen (Knowles). It is possible that she learned (though ultimately rejected) the doctrines of Christianity with their historical contexts and implications during that time. What is clear is that the physics of “The Charge of the Goddess” are strikingly like our modern notions of physics, and rather un-like the pragmatic understanding of old-world empiricists.
If we were to compare the two religions–Christianity and Wicca–to science, then Christianity and its scripture seems to epitomize Newtonian time, while the liturgy and philosophies of Wicca are much closer to the newer notions of Einsteinian time and quantum mechanics. That Christianity and Newton are related is no surprise, for the development of empiricism occurred when Christianity was the only acceptable philosophical doctrine in the West. Isaac Newton came to the same conclusion that Plato did: “Absolute space, in its own nature, without relation to anything external, remains always similar and immovable” (Congdon 122). He also agrees with Augustine, although, like a good scientist, Newton takes out any notions of God, “Absolute, true and mathematical time, of itself, and from its own nature, flows equably without relation to anything external[vii]” (122). For Newton, time and space exist as surely as Plato’s Forms exist, and all things in life can be measured by and of them. Although time and space exist independently of human beings, they can be understood to work like a machine, in a linear fashion and continuously pressing forward.
This linear movement of time is demonstrated in Christianity with the beliefs surrounding death[viii]. Human beings, created by God, ate of the Tree of Knowledge, and God cursed them saying “By the sweat of your brow/you will eat your food/until you return to the ground, /since from it you were taken; /for dust you are/and to dust you will return” (Gen 3:19). Upon death, you are judged according to your actions in life. If you’ve accepted Jesus as your savior, you are forgiven of your sins and may enter heaven to be among the Saints and God for all eternity. There is a beginning (creation) but no end. You can view time as an arrow which goes ever forward. It’s industrial, progressive, and does not take time to reflect or consider its actions. If an opportunity passes, it is too late to go back. Similarly, a human has only this one life to be judged upon when they die, and so the short while on earth dictates the rest of eternity. It makes missionaries zealous for converts as they go out to save others from a horrid eternity without God. God himself is actually outside overseeing the entire arrow of time (according to Augustine). The arrow is predestined. This is seen in the holy scriptures of Christianity. Throughout the Old Testament, prophecies are made about the Messiah which all seem to come true in the New Testament: John 19:24 is a prophecy of Psalm 22:18 which reads “They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing.” In the book of John, guards strip Jesus of his clothing and attempt to decide who will get what piece by basically drawing straws.
Empirical science is built linearly as well: you begin with the Scientific Method (thank Sir Francis Bacon and co.), create and test hypothesis, and publish your findings, which contribute to the bank of knowledge. Science progresses forwards. It also predicts itself by forming and understanding laws of nature and the universe and in some way shares the omniscience that God holds. Scientists or natural philosophers do not concern themselves with topics that are considered religious or superstitious, as those things are of the past. Similarly, the ideas of specific scientists come and then pass on into history: this explains why nobody studies Albertus Magnus anymore.
The physics of Wicca, however, do not have an “arrow of time” conception. In “The Charge of the Goddess”, the invoked priestess says “from me all things proceed, and unto me all things must return”. It is this circular notion that is the basis of Neo-Pagan thought. One expert notes “Pagans do not sit in neat rows facing an altar or pulpit in their ceremonies or gatherings. They form circles which speak eloquently about the way Pagans understand themselves” (Harvey 43). Rather than time marching forward unchangeably, time repeats itself, but it also progresses[ix]. The basis of time is the Wheel of the Year, which follows the physical cycles of the season and marks the solar calendar, but it is also ritually symbolic of the life of a human being that is reflected in the stories of the Goddess and God.
Each year, at the Winter Solstice, the Goddess gives birth to the God, who is the driving force behind the growing world. He is represented by the sun. At Summer Solstice, the God sacrifices himself and loses power until he is reborn the following Winter Solstice. There are other stories and lore surrounding the festivals, depending upon the tradition. A majority of Pagans, over 75%, believe in reincarnation[x], compared to only 25% of the rest of the American public (Berger 47). Wiccans believe there is a period of rest after death, but that ultimately you are reborn to live another life, learn lessons, and receive the consequences of your actions as Karma. In “The Charge”, the Goddess says, “mine is the cup of the wine of life, and the Cauldron of Cerridwen, which is the Holy Grail of immortality[xi]…” The Goddess is both the paradoxical granter of death and sustainer of life, but she also inundates the world and all its inhabitants with her presence.
