Monday, 17 September 2012

A forking of paths

 Modern Witchcraft - Building a future from history is a grand and ambitious theme for a one day conference. It is to the credit of the Cenre For Pagan Studies that they posed the question. My intuition is that the day, however unifying in theme will in time be recognised as less cauldron and more forking of paths.

This observation should not be taken as denigrating the event in any way, which was professionally run, well attended and with erudite presentations. I am not going to give a blow by blow account of the proceedings either. What concerns me is the ideas and the currents that I can ascertain stirring beneath the surface of witchcraft. It is a witchcraft we are passionately drawn to in our own individual ways, a crucial point which I will return to.

For a forking of paths to occur, there must first be a coming together and this truly was. Wicca is assessing itself, older, hopefully wiser, and paradoxically more naked than it has ever been. This is a witchcraft that has accepted Triumph of the Moon, and the disenchantment, even auto da fe of some of its most cherished myths. It is a witchcraft that is literate, self-aware and diverse. Many traditions, covens and approaches were present. Those who only know the digital shadow of Wicca, or view it in absentia as Traditional British Witchcraft, may be unaware of the dilemma which I wish to expose, not with the supposed candour of the tabloid press that Doreen Valiente and the Pagan Front/Federation battled against, but with clearer and less salacious motivation. 

Rufus Harrington summed up the problem, he mused wistfully on the romantic ideals that drew him to Wicca, the ideas of the persecution, the revolutionary opposition and yes, the sexual frisson. All these seem absent in the Modern Pagan Witchcraft that is now being proposed as orthodoxy, if not as absolute then certainly as the dominant strand. They have become haraam. This is in no small part due to the work of Ronald Hutton, whom the day honoured. His approach placed him at odds with both the academic establishment and entrenched ideas within the pagan community. To quote the metpahor used by Rufus, both are fearsome dragons which he poked with pointy sticks. Hutton has prevailed and it was his vision that the day articulated. We still witness some unpleasant personal attacks on Ronald Hutton, but he remains profoundly grounded, approachable and obviously joyful. As the only celebrity paganism has, and with obvious charisma (weirdly enhanced by his somewhat Austin Powers sartorial splendour), it would be easy for him to fall foul of egotism. This is not the case. He is a credit to his professions. I simply thoroughly disagree with his conclusions about the way that witchcraft should proceed into the future, which does not impute upon his scholarship of the past.    
Hutton in attacking the foundation myths is not engaged in a deliberate project of disenchantment. Far from it. He has a solution as well as a critique. For him, modern pagan witchcraft is the flower of English culture and history. It draws upon the mythic histories and stories which are embedded in the land. He names Kipling, Shelley, Swinburne (and many an holy bard) as part of our lineage. He sees beauty in ritual and the survival of an hermetic knowledge cloistered in our academies. It is a compelling narrative, and beautifully told. He proposes that it is in the artistry of our ritual, our imprecation of the Goddess, our drawing down, that we can be accepted as part of culture.

It is here however that the roads fork, and in my approach to witchcraft, definitively. Hutton wants us to step away from the sense of victimhood and injustice of a witchcraft that defines itself by the trial records of the inquisition. We are not to be defined by the torments inflicted by the hounds of god, nor the propaganda of curse and blight. The witch has been set up, rather like the Monty Python scene in the Holy Grail:

We are not, according to Hutton, to define ourselves in opposition, or to demonstrate our social difference, but should instead join the inter-faith family. I reject this as anathema. We stand outside.

The solution of Ronald Hutton is that we become the fully fledged form of Modern Pagan Witchcraft. Yet, where are the Shelleys, the Swinburnes, the great artists? They seem conspicuously absent on the modern scene. A few fantasy writers, however gifted in their genre, does not make a compelling case.

Why should we accept a religious paganism as our future over the operative witchcraft which was the stock in trade of our predecessors, for both good and ill?

