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.

Witch-Making

“You cannot simply draw a bath, light a few scented candles, and declare yourself a witch. Take your bath, but you are only a witch after the demons have come calling, which they most certainly will.” (1)

Growing up in Blighty, sometimes it feels as though most of my childhood took place under steely grey skies. Of course, it wasn’t like that *all* the time, but that is my dominant memory – or maybe it’s simply just the way I like to remember it.

Witch-MakingI remember running wild under those steely grey skies, I remember countless adventures up on the moors and in the hidden places where adults didn’t seem to go: like the ‘ravine’ that was really a small stream down the side of an old Victorian factory that led into a more modern industrial park; or the ruins of Victorian farms built in the shadow of a brooding moor.

We never seemed to be dressed for the weather either; choosing little more than the ubiquitous 90s ‘combat pants’ (you know, those pants with all the pockets on – perfect for adventuring), a t-shirt, and a hoodie for the vast majority of these jaunts.

I think about those times on days like this – days clouded over and raining in a way that my mum would describe as ‘spitting’. You know the kind of rain I mean, the kind that isn’t particularly heavy but just feels as though maybe the sky is spitting at you. It’s a kind of rain I played in often as a kid.

The last post I wrote was about how the summer makes me feel dead inside. Well, not quite, that’s a bit of hyperbole. But there is a draining sensation at the end of the summer, and a dragging, and an “Oh for fucks sake, why can’t it be Fall already?”
But Fall *is* coming. The leaves are turning, the sky is looking more ‘right’, and I am beginning to come out of my slump.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading recently, reading up on things that are a little bit different than my usual topics, and it has been truly excellent.

It’s from one of those books that I pulled both the quote at the beginning of this post (and the inspiration for this post as a whole).

You ever read something where you find yourself agreeing so much with what the writer is Witch-Making Preachsaying that you find yourself nodding, and mentally giving the author a “Right on, man! You tell em!”? Well, I’m reading a book like that right now. Had this been a church sermon, the entire section that inspired this post would have had me shouting “Hallelujah” and “Praise the Lard!”, because it is just so nice to come across someone who writes things that you so completely agree with. That doesn’t happen a lot for me.

The question of what makes a witch is a perennial one in online discussions. Some people think it’s initiation within a specific tradition. Other people think it’s in the doing. For my part, I think initiation is a part of it, and that it is through the doing that you put yourself on the path to that initiation. But it’s not the kind of initiation that comes from other humans (although other humans can set you on that road), but from the Unseen powers.

Today I’m going to talk about the kind of initiation that happens when the demons come calling.

During the course of the summer, I seem to have somehow acquired a couple of students. We had a good first session – covered a lot of ground – and I’m pleased that I have two lovely students with as much potential as they have. I’m really looking forward to seeing them grow (and seeing how much I’ll learn from teaching them, you always learn more from the teaching if you’re doing it right). But at the end of the first session, I warned them that when you set feet upon this path, that there are things that will come a-knocking. When you start doing things, things that garner attention from the Unseen, things that effectively put you in a position for (as Gordon White put it) ‘the cosmic croupier to deal you in’, you will get into situations in which you have to think on your feet and deal with some really fucked up circumstances.

This may sound like I’m rehashing my previous post about Witchcraft not being safe, but if anything, I don’t think I went far enough with that post. Because in spite of what some people think, it’s not about being edgy or ‘dark’, it’s about having the kind of experiences that leave you (to quote Gordon again), “with a lasting, visceral, unshakable knowing that the universe extends beyond what can be physically observed.”

It’s about interacting with the Unseen.

There was a time when witches were considered to learn their craft predominantly from the Unseen as opposed to from other humans. You see this reflected in the Irish beliefs surrounding the Fairy Doctors, Mná feasa, and Cailli – they were all believed to have gotten their powers and learning from the Other Crowd. This same idea was also reflected in the Germanic cultural sphere too, except the Germanic witches were believed to work with the elves – again, members of the Unseen.

It’s about breaking chains.

In Paul Huson’s classic Mastering Witchcraft, the student is advised to light a candle right before going to bed and to say the Lord’s Prayer backwards while visualizing the breaking of chains, a move that Jason Mankey referred to as ‘repugnant’ in his review of the book. But in spite of his distaste for Huson’s methodology, Mankey concedes that Huson’s rationale for this makes perfect sense. And it does.

Because we live in a society in which there are many barriers to even coming across the Unseen, let alone seeking initiation from those hidden powers. Our lives are so busy, so full of noise and distraction, and I’m not decrying electricity or anything (I LOVE living in a place with solid walls and mod cons), but there are reasons why when we do have those soul-shattering experiences they tend to be out in the lonely places.

In the liminal places.

Far from the buzz of tech with its incessant reminder of the outside world.

And that’s even before I talk about the barriers of belief involved here. Like the materialism that says that such things simply *cannot* happen, or the generations of dogma that declares that seeking out or trafficking with such things is a sin.

How many new Pagans and Witches claim to no longer believe in their previous monotheisms? And yet how many would baulk at sitting before a candle and reciting the Lord’s Prayer backwards?

“Nema! Livee morf su revilled tub
Noishaytpment ootni ton etc…”

Witch-Making Pachyderm

“Fight me or find a way to get along with me! Ignoring me won’t make me go away.”

How many Pagan paths offer an alternative to Christianity without eschewing it completely, an alternative in which that person can go an entire lifetime without wrestling with that Jesus-y elephant in the room? Because I think that sooner or later, if you practice witchcraft and you truly want that kind of transformation that witchcraft makes possible, you have to find a way to take that motherfucking pachyderm down. (Or at least figure out how it fits in within your worldview. Clue: it’s all just spirits).  You can’t break the chains if you ignore them.

Now I’m not saying that people have to go and recite the Lord’s Prayer backwards tonight or something, but it’s certainly something to think about. Witchcraft is not just unsafe, it is also transgressive. Usually when people talk about that transgression nowadays, it seems to be in very political terms, but I think it’s a lot deeper than that.

This is the kind of transgression in which simply having transgressive opinions isn’t enough. It’s not enough to want to ‘stick it to the man’ (or whatever), you have to step outside of the norm, you have to pass beyond. You have to go from the safe places of the inner yard that everyone else huddles in, away from those electric lights, and the safety and comfort of traditional religion.

You have to cross that boundary, try to traffic with the spirits, get that dirt under your fingernails, muddy up those boots, fuck up, make mistakes, and just have those crazy experiences that are usually highly unpleasant, but that leave you with the kind of clarity that comes with the dawn.

Because it’s often in those times, that the most meaningful of initiations are found.
witch-making dawn

References
(1)  Quote taken from The Chaos Protocols by Gordon White