Qwyr Magic: Part 1 (by Willow Moon)

Sex is not a doorway leading to something else, nor is it a metaphor for so-called spiritual love, but a sun and moon lit path leading across the sea of life to an infinite horizon.

Cora Anderson

Introduction to Part One

In Part One, I briefly put forward ideas of how the Witch power operates with Qwyr people in the context of Faerie Witchcraft. I then discuss and contrast ideas of how the Witch Power is believed to work in some other modern Witch traditions in the context of polarity. I show how polarity works not only as a model for heterosexual couples but also for Qwyr couples. Then I introduce an ancient idea of non-gendered polarity and how that exists and functions in our world today in the context of creation. Later, I delve more deeply into Faerie Witchcraft ideas about how the Witch Power moves within a magic circle based upon our mythology. I give the examples of gravity and plasma as to how the Witch Power moves within nature and mimics its natural movement within the circle.

[Part Two of “Qwyr Magic” continues here.]

Attitudes about Qwyrness in Faerie Witchcraft culture

Believing as they did in both the autonomy and the empowerment of each individual was the exquisite beauty of the Anderson’s teachings. The Tradition can morph to fit and empower the individual, but at the same time there are some items that clearly distinguish Faery from Wicca.

Faery meetings might look a great deal like a Wiccan coven’s, but the informing principles are quite different. Victor and Cora dismissed the physical polarization of Deity by gender as an oversimplification of the Divine’s multiple manifestations of every conceivable mixture of gender. (Gander: 2010, 3)

I feel that the power in an Anderson Faerie Witch circle doesn’t flow only between men and women or even simply between individuals. Like life-giving dew forming from moist air, sexual attraction between people makes the Witch Power condense onto their bodies, giving them a feeling of pleasure in the other’s company. I feel the power raised in a circle before it is formed into a spell or cone to be like a bubbling cauldron: full of potential yet free flowing throughout the cauldron of the circle and freely available to every member in circle regardless of sexual proclivity.

The common understanding of Wicca tends to stress the importance of male-female workings and focus on fertility. Anderson Faery magic has always had a primary focus on ecstasy instead of fertility. This may be due in part with the plurality of Deities we work with. As a result, sex of any stripe is honored as a gift from and to the Gods. Homosexuality, heterosexuality, bisexuality, polysexuality, transgendered sexuality, in short all of sexuality, is our holiest mystery. We have no reason to simplify the profound mystery of sex into redundant and meaningless roles. The Anderson Faery Witch is complete in herself, needing no other to complete her magic (Johnson: 2001, 3).

Gender and Polarity in Wicca

Polarity can mean a lot of things to different people, but to many modern Pagans it means that magic is believed to work by raising energy from paired couples of men and women. Thus it is sometimes believed that, in order to properly raise power, it must flow only between alternating male and female partners. Some covens insist on alternating men and women in their seating or standing arrangements. Some covens will also only pass initiations or magical tools from men to women or women to men. Some covens also believe polarity to mean a division of labor based upon sexual characteristics and they have fixed roles for priests and priestesses in ritual. What are the principles underlying such ideas?

From talking with those who work magic in a format of gendered polarity, I learned that underlying the idea of polar gender-oriented ritual is the desire to maintain a literal interpretation of a symbol set and the use of a sexually charged atmosphere. This atmosphere is charged by the release of psychic energy, subtle and obvious sexual signals, pheromones and possibly other bio-chemicals.

“Polarity” has been the term used to denounce the workings of same-sex couples, while at the same time shoring up the privileges of non-gay couples. “Polarity” is the “reason” why gay people cannot work together in a Gardnerian circle. If one were to ask what “polarity” is, one gets conflicting answers. One well-known and highly respected Priestess in the Long Island line of Gardnerian Craft once explained “polarity” with a scientific sounding proof. She said that “polarity” operated like pheromones in that they flowed from male to female or female to male and caused an excited state which could be tapped into as a source of magical power.

