Witchcraft is Not Safe (Redux)

A Demon and a Palm Tree

There’s been a curious post going around on social media this morning. It’s a photograph that was purportedly taken in Arizona of what appears to be a demon dallying in a street. Over and over again, I’ve seen people assert that it’s a palm tree, despite the fact that it’s clearly not. Let’s face it, it looks nothing like a palm tree. Now I’m not saying it is a demon, we do live in the era of Photoshop, but what is curious is the vehemence that people are defending the palm tree explanation. This reminded me of something I heard while in a trance once. In the trance I was walking down the street, but it wasn’t just populated by the living and seen, but by everything from ghosts, to faeries, to creatures of a more mythological nature. Weaving in and around the living and seen, they went completely unnoticed, and I was baffled. How could these people just go about their shopping and *not* notice that dragon? Then came the voice. It was not a ‘head voice’ but external, coming with all the force of an air canon.

“They won’t see because they don’t want to see.”

That sounds like the kind of bullshit thing a shill sells to people in order to blur the lines of their reality and make them more invested in what the shill has to sell; but there is a truth to it.

Because that is how a whole bunch of people can look at a photo of a demon dallying down some Arizona street and argue vociferously that it’s a palm tree. They simply don’t want to see. Even in the age of Photoshop when you can create a demon and add it to a photo to freak people out on the internet, people will still argue for the tree. The bubble is being threatened, and any suggestion that things are not as they seem must be destroyed in the most mundane way possible.

The lines must be redrawn between the possible and impossible and the world reasserted, people must feel safe.

Because if we do live in a world in which there might be a demon that saunters down some street in the South West, then that means that there are a whole load of possibilities and dangers that people don’t know how to counter, and nobody likes that. Who among us doesn’t like feeling like we’re the one in charge?

In the same vein, it would seem that my post ‘Witchcraft is Not Safe (and Nor Should it Be!)’ has resurfaced after almost a year of floating in the depths of the web after the initial furor. Now, as then, I’m facing a whole bunch of criticism for having the audacity to actually go to a burial mound and call up the dead.

However, in an almost-year of reading and countering criticisms about something I did back in 2005/2006 by people who obviously know far better than I did in my twenties, I’ve learned a thing or two about that criticism.

First of all, this criticism is neatly avoiding the point of the post, but also proving it in some ways. It seems to come from certain groups more than others, but all essentially boils down to the same thing: if you place the blame on the practitioner, nothing is changed. Witchcraft remains that benign, misunderstood thing that is sold as part of the shitshow that is modern identity politics, and there’s nothing that could *really* harm you – except maybe breaking that ‘rule of three’ (and don’t get me started on that one).

Often it starts out with a ‘this wouldn’t have happened had you (not) done _______’. But the curious thing I’ve noticed about participating in these discussions and countering that criticism (because I do really want people to get what I was saying), is that when you counter with how you did do that, then you end up with a litany of similar pronouncements. The more you counter and detail the measures you took, the more the goalposts widen, and in the end it feels as though you’ve gone well into the territory of clutching at straws.

Challenging the Status Quo

People in Pagan magical communities, especially those who are considered authorities (or would like to be), hold up things going off without a hitch as being some kind of gold standard of their skill. But I don’t think that’s anything anyone should be proud of – no sword was ever considered strong or even usable without being tempered first. If anything, this adherence to making out like your magical shit doesn’t stink is contributing to the moribund state of magic in modern Paganism. Moreover, if you are actually out there, pushing boundaries, working at leveling up, and you don’t have at least some stories of when things went tits up. Well, you’re either lying your arse off because you don’t want to look unskilled, you’re not as experienced as you claim, nothing is happening for you, or you’re staying where it’s safe.

There’s a point to be made about this idea of safety too. We humans like to be safe. Ever since the beginning of humanity we’ve been running risk assessments and mitigating the dangers in our lives. For the most part, we’ve got the physical side of things down. Science tells us how things work, we have some measure of predictability, and we generally sleep at night without worrying about things like changelings, revenants, and goodness knows what else.

So when something comes along that challenges that sense of safety and predictability in a visceral (as opposed to the more typically cerebral) way, we fight back. We lash out at it in the hopes that it will go away. We try to find ways to explain the scientifically unexplainable in ways that are more acceptable to our worldviews. We scream that the denizen of hell in fuck knows where AZ is a palm tree.

We try to convince ourselves once again that we are safe and that anything vaguely threatening can be put down to some fucking amateur on the internet. In other words, we convince ourselves that nothing like that could ever happen to us. That kind of thing only ever happens to other people, and probably because they didn’t follow (insert piece of worldview that further reinforces a sense of safety here).

Redux

Witchcraft is not safe (and nor should it be!), because if it is, then we’re not pushing things forward. An element of risk is a part of this game, and if you look at that risk and ask yourself why anyone would do that, then maybe it’s not the game for you.

Witchcraft is not safe (and nor should it be!), because the unseen doesn’t come with D&D-style stat sheets that we can compare with our own and make the decision to keep away. They do come with a fuckton of agency though, you know, as you might expect for independent beings that aren’t just figments of the imagination. And sometimes, you don’t get to the ‘goodies’ until you’re a few hours into ritual.

Witchcraft is not safe (and nor should it be!), because now more than ever, we need to see the world for what it is and deal with it on that basis. We need to break down our mental barriers, hate fuck the Demon Palm Tree Bubble out of existence, and reclaim what we actually lost. People talk a lot about re-enchanting the world, but to me, that sounds like a goal-idea set further down the road that people can get behind as being interesting but without actually really changing anything in the now. It remains safe because it’s not so much in the now, and we are apparently the ones to be doing the re-enchanting. Well, have you ever considered that maybe the world never stopped being enchanted but we just learned to not see it anymore (lashing out whenever we’re given a hint of it)?

