The Intrinsic Queerness of Witchcraft, and Why It Matters

The Intrinsic Queerness of Witchcraft, and Why It Matters September 29, 2017

Hello, beautiful creatures.

In any written work, I feel it’s important to stake out the discursive ground one intends to occupy, to give the reader a sense of both where one is coming from and where one plans to go in the pages to follow: start as you mean to go on, as the song says. In my belated introduction, I wrote:

….the modern Pagan, polytheist, and occult movements are outside the charmed circle of culturally normative religious and spiritual identities, occupying an outsider status unavoidably similar to queer sexual and gender identities. What I suggest, in other words, is that magic, witchcraft, Paganism, and polytheism are queer: that we queer religion and spirituality in many of the ways that identities of Rubin’s “outer limits” queer sexuality and gender.

I stand by these statements, as far as they go, but they go only partway towards my intended point. In expanding on this point here, I’m going to speak primarily about witchcraft, since that’s the primary mode of practice in which I personally operate. However, my points can also be applied to other categories of practice, albeit to greater or lesser extents. (I hope to get to those in time, as well!)

Witchcraft, as both a historical artifact and a modern spiritual modality, is intrinsically non-normative: it stands in isolation from, or in opposition to, the norms of whatever culture in which it arises. This is axiomatic; if witchcraft matched the values of the dominant culture, it would be essentially indistinguishable from the other forms of spiritual praxis around it. The reality that certain forms of witchcraft aspire to just such a state of cultural respectability is duly noted. In fact, the need such groups feel to engage in “respectability politics” only reinforces the notion that witchcraft is in itself an “outsider” praxis, a queer spirituality. It’s also worth noting that, just as in the queer communities, the pursuit of respectability generally involves a muting or diminishment of the qualities which transgress against cultural norms, delivering a non-threatening “We’re just like you!” message to the dominant culture. Of course, this muting and diminishment comes with a price: it creates a witchcraft which couldn’t possibly offend one’s Aunt Tillie, and which is therefore unlikely to be of much interest to anyone.

In other words, witchcraft is inherently queer, deriving much of its power from its transgressive queerness, and any attempt to deny its intrinsic queerness is ultimately a reductive attempt to divest it of power.

Caution! Writer may not be saying what you think they're saying!
Caution! Writer may not be saying what you think they’re saying!

An Explanation by Way of Some Definitions

Now, dear reader, how you respond to those words will depend in great part on who you are: what your background has been, how you define the terms “witchcraft” and “queer,” and (perhaps most importantly) whether or not you identify with either of them. If you identify with the latter, but not the former, you may feel I’m muddying the post-Marxist political waters of queerness, not only with religiosity, but with an irrational magical religiosity at that. If you identify with the former but not the latter, you may well feel that, at best, I’m attempting to smuggle aberrant sexuality and social justice into your practice of modern heterosexual neo-Paganism, and at worst, that I’m trying to define you out of your own identity. If you identify with neither, it’s likely that none of this will make a jot of sense, and if you identify with both, you may be reading these words and thinking, “Um, duh?”

For the folks who aren’t in the “both” or “neither” categories, I’d like to explain what I mean, and why I think it’s important. To do so, and properly stake out our discursive territory, I need to define both “witchcraft” and “queer” in this context. Neither term is particularly esoteric in itself, but my usages may be nonstandard or idiosyncratic in relation to others’ experiences. As such, I want to clarify my meanings in advance, in the hope of avoiding misunderstandings or unintentional disagreements. (Disagreements are fine, but I prefer them intentional, where possible.) I hope you’ll bear with me as I indulge in a little academese.

Within the confines of my own writing and practice, I use the term “witchcraft” to refer to an ambiguous but quantifiable category of magical practice rooted in, and derived from, a cosmological schema defined in part by the network of relationship(s) between the practitioner and the forces with which the practitioner treats, including the natural world. While the “witch” qualitatively differs from the “sorcerer” or the “magician,” it can be difficult to elucidate that difference without resorting to such sophistries as “I know it when I see it.” Perhaps the best distinction which can be drawn is that, while all three categories of practitioner treat with spirits, the witch tends towards a relationship of equity and partnership with such spirits, whereas the magician and sorcerer tend more towards relationships defined by hierarchy and authority. (These are not hard-and-fast delineations; many sorcerers and magicians, especially those in pacted relationships, operate very much in partnership with spirits, whilst some witches default to a sort of quasi-Solomonic “conjure and command” model of spirit-working.) While it’s certainly not within my power or authority to dictate who is or isn’t a witch, for the purposes of my analyses here, my definition of “witchcraft” is a pretty big umbrella, one which covers Gardnerian and Gardnerian-derived Wicca, “traditional witchcraft,” Anderson Faery/Feri, and numerous other traditions and forms of praxis.

And now, the “Q” word.