However, pheromones are a specialized type of hormone. They act like hormones in that only an extremely small amount of the chemical is needed to have a great effect on the body and they act only on specific receptor sites. Pheromones spread throughout the entire environment in all directions, like hormones which spread equally throughout the whole body and its tissues. As one’s body emits pheromones, they do not flow through the air only to one receptor site (an opposite sex body), but are available to everyone in the area equally, regardless of sex. However, only those people who are susceptible to the pheromone would be affected. Heterosexual people are affected by the pheromones of the opposite sex and homosexual people are affected by the pheromones of the same sex. The same man in a circle can affect the bodies of both heterosexual women and homosexual men. The effect is not determined by the preference of the emitter of the pheromones but by those who react to it.

The Gardnerian Priestess’s explanation wasn’t an explanation in favor of “polarity” working only for non-Qwyr people or a “reason” why same-sex working couples were taboo! Using pheromones as a model to explain “polarity” actually shows why “polarity” would work for Qwyr working couples as well as non-Qwyr couples. A gay man would be affected by the pheromones of any man in the circle that he found attractive! Thus, I have come to believe that “polarity” is simply the same thing as good old sexual attraction. It is the sexual attraction felt between two people that acts as a source of magical power. It is sexual attraction that makes the working “juicy.” It can be physically felt only between those who are attracted to each other. “Polarity” would not work between a non-gay and a gay man, but only between gay or bi-sexual men. It makes sense that Gardner as a heterosexual would feel “polarity” only with a woman, and write about it as such. It is incorrect, however, to assume it is the same for everyone in all Gardnerian circles.

Looking at “polarity” from an electrical theory viewpoint, between two separated poles there exists a gap that can become charged. When the charge becomes intense enough or when the poles connect, they discharge the force collected between them. When there is sexual attraction between people, the attraction can build until it is released with orgasm, which is like discharging a charge. The charging and discharging of a space is like raising a cone of power which is sent to the target upon total relaxation of the coven members.

This ancient idea of a gap of charged atmosphere as the source of manifestation was known by the folk of Scandinavia. They called it the Ginnungagap and it was seen as the source of all creation. The word Ginnungagap comes from the old Norse ginning which means a charged potential and gap which has the same meaning as in English – a space in-between. This primal space was charged with a mighty, magical force and is from whence all reality springs. This primal place was not formed, it just existed.

Fire and ice were formed billions of years later as the extremes that defined the outer limits of the Ginnungagap. The northern part was frozen, solid and dark whereas the southern part was molten, flowing and glowing with light. The middle was as mild as the warm air of a summer’s evening. Due to the warm breath in the middle – from the melting ice the first life arose from the mists. Life arises from the middle not at the extreme poles of fire and ice. The proto-space filled with magic power moves from formless potential into form, in this case as the giant Ymir: “He incorporates the double function of creation – conception and birth” (Lindow: 1988, 467).

“But it is said that while he his legs got a son with the other, and that is where the families of the frost ogres come from. We call that old frost ogre Ymir” (Sturluson: 1973, 34). Snorri refers to two groups of beings created by Ymir – men and women from His arm pit as well as a son produced independently by His two legs. Perhaps this son of the primordial bisexual Giant was Qwyr. The myth of Ymir can be seen as an ancient reason why gender variant people are associated with creation and thus fertility. Similar tales of creation arising from a hermaphrodite progenitor are found not only in Norse myths but also in ancient Iranian, Egyptian and Indian cultures. Even though sometimes the Gods rose up against Their progenitor and killed Him/Her, They still bear the marks (genes?) of Their Giant ancestry. As we are children of the Gods, then all people must also bear the marks of the first born bisexual progenitor. Thus it makes sense why heterosexual relations give rise to bisexual and homosexual people, because they carry the genes for it!

Although the Alexandrian tradition was started by a bisexual man and they have historically been much more welcoming of gay men and lesbians as equals in their circles, in America this seems to be changing. Apparently, some American Alexandrian Witches are introducing alternating male-female partners in their circles. One Alexandrian Priestess once told me in her experience and the experience of her coven, power only flowed from a woman to a man to a woman in a straight line across the circle. I think this is a worthwhile observation, but I wonder if these observations are related to the sexual orientation of the group members or simply their expectations. Ironically, I have seen this bias insisted upon in circles where two men are not allowed to stand or sit together while at the same time everyone on the other side of the circle are women. Three to five women for every man – talk about gender imbalance! However, it only seems to bother the “polarity” people when two men are together!