Indeed, in “The Charge” everything exists equally and in connection to everything, including the Goddess, who is embodied within the priestess saying the words, within the words themselves, and within the world around us. Yet, “The Charge” also says that She, in her guise as the Star Goddess, is so large that the “dust of Whose feet are the hosts of heaven, whose body encircles the universe.” The tiniest particles of dust make up the cosmos and stars, which is remarkably similar to the Big Bang theory of the formation of the universe. But “The Charge” also implies that the cosmos must be limited; else there would be nothing for her body to encircle. Or perhaps it is a paradox, implying that the Goddess is infinite and encircles the universe by being immanent within the universe. Figuring this out is part of the mystery, which must be examined individually, and so varies from practitioner to practitioner. Doreen reminds Wiccans that,
The initiates of the ancient pagan Mysteries were taught to say ‘I am the child of earth and Starry Heaven and there is no part of me that is not of the Gods’. If we in our own day believe this, then we will not only see it as true of ourselves, but of other people also.…because it seemed to me, and still does, that as witches, pagans or whatever we choose to call ourselves, the things which unite us are more important than the things which divide us.
Quantum physics also shows that the world, or at least subatomic particles, are connected by unseen forces, and split particles light-years away are still impacted by what happens to their twin[xii] (Broughton 334). Not only that, but the atoms can be affected by the human mind (335). All things exist as possibility before they exist as a reality chosen, or at least affected, by the observer. This is very similar to the way the world is understood to be connected as revealed in “The Charge”. Quantum physics is a complicated subject which is much too smart for most of us, but many Pagans understand it another way: magick[xiii]. Magick is the act of changing reality or consciousness according to Will (Harvey 48). It is with this knowledge of magick that they seek to influence and change events in an undetermined future, a future based upon our human will, not the will of an omnipresent, but separate, God.
But Wicca has other roots[xiv]. Science is organized knowledge, but the occult is that which is hidden or known to only a few (Bonewits 261). The study of the occult has existed alongside, yet outside, of the scientific community for almost as long as science has been organized. But Isaac Bonewits, America’s first academically accredited magician, reminds us that:
this definition of ‘occultism’ is just a bit too broad. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity is said to be understood completely by less than twenty people in the world, but most people would not consider it a part of occultism. Bits and pieces from a hundred disciplines and areas of study float around within the realm of occultism. Occasionally some of them interlock into patterns that we call magic, mysticism, philosophy, religion, metaphysics, mythology, phenomenology, and a dozen other things (including superstition, fraud, and ignorance).
Wiccans and other Neo-Pagans today still practice magick that is rooted in this occult lore, but scientists have begun to study it more carefully in the last hundred years, creating the field of parapsychology. Although extremely controversial and apologetic, the fields are once again merging, and scientists are catching up with the occult knowledge practiced by Neo-Pagans, especially in the realm of quantum physics.
Although magick is a highly stigmatized part of Neo-Pagan practices, it is a part of the religiosity and expression for many Pagans, and the application contributes to a Pagan understanding of the physical world. For those working in a post-Platonic, Christian world, it is hard to recognize something beyond the realm of Western science as valid. Magick is:
A general term for arts, sciences, philosophies and technologies concerned with (a) understanding and using altered states of consciousness within which it is possible to have access to and control over one’s physical talents, and (b) the uses and abuses of those psychic talents to change interior and/or exterior realities.
These practices include (but are not limited to) spells, charms and talismans to make someone love you, to make money, to cause someone harm, or any other focused purpose. In the linear, Newtonian science in which everything is concretely understood; magick flies in the face of rational logic. But in the relative world of Einsteinian science and quantum physics, what one does, magickal or otherwise, has a valid effect on the world and the individual. Magick has its own rules and laws, some very similar to science. These laws are more philosophical, requiring personal development on the part of the magician in addition to his belief in the magick he is performing. There are many laws, but some of them include: The Law of Knowledge which states that knowledge is power, The Law of Similarity states that things that look alike are alike, and The Law of Synthesis which states that the union of opposite ideas or data will produce some new data. (Bonewits 3-9). Like science, magickal knowledge builds up as contributions are made by magicians. Many of these laws date back hundreds, even thousands of years: it was Aristotle who said “know thyself”, and anthropologists have recently “discovered” that cave paintings and ritual tools found in pre-agricultural settlements adhere to The Law of Similarity[xv]. Quantum physics can now prove that the law “Know Thyself” has a direct and noticeable effect on subatomic particles. Magick uses and operates under the laws of quantum physics:
It should be noted that there are three main questions that have to be dealt with when one is attempting to define magic. The first is that of what the magician thinks she or he is doing when performing a magical act. The second is that of what the magician may “actually” be doing in some hypothetical “objective” reality. The third is that of what outside observers, qualified or unqualified (and always biased) may perceive or theorize the magician to be doing.
