Queer of Swords: Going Groundclad

In the last couple of weeks there has been some discussion on Patheos Pagan related to the merits of going skyclad in our rites. For the adherents of other Pagan paths, this whole argument might seem a little silly, but from Gerald Gardner onwards, this is has been a defining aspect of Wiccan practice. From Doreen Valiente’s Charge of the Goddess:

“And ye shall be free from slavery; and as a sign that ye are really free, ye shall be naked in your rites; and ye shall dance, sing, feast, make music and love, all in my praise.”

Many Wiccan covens maintain the skyclad requirement as a hard-and-fast rule, to the extent of refusing membership to anyone who does not wish to comply. I won’t deny that there’s some sense in this – for a coven that typically practices naked, having a newcomer insist on wearing clothes would create a barrier that runs contrary to the nature of coven life.

Going GroundcladI have a lot of sympathy, being a coven leader myself, with someone who is put in the position of having to decide whether to admit a new person who doesn’t wish to go skyclad. We all have a tendency to create our understanding of the world in general relative to our own experiences in it. Nakedness is difficult for most of us, at least at first, so if I can get over it, why can’t you?

Herein lies the rub. If I’m a middle-class cisgendered white woman with no disabilities and no significant body image issues, it will still require a leap of faith to go skyclad. I potentially will have a lot to gain in terms of self-confidence and in closeness with my covenmates.

But what if I’m not a cisgendered middle-class white woman with no disabilities and no significant body issues?

What if I have a body image issue that makes it emotionally extremely painful to even look at my own naked body, let alone have someone else see me naked? I might have spent years being body-shamed for being fat, let’s say. Surely the experience of being skyclad and accepted for who and what I am would be an affirming, healing experience?

What if I have scarring from an old injury? Wouldn’t that be healing too? But what if the scarring is from an attack that left me with substantial post-traumatic stress issues?

What if I’m transgendered, and have genitalia that doesn’t match my gender and the thought of displaying that wrongness, even to myself, is abhorrent to me?

What if I’m a rape survivor in a coven with one or more members that resemble my rapist, where seeing them naked would be terrifying to me, even if I’m otherwise OK with being skyclad myself?

What if I have a partner who is uncomfortable with me being naked around anyone but them?

What if I’m agoraphobic? Agoraphobia is not, as often described, a fear of open spaces, or even a fear of large groups of people, as-such. It is really a fear response consequential to feeling exposed. Many agoraphobes have good days and bad days. What if I’m agoraphobic, and can deal with being naked around other people some of the time, but not if I’m otherwise stressed?

Ultimately, what I’m getting at here is that the barrier to any specific person going skyclad is extremely inconsistent. I can’t extrapolate my experiences to predict how you will respond, nor can you make any kind of guess about how hard it will be for me. And ye shall be free from slavery. People are enslaved primarily by their own fear, only rarely by external coercion. Am I really helping someone be free by forcing them to confront their fear every time they circle with my coven? Sometimes, the answer is yes, sometimes no. I would argue that it’s not my place to make that choice for someone else.

One might argue that it is not unkind to turn someone away who doesn’t wish to go skyclad because there are always other covens without that requirement. But let’s consider a horrible thought experiment – what if a long-term coven member is attacked and left with PTSD that makes it too emotionally painful for them to continue to go skyclad? Do I have the right to inflict yet more pain on them by throwing them out of their own coven family, out of their religious practice? What kind of priest would I be if I failed them so badly in my ministry? Wouldn’t this really just be blaming and shaming the victim, rather than having the guts to confront the unexamined consequences of my own practices? Let’s say I decided to allow them to remain clothed – what would making a special exception for them mean for my own integrity?

In our coven, Circle of Cerridwen, our initiation rites closely follow the Alexandrian/Gardnerian approach, but we don’t require that either an aspirant or anyone else in the circle be naked. I’ve never really asked the question explicitly, but I suspect that at least three of our members wouldn’t be members if we had a skyclad requirement, and I for one wouldn’t wish to miss those people for the world.

There is one, simple, magic word at work here: consent. One might elaborate that a little further and say that informed consent is really what we should strive for. Being naked in the same space as someone else is, at least potentially, a sexual act in and of itself, and all sexual acts require consent. When someone wishes to become involved in a practice that is inherently secretive, consent is only meaningful if the person giving consent is sufficiently well informed to make the choice.

