Over on the Hearth Witch Down Under blog, Australian Witch and Hellenic Revivalist Bekah Evie Bel has a very good post titled Undoing the Hard Work of Pagan Pioneers. Bekah argues that while the early generations of modern Witches and Pagans worked very hard to convince the public that we’re harmless, that hasn’t worked out so well for us.
We might dress weird and use odd symbols, we might dance naked in circles and we might do things that are called spells, but probably aren’t anything but poetry anyway. We are safe, a little odd, but safe and no threat at all.
But this is far from the truth, far from reality.
I won’t attempt to summarize Bekah’s essay. It’s not that long and it’s very good – go read it for yourself. What I want to do is describe how I’ve addressed this issue in my life and in my Pagan practice.
To thine own self be true
I’m probably the last person who should lecture anybody about avoiding respectability. I spent far too much of my early life seeking the approval of those with power and status. Let’s just say it didn’t work out very well.
Those of you who know me in real life know I’m pretty close to respectable. I have a middle-class professional job, I live in a suburb, I dress conservatively, and I have friends with mainstream political, social, and religious affiliations. But I still never got the respect of those whose approval I wanted so badly.
I can’t say I’ve quit trying. It can be hard to tell the difference between seeking respectability and trying to camouflage yourself so you can get something done. I can say I’m a whole lot happier and a whole lot more effective in my spiritual work since I accepted that being a Druid and a priest is my true calling, and if someone doesn’t like that it’s their problem, not mine.
Be who you are. If some people don’t like the real you, they probably won’t like the fake you either.
Superficial quirks are superficial
Let’s get one thing clear up front: everyone has the right to express themselves, their identity, their traditions, and their cultures in whatever way seems right to them. So long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else, it’s the job of everyone else to accept it, no matter how silly or distracting we may find it. Other people’s opinions of you are none of your business – be who you are and let them deal with it however they can.
But there’s a difference between expressing yourself in ways that may get you a few odd looks and fighting to change the system to accept your quirks.
Back in December, The Wild Hunt covered the case of Phelan MoonSong, who fought the state of Maine to wear horns in his state ID (non-driving driver’s license) photo. When I read about it, my first thought was “really?” This is what you’re going to war over??? I have an opinion about wearing horns all the time, both as a spiritual practice and as a public face of Paganism, but my opinion is irrelevant. He thinks it’s necessary and that’s his decision. And he won – good for him.
But in a world where time and energy is limited, is the picture on your driver’s license worth that much effort? Obviously it was to Phelan MoonSong, and I respect that. But I’m not going to war over a driver’s license picture.
Non-conformity comes at a price. Choose your battles carefully: when do you have to fight, and when do you need to walk away and save your strength for another day?
What do you want to accomplish?
I’ve been invited to offer a Pagan prayer for the Denton Interfaith National Day of Prayer service on May 4. I’m not sure what I’m going to say just yet – the challenge of an interfaith prayer is to make it both authentic to my tradition and accessible to those who know nothing about Paganism. I’m happy with what I said at the 2014 service, but I’m inclined to make this one a little more explicitly Pagan. We’ll see.
But I’m sure I won’t be cursing or binding Donald Trump at this service. I won’t be summoning demons, and I won’t be making blood offerings. It would scare off people who are our allies in the wider world and that would not be helpful. I want people to leave with a positive impression of Pagans and Paganism.
Now, if I showed up at noon on the Courthouse lawn for the service of the NDP Task Force (i.e. – conservative Christians and a token Orthodox Jew)… well, for one thing I wouldn’t be allowed near the microphone. And if I was, even an accessible Pagan prayer would scare the attendees. These people aren’t going to be our allies under any circumstances – I really don’t care what they think and I’m not going to bother trying to change their minds.
What do you want to accomplish? Is looking and sounding like a member of the clergy going to help you reach your goals? Then look and sound like a member of the clergy. But don’t waste your time trying to look harmless for people who’ve already decided we’re evil.
Don’t hide, don’t brag
I know some people still have to be in the broom closet because of work or family relations. Many of us don’t, at least not all the time. My blog and my Facebook posts are all public, but I don’t friend people from work. And in any case, religion isn’t generally discussed in my workplace – HR lives in mortal fear of a lawsuit. If people ask a question I’ll answer truthfully, but I rarely tell the whole truth. Few people want the whole truth. And quite simply, my religion is irrelevant to my work as an engineer (though it certainly has an impact on how I approach questions of ethics and human relations).
Texas passed an open-carry handgun law a couple years ago. I come across open-carry people in public maybe once a month. Every time I’ve seen one, I’ve laughed to myself. They’re trying to tell the world what a badass they are, when the way they carry themselves lets everyone know they’re more likely to shoot themselves in the foot than take out any bad guys.
On the other hand, I know several people with concealed carry permits. They’re quiet about their weapons, but I know they’re thoughtful people who’ve put a fair amount of effort into getting the permit and to practicing enough to hit a live target if need be.
The deeper you go into Pagan and magical work, the greater the need for keeping silence. Not only is it part of the Witch’s Pyramid, it’s necessary to protect beginners and others who may be intrigued by such work but who aren’t capable of doing it, at least not yet.
Tell the truth, but don’t tell people what they don’t need to know.
Not everyone is called to work dark magic – but some of us are
There are some Pagans who are big on love and light. You know what? We need more love and light in this world. There are some who, after years of dedicated practice and deep thought, have come to the conclusion that non-violence is the only solution even if it costs them their lives. I deeply respect that kind of commitment. There are some who don’t try to be respectable, they are respectable and they can’t be anything else. There is plenty of room for these folks and others like them in the Big Tent of Paganism.
And then there are those of us who see the world as a dangerous place. A beautiful and amazing place, but dangerous nonetheless. There are things out there that will do us great harm if we don’t stop them (most of those things are people). And so stop them we will. We will become the dark.
“A witch ought never to be frightened in the darkest forest … because she should be sure in her soul that the most terrifying thing in the forest was her.” ― Terry Pratchett, Wintersmith
Is this your calling? Not because you think it will make you a magical badass and certainly not because you think it will make your life easier (it will almost certainly turn your life upside down – whether that’s a good thing or not is another question), but because this is work that needs to be done and you have the ability to do it, or to learn to do it.
If so, know that you can’t do it and be respectable. But you can’t not do it and be authentic.
If we pretend to be harmless so our neighbors will like us, eventually we’ll convince ourselves we really are harmless, and we won’t be able to do the work we’ve been called to do.
Be who and what you are
I appreciate the work many early modern Pagans (some of whom are still alive in this world) did to make the world more accepting of Paganism, Witchcraft, and our various religious and magical traditions. It has made it easier for all of us to be more open about who and what we are.
But our role as their descendants is not to copy their ways mindlessly, but to build on the foundations they laid. We can be more authentic, and so we should.
And given the current state of the world, so we must.