The observer of a spell cannot know what the magician is doing, unless they are well versed in occult symbolism, or have spoken to the magician. The magician might change his actions if an observer is watching, which might change the spell in a Newtonian “objective” reality. If the spell does not work, the magician might think he did the spell incorrectly, or didn’t desire the outcome enough, or believe that the presence of the observer changed the result of his magick. The observer might think the magician superstitious and foolish. Which reality is correct? Quantum physics says that the reality of a particle does not exist, except as possibility, until the observer observes it—the observer does indeed become a participator as their expectations, cultural mores and assumptions color their observation and thus their participation. Ultimately, “It seems that parapsychologists and physicists, traveling down two different roads, have arrived at the same place” (Broughton 357).
One of the best examples of the reality of our thoughts on the world came with the recently publicized findings of water researcher Masaru Emoto. What started out as an attempt to photograph water crystals turned into an exciting phenomenon which both shows magick in action, and the reality of quantum physics, in a way that the general public can understand and resonate with. He and his team of researchers found that water that was polluted or was exposed to negative words (in any language) would not produce neat water crystals when frozen. But water shown positive words such as “thank you” or “happiness” would form beautiful, balanced crystals. He notes that “if water collects information and its crystals reflect those characteristics, it means that the quality of water changes based on the information it receives. In other words, the information we give to water changes its quality” (12). More testing must be done by other scientists to verify his findings. Magicians, Wiccans and Neo-Pagans, on the other hand, already understand and believe what he’s talking about, as it both resonates with Magickal Laws and the fulfillment from “The Charge” when the Goddess says, “you who are fain to learn all magic but have not yet won its deepest secrets: to these I will teach things that are yet unknown.”
When Doreen Valiente recalled writing “The Charge of the Goddess”, she declared that “just for a moment I had experienced what was beyond the physical. It was beautiful, wonderful, it wasn’t frightening. That, I think, shaped my life a lot”. But whether you see her experience as the result of her own expectations and a cultural tradition more closely related to the new Einsteinian science and quantum physics, or you view it as a direct result of an omnipotent deity in a Newtonian, logical, mechanical world—says more about your own cultural mores and expectations than about the validity of “The Charge”. Either way, you prove quantum physics right. It will be interesting to see how science and parapsychology begin to merge under the new quantum physics. It makes us wonder about our own worldview, with its intimate relation to religion and liturgy, and how it changes as the understanding of science and the universe changes.
Charge of the Goddess
from Blacksun’s Esbat ritual, adapted from Doreen Valiente.
Listen to the words of the Great Mother, She who of old was called among men Artemis, Astarte, Athena, Diana, Melusine, Keridwen, Danu, Arianrhod, Isis, Brighid, and many other names.
Whenever you have need of anything, once in the month, and better it be when the moon is full, then shall you assemble in some secret place and adore the spirit of Me, who am Queen of all. There shall you assemble, you who are fain to learn all magic but have not yet won its deepest secrets: to these I will teach things that are yet unknown. You shall be free from slavery; and as a sign that you be truly free, you shall be naked in your rites; and you shall dance, sing, feast, make music and love, all in My praise. For Mine is the ecstasy of the spirit, and Mine also is joy on earth; for My law is love unto all things.
Keep pure your highest ideal. Strive ever towards it; let naught stop you or turn you aside. For Mine is the secret door which opens upon the Land of Youth, and Mine is the cup of the wine of life, the Cauldron of Keridwen, which is the Holy Grail of Immortality.
