“Breaking Curses” a fundamental characteristic of “Apostles”

We’ve been hearing more and more about the New Apostolic Reformation lately, led by “apostles” such as Cindy Jacobs, John Benefiel, and C. Peter Wagner. In a book by Wagner about what it means to be an “apostle” today, he lays out “12 characteristics displayed by many (if not most) apostles,” although not all “apostles” have all twelve characteristics.

Number eleven on his list is “Breaking curses of witchcraft,” and in his explanation of a Biblical example, he equates witchcraft with divination and demonic possession. Number ten on his list is “Casting out demons,” by the way, so these ideas are intimately related in this present-day “apostle’s” mind.

Things get even more interesting when I read the actual Bible verses cited as examples of “breaking curses of witchcraft.” In the first one, Acts 16:16-18, a female slave who is possessed by a spirit that allows her to do divination, from which she earns money, follows the Apostle Paul and his companion around, announcing that they are exactly who they say they are: servants of “the Most High.” She urges people to convert to Christianity. Finally, Paul becomes annoyed and casts out her demon.

The message I take from that is that today’s “apostles” are supposed to be aggressive even towards people who claim to be Christian or to be working for the same goals. They are supposed to turn on their allies and coworkers if those people are doing things in an unacceptable way. They will even deprive their allies of a livelihood. I can’t help but think that this is also another example of misogyny: a female slave can’t be allowed to upstage the Apostle Paul, even if she’s telling the truth.

So if you’re Christian but you think a Magic 8 ball or even, gasp, Tarot cards (full of Christian symbolism) might be acceptable, think again. And if you do divination for money, especially if you’re a woman? Forget about it. The NAR are explicitly announcing that they are coming for you.

The second instance, Acts 13:8-11, is when Paul is trying to convert a local government official, but the local “sorcerer” is trying to prevent it. Paul responds by cursing the sorcerer with blindness. Of course, the government official converts, because he sees how powerful the Christians are.

This is the model the NAR wants to follow. This is their stated goal: offensive spiritual warfare with real, physical consequences.

Edited to add: To clarify, I don’t think their spiritual warfare is going to cause physical harm. But they do, and they want it to, and we should take that seriously. If they don’t get the results they want through curses, they might take more direct action.

They certainly want to use government to enforce their narrow subsect of Christianity. That’s what DC40 is all about. And don’t think this is solely about spiritual issues: very few people are talking about it, but their prayer networks in every state could easily be converted into networks for taking political action. Now that Perry has officially joined the Presidential race, I believe those networks and their involvement in “The Response” are intended to be a part of his campaign.

In the face of this effort, it is vital for us to work peacefully to protect our rights in all the ways available to us.

h/t to Right Wing Watch for the book excerpts

Down in the mud at Beltane

Some days I think that no one in her right mind would want to be a Witch and a priestess – unless, of course, she was called to it, and it was as much a part of her blood as the cells that carry oxygen to keep her moving even when she’s tired and heartsore.

Another family that my partner works with just lost a baby at term. It was one of those accidents that just happens; no one is at fault, there’s no real cause to look for. It just happened. I’m volunteering to help any way I can, and what I could do today was bake bread.

So I did: I took water, which is most of what we’re made of, and added salt, for the tears the family is crying right now. Then I added honey, for the sweetness and healing that will come later, and milk, for the nurturing the mother was going to give to her child, and the nurturing the couple needs right now, and oil to ease the transitions. Yeast came next, because baking is about life, in the midst of everything. And then flour: the body of John Barleycorn, whose offering of life sustains us all.

I mixed it, and when it started to stick together, I kneaded it, turning it, folding it, getting it stuck to my fingers, feeling it transform in my hands. And I sang: I sang my sorrow, and my concern, and my care, and my love, and my support right down into that dough until it was folded in among all the physical parts. I let it rise, letting the life of the yeast do what it’s supposed to, and when it had risen, I punched it down and kneaded it again, shaping it into a loaf. I laid the loaf in the cradle of its pan. When it was ready, I baked it, using the fire to further transform and then fix the physical form as well as to seal my intent.

And after I dropped it off for the family, I went to TRI to have a rest and talk with the Lord and Lady. I found a spot in my favorite corner of the island and was sitting on a rock dipping my toes in the Potomac, thinking about what it means to be a Witch and to live on boundaries, in the in-between spaces, when a family came by on the path. One of the little boys clambered up on top of some rocks and then jumped down again from about his height onto hard ground. He had a rough landing, but he didn’t seem to hurt himself, although my heart leapt up into my throat to see him do it. Then he started crying, and I thought maybe he’d bitten his lip – his father turned to him (had just been advising the other son not to climb on the rocks like that…), but the boy was crying too much to tell him what was wrong, and then I was moving, trying to get to them and mentally reviewing the first aid kit in the car and how quickly I could get to it if he had a serious laceration. It turns out he just bit his tongue, but I was at least able to tell his father what had happened, and he comforted his son.