It doesn’t bother some gay men to only work with a woman as a partner in circle; they follow the rules and they are happy. They have told me that it is no big deal to work magic with a woman for only a few hours a month. I understand, as I have worked magic with women to wonderful effect. However, it is my feeling that when one is in the sacred circle and in the presence of the Gods, it is the most important time to be honest about your true self! To play the role of a heterosexual so the other people in the circle feel okay about me is not what I want to do in the Gods’ presence. I feel it belittles my relationship with the Gods to try and trick Them by playing the role of something I am not.

Non-Gendered Polarity

In the lore of ancient peoples all over the world, Mountain and Lake were primal polarities that manifested the genesis of our world and were primeval symbols of fertility. However, the Holy Mountain and Sacred Lake are polar fertility symbols that are not gender specific. Mountains and lakes are often viewed by local peoples as having a particular sex, but the same sex is not allotted to either mountain or lake. Sexual characteristics ascribed to masculine or feminine traits are not the same for all people.

Some of the surviving ancient images of the Goddesses Astarte, Tiamat, and Aphrodite include apparently masculine traits, even those most strongly associated with the male, such as a beard or penis. Likewise Baphomet, Agditis, the Hurrite God Kumarbi, Zarvan of Akkadia, the Hittite Teshub, the Hindu Shiva Ardhanarishvara and the wooden God image from Somerset, England also display breasts and vaginas. Even the sacred island of the most masculine of the ancient warrior Hawai’ian God, Ku is named the “Vagina of Ku.” Since primary sexual characteristics such as a penis or vagina are displayed as both characteristics of Goddesses or Gods, then surely They share secondary and tertiary sex characteristics such as hair, hair styles, clothing and gender roles.

Ardhanarishvara statue at Sampurnanand Sanskrit University. Image by Bluerasberry, 2001. (CC license 1.0)
Ardhanarishvara statue at Sampurnanand Sanskrit University. Image by Bluerasberry, 2001. (Wikimedia Commons, CC license 1.0)

The ancient non-gender specific model of polarity has been almost forgotten in our modern Pagan world. However, since the universe is infinite and unlimited, the generative power of creation must also be unlimited. Since the blinders of religious prejudice have been dissolving before our collective eyes, it is possible to see that in nature heterosexuality is not favored over homosexuality. It is very common for animals and humans to be sexually attracted to members of their own sex at least once in their life. Some try to insist that nature conform to their way of thinking, but it does them little good.

Polarity and Gender in Faerie Witchcraft

In Faerie Witchcraft we do not talk about “polarity” as if it were a process that demanded women and men alternate positions. Victor Anderson himself was bisexual, and he never said anything that could be construed as homophobic or heterocentric to me during the many years I visited him and Cora. In their opinion, a man was equal to a woman in power and could do anything a woman could do except give birth. They told me that of course a man can cast circles, initiate and work with another man, and it is the same for women working together. This is the general consensus of our tribe: that all are equal in the circle of initiates regardless of gender. As it is for the Faerie Witch, so do the Gods display every combination of gender, just as humans in diverse cultures have done for centuries. In our tradition the extreme points of masculine and feminine (on a sexual spectrum) are respected and honored and They are seen as the exception that They are in life.

Just like us, the Gods can assume a multiple variety of gender roles. They do this to meet the needs of the people. In Faery Witchcraft we say: “God is self and self is God and God is a person like myself.” We do not have to fit ourselves into outdated gender role models to connect with the Gods, we just need to be ourselves. For this reason Lesbians, Gay men, and Transgender folk often feel comfortable in working Faerie magic, because they don’t have to pretend to be something they are not.