I am the gracious Goddess who gives the gift of joy unto the hearts of all. Upon earth, I give knowledge of the spirit eternal; and after death I give peace and freedom, and reunion with those who have gone before. Nor do I demand sacrifice. For behold, I am the Mother of all living, and My love is poured out upon the earth.
Hear now the words of the Star Goddess, the dust of Whose feet are the hosts of heaven, whose body encircles the universe:
I who am the beauty of the green earth and the white moon amongst the stars, the mysteries of the waters, and the desire in the hearts of all, I call upon your souls to arise and come unto Me; for I am the soul of Nature that gives life to the universe. From Me all things proceed and unto Me they must return; and before My face, beloved of gods and men, thine innermost divine self shall be enfolded in the rapture of the infinite. Let My worship be in the heart that rejoices; for behold, all acts of love and pleasure are My rituals. Let there be beauty and strength, power and compassion, honour and humility, mirth and reverence within you.
And you who seek to know Me, know that your seeking and yearning will avail you not, unless you know the Mystery: for if that which you seek, you find not within yourself, you will never find it without. For behold, I have been with you from the beginning, and I am that which is attained at the end of desire.
Berger, Helen, Evan A. Leach, Leigh S. Shaffer. Voices From the Pagan Census: A National Survey of Witches and Neo-Pagans in the United States. University of South Carolina Press. 2003.
Blacksun & Shadowhawk. The Spell of Making and Be ALL! The Book of Pagan Spirituality. ATC e-book special edition.
Bonewits, Philip Emmons Isaac. Real Magic: An Introductory Treatise on the Basic Principles of Yellow Magic (Revised Edition). Weiser Books. 1971
Broughton, Richard S. Parapsychology: The Controversial Science. Ballantine Books, New York. 1991.
Congdon, Howard K. ed. Philosophies of Space and Time. University Press of America. 2003. Quoting Augustine. Confessions and Enchiridion. “What Then is Time?”
Emoto, Masaru. The True Power of Water. Atria Books. Beyond Words Publishing. 2003. Noriko Hosoyamada, trans.
Farrar, Janet and Stewart. A Witches’ Bible: The Complete Witches’ Handbook. Phoenix Publishing. 1981.
Holy Bible: New International Version. International Bible Society. 1973.
Harvey, Graham. Contemporary Paganism: Listening People, Speaking Earth. New York University Press. 1997
Knowles, George. “Doreen Valiente” http://www.controverscial.com/Doreen%20Valiente.htm
Raeburn, Jane, ed. The Pagan’s Muse: Words of Ritual, Invocation, and Inspiration. Citadel Press. 2003
Serith, Ceisiwr. “The Sources of the Charge of the Goddess”. 2003.
Smart, Roderick Ninian. The Religious Experience of Mankind, “Religion and Human Experience”. Prentice-Hall. 1976.
Soccio, Helon. Archetypes of Wisdom: An Introduction to Philosophy. 4th Edition. Thomson Learning. 2001.
Starhawk. The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess. 10th anniversary Edition. Harper San Francisco. 1989.
[i] Gardner is understood to be the founder of Wicca after his publication of Witchcraft Today in 1954, though few Wiccans these days are strict followers of his teachings.
[ii] It is difficult to cite “The Charge of the Goddess” as it has been reprinted and changed so many times and there is no authoritative edition. To further complicate matters, the line breaks change, varying from paragraphs to blocks to couplets, making it impossible to count lines. The edition I’m quoting is extrapolated from the Esbat ritual by Blacksun, a less archaic rendition from Farrar’s The Witches Bible, pgs 42-44, who get their authority directly from Valiente. It is in the bibliography for your convenience.
[iii] As is one “authoritative” version by the Farrars.
[iv] Especially Starhawk, a noted writer. Her most recognized and celebrated work is The Spiral Dance.
[v] This is a ritual which is held at during a Full Moon, when the power of the Goddess is considered to be at its peak.
[vi] But it’s fascinating to note that Parmenides believed he was getting his information directly from a Goddess, not from his own use of logic.
[vii] This is also his argument against relativity.
[viii] I must admit that, as a Wiccan, my understanding of Christianity is generalized rather than specialized, and I haven’t yet done the kind of research to support more than what, I believe, is a mainstream knowledge of Christian doctrine, having not grown up Christian myself.
[ix] Perhaps a better metaphor would be a spiral, which repeats itself but has some progression. The problem we run into is finding out where it is progressing to and what is repeated or lost each time.