On the way to them, I dropped and broke my sunglasses, and got one foot in the river’s mud, and I didn’t care, because as Nanny Ogg said, “Is a witch someone who would look round when she heard a child scream?” Of course she is.

As I continued walking around the island, I was acutely aware of the ways the rain and soil have been interacting lately; there was plenty of mud around, and while that’s not the first thing that springs to mind when I think of Beltane, it was obvious that the mud was part of the waking up of the land and the life just as much as the pretty flowers and new leaves. I thought about the ways that Witches describe themselves as living on the edges, or being there when life is on the edge, and things can go either way. Those edges aren’t a distant place on some far-away periphery, they’re the edges in the middle of everything, like the mud is the edge between the water and the land. As Granny Weatherwax would say, that is where the soul and center of Witchcraft is: down in the mud.

TRI cleanup: Personal reflections

I’d like to share a few personal reflections on the Teddy Roosevelt Island cleanup. First, I’m deeply touched that so many people thought this project was worth their time and effort. I respect organizations that require community service or volunteer efforts as part of their membership policies, like The Firefly House, and I am surprised there’s not more of this kind of putting our words and wills into real, direct action going on in the Pagan community. I’m thrilled that OHF is considering starting a volunteer program and I hope that such efforts will spread. I think it is absolutely necessary for such efforts to happen in order to keep our beliefs and practices authentic and meaningful.

I tried to express in my opening prayer how I saw this action as an integral part of what it means to me to be Pagan in general and Wiccan in particular. We recognize the divine in everything around us; it is our Mother Earth, on whose body we stand, in the Horned Lord who watches over the wild animals, in the Green Man, the very spirit of the vegetation beginning to awaken after the long winter sleep, and it is in the very spirits of the river and the island, the spirits of the place.

I asked that we dedicated our work as an offering to the divine, in recognition of the holy trust that has been given to us, when the divine entrusts us with not just our bodies but our environment as well. The work of caring for that environment is part of that relationship: it is a way of creating that relationship, repairing it where it has been damaged, and strengthening it. I asked that the divine blessed and empowered our work for that relationship.

And that work is so badly needed right now. It was in some ways deeply depressing to see so much trash, so much thoughtlessness and carelessness embodied in drifts of styrofoam and plastic water bottles, Starbucks cups and potato chip baggies. And, yes, so much sheer laziness: who scoops their dog’s poop, neatly ties the baggie off, and then leaves it carefully by the side of the trail when there’s a trash can every quarter-mile or less on that island?

There is no such thing as “unspoiled” nature or areas “untouched” by humans; the whole idea is a social construction that romanticizes the present and ignores the past. But the idea that we are embedding plastics in the geological record is deeply disturbing to me. We are making more and more things that are taking resources out of the natural cycles for tens of thousands of years, if not longer. This has never happened before on the planet. And these things, these nearly indestructible remnants, are what we treat so casually that their fragments float down our rivers in the hundreds and thousands.

I also know that my very life depends on parts of our material culture that use plastics and weren’t available fifty or sixty years ago. But when those resources aren’t just being used to make IV tubing and respirators to save lives but to make plastic eating utensils that are just a few cents cheaper than the biodegradable counterparts, I have to ask myself whether that is a good thing or not. And I can’t find a way to understand my relationship with the earth that makes styrofoam carryout containers a worthwhile thing.

The fact that we live in relationship with our environment, whether we acknowledge it or not, and whether we imbue that relationship with spiritual meaning or not, means that both parties affect each other. We have to ask ourselves whether we are treating our partners in that relationship in a way that makes the relationship likely to continue. The cleanup effort on TRI affected me much more deeply than I imagined, and has moved my relationship with the land, and with immanent deity, to a whole new level. I know, viscerally, in a way that I never did before, how and why waste matters, why petroleum-based plastics are a problem, how my individual decisions make a difference.

This kind of awareness can’t be gained through meditation or prayer. This is the kind of awareness that comes from truly and openly engaging with the other parties in a relationship. I can’t get to know my partner better by staring at his photograph, or thinking about him. Those things only reflect back to me what I already know: I’m relating to my ideas of him, not to the real him, the human being I love. The real person does things I could never expect or imagine; interacting with my ideas about him doesn’t give me that challenge, the kind of challenge that makes me grow, and keeps our love alive.

I fear that many Pagans and Wiccans who do not challenge themselves, who do not make a point of offering their work and engaging actively in their relationships with the land and immanent deity, are relating more to their ideas about the environment, and their mental pictures of it, than with the real thing, with the world they want to love. So I challenge you: go on a date with the world. Don’t make it easy for yourself by doing another guided meditation. Get out into the world where something that you could never imagine might happen, where your love will surprise you, maybe in positive ways, maybe in negative ways, because having that real interaction is the only way to sustain your love, to keep your relationship alive and growing.

Why love spells go pear-shaped

All right, everybody, time for your friendly local Witch to offer a February Public Service Announcement: Don’t do love spells. Just don’t.

