Jason Mankey is the editor at Patheos Pagan Channel and the author of The Witch’s Book of Shadows and The Witch’s Athame. He has been involved with Paganism for the last twenty years, and has spent the last ten of those years as a speaker, writer, and Gardenarian High Priest. Jason can often be found lecturing on the Pagan Festival circuit. He is a regular columnist for Witches and Pagans magazine and his Patheos Pagan blog Raise The Horns and has a podcast Raise The Horns Radio on Witch School Online. He lives in Sunnyvale CA with his wife Ari and two hyper-kinetic cats. Jason is an encyclopedia of knowledge, particularly when it comes to occult history. What is refreshing about that is that he’s also probably one of the nicest guys I know and on top of that he has a great sense of humor, despite his questionable taste in “dad rock” music.
To start, how did you discover witchcraft? What about it drew you towards it?
There are two versions of that story. In the first I was 21 years old and had just stumbled upon DJ Conway’s “Celtic Magic” at a New Age/Metaphysical Bookstore in St. Louis Missouri. I picked it up because of my love of Led Zeppelin, and not due to any real curiosity about Witchcraft or Paganism. Robert Plant (the lead singer of Zeppelin) was said to be interested in Celtic mythology, and as my Zep fandom was at its peak back then I bought it for that reason. ”Celtic Magic” is not a particularly good book, but it contains the basics of Wicca and I found those ideas resonating with me. Within 48 hours of reading that book I was ending my evening prayers with “Lord and Lady keep us safe this night” with the Lady being the addendum of course. I was hooked, and started devouring every Wicca/Pagan/New Age book I could find. This was 1994 so the selection wasn’t quite like it is today, hence a few New Age books.
I was drawn to Witchcraft due to a couple of things. The biggest one was “The Lady.” The idea that deity wasn’t exclusively male really resonated with me, and Goddess worship was my focus my first three or four years as a Pagan. I also liked the idea that holidays were unrelated to birthdays or deathdays and had everything to do with the change of the seasons. A magickal world view was also appealing, and I did a lot of magick in those early years. Witchcraft also doesn’t require anyone to forsake a former path or consign every other spirituality to the “wrong bin.” That there are many ways to connect with the divine has always been a belief of mine.
The second version of the story is that I had always been interested in mysteries, mythology, and the unexplained. As early as the second grade I wondered why Zeus and the other Olympians were no longer being worshipped and I remember mumbling a prayer to the sky-god during that period. A few years later I read a Sybil Leak book and was amazed and terrified when the spell in the book worked. Two years after that I made a tempe to Aphrodite in art class out of clay. I was probably destined to end up here.
To my understanding you were solitary and eclectic for many years before becoming a Gardnerian Wiccan. What drew you towards Gardnerian Wicca as opposed to other traditions?
I was an eclectic-Wiccan for about 15 years, along with dabbling in Druidry and probably a few other things. I was never really a solitary though. In Lansing Michigan we had a nice Pagan community, even if we didn’t do ritual together all the time. I don’t think I was ever part of a well functioning coven before moving out to California, but there were always yearly Beltane rituals and other things.
We had friends who became interested in British Traditional Witchcraft (or Wicca) and found a coven in our area (and by “our area” I mean within two hours of us). After they had been in it for awhile they wondered if we’d like to join and my wife thought it would be a good step for us, and might force us to take our spirituality a bit more seriously. We studied with that coven’s outer court for at least a solid year, but had to drop out due to some issues we were having. Eventually the people who introduced us to the outer court initiated us into Gardnerian Witchcraft.
I like Gard for a variety of reasons. I love the ritual structure of it, and because it’s a tradition that has existed for at least 70 years now, I feel like we “tap into” that history at every ritual and that produces a very real energy that we can feel. For me, Gard is also “the source.” Gerald Gardner was the first modern, public, Pagan Witch, and the ritual system he introduced into the world has had a tremendous impact on all the Witchcrafts that have come after it, and Paganism in general. There’s something about casting a circle in the same fashion as Gerald and Doreen Valiente that appeals to me.
Gard ritual also just works. A lot of Wiccan ritual works, my eclectic coven does amazing things, but there’s something more transformative about Gard ritual. I can’t tell you about it, and I can’t quite put it into words, but it’s a reality for me. When I hear people mocking Wicca I have to laugh a little bit. Our rituals are just as powerful and transformative as anyone else’s, and possibly more so. I love what we do and how we do it.
What misconceptions do you think non-Gardnerians have about Gardnerian Wicca? What misconceptions do you think Gardnerians have about non-Gardnerian witches?