Our culture has not embraced paganism or witchcraft, it has simply stopped openly persecuting it. We were given examples during the day of how Doreen Valiente and the PF worked tirelessly to acheive this respectable status for us. However, this is an argument articulated in a total cultural vacuum. Though they no doubt had an impact, the wider disenchantment of culture is a process of mono-cultural corporate capitalism. The modern world simply does not care about us. The witch hunt has turned on Islam in search of a  'demonic' conspiracy. The value system is simply the bottom line. We are portrayed as harmless cranks for the most part and trotted out at Halloween for a cheap joke. The danger, the fire, the frisson that Rufus Harrington remembered is becoming just that, a memory.

Hutton artfully gave examples of how the same historical evidence can be read to reveal contradictory meanings. So here is mine. Modern Pagan Witchcraft as it is being proposed seems to bear no relationship to Witchcraft itself.

The label 'Pagan' was initially adapted as an umbrella term by the 'Pagan' Front BEFORE anyone was self-identifying as pagan. Now we have a large number of people defining themselves as pagan ministered to by a small network of initiatory covens. The number of covens is collapsing as formal initiation falls away. This was attested to on the day by an Alexandrian initiate, who dared to suggest that the rise of the hedgewitches and the eclectics was leading to a witchcraft so diffuse as to be meaningless, (he was more circumspect in expressing it) but I have heard this complaint from many quarters and from within many lineages.

Far from being healthy, the argument could be made that modern pagan witchcraft is already on the wane. The lack of fire is evident in the dearth of young people at this, and many other events. Modern pagan witchcraft seems irrelevant to the concerns of their lives, it is tangential to their struggles, which are about to become immeasurably harder. 

We are not in the midst of an extinction crisis, or the death of the oceans, we are far past the tipping point. Witchcraft must respond to this or it is empty escapism. I have been assertive in expressing this and will continue to do so, see more  here and the blog entry Question 13. Our future is not one of pastoral bliss, but of industrial collapse, famine and war. This future is far nearer than we dread. We are in crisis, ecological, social, political and spiritual: yet I see precious little of this communicated in the world of witchcraft, which in assessing the legacy of the great and good of its founders risks becoming irrelevant in the here and now.

My lineage is diffferent, and in keeping with the stated position of Ronald Hutton, equally viable. For me Witchcraft is neither 'pagan' nor a 'religion'. It is explicitly grounded in opposition, revolution, the land, the European spirit tradition, and yes, sex, drugs and ecstasy. It does not apologise. It is outside of the mainstream culture which is raping and destroying the world. It fights back.

There is another more uncomfortable history which we should not excise. The witch or shaman is an ambivalent figure. They break taboos. They go to places that others cannot, and miraculously return. They curse and kill as well as cure. You should be afraid of them.

This is why the current generation are looking to a supposedly Traditional Craft for their answers rather than seeking out Wiccan covens.This is why we are publishing books about Brazilian and Cuban witchcraft that have a living tradition of effective magic. This is why we are looking again to the grimoires and a spirit tradition in the West which stretches back to the Goes and the ancient world.

 I would prefer witches rediscovered Jules Michelet and encountered the work of Jack Parsons and their transformative and transgressive power, rather than trading it in for harmless coexistence with a culture that is in catastrophic failure. (Those who have not come across Jack Parsons may enjoy the presentation I gave on the subject here, a talk I also gave at the PFSW.)

The elements which I define my witchcraft by seem to be as razed as the stubble fields of Autumn in the golden future of Roland Hutton. The road forks, but I hope that this parting can also be made in the manner of friends. My prediction is that the troublesome word 'witchcraft' will eventually be excised for the more accurate 'modern paganism' and will be pursued by those who choose that path. Initiated Wicca will follow the same arc of decline that Masonry has. I am delighted that people find meaning and beauty in their ritual. I was happy to give Ronald my enthusiastic applause, to celebrate the life and work of Doreen Valiente, to recognise the work that John Belham-Payne et al do. But we walk another way, more perilous, more fraught, and more cogent with our reading of history.     

These words are mine, as are any misunderstandings of the ideas presented by those who spoke.

Peter Grey


Gordon said...

A thousand times yes.

Langston said...