There are many forces like polarity that are mysterious to us. For instance, gravity is strange to us. It doesn’t come in discrete little packages of energy. It seems omnipresent and it is totally continuous without break. If there is no break in the force of gravity, then there can be no gravitational polarity. Gravity is the origin of our world and universe – the origin of duality. If the origin of duality is ceaseless then it is non-dual. In the same way that an apple seed produces only an apple tree, then a fundamental force of nature that is non-dual can only produce a non-dual reality. This pointing out of the identity of non-dual and dual modes of reality is exactly what the image of the gender-variant individual is alluding to.

If the point of polarity is to explain how we raise power from our bodies within a sexually charged space to empower a spell, then it seems it is most important to raise our libido. This can be enhanced in many ways, such as through movement, hearing, smell, taste, touch or sight. There doesn’t seem to be any difference between the sexual arousal of homosexuals and heterosexuals, so the power raised is the same. How would the power move in a circle of people if the popular model of an electromagnetic field was not used to explain the phenomena of polarity? Even without any explanatory concepts, power would still rise with the libido of the coveners. Libido is usually defined as sexual interest, but it is also the passion for life and life’s experiences, as well as a driving force behind all kinds of creativity.

Most of us are familiar with three forms of matter: solids, liquids and gasses. But there is a fourth form of matter that is found in the dark heart of stars and also within the huge gas clouds that move between the stars. This is a form of matter that starts as a gas but becomes ionized by extreme heat and is called plasma. If the temperature of the material is very high, all the electrons separate from their nuclei. The particles which make up the gas are split apart into smaller positively and negatively charged particles. In plasma, the electrically charged particles move independently of each other, not in a linear fashion like electricity.

Instead of marching in line, these independent particles move wildly in any direction, pervading the entire plasma field. Plasma has diametrically charged particles and so is a phenomena of polarity, but the charged particles do not move in a predetermined configuration based on detached opposites. Plasma is a substance which demonstrates non-dichotomized polarity. Due to the electrical charge which pervades plasma, it behaves differently than a gas and is also affected by electromagnetic fields. Although on earth we are often not familiar with this substance, it is by far the most common state of matter in the universe. Plasma is a primal form of matter from which all the atoms in the universe congeal.

The reality of plasma can be used as a model for understanding how power moves and works in a magic circle. Instead of conceiving that an electric-like charge flows from one person to another in a straight line, the charged particles released from our bodies move about freely within the circle. As water brought to a boil inside a cauldron where the molecules move in every direction, so too particles of pheromones from our bodies rush in every direction within the confines of the magic circle. By intensifying the libido thus increasing the pheromones, the contents of the charged atmosphere in the circle is brought to a “boil” that allows the power to build to the pitch necessary to manifest magic. If pheromones or other bio-chemicals are a part of the process of raising power, then a model based upon the roiling movement of power as with a boiling cauldron makes more sense than an electrical linear movement of power in a circular space. The bio-chemicals wouldn’t move in a linear fashion but pervade the air like a fragrance smelled by all present.

[“Qwyr Magic” continues here.]


Works Cited

Berens, E.M. Myths and Legends of Greece and Rome. Clark and Maynard: New York, n.d.

Bord, Janet and Colin. Earth Rites: Fertility Practices in Pre-industrial Britain. Granada Publishing: London, 1982.

Burkert, Walter. Greek Religion. Trans. John Raffan. Harvard University Press. Cambridge, 1985.

Conner, Randy; David and Mariya Sparks. Queer Myth, Symbol and Spirit. Bath Press: Bath, 1997.

Evans, Arthur. Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture. Fag Rag Books: Boston, 1978.

Heselton, Philip. Wiccan Roots. Capall Bann Publishing: UK, 2000.

Gade, Kari Ellen. Homosexuality and Rape of Males in Old Norse Law and Literature. Scandinavian Studies vol. 58/2, 1986.

Gander, Niklas. “So, just what is the Feri Tradition? 25 July 2010 <http://pagantheologies.pbworks.com/w/page/13622055/Feri-Tradition/&gt;

Johnson, Tom, PhD. “Feri and Wicca: So What’s the Difference? Witch Eye #5: San Francisco, 9/2001.

Simmer-Brown, Judith. Dakini’s Warm Breath: The Feminine Principle in Tibetan Buddhism. Shambala: Boston, 2001.