Why? Because they go wrong. Yes, there are also issues of consent. (How would you feel if someone – not necessarily someone you liked, by the way, but anyone – did that to you? The Golden Rule applies in magic, too. Plus the physical equivalent would be very, very illegal, which is always a bad sign.) But I know, just as well as anyone, that when you’re in love, or out of love, or sort-of-but-not-quite in love, or you’re in but the other person’s out, magic seems like the perfect answer. After all, love is magical to begin with, right? Yes. And that’s exactly why love spells go wrong. Don’t do them. Beyond all the ethics, beyond anything else, don’t do it because you’ll hurt someone else and you’ll hurt yourself. Love spells go wrong.

I know, Valentine’s Day is coming up, and it’ll be during the waxing moon, getting near to full. Relationships are one of the Big Four reasons people who don’t usually work with magic either try to do magic themselves or approach Witches to do magic for them. (The others are, in approximate order, health, money, and revenge.) Trust Auntie Literata and don’t do it.

There are lots of cautionary stories out there about how love spells go wrong. (Two that come to mind are from Nancy Watson’s Practical Solitary Magic and Ellen Dugan’s Elements of Witchcraft, and both are instructive.) But I have good reason to think that love spells are inherently likely to go awry. Love is magical – and that magic doesn’t always interact well with the kind of reasoned, directed, intentional magic that Witches practice.

Love is a strong emotion, sure, and strong emotions generate a lot of energy which can be used to power a spell. But emotions alone don’t make magic (and a good thing, too!). Emotions generate energy and that energy has to be focused through intent. That focusing is usually called visualization. It’s a bit more complicated than it sounds, but the bottom line is that because of the way love makes us feel, it’s particularly difficult to redirect the energy it raises into a specific intent. Love makes us visualize all kinds of things; it overwhelms our usual ways of thinking and our self-control. Those are all amazing, wonderful, and magical things. But if you do a spell trying to use that energy, you’re likely to have all kinds of visualizations and intent going on, and the energy will either shoot off in a million different directions, not making much impact, or worse, it’s just as likely to go into one of the visualizations that you’re not very aware of. And that’s how love spells go wrong.

We’re not quite as good at controlling our minds as we like to think we are, especially in states of high emotion, like love, or blind fury. (There’s that “blindness” again – not a good metaphor for when you need to have your “visualizaton” as clear as possible.) There’s all kinds of things going on in the dark corners and in our unconscious. I personally think that a lot of the training Witches do to develop their skills at magic has to do with gaining better ability to understand oneself and direct one’s attention, focus, visualization, however you want to put it. At the same time, Witches learn to be honest with themselves and to do the kind of difficult self-examination that means I won’t be able to fool myself into thinking I’m visualizing getting my stolen property back when what I’m really desiring, underneath, is to see the thief caught and humiliated or punished. Even highly trained, experienced Witches have trouble unpacking all that when they’re in a state of high emotion, especially in love.

Why not just ask someone else, without the confusing burden of being in love, to do the spell for you? Lots of reasons: because they’re not involved, they’re less likely to be able to raise the energy and they’re less likely to be able to hold the precise visualization, but most of all, because they’re likely to tell you that they won’t do it. Rightly so: the trouble of doing love spells for ourselves teaches us the complexity involved means that doing it for others is ethically dangerous.

When my partner and I were going through a sticky period in the process of getting together (which we are, and very happily so for years now!), he asked me, half-jokingly, whether I’d put a spell on him. I said no, and before I could think about it, the truth popped out of my mouth: “Because if I had, we’d be in an even worse situation than we are now.” It was true then, and it’s true now. Love spells go wrong. Don’t do them.

What you can do, instead, are other kinds of spells. The most recommended substitute is a generic spell to draw love into your life without specifying the person. That’s fine, but it’s still prone to misfire in similar ways. I’d suggest a spell to enhance the lovable aspects of yourself – up to and including your appearance, as long as you remember that true beauty comes from the inside. Even more than that, I’d suggest a love spell on yourself, for yourself. If you don’t love yourself, you will have a hard time learning to love someone else, and you’re asking others to love you when you’re not able or willing to do so yourself. Get that straightened out, and the rest will follow. It’s not easy, but it’s the truth, and that’s one of the things Witches are for.

Witches’ Pyramid and responding to violence

The shooting yesterday in Arizona that left multiple people dead, including a federal judge and a child, and critically injured a Representative, was an abhorrent act. As I struggle to shape my response, I found myself turning to a teaching tool often called the Witches’ Pyramid. In short, it is the saying that the four duties or powers of the Witch are “to know, to will, to dare, and to be silent.” In practice, each of those acts is associated with the characteristics of one of the four Elements, and together they form a way to make sure our practices are balanced and responsible. The Witches’ Pyramid has a lot to offer on how we can and ought to respond to this situation.

To Know: Obviously, we don’t know yet all the relevant facts about the situation; early reports were confused, including some saying that Rep. Giffords was killed. The 24-hour news cycle is going to work already with possible details on the background of the shooter and his motivations. The Element of Air and the duty and power of knowing mean that we should not jump to conclusions and should seek to gather all the facts possible. As we do speak – spreading our own knowledge about what happened – we should do so responsibly. That responsibility includes both not saying unfounded things and the responsibility to speak about this. What then should we say?