[x] There are few central ideas, if any, that all Pagans believe. Part of it has to do with the inherent individuality of the religion, but also due to the different histories of the various groups. It is understood that no one can tell you if you are or aren’t Pagan. Therefore, when one calls themselves a Pagan, what they believe is automatically denoted Pagan, even if it doesn’t agree with the majority. One joke in the movement is that if you put 4 Pagans in a room, you’ll end up with 5 differing opinions on any given topic.
[xi] The Cauldron of Cerridwen, a Welsh Goddess, grants wisdom and rebirth to those who seek it. The Welsh believed that the souls of the dead go into the cauldron until they are ready to be reborn.
[xii] In theory, at least. The math says it is so.
[xiii] Sometimes spelled with a ‘k’ as in ‘magick’. This is to differentiate between stage illusion and magick as practiced by Witches. This change began in the early 1900’s when Aliester Crowley the occultist began using it this way. His writings were extremely influential in the Pagan community, and I use his spelling for the same reason he does. Bonewits, an American scholar, does not differentiate, and I’ve retained his spelling in his quotations.
[xiv] Wicca has roots in the works of Aliester Crowley, a famous Edwardian occultist, Freemasonry and Alchemy. Unfortunately, the history of Wicca goes beyond the scope of this paper.
[xv] Bonewits and others have pointed out that it was Sir James Frazer in 1890 who really isolated these laws, but his writings were too unscientific to be accepted by anthropologists (5).
Should we be offended?
It comes up every Halloween. You’re walking down the aisle at Rite Aid, intent on getting a big fat bag of candy, when you inadvertently find yourself in the Seasonal aisle. You’re surrounded by latex masks, spider’s webs and skeletons. And then you see her: the green faced, be-warted old hag stirring her cauldron, calling for strange and esoteric ingredients. The Halloween Witch. The conical hat, the straw broom…it reeks of stereotype.
In the group I help run on campus at Western Washington University, Pagans and Students Together, this conversation came up, and the question we had to ask ourselves was this: Should We Be Offended? What, if anything, should we do about it?
One member suggested that we simply ask the store managers to remove the offending images, so as not to perpetuate the stereotype. Still another suggested we try to sell a “…mock ‘scary’ Jesus on the Cross with real-life like blood oozing from his wound (buy now and we’ll throw in the spear of destiny for free!) ” Another said we were just being too sensitive.
What do you think?
The word “witch” has a loooong history. A witch used to be a social outsider, who, for better or worse, was imagined to be in league with the Devil. She (most likely she, sorry guys) was said to have the ability to cast spells. Perhaps this was because she seemed to have some sort of in-understandable power over her own life, or the elements. Perhaps she just carried herself high, forming her own opinions. The word ‘witch’ was placed upon them, whether or not that was an accurate description of who they actually were or what they personally practiced. This was mostly during Medieval Times. It didn’t help that documents like the ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ came out in 1486 CE with the authority of the Pope, which announced how to identify and kill a witch. These people called witches were persecuted, with the help of this document, in what we call “The Burning Times”, but you already knew that.
I read recently a hypothesis of why the witch has a hideous face. The original article was posted to a discussion group, but I’ll sum it up here for you: imagine you’re a pretty girl (or not) and you’ve been accused of witchcraft. According the the inquisition rules, you are going to be tortured. They are going to pull out your teeth, one by one. They are going to beat you and starve you, half-drown you and crush you with rocks until you confess to practicing witchcraft. And when you can’t stand it anymore, and you “confess” to everything they said about you, whether or not it is true, they are going to parade you through town and make an example of you. Imagine the facial swelling, the bruising, the straw-like hair. I’ve heard people come out of torture experiences looking much older. So an ugly toothless green-faced hag is what you get (I figured you’d come with the wart: it is medieval Europe, after all). And that’s what the townspeople saw and was told were witches. (written by Angel 6/99. Posted to an online messageboard so I can’t cite the source).
But the witch didn’t leave the popular imagination. She still wound up in stories; she became an Archetype as the scapegoat, the healer, the one with some sort of outside knowledge. She was the villain in Hansel and Gretel, but a force of good in The Wizard of Oz. Shakespeare used the commonly thought of role of witches in his Scottish play, “Macbeth” where we get much of our images from, I believe.
