Seeking the Grail: Pagans, Curses, and the Quest for Power

Seeking the Grail: Pagans, Curses, and the Quest for Power March 7, 2016

A friend of mine recently asked me why these days so many Pagans are interested hoodoo, and in specific, in curse magic. For context, she is studying hoodoo and Vodou and she spends a fair amount of time at a hoodoo shop. “The past couple of years, I have just seen some crazy stuff,” she said. “People coming in looking to curse other people in the Pagan community, and it’s not just once in a while, it’s all the time I see this. And now you can find hoodoo spells at most of the regular Pagan shops too, it didn’t used to be there.” So why is it that hoodoo and Vodou are suddenly so popular? And why is it that the baneful magic is selling off the shelves? Some stores can barely keep the shelves stocked with hotfoot powder.

I have my theories on this.


Diversity of Traditions

One is that the community used to be dominantly populated by witches and Wiccans citing the rule of three and harm none as an ethical axiom, but as various polytheistic traditions have grown in number, as more have gravitated to vodou and other diasporic religions or reconstructionists traditions that have no prohibitions against cursework, and as more hoodoo teachers have become accessible in the Pagan community, other ethical systems than those connected to Wicca and witchcraft have gained a presence. For that matter, many people who identify as witches are clarifying that they do not identify as Wiccans or as any specific spiritual path, and that witchcraft is solely a practice of magic for them.

Years ago, if if you talked about wanting to curse someone, you’d get a talking to about karma and “an it harm none.” I still see that happen; I just saw a couple of threads like that on my Facebook feed when someone brought up cursing Trump, and before that, when people discussed cursing the people involved with the “Return of Kings.”

These days, there are quite simply a lot more traditions out there that find cursework to be a completely ethical part of their magical work or religious tradition, and there are more authors writing on that perspective.

And I think that’s specifically part of why hoodoo especially has become more en vogue. There are teachers out there teaching classes in it, there are more bloggers and authors writing about it, and there are even festivals focusing on hoodoo work. Fifteen or even ten years ago you didn’t hear as many Pagans talking about hoodoo, now it’s a pretty common class topic at just about every large Pagan event I attend.


I think that hoodoo, as well as Vodou and other African Diasporic traditions, have gained popularity for one really important reason: They are perceived as being more authentic. In fact, for many Pagans, you might say that these traditions are sometimes seen as more authentic than Wicca, Witchcraft, Druidism, or other modern Pagan traditions. And there are a few reasons for that. One is that there has been more information come out in the past years about Gerald Gardner and doubt cast on how much of British Traditional Witchcraft was actually handed down to him, and how much he invented, or at least, borrowed from sources like the OTO, that were borrowing from the Golden Dawn, that were borrowing from Freemasons…you get the idea.

I’m not here to step into the debate on what Gardner did and didn’t actually do. However, as Gardner, Wicca, and several other specific traditions have been called out in the past years, I think there are just more Pagans in general questioning the authenticity of BTW and anything with the label of Wicca. (I’m also not here to get into a debate about what’s witchcraft and what’s Wicca. That’s a labeling issue for a different post entirely.)

In fact, as far back as I can remember, I’ve talked to Pagans who have been very concerned with whether or not the magic, spells, rituals, and traditions we were learning was “real.” I’ve heard people go on and on about all the lost knowledge that wasn’t written down, the witches and druids and priests and priestesses that were killed, and over and over the question of whether or not what we have now was real, authentic. If this is what our ancestors would have really done.

And even within reconstructionist traditions that work to explore primary sources (archaeology, ancient texts) to rebuild the religion in a modern context, there’s still a lot of information missing. There are big gaps, and often rituals have to be recreated. One example is how some Norse reconstructionists worked to recreate the Seidhr trance ritual by going to Vodou rituals. The idea was to take an existing tradition that had continued on from earlier traditions to see how their practitioners got people trance possessed so that they could replicate the process for Seidhr. They had information in text form, but lots of questions about how it would have looked in practice.

The essence here is that we have religious traditions that are trying really hard to be authentic to what ancient practitioners might have done, but there just isn’t always information on the ancient inner mysteries. Maybe our ancestors didn’t write anything down. Or maybe it was burned. Maybe the last wisdom keepers were killed or went into hiding and had nobody to pass along their knowledge to. Or maybe it was written down by Christian monks who may or may not have edited it.

With traditions that are still practiced in the modern day, whether that’s African Diasporic or Tungusk shamans, or the spiritual practices of numerous Native American tribes, there’s a perception that it’s more real, more authentic. Better. More powerful.

And people want that power.

Quest for Power

Along with the desperate quest for authenticity, I see a lot of Pagans have a desperate quest for power. What do new seekers almost always seem to want? Magic. What is magic perceived as? Power. I hear all the time, “I want a spell for…” Money, love, revenge. Most of the time when I see people wanting magic, it’s the powerless desperately wanting power.

They want a spell for a new job, they want a spell to make someone fall in love with them, they want a spell to get back at the person who hurt them. They want the shielding spell so they feel safe, they want the hex magic so they feel like they can take their life back.My other theory is less about cultural shift and accessibility of information, and more just about people, and in specific, the kinds of people that gravitate toward Paganism. We’re still a religion of converts, even though we have plenty of Pagans who were born to Pagan parents.

I’ve written more about the social makeup of Pagan groups from the perspective of leadership issues, but what I see a lot of in the Pagan community is people who want power. And within this quest for power, I want to be clear that I’m also talking about the issues that come up because we are raised in a culture of shame. And many of those seeking power (through magic) are those who are marginalized. We can’t look at this in a vacuum. Yes, sometimes the quest for power is part of egotism and narcissism. Often it’s complicated and woven into how we’re raised with advertising that tells us we’re fat, we’re ugly, we need this to look good, we need that to show that we’re wealthy and worthy of respect. That you’re only beautiful if you’re skinny, and white. That you’re only going to be heard and respected by your family and your community if you’re a Christian. And heterosexual. And cisgender.