Witchcraft is not safe, for a whole host of reasons, but it should never be unsafe because the people you’re working with don’t appreciate the agency of what they’re working with, have an unrealistic view of what could potentially happen, or a lack of ability to roll with it when shit goes down. Because if we’re to break down that Demon Palm Tree Bubble and live in this ‘reenchanted’ world, it is far better to be the tempered blade than the good-looking, shiny one that was never tested.

Witchcraft is not Safe (and nor should it be!)

Witchcraft is not Safe (and nor should it be!)

So there was this one time, when I was fleeing down a dark path with two friends. More specifically, we were running from a burial mound where we’d been since before sunset. One of my friends was experienced in the occult and the other, not so much. I was probably somewhere in between at that point. It was dark and it was scary, and the sound of footfalls following us on the path behind us as we moved was nothing short of unnerving.

Or at least it would have been had I not already crossed from ‘terrified’ into ‘pissed off’.

We made our way as carefully and as fast as we could down this old rocky path, trying to get to the car parked at the road, my terrified friend’s arm interlinked with mine as she talked about how she’d never experienced anything like that before and how it had been a wakeup call for her.

It had started off well, we’d arrived before the sun went down and made offerings before heading inside the mound. Carefully lighting tealights in places where they wouldn’t cause any scorchmarks or other damage, we made our offering of ‘silver’ to Weyland as is customary at that site, and got down to work. We tranced and we called, sung invocations and drummed, we enticed, and eventually the spirits paid attention.

There’s that adage that a person should be careful what they wish for, and that’s usually the kind of response this story gets. Usually from the kind of people who’ve never done anything that didn’t involve pushing back the sofa and doing whatever they do. But let’s face it, if we weren’t the kinds of people to wish for *more*, then we probably wouldn’t be doing witchcraft in the first place.

To cut a long story short, things got dangerous in every way imaginable, and I really wasn’t up for being stuck in a burial mound with a half-possessed person sitting blocking the doorway and everything shifting. You see, there comes a point in a mound sitting, at least in my experience, when everything shifts, when you’re not longer in a burial mound per se, but you are definitely ‘on their turf’. I mean, it’s their turf anyway, but it’s kind of like the difference between visiting the embassy of a country and being in that country.

So we ended up fleeing as fast as we could down a rocky path without breaking any bones until we reached the car and it became clear that the troublesome one from the mound had no intention of not following us. One friend was thrown back as he tried to put stang mark in dirt, and my other friend – the scared one – lacked the level of conviction at that point to make any magic work, let alone the kind needed on the hoof against something not-so-friendly. Her faith had simply been shaken too badly by what had happened. There was a time when she would have probably shared that meme about exorcism via banging pans and telling things to fuck off that goes around Facebook, but now she knows better.

You see, when you get out there, when you leave the comfort of your home and go to places that are dark and old and maybe even inhabited by the Unseen, you tend to come across things that are really not impressed by someone banging pans and yelling “Fuck off!”

In the end, it was my anger that put an end to it following us, that beat of adrenaline and high emotion channeled that so often makes for effective witchcraft.

Whenever I tell this story, I tend to get a number of reactions – most of them about ‘safety’ and comments of ‘ineptitude’ by people who have quite frankly never been there or to anywhere like there.
You see, modern witchcraft has an issue – well, it has several – but one of the greatest is that so much emphasis has been put on making it ‘safe’ that many are simply not recognizing the usefulness of fear to a witch, or indeed, what a great teacher it is.

There are dangers that can and should be mitigated when going abroad into the dark and in search of the hidden. Practical measures such as letting someone know where you’re going and how long you should be, having some form of self-defense at your disposal, packing for the elements, carrying adequate survival supplies and a phone – these are all good things.

As is carrying things like salt, hagstones, iron (if your stang isn’t already ‘shod’), and offerings of appeasement. Knowing how to use these things and employ other forms of magical protection is a must, as is knowing the etiquette of dealing with the Other in your area – folk tales are how you learn this.

There are things you can and should mitigate, but witchcraft will never be, nor never should be ‘safe’, and nor should we seek to make it so.

Witchcraft is also not glamorous and sanitized, it’s pissing into bottles full of nails and glass and accidentally getting some on your fingers; it’s blood and bone, it’s using things you’ve come across (or that have come across you); it’s making deals with things you’d damn well better keep an eye on and have a backup plan for; it’s often the mother of cuts and scrapes earned during pitch black hikes with entheogens pumping through your system; it’s not mass-produced and packaged for convenience.

It’s not bland.

I don’t know when ‘fear’ became considered a bad thing in witchcraft, or when danger became considered a failing rather than one of the ‘occupational hazards’ of the witch, but I think it has been very much to the detriment of the Craft.

Some of the greatest lessons I’ve learned have been when my back has been to the wall and I’ve swallowed down the fear and worked with the kind of desperation that you never get when dealing with the ‘safe’. At the mound, I learned to change that fear into white-hot rage to work against something dangerous – something which has saved my ass numerous times since. At the mound, my friend learned that things weren’t as safe as she’d previously believed and that magic is much more than simply saying words and performing actions. Those are some very deep lessons, and lessons that none of us would have learned had we not gone out there into the night and in search of the potentially dangerous.

Fear can be a teacher, it’s not something to be avoided but a test to pass. Sometimes passing that test is getting away hale and whole and having a new tool in your skillset for the future. Other times, passing that test leads you to some of the greatest highs of your life.

But you cannot pass if you never sit the test, and you can never sit the test unless you leave the safe and sanitized behind.