Lindow, John. Scandinavian Mythology. Garland Publishing: New York, 1988.

Sturluson, Snorri. The Prose Edda. Trans. Jean Young. University of California: Berkeley, 1973.

Sergent, Bernard. Homosexuality in Greek Myth. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986

Farrar, Janet and Stewart. Eight Sabbaths for Witches. St. Edmundsbury Press: Suffolk, 1985.

Von Rudloff, Robert. Hekate in Ancient Greek Religion. Horned Owl Publishing: Victoria, 1999.

Owning It: Autonomy, Accountability, and Liberty in Faery (by Moriquendi)

Those of us who identify as Faery share, among many other things, a statement of principles of conduct and affirmations about what the Tradition is, who can teach it, and how. One of those principles reads, “We recognize the value of individual autonomy, but we also recognize and honor the fact that our choices affect the choices of others.” The two clauses that make up this statement establish a balance between autonomy and accountability, where neither one trumps the other, but are seen as part of an integral ethical whole.

I’ve heard it said that, unlike some forms of modern Pagan spirituality, Faery lacks a guiding set of ethical principles. This is, of course, nonsense. To be sure, we do lack anything as pithy and quotable as the Wiccan Rede or the Ten Commandments, but I would suggest that, taken together as a unified whole, the powers and principles encapsulated in the Iron and Pearl Pentacles form the basis of a truly Faery system of ethics or moral philosophy. The trick is, of course, that they are the basis of that philosophy, not an explicit statement of that philosophy, nor a collection of instructions on how to enact it. As with so much else, one must do the work of putting it together oneself, or with the help of one’s teachers and fellow students and initiates. (That can be a pain in the ass, to be sure, but anyone who says that Faery is “easy” or “convenient” is lying to you, and shouldn’t be trusted.)

The Faery Pentacles are multifaceted, fulfilling multiple roles within the practice of Faery, and I won’t presume here to give instruction on the use of these most holy symbols, meditative tools, and complex magical sigils. I will restrain myself to mentioning that one of the points of the Pearl Pentacle—and, therefore, one of the key principles of Faery—is named sometimes as Liberty, sometimes as Power. I’m quite sure most folks interested in Faery are familiar with both concepts. I’m equally sure that most readers have an idiosyncratic and deeply nuanced definition of, and relationship with, those concepts. While I’m focussing on the point as Liberty, I want to keep us aware of its equally valid identity as Power; indeed, as mentioned later, an awareness of the relationship between Power and Liberty can usefully inform how we approach either concept.

What I mean when I use a conceptual term like “liberty” is not, and cannot be, identical to what you mean by that same term; even if we agree on the denotative meaning, our individual personalities and histories will give us connotative meanings that cannot be equated. I do think it’s reasonable, though, to start with agreed-upon denotative meanings and work from there. More than reasonable, I think it’s necessary. We need to talk about liberty, autonomy, sovereignty, and accountability: what those words mean, how they’re related, and why understanding those ideas is important, not only for Faery, but for life in general. The trouble is, these are pretty heavyweight concepts, better suited to university-level philosophy courses (or late-night pub sessions) than to necessarily-brief blog posts. Nevertheless, if we’re to have any real grasp of what Faery looks like in practice, of how to walk as a Witch in the real world of actions and choices and responsibilities, we need to understand them as well as we know the sound of our own hearts beating.

And to do that, we need to talk about Westphalia.

Westphalia is a region of Germany known for producing camper vans. It’s also known as the place where, in 1648, three treaties were signed in the cities of Münster and Osnabrück. At the time, Europe was in the midst of throwing, not one, but two wars (designated “the Thirty Years’ War” and “the Eighty Years’ War” by historians) which were ravaging the populace and destabilizing the whole region. These three treaties, collectively known as the “Peace of Westphalia,” ended both of them.

They also created the modern political world in which we live, move, and have our being.