To Will: One immediate response is to keep those who are injured and the families of the dead in our prayers, possibly including sending healing energy to them. This is a reasonable response, and the Element of Fire certainly includes lighting candles, but that’s not all we should do. Concentrating on our feelings of regret and on our positive wishes for those affected gives us the emotional satisfaction of a deeply-felt response, and we should certainly acknowledge our grief and shock and use them positively. But channeling our deep feelings into only pathos can easily turn into a superficial bathos rather than a real act of will. Fire is also the Element of transformation. When I light a candle for this matter, an answering spark is kindled within myself. Feeding that spark only with the immediate emotion ensures that it will soon gutter and fade. But feeding it with the knowledge – as we continue to learn – of what happened, of the sources and the reasons behind this act, can light a fire that has the potential to transform more than just my immediate feelings. How then do we use that will?

To Dare: We dare to do more than just listen to the news and light a candle in response. We dare to let the knowledge and the spark of our will move us to more emotion than can be soothed with an immediate mourning. We dare to take our response into the realm of Water, into our relationships, and act on it. We talk about what we know: about how violent rhetoric sets the stage for violent acts; about how untreated mental illness afflicts not just individuals but societies; about how easy access to means of violence increases the damage done when other safeguards fail. We look for ways to transform those problems and we dare to put our will to work shaping the world into a better form.

To Be Silent: This is the hardest part of the Witches’ Pyramid, especially in this situation. Here it does not mean that we work in secrecy, that we don’t “advertise” our actions. It means that we take time to listen, to observe, and to reflect on the situation and our actions before we begin the cycle again. In the year, Winter, the season of Earth, is a prelude to Spring, the season of Air. Witches work in cycles, with cycles of nature. Earth reminds us to prepare to listen so that we can know, so we can will, so we can dare – again and again and again. Our response to the shooting should not end in a week, or a month, or a year. Our response reverberates down the continuing cycles as we constantly work to shape ourselves and our world. If we work to limit violent rhetoric, but the result is a chill on certain kinds of free speech, then we may have to decide we’ve gone too far. If we work to assist mentally ill individuals, but end up creating more problems for people who see the world differently than we do, we have to realize that outcome, respect it, and change course.

Only with all the parts of this cycle working together can we make a difference. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.

Review: Ann Moura, Green Witchcraft I and III

Moura, Ann (Aoumiel).Green Witchcraft: folk magic, fairy lore, & herb craft. Llewellyn, 1996. Paperback, 274 pages.
Moura, Ann (Aoumiel). Green Witchcraft III: the manual. Llewellyn, 2000. Paperback, 238 pages.

This is another double review, which is even more appropriate in this case because the two books are intended to be read together. I am able to review these because they were generously lent to me by a friend (thank you!), which is why I don’t have access to book II of the series. Some of what’s in II is mentioned in the others, and overall that doesn’t look to be an impossible barrier to me reviewing the series. If anyone has II and thinks it should totally change my assessment, please, chime in!

At the time the first book was written, Moura was a high school history teacher, with a master’s in history. This is relevant both because she mentions it about herself and because her views on Witchcraft are heavily influenced by her personal interpretation of history. The first book she wrote, Dancing Shadows: the roots of western religious beliefs, was her historical account of religious development; I have not been able to get it, but her book Origins of Modern Witchcraft: the evolution of a world religion was apparently developed in large part as a revision. I’ll be reviewing Origins of Modern Witchcraft next, so let me leave most of the discussion of her view of history to that post. What needs to be said here is that Moura has an historian’s drive to construct coherent narratives including all the information that she thinks is important. A perfect example of this tendency, I think, can be found in her description of herself as a third-generation witch in a family tradition.

This claim is not a “grandmother myth” as is commonly ridiculed among contemporary Wiccans who in the post-Hutton era have generally made peace with the recent formalization of their practice. Moura describes being taught about “The Power” by her mother and grandmother as she was growing up, and about their fascination with spiritism and their expertise in herbal matters and folk magics. Her mother and grandmother identified themselves as Catholics – as nearly everyone in the Brazil of her childhood did – but that Catholicism seemed to be primarily a veneer over the everyday beliefs and practices that formed the core of their spiritual experience. This is a fascinating description of the kind of folk magic that many Wiccans see as one of their primary linkages in their “spiritual heritage” from pre-Christian religions. But I would not go so far as to characterize it as a “family tradition.”