So, with the Age of Reason (1700’s-ish) , the predominant thought was that such superstitious mumbo-jumbo was, well, old fashioned. The persecutions all but stopped (except in Salem, Mass. But that epidemic quickly died out too) . Witches were put away from the prevailing thoughts of the time
By the Romantic Era (1800’s) , Nature was coming to be revered. Writers longed for simpler times and Classical (ie: Greek) antiquity. Suddenly that outsider was thought of as being…not so bad. But these thoughts were not taken up by everyone. Keats, Shelly and Wordsworth honored the Oracles of Greece, gave praise to women, and saw nature as alive, beautiful and bountiful. It was awesome, in the original sense of the word. To create a relationship with the land in any way was perfectly accepted. And to personify that wild wood as Pan, or to write about a water nymph was ok for the first time in hundreds of years. A Witch took on a different connotation. One could tease out the symbolism and remove the Christian Devil-worship aspect, and be left with that strong-willed person, who knew (and perhaps controlled) the secrets of nature.
Then came Aleister Crowley. His love of pleasure and mischief-making had some calling him ‘Witch’ like in the Medieval sense. He took the title gladly, and as his infamy spread far and wide, so did the title follow him. I mean, come on! Here’s a Victorian who claimed that every morning he sacrificed a child of above-average intelligence (meaning he…you know). At a time when people didn’t talk about sex at all in public, let alone masturbation.
Then Gardner started a different movement, and the word has changed again. Folks called “witch” at that time were seen as more Nature-revering folk, and the word was more closely akin to the word as it was used in the Romantic Era. Only instead of a vague idea to be worshipped in poetry, these witches were real. The word, again, spread with the literature of Gardner and the practitioners of a new faith.
Now we live in a culture wherein we get to choose our identity. We have mobility and can come out of the closet and are protected by the Constitution, no matter how weird our practices are (so long as they are within the law) . Those people were being called witch, and we said, “Yes. We are. But there’s more to us than casting spells.” And we’ve been explaining ourselves ever since.
That being said, the popular conception of a green-faced witch sitting ’round her cauldron stirring bat eyes and toe of frog…well, we know it’s not us. It’s an Archetype, a powerful symbol of the Outcast, the All Knowing, of She Who Has the Power to Cause Change. So it comes out that she has a wart on her nose. Big deal! I think they are cute. I’m not offended, because I know they don’t mean me or mine.
The best way to combat stereotypes is to walk the talk for yourself. You become a representative to others. You change society one person at a time. How tolerant would we be if we told people that an image or psychological construction, which is merely reflected in popular culture, was wrong? They won’t see it that way.
I remember a particularly crappy incident in which my hometown of Puyallup, Washington last year. Of course, it wasn’t until I left town that I learned there is a rather large population of Witches and Pagans living in the area. Many of them were new to the Craft, just learning of their new identity, and I guess they got a little…uppity. The moral of the story is that they got Halloween celebrations and costumes banned in schools because the pointy hat and green face was offensive to a few people. Boy! Talk about BAD press! We HARMED them! We took something away from the rest of the culture that they valued immensely. Last time I checked, we weren’t supposed to do that: witches think through their actions to see how they will affect other people. And why? For our own pride? I was embarrassed to be called Witch that day. Look. They aren’t trying to offend. We just have two (or more!) different meanings on what the word ‘Witch’ means.
I’m proud to be called Witch. I love seeing what Hollywood and popular culture does to the image. It’s nice to be represented in the culture at large, somehow, even if it’s not very accurate. When people complain about the stereotype of Witches in popular media, I point out all the good things floating around. Like the Witches in ‘Practical Magic’, or Sally in ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’, or Katrina in ‘Sleepy Hollow’. I point out the good parts in ‘The Craft’ and Disney’s ‘The Black Cauldron’. And what Witch doesn’t wish she could cast spells as easily as Harry Potter? Here’s an opportunity to generate discussion. We should all get T-shirts that say “This is what a Witch looks like.” But understand this: the Witch is an archetype that is needed, right now, in this culture. You and me are just one part of it. The Wicked Witch of the West is another. In time, when the traditional archetype of the old hag is no longer needed, what will it be replaced with?
You and me: Witches!
Yes. This article has been reposted from another site. But I am the author, and I’ve made revisions. See the original article here.