In other words, it was created by these dapper gents. Ponder that for a moment. "The Ratification of the Treaty of Münster," 15 May 1648 (1648) by Gerard ter Borch. Public domain. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
In other words, it was created by these dapper gents. Ponder that for a moment.
“The Ratification of the Treaty of Münster,” 15 May 1648 (1648) by Gerard ter Borch. 
Public domain. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

To unpack that a bit: the Peace of Westphalia established the concept of “the state” as an independent entity with total and unquestioned control over its own internal affairs, free from any external influence. In the Westphalian system, each state is equal to all others, no matter how great or small, and no state is permitted to impose its will on another merely by dint of force. This concept, referred to as “sovereignty,” became a central component of international law in Europe and, later, throughout the world.

Sovereignty is a tricksy concept. It seems quite simple on its surface: “supreme power or authority,” as the Oxford Dictionary would have it. The nuances are where it becomes interesting, and harder to nail down. Following Westphalia, the term took on a particular set of connotations: independence, freedom from coercion, absolute control over one’s own actions and interests. Sovereignty is also applied to people at times, often people wearing funny hats: emperors, kings, bishops, and the like. The meaning is quite the same: a sovereign is someone over whom no one else has power, someone who has total and final control over their own actions and lives. When speaking of a head of state, or (as some Christians do) of a Supreme Being, it carries with it the implication of control over the lives of everyone under that individual’s power, as well.

It’s a compelling idea, as you’d expect from anything that’s been the core of modern geopolitics for going on 400 years. At its best, sovereignty supplies the logical foundations for self-determination and resistance, enabling a small nation to tell to a larger nation, “No, you may not invade us and take our goods, our land, or our lives, because we are us and they are ours.” At its worst, it tacitly supports the worst atrocities the state can bring to bear on its own people, as in the U.S. massacre and genocide of Native Americans, or the Nazi genocide of German Jews.

So, a bit of a mixed bag, as it were.

Autonomy is similarly tricksy and complex. The word, from the Greek αὐτο (auto, self) + νόμος (nomos, law), literally means “self-legislating,” as in “being a law unto oneself.” In ethics, it refers to the ability of an individual to make unhindered, un-coerced choices. Like sovereignty, though, it’s a bit more complicated than that. Deriving in great part from the work of Immanuel Kant, autonomy specifically refers to an individual’s ability to make moral choices: to choose to act in a manner consistent with an objective or outside moral standard, regardless of any desire to the contrary, precisely because that choice is consistent with the moral standard. To be autonomous, in other words, is to have moral agency, to be able to choose to do the right thing… even if you don’t necessarily want to.

In modern parlance, autonomy has taken on some of the characteristics of sovereignty, to the point that many people equate the two. For the purposes of this essay, however, I suggest that they are quite different things: related in their approach to questions of power, coercion, and self-determination, but ultimately referring to two different categories of entity: states (to include autocephalous entities such as churches) and individual people. Simply put, only states (and heads of states, who are effectively the State personified) have sovereignty. Likewise, only people can have autonomy.

“What’s the difference,” you may well ask, “and what the hell does any of this have to do with Faery?” Valid and valuable questions, both of them.

Sovereign Westphalian states exist in relationship to one another, but as separate entities without interconnectedness; in other words, they may have foreign policies and treaties with their allies, but their internal affairs and sovereign conduct are intrinsically isolated from the opinion and coercion of other states, even their allies. This is why, for instance, the United States can criticise other countries for their shabby treatment of children or the environment, but has yet to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child or the Kyoto Protocol, the tossers. They’re sovereign, which means they can do as they bloody well like within their own borders, even when doing so ultimately hurts everyone else.

Autonomy, by contrast, exists in the context of an interconnected moral universe. I can choose to act or to refrain from action, to speak or to remain silent, based on my estimation of the ethical weight of the choice, which necessarily incorporates the effect of my words or actions, or of my silence or inaction, on the world around me. Autonomy requires responsibility as an intrinsic component of moral agency. In other words, there is no autonomy without accountability. Thus, whatever autonomy means, one thing it cannot mean is “license,” defined as “I do whatever I want, whenever I want, without regard for the outcomes of my actions.”

NOT this. Pretty much the converse of this. Just… no.
Image from South Park.

South Park references aside, I hope the relation of all this philosophical blather to Faery is beginning to come clear.

