I recently polled young and/or beginning practitioners about their most pressing questions about Witchcraft. The top area of concern was a bit surprising at first – at least to me. There were of course some of the same questions my own generation had, like “How do I know if my magic is working?” ,”What if I’m doing it wrong?” and “How do you come out to friends/family/co-workers about it, if at all?” (I think the last question was one a lot of people I knew a couple of decades ago worried about A LOT.)
But the majority of questions centered around doing Witchcraft without deities being at the core of the practice. That wasn’t surprising in a personal way, because while I work with deities, I don’t consider myself devotional. I ended up realizing very early on that I wasn’t going to be swapping the worship of one God for many Gods. Worship is not a word that is part of my own practice, and never really sat well with me ever. I will also say, while devotional polytheism doesn’t work for me personally, I can appreciate and acknowledge the paths of those for who it does play a central role.
But still I was a bit surprised by the responses, in the same way I felt when people praise my books for their lack of so-called religious ties. I just write what I do – I didn’t even realize it was a thing! (And I will get into how it’s a totally valid thing in a few…)
Which got me thinking:
What’s different between then and now? Why are gods more problematic or less central for new practitioners today?
I think the single biggest difference between Witchcraft today and in the 80’s-90’s is that back then, the majority of books on the market focused on Wicca and promoting it as an old religion. There was a great deal of social movement toward getting Wicca and other forms of Paganism recognized as legitimate religious paths – real and valid alternatives to other established/organized religions. Which meant a big focus on gods, and particularly emphasizing the feminine divine and a different, more earthy form of the masculine divine: the Goddess and the God. The seasons and celebrations all center around the mythic lives of the deities, the practices tie into the honoring of them – as our ancestors had supposedly done in ancient days.
Then there was a bit of a fallout in the early 00’s as the word (i.e. research) spread that well, it really wasn’t that old or ancient of a religion. That perhaps parts of the practice are old, but most of it was relatively newly constructed or crafted together. After the initial clutching of wands, I think most people came to the realization that, “Well, regardless, this path really works for me! I like spirituality the puts me in touch with nature, my roots, the world around me, etc.” Basically, if a religion or spirituality works for you, it doesn’t matter how old it is. It doesn’t need to cling to an ancient past to be valid. Just by living and changing with its practitioners, a path is valid.
But what about now?
After perusing what’s been released to the popular book market in the last few years, many of the books with the word “Witch” in the title focus on lifestyle concepts and psychology. Very rarely are they tied to anything to do with Wicca, Druidry, and other forms of Paganism that were part of the 90’s boom. Instead, these books tend to focus on magic as an every day practice to change you, your living space, and the world around you. There’s no chapter on “how to choose your patron deities” – but there may be one on finding your inner goddess. The books generally focus on self-empowerment without the requirement of following a specific religious path.
So of course there’s going to be some confusion when the same person later encounters something like “A Witches’ Bible” by the Farrars or any of the other books my generation and the one prior to me started with. Or if they walk into an occult shop that’s been around longer than most of these new books have been on the market – or run into static online from older practitioners.
There’s a whole lot of binary/gendered systems to navigate as well. God/Goddess. Priest/Priestess. Athame/Chalice. Great Rites. The rising generations are rejecting the gender binary, heteronormativity, and many other concepts that a lot of these systems based their practices in. Why would you want to get involved in a religion that’s not built for you? (This should be a familiar feeling to the older generations who rejected monotheism and patriarchy in the first place…) And most basic books don’t cover genderqueer or genderfluid deities, despite the fact that there are a fair amount of them. I think we all prefer deities that we can see ourselves in.
Right now I can imagine there are some folks are pretty offended at the idea of Witchcraft as a practice, a way of life – without gods??? But step back a minute and think about how some Christians react when they realize you don’t worship THEIR god. Yeah, don’t be that Witch.
And I’m not talking about spellcraft being synonymous with Witchcraft. To me, it’s not. Related yes, but not the same thing. I consider Witchcraft both my vocation and my religion, not as something organized or to be affiliated with, but simply as a way to describe how I view and connect to the world around me. I believe in a concept I call the self-divine, which when you view the soul in sections, there’s a part of yourself that is directly a part of the divine aspects of everything. My relationship with the world is defined by the whole of it, which includes but is not limited to gods, spirits, dirt, blood, myth, and magic.
If you are able to acknowledge the divine within you, then you see that you are a part of everything – instead of being separate from or subservient to something. I might perform a working with a specific deity, but my next working might be with an animal spirit, or focuses on plants or a genius loci, or just myself. We are all beings in the same universe, so just like in our everyday life, we can largely choose what kind of relationships we would like to have and with whom. Our magic starts with us, and flows out from there.
That means if you feel the need to be a devoted priestess of a certain goddess, and all of your work will center around her – that’s up to you and her. It’s just like family – there’s the grandmother you might love and adore, the sibling you avoid at all costs, and the aunt you keep in touch with a couple times a year. You get involved to the degree you feel comfortable with, and sometimes you want the company. (Note: Sometimes the company comes unannounced whether you want them or not.)
You can also look at deities like this: imagine two friends and a tall tree. One friend is on the ground, the other one lives high up in the tree. Both friends can touch the tree and talk to each other. The friend up in the tree can toss down apples for the one on the ground (hopefully not hitting the person on the ground, unless they mean to…) The friend on the ground might sing for the one up in the tree to let them know they’re there. They may also take care of the tree so they know their friend is OK. In the end, the friend up in the tree has a different perspective than the one on the ground. They can see further away in all directions, but they need the friend on the ground to enact changes that they can’t from where they are sitting. The friends are inter-connected, but not totally dependent on each other.
Gods on the side or off the plate completely
So for all of the folks worried about being a Witch without deities at the center of your practice – I’m here to say it’s OK:
– You don’t have to have some profound relationship with a God and/or Goddess to be an effective Witch. But you should be working on having a solid relationship with yourself and your immediate world. That’s quite a handful right there to be perfectly honest.
– If you feel there is something else out there, but you don’t know what to call that, there’s nothing wrong with that. If you want to call that god, sure. You want to call it spirit or essence, sure. You want to call it George…well you own that. Listen to your gut.
– It’s entirely possible that even if you don’t start working with deities, eventually you will. You’ll know it when it happens. Magic is all about possibilities.
In the end, the most important question to ask yourself is this: is my path and practice working for me?