Moura says, touchingly, that her mother admired her ability to step away from the constraints and expectations of society and to dissociate herself from a Christian veneer (I, p31), but what Moura is presenting here is not a family tradition now opened to outsiders, but her individual fusion of family folk magic, her own historical interpretations of religious practices, and a heavy dose of theory and practices common to contemporary eclectic Wicca. In places, Moura does a sort of compare/contrast between her family’s traditions and generalized eclectic Wicca – such as her rules of “The Power” (I, p11, and at the start of each chapter of III) as compared to the Rede and Law of Return. Unfortunately, in other places, she presents her fusion as a fait accompli, and only an educated reader could tell which pieces came from what sources. At times, this verges on misattribution, as when Moura presents Valiente’s “Witches’ Rune” as simply “traditional.” (III, p196) She clearly feels slighted by the Gardnerian focus on lineage and initiation, especially as denigrating “fam trad” kinds of practice as illegitimate. (I, p75) Moura says up front that she feels free to adopt what works for her and discard what doesn’t, but also claims to be presenting the sources of her information for readers to make an informed judgment. (I, p2, p4) The first claim is true, but the second doesn’t hold up under examination; on the contrary, Moura clearly has an agenda that motivates some of the hidden choices she makes.

In fact, the reader gets the sense that part of Moura’s driving purpose in writing is her anger over her interpretation of history. She is angry that the earth-based religions of indigenous peoples were swept away by power-hungry invaders. She talks about “Aryans,” and this perhaps drives her desire to identify her family as having specifically “Celtic-Iberian” descent. (I, “About the Author,” facing title page, and elsewhere. Everyone loves a Celt, right, and we know they’re not the mean Aryans?) She is angry about how the Church and those in power treated women, especially women who were a little herb-wise or were midwives and presented a challenge to the power structure. This anger has a way of coming out oddly, as in the start of the chapter about herbs. I actually flipped back to the chapter heading after getting one page into it, wondering if I had misread the chapter title – the first page was entirely an angry description verging on a rant about women being disenfranchised. (I, p46) She slides seamlessly into an angry description of fundamentalist Christians trying to suppress Wicca and Paganism today – a topic about which I think and write fervently, as readers know! – and then makes a bewildering transition into the uses of herbs. For someone who wants to share in Moura’s righteous indignation, this probably makes perfect sense, but to me the tone comes off as too harsh, as well as simply sloppy thinking.

In fact, all of this anger might help make sense of Moura’s most baffling quasi-historical allusion – the very title of her style of practice. She emphasizes repeatedly that she is doing “Green” Witchcraft, not just because she wants to associate herself with ideas about fairies and nature but because she says that there are three “levels” of …. something. I can’t find exactly what these levels are levels of, but she’s very clear that “green” is the “base.” She goes on to identify the ” ‘higher’ ” (her quotes) levels as “Red,” associated with “the Warrior,” and “Blue and White,” associated with “Lawgiver” and “Ruler,” respectively. (I, p5ff) She specifically indicates that the upper layers were added onto to existing practices when “Aryan” societies created their power structures. This may make more sense after I finish her history book, but I’m wondering if she created this idea as her adaptation of Georges Dumezil‘s trifunctional hypothesis. (This hypothesis has received greater attention in the Pagan community thanks in part to Bonewits’ adoption of it as a way for ADF to echo the organizational princples of Indo-European society…but that’s another discussion.) It seems that Moura has adapted the trifunctional hypothesis, and then for various reasons including her sense of identification with the oppressed throughout history, has consciously tried to make her approach a celebration of the “green,” that is, the peasant farmer type of imagined religion.

I am especially flummoxed by this approach when Moura first seems to invert the traditional hierarchy – that is, to value women’s and the indigenous/poor/peasant class’s approaches to religion over the high muckety-muck power-holding rulers and priests’ approach – and then feels free to incorporate anything she pleases from sources including Gardnerian Wicca (itself extremely high-muckety-muck), as above, or as in her strange runes-and-pentagram sigil on p136 of book I. She says that “Green customs” do “not involve set litany, stylized prayers or rituals,” and then goes on to spend over half her book providing extremely detailed ritual scripts. (I, p7) Someone who wants to sympathize with Moura’s down-with-the-powerful ire would probably find these works a freeing affirmation of individual power and confirming one’s right to be a kitchen Witch (or whatever else one pleases), but as an attempt at a coherent system, the inconsistencies bother me greatly.

Book I is definitely a book of basics. The materials presented on fairies, herbs, and correspondences are simple resources as are found in any other introductory work. The ritual scripts are more than half of the pages, and the choices made in presenting these are quite baffling, especially because the scripts are extremely repetitive. The same opening, the same Cakes and Wine, the same closing, word-for-word, are reprinted multiple times, more than nine times for some of the material! If someone wants a book to be able to work out of as a word-for-word script, without flipping from “general opening” to “Yule ritual” and back to “general closing,” I guess this would be a good choice, but the way the scripts are written with so much descriptive material in between words, it doesn’t seem like the books would be useful for that. Frankly, this is part of a pattern of bad editing, with wild swings in topics and plenty of repetitive material that makes these books much lower quality than they could be. In part, I think that reflects on Llewellyn as a publisher as much as Moura as an author.