Many people come to Paganism as converts…and many people turn away from (or are exiled from) their families when they come out of the closet (or closets). And so in many cases, these folks who are desperately looking for spellwork, for magic, for real authentic magic, for power…they are coming at it from being victims of varying types of abuse. Maybe it wasn’t physical abuse, but how many Pagans have you talked to who have suffered bullying, discrimination, or verbal and emotional abuse when they were found out as being a Pagan?

Power and Egomaniacs

Many people going for powerful magic (and in specific, curse magic) are afraid. They have been victimized in the past, they are afraid something’s going to happen to them, and they are lashing back. But I also experience a lot of people in the Pagan community who go for curse magic so they can feel powerful and important.

Yes, sometimes that process can facilitate healing. I have seen victims go to curse magic when they are making the transition from victim to survivor. Whether or not the hex actually works, they feel a sense of power over their situation; they go from being scared to feeling safer. Maybe they know they won’t get any justice through the legal system, or from a small Pagan community that still supports their abuser. They want–even need–to feel that justice has been served so that they can begin the process of healing. I think cursework can be particularly healing for the victim, whether or not it actually works on the perpetrator.

When we’re talking about egomaniacs, though, we’re often talking about people who often perceive themselves as victims, but it’s usually more complex than that. Often enough these folks are going to perceive a lot of things as a threat, and partly that’s because they have such a poor sense of self and self esteem. Pro tip: People tend to get defensive when they don’t feel confident. Also, a lot of this comes from that culture of shame.

In the Pagan community, I see this manifest as “witch wars.” (Though I’ve written about this before in my book The Leader Within, I think that the term really doesn’t serve us and makes these conflicts seem more fancy and exciting when really it’s just a lot of egomania and interpersonal conflicts that blew out of control.)

Community Leader A is threatened when Community Leader B starts a new group in her area. She buys some hotfoot powder to try and make Community Leader B leave the area…but probably also backs that up with a concentrated gossip campaign of smear tactics.

Coven Leader C and D break up and go for the curse magic on each other so that they can “win” and maintain control of the coven. The coven tears in half as people choose sides.

Consequences of Doing the Work

When we’re actually doing the work…digging down into the deep magic…changes happen. Sometimes the changes are more intense than others. I believe that this is what many people actually mean when they offer the caution, “Magick is dangerous!” I’ll be clear that–as a pantheist–I don’t believe in gods/deities/spirits/demons as separate entities that can harm us from outside; I work with them as archetypes, as reflections of our own consciousness and the consciousness of humanity itself. That’s oversimplifying things…but it’ll work for the moment.

If someone has come to Paganism wanting spells, wanting power, because they hate their lives and feel powerless and they want a quick fix–well, that’s going to have consequences in their lives if they ever actually start doing shadow work. And that can happen even accidentally sometimes, and lead them to looking into the dark mirror.

When we start to do personal growth work, we change. We transform. We have to face our own shadows or be ruled by them. We address our old patterns and behaviors that lead to us being powerless. And whenever we’re hacking our ego, whenever we’re hacking our identity, there are consequences to that. Sometimes it’s not pretty. For some it results in depression, or mania, or even just pain.

Transformation isn’t easy work.

You’re Doing It Wrong

And when someone is going through something like that, it isn’t necessarily that they’ve “done it wrong.” It might just be that they are in the inevitable phase of the caterpillar that has gone into the cocoon. They aren’t yet a butterfly, but they aren’t a caterpillar either. It’s uncomfortable as hell, but it’s a necessary part of the transformation. They’re going to make mistakes, and that’s ok. That’s part of learning and changing.

Most folks coming into this work looking for power don’t quite get that a lot of the deeper magic is about self knowledge and personal transformation. They are still hanging onto wanting “phenomenal cosmic power” and not grasping that they themselves are in their own way.

They whine, they blame others, they have delusions of grandeur…but it’s when they decode the programming they’ve endured, the abuse and bullying, the culture of shame, all the messages that make them feel small and disempowered, and when they generate actual healthy self esteem, actual confidence instead of arrogance…when they understand their own shadows, when they look into the mirror…that’s when the real power starts to come into play.

Some folks go through a phase of acting out before they finally get it. Others get stuck there. Guess what? A lot of us have been there, and I’ve had my own moments of that early on my path as a Pagan.

The more I do the work of spiritual seeking, and the more I explore the concept of magic, I see it as pulling back the veil and seeing the inner mysteries of the world, seeing how that works. And sometimes that isn’t really as fancy. These days my best definition of magic is “All the work I did behind the scenes that you didn’t see, you just saw me do the cool thing.”

Why Curses?

I think if you’re ever looking into curses and hexes, it really serves to look at why. I’m not here to say whether or not they are ethical; I think there are a number of ethical frameworks where cursing and hexing is absolutely appropriate, specifically when you are working against someone who is genuinely doing harm. I’ve done some of that work myself. But if you’re seeking curse or hex magic (or, any other magic you perceive as especially powerful) it’s always worth asking why. What are you trying to change in your life? What are you avoiding? What are you reaching for? What are you looking at, what aren’t you looking at? Why do you perceive A as more authentic than B? Why does that matter to you? What do you get out of it? Why is that important? Do you know yourself? Why do you want this power?

Keep asking questions. There is, in fact, rather a lot of power just in asking the questions, and being willing to work for the answers.

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