I use the term “queer” as an umbrella term covering a variety of expressions of sexuality and gender which share in common their “outsider” status in relation to cultural norms of gender and sexuality. The precise definition and content of these cultural norms is a moving target, determined as it is by the mores of a given culture in a given place at a given point in time, all of which evolve. As I’ve wrote in my aforementioned belated introduction, some useful generalizations can be drawn from the work of Gayle Rubin, a cultural anthropologist whose seminal 1984 essay “Thinking Sex” has provided sexuality and gender theorists with a framework with which to analyze the notion of “normative sexuality.” In particular, Rubin’s concept of the “charmed circle” posits that there exists within any given culture a set of sexual attributes to which positive value is ascribed, and their antitheses, to which negative value is ascribed. The positively-valued attributes, seen as a cluster, form the normative sexual ideal within that culture, whilst their antitheses form what Rubin calls “the outer limits” of sexuality, the shadow-self of normative sexuality. Rubin’s framing of sexuality provides a useful lens through which gender can be viewed, where cisgender identity falls within the charmed circle, and transgender identity is queered, relegated to the outer limits. In fact, the tightly-gendered nature of our cultural views on sexuality render any fluidity or ambiguity of gender identity inherently queer, in terms of both gender and sexuality.

So, when I say that witchcraft is queer, I mean that it exists outside the charmed circle of spiritual praxis in our culture, but beyond that, I mean that queerness of sexuality and gender are intrinsic to the gnosis and praxis of witchcraft. Yes, even Gardnerian Wicca!

We’ll start breaking into that next time. Until then, dear ones, stay safe. ♥


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  • C Wallace

    Every one of your posts on queerness + paganism/witchcraft/etc is _infinitely_ quotable + useful–it says concisely + well what I struggle to communicate with others. (tbh when I notice you have new posts I announce them to my friends so we can bask)

    • Thank you so much! That’s delightful to hear, and I am both honored and humbled. ^_^

      (If you like, you can follow my Facebook page or subscribe to the newsletter to be notified when new posts appear.)

  • kenofken

    I had not explicitly considered witchcraft in the context of “queerness”, but it does make a good deal of sense. What I struggle with is the degree to which the power or authenticity of witchcraft or queerness itself depends on maintaining transgression? I agree wholeheartedly on what you say about “respectability politics”, but what happens when your transgression becomes normative because the mainstream moves to encompass you? Witchcraft is far less transgressive now than it was in 1954 when Gerald Gardner went public, or in the Satanic Panic of the 1980s or even in the early 2000s when I started in earnest. I think it’s even a bit of a stretch to still abel witchcraft transgression in the United States at least. It’s certainly not as dangerous as it was. I suppose it’s still not normative, although even that depends on the viewing angle. Some of our movement’s ideas around environmentalism are fully mainstream. Witches, in stylized form and to a lesser extent authentic forms, have become very hip. Nature spirituality, in concept at least, is catching on well beyond traditional Pagan spheres. Most actual witches are, still, white, middle class, heterosexual and cisgendered. To the extent that much of modern witchcraft is “spiritual but not religious”/low-investment therapeutic deism, it is entirely normative. At the same time, I think there are aspects of Pagan culture which remain transgressive – hard polytheism and active worship of deities for example. Strangely enough, as our movement has become more mainstream, some of our most traditional practices have become more transgressive to our own people than to the outside world. When we were more of an underground subculture, ritual nudity was almost second nature. There is far less of that now, and I sense almost a hostility toward it in some quarters. Even at festivals which have been clothing optional for decades, I have found that some people get a little wigged out when some of us actually exercise that option.

    I think much the same can be said of “queerness” itself. Homosexuality, while not normative, seems far less transgressive than even a handful of years ago. In my own lifetime, I have seen it go from a jailable offense and defined as a mental illness to national same sex marriage. Where LGBT once eked out a precarious living in socially isolated enclaves, now its opponents increasingly are. Transgender folks of course still have an uphill climb, but even there, mainstream society is engaging with those issues more rapidly than I would have thought possible even a couple of years ago. Non-binary/fluid gender identities have a longer struggle still, and polyamory, which is a part of my queerness, is still a lot for even progressive folks and fellow Pagans to get their minds around.

    I embrace my wildness and queerness and it has defined my witchcraft. I always figure its transgressiveness was something for the mainstream to worry about, not me. But what if our power in some measure depends on being non-normative? What happens to a revolutionary when the capital is won and he has to settle down to a life managing the city’s water system? What happens to the pioneer when the last piece of frontier is reached by roads, lawyers and power lines? What if the dark and twisted path of witchcraft that forged us draws others but gets covered over with asphalt and street lights?