Book III is subtitled “The Manual,” but that led me to think it might be a more formalized Book of Shadows kind of presentation. Not at all! It is set up as a series of eight “classes,” for which the reader needs book I, “the textbook,” to refer to. Again, I have to question both Moura and Llewellyn on this practice – I’m not sure Moura had enough material for a new book, and if she did, this organization isn’t the best way to present it. It comes across, quite frankly, as a low-effort way of getting another book onto shelves which will also encourage purchases of the first one. The text frequently reads as if it was transcribed from lectures, and since Moura says explicitly that this is a “handbook…based upon the classes I teach periodically at a local shop,” I am tempted to think that’s exactly what happened. (III, p xi) She also says that the eight classes are structured to correspond with the eight Sabbats, but the haphazard organization of material doesn’t seem to reflect a coherent vision like that, and no explanation of the correspondences is made. (III, p xii) This material would have been better off presented as ten or twelve classes with specific topics for each, rather than splitting divination across two classes (one specifically on Ogham), and compressing the entire range of topics about relating to aspects of the God and Goddess and about structuring one’s own ritual calendar into a single class. The sloppy editing shows up here, too, as nothing about “Elixir preparations” is ever mentioned in Class 6. Book III also opens with a discussion of wands on the flyleaf, with no further reference anywhere else in the book. Was this stuck in just as it was going to press? What happened here?

One final topical matter: Moura includes material on both the Elder Futhark (although she calls them simply runes, and doesn’t describe why she’s willing to use these quintessentially “Aryan” symbols) and the Irish Ogham alphabets. Runes come up in both I and III, although in I, p102, her table of explanations is of the most rudimentary kind, without the names of runes or any pointers for the reader to expand her knowledge further through other resources. When she covers the topic again in book III, on p77, she gives the names of the runes, but also includes the “blank rune,” expanding the set to 25, without explaining the inconsistency between this and her previous system. Paxson’s discussion of why the “blank rune” is inconsistent with the set is excellent; I’ll get to that when I review Paxson, but suggest that any interested readers start there instead. Her discussion of Ogham is elaborate and totally unlike anything else I’ve ever seen; I have not explored Ogham in the way I’ve explored runes, so I’m not qualified to discuss whether this is an invention on her part, but it seems odd, to say the least.

The best thing about these books is that they do present the perspective of a solitary Witch with over 30 years’ experience in finding and creating her own path. Moura does explicitly encourage readers to explore and find what works for them; she does not make the mistake of presenting her way as the only way. In particular, book III presents an excellent discussion of three “styles” of practice: Witchcraft as folk magics added to the practitioner’s existing, traditional religions beliefs; Witchcraft as a connection with natural powers without any specific deity beliefs; and Witchcraft as the use of magic within a worldview including the Goddess and God of nature. (III, p6) The rest of the book also provides plenty of options for a non-deity-based approach, which would be more comforting for those new to WItchcraft and not sure about the specific theaologies of different types.

(Sorry that this turned out longer than I intended! I’m trying to provide enough detail for readers to make their own evaluations, not just rely on my personal reaction.)

Why Weirdoes Keep Witches’ Wits in a Wad

Yes, I’m an unapologetic fan of alliteration. But actually, this is the kind of post – and headline – that just seems to write itself. I popped open my feed reader, and right next to each other in my list of new “Pagan” posts were two fascinating pieces from vastly different viewpoints. vsebastianpage at Pagan+Politics writes about “Witless Witches” who object to the label of a beer (named Witch’s Wit) that shows an image of a woman being burned at the stake. Meanwhile, Echidne of the Snakes covers the writing of an extremely conservative Christian woman who says that women shouldn’t vote.

As far as the Witch’s Wit controversy goes, I was trying to stay out of it, and in fact to poke fun at it with my review of another beer that plays off of Pagan themes over the weekend. I didn’t raise any fuss about the all-too-common stereotypical image of a green-faced, warty witch with a big nose and pointy black hat on the label of the beer I reviewed precisely because I thought it was amusing but irrelevant. (And really, who doesn’t love an awesome hat from time to time?) I’m not getting my panties in a twist over green faces and warts because I think that stereotype is a very small barrier to actual Wiccan acceptance or any other issues I care about. Nobody is getting me confused with a green-faced, warty witch who cackles a lot, or an Orion slave girl, or any other green-skinned critter. In fact, I love making jokes about things like this, precisely because it’s not a danger to me.

And I am normally the first person to agree with vsebastianpage’s call for accurate history and denunciation of “more-victimized-than-thou” syndrome. But. There’s a big but here, and that’s where the second post comes in.

Feminism is something I care about. And I am in danger of being perceived as a woman – because I am, in fact, a woman, and an uppity woman at that, who does things like vote, and cast spells, and leave my house in a skirt that (gasp!) shows off my knees. In other words, I am doing the kinds of things that extremely conservative (and just run-of-the-mill conservative) Christians don’t think I ought to be doing. Moreover, they think I shouldn’t be doing those things in large part because I am a woman. This is what the point of view that Echidne is reporting on is all about: women shouldn’t…well, they just shouldn’t, when you get right down to it. And there are people with that point of view in the States today, plenty of them. Look up Christian Dominionists or Christian Reconstructionists. These are people with seriously dangerous views about women, including, for example, the view that an abused woman can’t divorce her abuser. No, none of these people are trying to burn me at the stake, but they are trying to limit my life, and they and the ideas and policies they support do cause a lot of harm to a lot of women – physically, as well as psychologically.