What we’re talking about when we talk about “autonomy” is not merely Liberty, but the interrelation and interconnection of Liberty with all the other points of the Pearl Pentacle, and with Power, its own other name and its corresponding point in the Iron Pentacle. Liberty is an essential core principle of a truly Faery ethic… but no greater than any of the other points. It does not trump Knowledge and Wisdom, nor Love and Law, and without them it becomes nothing more than license, which is not a magical virtue, no matter what that one pseudo-Thelemite guy at the pub meet tried to tell you, all the while staring at your ass and offering to buy you drinks. In fact, even Aleister Crowley—that noted proponent of license, impropriety, and Doing What Thou Wilt—made it quite clear in his writings that there was a bloody great difference between “doing one’s True Will” and “doing whatever the hell you want.” Faery can, and should, have at least as solid a grasp on that distinction as Crowley did.

Blessedly, we do… and characteristically, perhaps even frustratingly, it doesn’t express well as a sound-bite.  If I have learnt anything at all about Faery (an open question, surely, but go with me on this), it’s that Faery is about relationships, about being in relationship: with Gods, with spirits, with our kinfolk, with our families and friends and neighbors, with the worlds around us and within us.

A central part of the work of being in relationship is being aware of how what I say and do affects those around me, and accepting responsibility for that: accountability, or as some would say, “owning it.” Sometimes, owning our words and actions means apologising and attempting to make amends. Other times, it means arguing, negotiating, or standing on our principles and refusing to budge, even in the fact of conflict with those we love. Sometimes, it’s mildly uncomfortable. Others, it’s excruciating, or joyful, or dull drudgery. In all cases, it’s about being authentically we you are, exercising moral agency, and accepting responsibility for what that means.

Accountability is the other half of autonomy, without which there can be no autonomy. Lacking accountability, the individual believes itself to be sovereign, as a state or a Supreme Being is sovereign, and inflates its own ego to the point of collapse (or prolapse, if you like). From there, everything else—magic, relationships, personality itself—follows suit. Accountability is what connects us to the world around us, what enables the very relationships that lie at the heart of Faery. To whom are we accountable? Why, to those with whom we’re in relationship: Gods, spirits, our kith and kin, the world in which we live and move and have our being. If we treat with them, we do so with the force of our very beings, and in so doing, we make ourselves accountable for what we do. This is why our oaths are sacred, why our words are imbued with power and meaning, why our actions cause change far beyond the range of our sight: because through them, we are accountable. If we are not accountable, we betray our words and actions, and the power leaks out of them as through a hole in our cup.

Or, you know, whatever vessel you put power in.
Or, you know, whatever vessel you put power in.
The Leaky Cauldron. Harry Potter film set at Warner Bros. Studios, Leavesden, UK. Image by Jack1956.

In the context of Faery, let’s look again at that statement from the beginning: “We recognize the value of individual autonomy, but we also recognize and honor the fact that our choices affect the choices of others.”

Viewed through the lens of autonomy and accountability, as defined above, this statement begins to unfold to us. After all, I cannot make a choice that changes the world without, y’know, changing the world. Of course, some choices are more impactful than others, and affect others’ choices to a greater degree.

Let’s say, for instance, that I decide to eat an orange. No one else may eat that orange, but that’s unlikely to cause much strife even in my home, where we lurve oranges. If there are no other oranges in the house, I can always pop out to market and pick some up. However, should I be amongst a group of friends when I decide to, say, spoil the new Star Wars film, my behaviour would get me tossed out on my ear, and rightly so. In both cases, I am accountable to those with whom I am in relationship, and to the fact that my choices affect theirs. If I eat the last orange, I merely need to pick up more oranges at market, but if I choose to spoil a movie (or book, or whatever) for someone, I’ve permanently ruined an experience for them, which is potentially an unforgivable offense. At the very least, it reveals me to be a churlish boor, and I’d have no leg to stand on if they chose not to invite me to future engagements… or to take a poke at me, for that matter.

