Yesterday I spent an hour on the phone with my friend Sylva, catching up after a month or two of not talking. At this point in my life, almost all of my friends are witches of some stripe or other, so the conversation quickly turned to her own practice and studies, her coven, and the wider community of Pagans and witches in her city.
Long story short, Sylva was interested in starting a study group but was worried that she’d step on some local bigwigs’ toes and be communally shunned by people who, despite having more experience and credentials (whatever those even are), sounded unusually fragile.
Aside from the fear of angering the local petty lords, there was also the internal drama of writing liturgy and bylaws for Sylva’s current coven, which had been around for a couple of years and whose leaders were interested in establishing a wider tradition (because authenticity). There had been a lot of yelling and passive-aggressive Interneting, apparently, and she was feeling burnt out.
Sylva is relatively new to witchcraft and had never been involved in any kind of wider Pagan or witch scene before, and she wanted some feedback to as to how to deal: “Is this right? I mean, I just wanted to learn about magic and figure out what I think about all this goddess stuff. But now all we do is argue over what the initiation ritual should be like and whether we should call ourselves a coven or a grove.”
I interrupted my friend and said, “So when you guys actually manage to have a ritual, are you doing something worthwhile?”
“No. If I’m lucky, we sit around and have a drink and no one says anything shitty on Facebook the next day.”
I‘m no stranger to drama, but I’m proud to have been able to mostly keep it out of my own Craft life. It’s one of the advantages of running a closed group and limiting interaction with a wider community, except one-on-one and in social settings. So I wasn’t sure whether to be horrified or really amused by poor Sylva’s situation. Obviously, my advice was to leave and find something more fulfilling, but there was a lot of worry over subsequent gossip, possible exclusion from community events in the future, and just generally people being terrible.
Gossip and exclusion aren’t things we’re supposed to let hurt us—we’re supposed to bravely persevere in either joyful disregard or quiet stoicism—but the fact is that they often do. I’ve seen it in my own communities. Even when the locals are generally nice, there’s usually still an unattainable cool kids club. So telling my friend to just be on her way wasn’t necessarily as easy as all that, especially for a newbie just trying to find some guidance and camaraderie.
Everything I know about human behavior I learned from dating and reading about Stanley Milgram in freshman sociology, so I don’t pretend to be any kind of expert (or particularly optimistic). I have a hunch that the struggle for social status and the preoccupation with what other people are doing is just an unavoidable part of being human and functioning within any social group. The fact that we’re talking about groups of witches is secondary.*
In all of the drama over who’s-a-real-third-degree and oh-my-god-I-can’t-believe-he’s-circling-with-them and that’s-not-in-the-bylaws and real-witches-don’t-do-that, there’s not a lot of actual witchcraft happening. Like, what are people actually doing aside from just fighting over titles and lineages and semantics and who’s got the biggest sword or the most magical grandma? Last year, I removed myself from a popular Wiccan e-mail list simply because I had a hard time imagining that the territorial boardleaders had much time in between constant angry posts to actually practice anything I could benefit from hearing about. At some point, you have to stop worrying about what other people are doing and just go practice witchcraft which is why I thought we were here in the first place.
I think that’s true whether you’re talking about a wider community of people belonging to different traditions (where the conversation is usually about who’s a real witch and how you can assert your real-witch-hood to others**) or it’s internal.
I don’t worry too much about what other people are up to (or what they say about me) because I’m too busy running my own coven, doing my own woo with my own gods and spirits, and upholding the commitments I’ve made to the people who trained me. How other people want to do things is their business, and I only have the authority to say otherwise when it comes to my own group (and even then, we’re still talking about autonomous adults who can go as they wish).
In whatever situation we find ourselves while pursuing witchcraft, I think it’s important to stay focused on our original goals and initial questions, which usually sound something like this: How can I make my magic more effective (or learn magic to begin with)? How do I communicate with the gods/spirits/the dead/Whoever? What does it mean to practice witchcraft? What can I gain by practicing in a group? What’s important to my own practice?
For a lot of us, that’s easy to lose in all of the drama.
There are a lot of people out there who have to create pain for themselves and others in order to feel important, special, or authentic. In part, it’s not even really anyone’s fault. It’s hardwired.
I’m not saying that standards aren’t important or that tradition isn’t important. Some things might be worth fighting over. Sometimes arguing is just fun. Sometimes people need to be trolled (which is why we started writing The Burning Times). I just don’t think anything should trump the value of our actual experiences practicing our Craft, whatever that entails. Is your witchcraft effective?
If I were Sylva, I’d burn some bridges and trust that no one had the social influence (nevermind the magical powers, which seems like an even safer bet) that they claim. But I also have less to lose, being that I’ve practiced alone before and have a network of immediate witch family members that makes a general community a lot less important. I can understand the desire to maintain the connections she has, even though they’re frustrating ones. It sucks either way. But sometimes you’re better off taking the risk and working toward something healthier, even if it means being alone (or reviled) for a while.
Ultimately, I think the witch has to be able to stand alone. History and lore are both full of witches being marginalized, for all kinds of reasons and in all kinds of ways. Maybe it’s naïve to expect anything else.
[Brownie points to those of you who catch the title reference.]
*I’m also not suggesting that there’s such a thing we can neatly define as “real witchcraft” or that its practice should look any one way. For the purposes of this post, “witchcraft” could be replaced with “Paganism” or “martial arts” or just about anything else people fight over.
**Hint: Reference Carlo Ginzburg out of context, tell people you belong to either Hecate or the Morrigan and you therefore have a handle on “the shadows” and death, or constantly talk about your initiations and how many students you have.