I think what Cynthia Eller is saying, and what I’m trying to say, is that misogyny is a seamless garment. Apparently harmless examples of denigrating women support misogyny and misogynists. I will laugh at the joke implied by the label of Witch’s Wit when misogyny is no longer dangerous to me. When women aren’t blamed for being rape victims. When women aren’t seen as sex objects for men’s use and pleasure. When I’m not afraid any more, that joke will be funny. Until then, I’m not saying you can’t make that joke, and I’m not saying that it’s a hate crime or that it ought to be illegal. I’m saying that it’s not funny, and that I wouldn’t buy it, and I wouldn’t want my husband to buy it, or my friends, and I’d rather the company picked something else, so that we can get to that imaginary hopeful future just a little bit sooner.

Another example came up recently in a discussion with my husband. He heard about the objections raised to a recent GQ photo shoot with female cast members of Glee in provocative poses that played up the sexy-schoolgirl trope. (I’m deliberately not going to link to the relevant images.) He thought the objections were dumb – after all, none of those actresses is under 18, they can do what they want with their bodies, right? My response was that my objection to those photos isn’t about blame. My objection is that photos like that support photos like others that photographer has taken that are treading a fine line into child porn, or like American Eagle ads that have had many, many issues raised about inappropriate use of photos of partially clothed underaged teens. If photoshoots like the GQ/Glee cover stopped happening, it would put us one step closer to a world where no one makes the circular argument that “men like to look at photos of hot teens because…well, see, it’s always been done, it sells magazines, it’s just what men like, okay?” I’m not trying to make it illegal. I’m not trying to apportion blame. I’m trying to create an alternative. Heck, I’m trying to imagine an alternative, because it doesn’t widely exist yet.

I’m not high from taking offense too many times. I’m not pretending to be a victim of something I’m not, or complaining about other people’s bad morals so that I look better in comparison. I’m saying, calmly, and, I hope, reasonably, that the joke’s not funny, and in fact, it’s the kind of joke that supports a culture that hurts people.

Review: Witches’ Brew

For fun, I’m going to include a review of a beer I’m enjoying this weekend, called Witches’ Brew. This is a collaborative review with my husband, Matt, because I’m not nearly as experienced a beer-drinker as he is.

It’s a bottle-conditioned triple ale, sold in 750 mL bottles, and is a whopping 9.3% alcohol by volume. For reference, that means that its alcohol content is similar to some white wines; it’s a good deal higher in alcohol than the standard commercial beers in the US. Made in Belgium, it is typical of Belgian blonde ales, and is very comparable to Chimay. The major difference is that since Witches’ Brew is bottle-conditioned, meaning it has live yeast that is active in the bottle, it has a lot of head. Let me just say that again for emphasis: if you pour this ale straight down the middle of the glass, you might as well resign yourself to drinking straight foam, or plan on coming back an hour later. It has a lot of head. Maybe even too much, if such a thing can exist. On the other paw, the activity that gives the lacework such stiffness also contributes to the soft body which is so pleasant.

The taste is clean with a soft body and a lot of malt. There’s a slightly fruity character to the overtones, maybe a hint of pear, but nothing too distinct (to my uneducated palate). It comes across best when served at just below room-temperature; this isn’t a beer to drink ice-cold. Although I liked it, Matt thinks this beer is, to his taste, “insufficiently dessicated” thanks to the ton of malt and very gentle mouth feel. There’s a little bit of hop in the finish, but not too much. What’s really spellbinding (I’m sorry for the pun, but I had to.) about this beer is the way it changes character depending on its accompaniment. Like other Belgian ales, it’s a great after-dinner beer, going well with cheese and fruit. When combined with a taste of cheddar, the flavor of Witches’ Brew comes across as a splendid blonde ale, lively and just sharp enough to contrast without being too bitter, and still maintaining enough body to make it interesting. The acid of something like citrus or grapes produces a paradoxical effect, where the beer slides across the tongue with cloud-like softness, cleansing the palate with a pleasant hint of bitter.

As I said, my beer-drinking experience is limited, although I can confirm that this is definitely reminiscent of Chimay or Maredsous, especially as a perfect beer-and-cheese combination. The variability of Witches’ Brew is quite astonishing and very pleasant. Depending on how it’s served, it can be many things to many people. The adaptability makes this beer a good choice to keep on hand for a wide variety of situations and drinkers. For someone interested in a sweeter beer that’s not a lambic or kriek, this is a great introduction; for someone who wants a dessert accompaniment that has some interest of its own without the alcohol content of port or brandy, this works too.

Available at World Market; $9.95 for a 750 ml corked bottle. Trademarked phrase: “It’ll put a spell on you.” ™ We agree!

