The Queerness at the Heart of the Charge: Gnosis and Exegesis

The Queerness at the Heart of the Charge: Gnosis and Exegesis October 4, 2017

Hello, beautiful creatures.

Previously on Outside the Charmed Circle, I ended on the shameless cliffhanger statement that witchcraft is queer, not only in the sense of being a non-normative spiritual praxis, but in the sense of being, y’know, the queer kind of queer. Today, I’d like to get into that statement a little, and see where it leads us.

A common objection to queerness within the confines of many Wiccan traditions—here defined to include any tradition of neo-Pagan witchcraft derived from the work of Gerald Gardner and Doreen Valiente—relates to the practice of sexual magic. Simply put, queer and trans witches don’t fit comfortably within the gendered sexual metaphors of cisgender, heteronormative witchcraft. The Great Rite of Wicca, wherein a priestess and priest have sexual intercourse whilst aspecting the Goddess and God of the Witches, is a beautiful rite in which the ecstatic, creative power of union is reified. However, it can fairly be said that this rite explicitly excludes people for whom such acts lack the spiritual content or sexual charge necessary to convey gnosis and transformation. The “symbolic” or “in-token” version of this rite, in which an athame or wand is inserted into a chalice of wine, can offer similar obstacles for queer and trans witches for whom the insertion of an “active” phallic symbol into a “receptive” vagina-analogue may be meaningless, or even emotionally harmful. Leaving aside the questionable visceral imagery of equating a penis to a knife, the gender essentialism at work in a metaphor based on the associational chains of penis = projector = male = active and vagina = vessel = female = passive should be fairly obvious.

There is, of course, an equally obvious rejoinder to all of this critique, one I’ve seen and heard numerous times: “If cisgender heterosexuality bothers queer people so much, then Wicca clearly isn’t the right path for them.” Interlocutors who express these ideas usually go on to point out that Wicca never claimed to be for everyone, and that there are plenty of spiritual paths which are perfectly welcoming to queer and trans people who find cisgender heterosexuality a less-than-optimal spiritual metaphor.

Well, that’s fair enough. There are few, if any, Pagan/polytheist spiritual paths which claim to have a lock on The Truth, and no one is “owed” initiation into anything. If cisgender heterosexuality were the defining spiritual and sexual mystery of Wicca, it would be pretty gauche to insist that Wiccan traditions should incorporate and honor other sexualities, other ways of being embodied and engendered.

The trouble is, cisgender heterosexuality isn’t the defining mystery of Wicca.

(Ceramic statue by the author's partner.)
(Ceramic statue by the author’s partner.)

An Exegetical Ramble with the Mother of Modern Witchcraft

As I said earlier, the term “Wicca” covers a lot of traditions and practices, which makes it difficult to talk about “what Wiccans believe.” Even among those initiatory lines which fall under the “British traditional Wiccan” umbrella (Gardnerian, Alexandrian, and so on), there’s a lot of diversity in theology, practice, and text. If we expand the umbrella to cover any tradition which derives from Gardner and Valiente, that diversity expands exponentially.

So, let’s talk about the one text that every Wiccan (and a non-trivial number of non-Wiccan witches) should be able to agree is canonical: the Charge of the Goddess.

This liturgical piece, commonly (and reasonably) attributed1 to Doreen Valiente from an earlier piece assembled by Gardner, is one of a small handful of texts that basically everyone can agree is really, truly, inherently Wiccan. It has been read, declaimed, recited, or sung in private circles, public rituals, sainings, handfastings, requiems, interfaith services, and personal practices for well over half a century. It’s arguably the best-known piece of liturgical prose to emerge from the modern Pagan movement, and if you’re reading this, odds are good that you’re at least passingly familiar with it. It’s worth noting that the words of the text are attributed to “the Star Goddess, She in the dust of Whose feet are the hosts of heaven, Whose body encircleth the Universe.” They are, in short, the words of the Goddess of the Wicca Herself, making this the closest thing Wicca has to scripture or “holy writ.”

And right there in the text of the Charge is the following sentence:

Let My worship be within the heart that rejoiceth, for behold: all acts of love and pleasure are My rituals.