I think the biggest misconception is that Gards are all serious all the time and are a bunch of party poopers. Most Gards I know have the same sense of humor as other Witches, and are just as open to experimentation and expanding what they do. It’s a tradition, there are certain things that have to be done in certain ways, but there’s a lot of wiggle room in the course of a ritual year.
I think most Gardnerians started out as non-Gardnerian Witches, and even after initiation many of us remain a part of eclectic circles and groups, so I think we have a pretty good handle on that world. Are there Gards who scoff at non-initiatory forms of Witchcraft? I think so, and I think people notice that, but that’s a problem not limited to Gardnerians, it’s a Witchcraft problem.
Witchcraft in general has too many “I’m Witchier and more serious than thou” issues. If something makes a person happy and fulfills their spiritual needs, isn’t that enough? I’ve never understood why how serious or unserious someone is on Facebook would have anything to do with how I practice the Craft. My rites work for me, your rites work for you, that’s great! It’s not a contest.
Which famous occultists or witches are your largest influences upon your personal practice?
The easy answer is probably Gerald Gardner, but I don’t think that’s really the case. It’s probably Doreen Valiente. One thing I love about how Doreen lived her life was that she was always searching for new ideas, new experiences, and was always open to changing her mind and progressing as a person. As someone who loves writing ritual, and adapting and revising previously published rituals, I look up to Doreen for crafting so many of the words and ideas we use in Witch ritual. Unrelated, we were both born on the same date so I feel a little extra kinship there.
Doreen also had a huge interest in Witch history, which is another inspiration. The more I think about it, it’s definitely Doreen, but there have been others too. Silver Ravenwolf’s “To Ride a Silver Broomstick” was supremely influential when I was just starting out, and Janet and Stewart Farrar’s “The Witch’s Bible” has shaped a lot of my ritual practices.
I’ve always noticed a huge difference in energy and spirits based on location. How has moving to California affected your practices vs. Michigan? Have you noticed anything energetically different between the locations?
I feel closer to the natural world out here than I ever did in the Midwest, but some of that comes from being able to go outside continually for 12 months of the year. Michigan was really essential to my development as a Witch, but California took it to an entirely different level. Out here I was able to go to a lot of open rituals and just observe the mechanics of ritual, and that was a real education. I wouldn’t trade my time in Michigan for anything, it’s where I met Ari, was initiated, and learned the Craft, but I think I was meant to end up out here.
It’s easy to let your spirituality become stagnant when you live in the same place for a long time, and I think that was starting to happen to me in Michigan. It’s no one’s fault but mine, but California was a like a shot of Witch adrenaline. Because we were new out here we got to put together a really great coven from scratch. In Michigan there was too much baggage in our lives for that, and not enough people around us to start a new chapter.
There are other differences between the two areas. In Michigan I hung out frequently with people from a wide range of traditions, and here in California I seem to mostly be limited to Witches. That’s probably because there are enough Witches out here that the broader Pagan Community doesn’t need to come together as often to reach critical mass. This is great for my Craft, but I think it keeps me in a bubble a bit more than I’d like. Luckily, I get to visit a lot of festivals every year and those pop the bubble so to speak.
There’s a lot of Modern Witch history out here in California too. It’s the land of Starhawk, the New Reformed Orthodox Order of the Golden Dawn, and the place where Covenant of the Goddess was founded. To a history nerd like myself those are all really big things, and I think when you do ritual out here, you tap into that, kind of like tapping into the energy of Gard history.
California, and especially the Bay Area where I live, is really different from the Midwest in another way: there are some traditions out here that are really influential locally and don’t have that same level of influence in other parts of the country. Even in eclectic circles, I sometimes see things that come from the Reclaiming and (Anderson) Feri Traditions, things that I never saw in the Midwest. Our first few years out here Ari (my wife) and I’d hear chants and poems that everyone else in circle seemed to know by heart that we had never heard before. I think that’s great by the way, and most areas of the United States have their own “flavor” of local Paganism.
Californians also pronounce “athame” differently than Midwesterners, and now I use both pronunciations without thinking about it. My wife sticks with the way she learned it in the Midwest.
You are probably the most knowledgable person that I know regarding the history of Paganism and Witchcraft. You’re my first go-to guy if I have questions regarding history, yet you’re also at the same time very grounded and approachable without being overly pedantic. Why do you feel learning history is important for Pagans and Witches?