I don’t remember now who coined the term, but we typically jokingly call the alternative going groundclad. It works fine for us. We’re an Earth-based religion – why are we so obsessed with being clad by the sky anyway?

Queer of Swords is published on alternate Thursdays. Subscribe via RSS or e-mail!

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About Sarah Thompson

Sarah Thompson is a queer, trans, 3rd Degree witch and was a co-founder of the Circle of Cerridwen and of the Witches’ Order of the Golden Dawn. She is also a rocket scientist who works at NASA, a musician, filmmaker, ham radio operator and the wife of a vicar.

  • http://blackheartedfaery.wordpress.com Mori Phelps

    I’m unable to determine from reading your post, so I’ll ask the question direct: Is it your contention in this post that the requirement for skyclad practice within some traditions is inherently undesirable in some way — unfair, unkind, or insensitive — and should therefore be done away with? Or are you merely stating your reasons for not requiring it?

    I ask because the former is a rather stark critique of specific groups’ traditional methods of practice, while the latter is a matter of preference. I note that you identify your coven’s initiatory rites as “follow[ing] the Alexandrian/Gardnerian approach,” but do not identify the coven itself as being Alexandrian or Gardnerian. While I’ve known of covens within both traditions who work robed on occasion for functional or social reasons, to my knowledge skyclad practice is still considered the standard practice for the Gardnerian flavours of British traditional Wicca, and for many others to boot.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/agora Sarah Thompson


      Thank you for your comment and the chance it gives for clarification — much appreciated.

      The simple answer is yes or no. It depends on the people concerned. I don’t claim that there is anything intrinsically wrong with working skyclad, and I hoped that this was a bit clearer in the article, but perhaps not. It basically revolves around the Rede, really. An it harm none, do as ye will. If working skyclad doesn’t harm you or your coveners, then there is no issue whatsoever. Do as ye will. The problem though is that you can only really know whether you are causing harm for yourself. How can we know that we aren’t harming someone else? Have we excluded people from a chance of participation and never known because they never showed up in the first place? Can we be sure that we’re not harming people that we circle with? In any social situation where a power dynamic is involved, there is a tendency for people to stay quiet and not say anything for fear of exclusion. Can you be sure that one of your coveners is just not saying anything because they care more about staying in the coven than they do about their own personal integrity? Are they just taking it on the chin, so to speak, not feeling safe enough to admit weakness? Have you ever really asked the other members of your coven?

      On the second question, though our coven has people in it (including a cofounder) who were initiated by another coven that claimed Alexandrian lineage, we don’t actually claim any particular lineage for the coven itself. Our coven is a bit of a mutt, realistically. We have Golden Dawn people, kitchen witches, goetic practitioners, practicing Jews, Buddhists and two ordained Christian priests with M.Divs. Most of us follow more than one path, and some of us have side-projects. Our first and second degree initiation rituals follow the Alexandrian script pretty closely — our third is our own, for reasons that are a bit out of scope for this article. All our scripts are openly available at http://cerridwen.st4r.org/ if you’re interested.

      Our coven has a bit of a history of getting involved with social justice issues within the Pagan community — personally, I’m serious about the being-a-priest thing, and helping people confront the unexamined assumptions that inadvertently cause harm is my ministry. This inevitably involves poking people between their ears in ways that isn’t entirely comfortable for them, but that’s my job, even though I find it difficult to do that to people.

  • http://ehoah.weebly.com/ Rua Lupa

    Good article and I couldn’t agree more. To be honest. I thought that from the title “groundclad” was referring to clothing yourself in the soil – like having taken a mud bath before doing ritual – or body paints, which when right you can’t tell you’re not wearing anything else. And when I think more about it, the terms that would come to mind for me for wearing clothes would depend on what kind of clothes people were wearing: synthetic fibers being Petroclad, cotton/linen etc. being Plantclad, and wool/leather being Creatureclad.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/agora Sarah Thompson

      I like it! :-)

      A mud bath before ritual sounds interesting. Hell on the carpets though!

      • worthyadvisor

        Oooh…mud baths before ritual….or for ritual! *ponders the possibilities!*