Review: LaSara Firefox, Sexy Witch

Firefox, LaSara. Sexy Witch. Llewellyn, 2005. Paperback, 314 pages.

Sexy Witch is first and foremost a workbook. LaSara Firefox is a talented author who wants to entice the reader into finding and creating her own path of self-discovery. Firefox encourages readers, individually or in groups, to work through the seven chapters, taking at least a week for each, with activities during the week and a ritual symbolizing the steps along the path at the end of each week. A final, culminating ritual is a strong statement of self-empowerment, building on the process of reconceptualization of oneself as woman and as witch.

I found that the book worked well for me as a solitary, and I imagine it would also be very powerful for the right group of women working together. It requires a great deal of openness, though, so this is not a book to start with for a newly-formed group! Each chapter has a mix of reading material and activities, including journaling, visualization, mind-mapping and freewriting, art projects, and self-explorations such as potentially cross-dressing and exploring one’s nude body and genitals. The writing is unabashedly feminist and pro-sex, with the tone of a friendly chat over coffee. Firefox avoids the trap of pedantic harangues about feminist thought and values, and also eschews the sickeningly-sweet tone adopted by some authors trying to over-romanticize women’s bodies, experiences, and worth. Instead of loading the reader down with feminist theory, she continually challenges the reader to investigate her own definitions, experiences, and all-too-often unspoken assumptions and evaluations. Aware that such investigation is not always comfortable, Firefox reminds readers that “No one’s watching you, so it’s okay to let yourself get a little uncomfortable.” (57)

The first four chapters are about turning inward and self-examination, which is the most potentially uncomfortable part of this work. Starting with a chapter on our relationships to our bodies, Firefox proceeds through self-worth, then women’s relationship with and awareness of their genitals, so that the pivotal fourth chapter is about the entire complex of masturbation, menstruation, and birthing. From there, the fifth chapter starts explicitly rebuilding a new worldview, with the senses, the next chapter invites women to make their own myths and world-stories to support their new claim on power, and the final chapter focuses on the experience of self-initiation as a claiming of the reconstructed worldview. As Firefox writes, “For many of us, the transformational aspect of these celebrations [transitions in our lives] has been downplayed, if recognized at all.” (122) The work of this book is making a space to create and then honor the transformation of claiming oneself as a sexy witch.

The chapters themselves take up only about half the book; the second half is two complete sets of rituals, one for solitaries, and one for circles. The outlines and discussion of ritual are thorough, well-presented, and easily adapted. Firefox includes a comprehensive discussion of the steps in ritual, plus her own “Witch’s Banishing Ritual,” an adaptation of the Golden Dawn Ceremonial Magick Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram.

I can’t emphasize enough that this is a workbook – from beginning to end, it is made to be worked with. Just picking it up and reading it may be useful, even transformative, but it won’t get the full value of the carefully-designed steps Firefox has laid out. The workings of this book, as a whole, constitute a kind of drawn-out initiatory process, taking place over seven weeks – or more, should the reader wish to go more slowly. The entire arc of the book follows a traditional kind of thought about initiation as a descent into the deep, dark, unknown, and a claiming of the power found there while the initiate works her way back out from that womb/symbolic death into a new life. This is not like one of Starhawk’s works where the exercises may be done individually, pulled out and reassembled in a new order of the reader’s choice, picked up and put down at will. I don’t mean that the book is regimented, but each cluster of related topics and activities is tightly-knit, and they are in a specific order in relationship to the other chapters for good reason. If there’s a time that you’re going to put aside your embarrassment (finger painting? really?) and just try it (oh, I know what I’ll write about that journal prompt…), this is it. You may surprise yourself. You may be deeper than you know – and having a guide like this into those deep, dark places is invaluable.

The body-centric work in this book could be an invaluable tool for women who are coming to Witchcraft or Paganism from an experience of religion that denigrates, or at least deemphasizes, the body. I believe that Paganism and all earth-based religions need to put the body and the physical experience of the world in the center of their beliefs and practices; simply adding the Goddess to a preexisting pantheon isn’t the same thing as truly valuing the here and now, the natural world. Firefox calls our bodies “the point of interface where the individual meets up with the rest of creation.” (12) If you’re going to do that meeting-up, you have to know yourself first.

This book is an excellent example of the kind of magic that seems, on a superficial glance, to be nothing more than dressed-up psychology. The power of these rituals is not the power to take away your PMS, or make your breasts bigger, or cause sexual harassers to find themselves restrained by an invisible force from patting you on the butt. This magic is what Phyllis Curotte describes as witch-crafting, where the witch is crafting herself. Firefox says that we “build ourselves into more accurate representations of our core values.” (109) It’s the magic that comes from exploring the dark, finding your own ideas and assumptions, making them real and obvious so that you can choose to keep them, or change them, or throw them away entirely for a new set of rules that you write yourself. This is the magic of working with one’s mind, one’s body, and it’s a lot more than “just” psychology – it’s the power to recreate the self, and that is enough to change the world. Try it – you may be surprised.