    • Good questions, all of them… so good, in fact, that answering them—or at least acknowledging and addressing them—is central to the mission of my entire blog! ^_^

      I think there’s an extent to which magic and gnosis will always be transgressive, and will be attractive precisely because of their transgressive nature. I’ve seen magic kitsch—”witch kits,” spellbooks for girls’ sleepovers, “occult” jewelry sold in mall shops—come and go over the past couple decades, and none of those attempts at commodifying the numinous seems to have taken hold. I don’t know that they could, being far more about presenting an image of spookines than the actual work of being a witch, sorcerer, magician, or devotee of the Gods. I’m faintly amused at the present wave of “witch chic,” but I also know perfectly well that today’s hashtag is next week’s entry on Know Your Meme and next year’s “oh, remember when I was into that silly witch phase? Oh, thank God I’ve grown out of that! Hey, would you pour me just another half-a-glass of Chardonnay?”

      And all the while, we’ll still be here, doing our work. ♥

  • Taliesin Govannon

    Let’s not forget another transgressive idea within much of modern Paganism: the idea that the Gods dwell within us.

    Not just the Deity that matches one’s birth gender, mind you. As a straight, cis-gender man, I’m called upon to seek and acknowledge the Goddess within me as well as the God. Seeing onself as having an opposite-gendered Deity living within does a certain amount to shatter “traditional” gender roles, and opens onself to experiencing emotions and experiences outside of what’s expected of us by “society”. Men can be nurturing, express sadness, and be receptive (as opposed to aggressive) in bed. Women (feeling the God within) can be warriors, initiate romantic relationships (instead of waiting for the other to make the first move), and be the primary breadwinner for a family. And we can each be comfortable in whatever roles we feel most called to play.

    Some of my queer friends have called my wife and I “Queer Hetersexuals” (a phrase I first heard from Dan Savage). We’re straight, but reject many of the social “norms” for a straight couple. Our Pagan friends not only accept this, but cheer us on! So yes, Paganism is a safe space (mostly) for queer people of all types. They also make us breeders who don’t quite fit in feel accepted as well.

    • mishamagdalene

      One of the aspects of gender in the context of p-word-ism that most interests me is the extent to which we feel ourselves and our practice to be constrained by the binary. I’m not speaking here merely of gender roles, but of the binary gender conception itself. I don’t deny that a majority of folks are deeply invested in, and even comfortable with, a binary gender structure, but I do think it limits our thinking, and forces us to conceive of “gender roles” which must then be “shattered” or “transgressed” in order for people to live their most authentic lives. What I’d like to see, personally, is an expansion of the notion of gender in such a way as to make it possible for a person to identify as a man, or a woman, or something else entirely (like yours truly!), and for that person to be one who decides what that means for them. To go back to the qualities you rightly mention, anyone can be nurturing, or receptive, or have emotions, just as anyone can be a breadwinner, or a soldier, or the initiatory partner in a relationship. Those aren’t gendered qualities; they’re human qualities.

      I would that Paganism were a safe space for queer folks, and for straight folks who aren’t quite with the mainstream. That would please me greatly. I think it can be, and I think it does a better job on average than some other spaces, but “better on average” isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement. We are, despite what some would like to believe, very much a microcosm of our cultures, both macro- and micro-, and we have all the besetting sins of those cultures. Still, hope springs eternal, hey?

    • One of the aspects of gender in the context of p-word-ism that most interests me is the extent to which we feel ourselves and our practice to be constrained by the binary. I’m not speaking here merely of gender roles, but of the binary gender conception itself. I don’t deny that a majority of folks are deeply invested in, and even comfortable with, a binary gender structure, but I do think it limits our thinking, and forces us to conceive of “gender roles” which must then be “shattered” or “transgressed” in order for people to live their most authentic lives. What I’d like to see, personally, is an expansion of the notion of gender in such a way as to make it possible for a person to identify as a man, or a woman, or something else entirely (like yours truly!), and for that person to be one who decides what that means for them. To go back to the qualities you rightly mention, anyone can be nurturing, or receptive, or have emotions, just as anyone can be a breadwinner, or a soldier, or the initiatory partner in a relationship. Those aren’t gendered qualities; they’re human qualities.

      I would that Paganism were a safe space for queer folks, and for straight folks who aren’t quite with the mainstream. That would please me greatly. I think it can be, and I think it does a better job on average than some other spaces, but “better on average” isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement. We are, despite what some would like to believe, very much a microcosm of our cultures, both macro- and micro-, and we have all the besetting sins of those cultures. Still, hope springs eternal, hey?

      • Taliesin Govannon

        Here’s an interesting aspect of one particular British Traditional Wicca path: Alex Sanders made it so he held the cup during the “non-actual” Great Rite, and his Priestess held the Athame. Janet & Stewart Farrar aso did this, and I know that many Alexandrian covens still do this.

        He explained this away by saying that, on the “inner planes”, that genders were reversed, and that they did things this way to represent the dynamic on those planes. One has to wonder, however, if Alex (who was Queer himself) was actually trying to mess with the (extreme) heteronormativity in Wicca during his era.

        As an amateur Pagan historian, these questions tease my mind…