Thank you for this. As a relatively young person (25) this resonates deeply with me and echoes my own thoughts concerning the Craft. However, I think you misjudge British Traditional Witchcraft somewhat. At least in the US, I find a trend in British Traditional Witchcraft towards the transgressive, the sexual, resistance and activism, ecstasy, possession and truly allowing one's life to be shaped by experiences of divinity/ies.

Paganism is one beautiful thing and witchcraft is another and I think (in many ways thanks to your own work) they will continue to thrive and grow side by side. In many indigenous "shamanic" communities, all members of society understood a magical worldview, an understanding that the world was alive and somethingthey were in relationship with, a relationship they needed to tend. This to me is where paganism is, creating communities that strive to be in right relationship with all things. Shamans were never the center of the community, but worked off to the side, striving to maintain balance as they negotiated with the spirit/natural world -- to me, this is the role witches are working to grow into. I don't think these dreams need to be mutually exclusive, but rather both are needed to provide a fertile foundation for a truly integrated living relationship with spirit/magic in the west.

Scarlet Imprint said...

Thanks Langston, we always appreciate hearing what the experience is of others in what is a global witchcraft community. I will risk generalising and suggest that the US are more activist and ecstatic. The recent phd research on paganism and the environment carried out here seems to bear that out.
Certainly here in the UK covens vary widely (and wildly!) in how they work.
Glad it resonated for you.
My best,


Fox said...

Very good piece Peter. Im not a self designated witch but have researched over many years and have a very strong affinity to goddesses. I could never understand why it seemed to be an obsession in mainstream paganism/wicca/druidry to be accepted by "establishment" as a bona fide religion whereas to my eyes (especially) witchcraft was anything but a bona fide religion. I was drawn to paganism in general, a long time ago now, because it appeared subversive and land based. Anything that was feared and persecuted in the past obviously has to have something "meaty" to it. I fancy that wicca, druidry et al will become even more watered down in order to be accepted as an equal partner in "inter-faith" which is fair enough as civilised pagan religion in the past (fallen) empires have always been a hand maiden of governance. Its ironic, or not, that the burgeoning christian sects in the first century or so were at a similar place perhaps that mainstream paganism finds itself now? Maybe that is to much of a genralisation but i think that modern neo paganism is well down the road of recuperation. Meanwhile, as you have proved, work goes on in the shadows and i am greatly encouraged by it. I fear that current trends in modern paganism are the spritual equivalent of wind farms; too little, too late and ineffective but heavy on the feel good factor. Keep up the excellent work.

Rhoda said...

Thank you for this post.

Jonny said...

You have articulated exactly the things I have been feeling for some time.

the Valentines said...

Wonderful .. I do love me some good polemic. Is that really the way they want to go over there? New national/cultural heritage .. the train that's all baggage cars. Is important that there is some other way on the table, paganism is just more dogma really. Technicolour dogma, bejewelled dogma, dogma at new and interesting times of the day and year. Without a handful of true animists to breath the ghosts back into the thing its as dry and dusty as the university halls the notion was cooked up inside.

Dana Morgan said...

You've accurately captured a distinction I've been feeling (and haven't had words to describe) for a long while now -- thank you for that! You've accurately captured the tension -- we cannot both be Other and be Mainstream, the chasm is too broad to span.

I have also noticed the lack of youth at functions -- many of us have wondered why. The only conclusion I've drawn thus far is that the things about Craft which spoke to the spirits of folks in my generation are not speaking -- or perhaps are speaking differently, meeting the same needs in a different way? -- to the current generation.

The Gods were fine before I/we found them, and They'll be fine after we pass. They call Their own. (And I personally find it kind of fun that my decades of work in this Craft will pass beneath the waves without a ripple. This is not a path for big egos IMHO.)

Anyway -- BRAVO!!

GreenFlame said...

Perhaps there aren't as many young people at festivals because they're rebelling against their Pagan parents - and how else do you rebel other than to shun whatever they are? Having said that, here in the Southeastern US, we have plenty of young'uns, and a growing number of them are second- and third-generation Pagans. And some of them are damn fine young magicians and Witches.

Scarlet Imprint said...

An indepth response to my blog can be read here:

Highly recommended.