Now, there are a few ways we can approach this text. We can see it as a poetic bit of ritual furniture, adapted by Valiente from Gardner’s original assemblage to fill a necessary gap in the Gardnerian corpus. We can appreciate it as an inspired piece of liturgical poetry, one which crystallizes some of the essential theology and gnosis of Wicca into a stirring emotional declamation. We can revere it as an actual communication from the Goddess of the Witches. We can find elements of each of these, or of all three.

What I want to suggest here is that it doesn’t matter which of these approaches we take. What matters is whether or not we take these words seriously, as written2. The text itself doesn’t prevaricate: “all acts of love and pleasure are my rituals.” Taken as read, that’s pretty queer-friendly. It is, quite literally, all-encompassing. It doesn’t specify “all acts of heterosexual love and pleasure” as the only ritually-appropriate components of the worship of the Goddess.

Nor does it behoove us to assume that the speaker intended such a limitation.

If we assume for the sake of argument that Valiente is the ultimate author of the Charge, she is clearly allowed some latitude in the interpretation of her work, even absent her status as the “mother of modern witchcraft.” While she herself initially held to a heterosexist interpretation of the Wiccan magicosexual ethic, she later abjured this position quite decisively, as she writes in The Rebirth of Witchcraft: “Homosexuality, we were told, was abhorrent to the Goddess, and Her curse would fall upon people of the same sex who attempted to work together. For a long time I believe this; but today I question it. Why should people be ‘abhorrent to the Goddess’ for being born the way they are?” (p. 183). She goes on to call into question, not only the binary sexual nature of magical working in a Wiccan context, but the entire notion of the necessity of “male/female polarity” within witchcraft, either in theology or in practice: “What right have we to insist that people who were born with feelings different from ours shall be debarred from worshipping the most ancient powers of life?” (p. 185). For Valiente, “all acts of love and pleasure” would seem to include, well, all acts of love and pleasure, straight or queer.

If, on the other hand, we see the Charge of the Goddess as holy writ, as the literal words of the Star Goddess they claim to be, we must ask ourselves: are we really going to suggest that the Goddess of the Witches—Who has been with us from the beginning, and Who is that which is attained at the end of desire—didn’t know perfectly well what the word “all” meant when She used it?

As ever, more thoughts along these lines soon. Until then, dear ones, stay safe. ♥

  1. A full accounting of the history of this liturgical piece is beyond the scope of this blog post… and besides, it’s been done already, to delightfully exhaustive detail.
  2. For English speakers at least, there are no questions of translation error or shifts in syntax over time; the final version of the Charge dates no later than the 1950s.

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6 responses to “The Queerness at the Heart of the Charge: Gnosis and Exegesis”

  1. The inclusive implications of “All acts of love and pleasure” are precisely why I made that the title of my book arguing for LGBTQIA-inclusive Wicca, published in 2014, and annoying heterocentric and cis-centric people ever since.

    It’s also worth noting that Doreen Valiente argued in favour of LGBTQ witches in her 1997 speech at the Pagan Federation conference:

    At first I did not question anything Gerald told me about what he claimed to be the traditional teachings of the Old religion. Eventually however, I did begin to question, and began to ask how much was traditional and how much was simply Gerald’s prejudices. For instance, he was very much against people of the same sex working together, especially if they were gay. In fact he went so far as to describe gay people as being “cursed by the Goddess”. Well I see no good reason to believe this. In every period of history, in every country in the world there have been gay people, both men and women. So why shouldn’t Mother nature have known what she was doing when she made people this way? I don’t agree with this prejudice against gay people, either inside the craft of the wise or outside it.

    • Moderator note: Hi, everyone. This is Misha. I don’t want to make a habit of intruding on comments left by visitors to my blog, but I’m making an exception for this response, for reasons which will become apparent. The original post is in normal text, while my comments are in italics.

      Doreen Valiente never said that gay people should practice in a circle, only that they have the right to be who they are.

      Point of order: Actually, she did indeed say they could and should practice however they bloody well like, as Yvonne’s quote above makes clear. For further support, I refer you to her book The Rebirth of Witchcraft, cited in the article on which you’re commenting here. (You did read the article, right?)

      If a man tries to call down the goddess he is cursed,

      Source, please?

      no matter how much he wants to be a woman, he isn’t and never will be.