I’m not sure that it is, but I know it’s important to me. Part of that’s because I’ve always enjoyed history, and when I fall in love with something I want to know as much about it as possible. That resulted in me falling down the history rabbit-hole pretty hard.
Pagans in general are pretty hard on Christian history, and I feel that if we are going to hold Christians to a high standard when it comes to history, we have to hold ourselves to an even higher standard. That means no ridiculous historical claims, and realizing that “so and so said” is not proof of anything. I think much of the Wiccan community has come around to Wicca being a fairly modern thing, but that “fairly modern thing” has long and glorious roots: grimoires, cunning-craft, the deities of pagan antiquity, Freemasonry . . . . that’s good enough for me and plenty to digest I think!
I think I said this in a recent article but Wiccans have been so good at exploring their recent history that for some it’s taken a bit of the sparkle and mystery away. I think that’s why Traditional Witchcraft has become increasingly popular, because it claims to have older roots, and it’s easier to add a dash of the romantic to its origins since that haven’t been explored as much. (I think both traditions have the same roots, and are probably about the same age, we just all do some things differently.)
Some of our history as witches and pagans is almost a modern myth in regards to origins of traditions, origins of witchcraft, etc. Do you feel we should re-write these myths so that they’re historically accurate or do you feel that preserving them as modern myths is beneficial?
I think most of our myths have beneficial qualities. Even if no form of Western Witchcraft goes back to the Middle Ages in an unbroken chain, I still think the Craft provides a link to those practitioners and ideas. I can feel a sense of kinship with the victims of the Witch Trials even if those individuals weren’t practicing Witchcraft as we know it today (and likely weren’t practicing it back then). We can keep the myths as long as we recognize what those myths are trying to tell us and don’t get hung up on them being literal events.
Over the years you have had your “boots on the ground” in regards to working with, being involved with, and meeting vast numbers of witches and pagans in the larger community. What would you like to see change within the community? What about the community inspires you?
I think we are addressing some long overdue issues right now: working harder on issues of inclusiveness, not tolerating phobias, racism, and bigotry, and providing safer spaces for women . . . we have a long way to go on most of these issues, but we are headed in the right direction, mostly.
I’m inspired by how many hard working Pagans there are out there. From performing, to making things, to blogging (harder than it looks!), to writing books, to running events, there are a lot of people in our community who work their butts off doing a lot of work for very little (if any) reward. At the same time it’s disheartening how few people want to get involved with such things, and just how unsupported I think some of our groups and institutions are.
You’ve written two books now, The Witch’s Athame and The Witch’s Book of Shadows both of which have very whimsical covers despite the amazing research, history and practices within them. A few years back you talked about writing a book on the Horned God, do you have any plans on revisiting this book? Are there any other books that you’re working on?
All the books in that series are in the process of getting new covers, and I think the “Book of Shadows” book will have a nifty new cover that much better reflects its contents in the next year or so. (Sadly, the book that needs it the most, the Athame book, has to get through its initial print run, and if things continue at their current pace that will be sometime in 2029.) I just finished my last bits of “The Witch’s Altar” (co-written with Laura Tempest Zakroff) today and in January I’ll be turning in “The Five Mysteries of Witchcraft.” (Title subject to change, I’m not thrilled with it, but that’s what it’s called right now.)
The “Mysteries” book is about five things (duh): Was Gardner initiated in 1939, the cone of power, initiations/elevations, drawing down the moon, and the great rite. It has all the things that I think I do well: history that’s not too boring, along with rituals and “how to” stuff. That book is due in January (2018) and is progressing on schedule. I’ve spent the better part of two years working on that book, and because of that I won’t have a new book out until late next year.
After that I think I’m going to co-write a book about the Greek Gods, a book of sabbat rituals with histories of each sabbat, possibly some sort of 101 book (though that’s an inadequate description for what I have in mind), a book all about Cernunnos with John Beckett, and then maybe a Horned God book or one about magickal traditions in the Americas (pre Modern Witchcraft). That’s enough right? Some of those I’ll write with or without Llewellyn publishing them, but I really like working with Llewellyn thus far, and would be very pleased if they just continued to publish my stuff.
As a writer for Patheos Pagan, I get asked a lot how one can start writing for Patheos Pagan. I really have no idea, since you approached me first. As the head Editor of the Patheos Pagan Channel, how does one write for Patheos Pagan if they’re interested?
Send me an email with writing samples or a link to a blog. Really, that’s it. If they are a good fit we’ll go from there. Sometimes I run into people who I think will be good fits and I pursue them, but usually it’s the other way around.