      I’m not sure how you’re making the logical connection between a man calling down the Goddess and that same man wanting to be a woman, but I’m quite sure it’s of a caliber with the rest of your commentary.

      What makes a woman a woman is the ability to conceive and/or give birth.

      Judith Butler would argue that point. As would Simone de Beauvoir. As would numerous other theorists, women and men and others. As would any number of women who are unable to “conceive and/or give birth” for any number of reasons.

      What you’re expressing here is called “gender essentialism,” and if you’d read any of my other blog posts before you rolled up into this one, you’d likely have picked up on the realization that I’m not a fan.

      The God and Goddess create life and the Goddess gives birth to that life.

      While I get that you’re citing a deeply-held religious belief, I regret to inform you that it’s not a universally-held opinion, even within the bounds of Wiccan theology and practice.

      The only thing a man can give birth too is a pile of sh*t.

      Well, that’s just a gross comment, as well as being facile and cowardly. If you’re going to go to the trouble of making me think of shit, the least you could do is own the moral weight of your words by actually typing your own profanities out, rather than hiding behind an asterisk and making me do the work.

      “All acts of love and pleasure” refers anything that you love and/or find pleasure in.

      I don’t see an “or” in that sentence. Also, no disrespect intended, but I’m far more inclined to follow Valiente’s lead on this than yours.

      Eating your favorite food can be an act of love and pleasure, it does not have to be something sexual.

      Eating my favorite food isn’t ever sexual for me, though there are moments when it can a sensual experience on par with really good sex. Besides, involving food with sex can be super problematic. I mean, yeast infections? No thanks!

      (Yes, I’m aware that’s not what you meant, but it was fun to write. In any event, again, I’m going to go with Valiente’s interpretation on this one, thanks.)

      In fact, between two men, it shouldn’t be something sexual, especially if you are giving thanks and praise to the GODDESS for it.

      Why not? If two men are having loving, pleasurable sex, why wouldn’t they give thanks and praise to the Goddess?

      Oh… wait a minute! Could it be that the problem here is TEH ICKY GHEYNESS?

      For a man to think that he can call down or represent the Goddess in a circle is just ludicrous.

      I’m sure the numerous men who’ve done so will forswear ever doing such a thing again, on your say-so. And the women who’ve drawn down the God will probably rush right after them.

      Okay, I’ve had about as much fun with this as I think I’m going to. Melinda, I appreciate your interest in contributing to the conversation, but I think we’ve all heard as much of your viewpoint as we need to. My blog really isn’t a welcoming environment for your perspectives, and the manner in which you’ve chosen to express them makes it adamantly clear that dialogue isn’t likely to be fruitful. So, any future comments you leave on this blog will be moderated out. You do not have free speech rights here; you have “don’t annoy Misha with your speech” rights. You’ve annoyed me, so you’re done. Bye now!

      For everyone else, sorry about the mess. I considered just deleting this outright but, on reflection, I decided to leave it here as an example of the kinds of things queer people hear from some folks in the Pagan/polytheist/p-word communities all the time.

      Cheers, folks.

      • Thank you so much for the time you’ve spent researching and writing this article. I also appreciate the thoughtful rebuttal to the comment above. All acts of love and pleasure are Her Rites. And, I am sharing to a couple of my Facebook groups.

  2. As a pansexual priestess who has had many queer people train with me and circle with me, we never really got hung up on the blade and chalice imagery; it’s got fertility religion roots, owing to the way human biology works,that’s going to be heteronormative,and you do need both eggs and sperm to make babies. But we weren’t focused on that usually; on the fertility of mind and imagination, and of prosperity in our lives, yes, and that stuff doesn’t care about the gender identity of the people working. I can see where people might have issues with it, though.

    I’ve always had a broad definition of all acts of love and pleasure, as I get older. I’m in a sexless marriage now, due to his illnesses. So acts of love are making sugarfree desserts he can eat, and finding ways to vary his diet while staying within it. They’re waking up at night to help him with bodily functions. They’re kneeling to make sure there are no wrinkles in his socks. They’re planning the day so he can get a nap, and making dinner on time. And giving him pleasure gives me pleasure, and that’s good enough for now.