So, then, how much more so with Faery? What if I wish to publicly reveal some shared material of the tradition considered by other initiates, folk I consider “kin,” to be oathbound? Or, if not oathbound, then “merely” sacred, to be held in confidence and secrecy? What if I should suggest to students, seekers, or other interested parties that my particular, idiosyncratic take on Faery is normative, and that Faery who practice in some other way are somehow beyond the pale? What if I decide to charge students money to be “initiated” into Faery, or to demand sexual favors from students, or to dox my fellow initiates, publishing their names and personal details for the world to see? When someone (or, more likely, several someones) comes to me with criticisms, grievances, even outright anger, how should I receive that?

Well, if we are in relationship to one another, as suggested by the term “kin,” then I am accountable to them. If it is my claim that we are part of the same tradition, I owe it to them—I am obliged—to hear their words, to consider their counsel openly and honestly, and to allow that counsel to inform the choices I make. If someone with whom I am in a relationship tells me that my choices are impeding or harming their own choices, I have a responsibility to take that seriously, to consider the possibility that I am behaving in an immoral and unethical fashion, and to modify my behaviour accordingly.


Because at the end of the day, as a wise woman once said to me, we are the choices we make and the stories we tell. The choices we make show us what kind of people we are; the stories we tell shape the choices we believe we have, and put those choices into some kind of context. If my story is that I’m wholly independent, beholden to no-one and nothing—save, perhaps, the Gods—then my choices I perceive will be limited in scope, and will tend to reinforce that worldview. If I see myself as sovereign, as hermetically isolated from other initiates, I am denying our kinship, spinning a story in which we have no relationship, and in which I’m therefore not accountable for how my choices affect theirs.

At the risk of belaboring an obvious point: that’s magic. It’s a spell… or, if you prefer, it’s a glamour, an illusion. It’s illusory, because sovereignty is a delusion. What we have, instead, is Liberty: power and agency. We have autonomy. We exist in a moral context, in relationships with others of our lineage and with the world around us. Our choices change the world, and affect the choices others can make, which makes us accountable.

At our initiation into Faery, we formally acknowledge and accept both our autonomy and our accountability, each as part and parcel of the other. However, being an initiate doesn’t grant autonomy; we have it merely by being human. As such, it shouldn’t require an oath to enforce accountability. All it should take is a basic level of consideration for others: Say “please” and “thank you.” Don’t steal somebody else’s things. Ask before you use them. Don’t spoil the movie. Share nicely, and without pouting. You know, the things we expect children to learn before they leave primary school.

After all, if we cannot be at least that accountable, if we cannot own our own words and actions, however do we expect to treat with spirits, Gods, or our own shadows?


Teaching a Witch (by Sara Amis)

[Slightly revised from these two posts on A Word to the Witch.]

There are quite a few articles out there about finding a good Pagan teacher, how to avoid bad ones, or how to know if you’re ready to teach or not.  Precious few are about teaching itself, or how to be a better teacher.

I am a professional educator, from a family full of educators on both sides.  Teaching is my day job.  As it happens, I have thoughts on the matter.


Knowledge is not enough

Every one of us during our educational career has encountered someone who may have been very smart, very knowledgeable, perhaps even a star in his or her field, but who absolutely stank as a teacher.  Possessing a body of knowledge or being good at a skill is necessary but not sufficient, because teaching is actually a separate skill with distinct requirements.  Fortunately, there is some overlap between the abilities needed to be a good priest/ess and those required to teach, such as perceptiveness about people and a certain flair for the theatric.

In related news, degrees and/or ordinations are also not enough; however, speaking for my own tradition (Faery), initiation is absolutely necessary.  You need the perspective of having walked the whole path up to that point in order to guide someone along it.  Some people feel that an advanced student teaching under the supervision of an initiate is fine, but in my experience students close to initiation (who are the only ones with enough knowledge and experience to teach) need to spend their time and energy managing their own progress.  Faery in particular is apt to go splodey on you at certain stages if you don’t keep your focus.  Your mileage with other traditions may vary, but one of the advantages of a lineaged tradition is that most of the time there are established guidelines for when you are considered ready to teach.  In my own line of Faery, we advise people not to teach until at least a year after initiation; it needs that much time to settle.

This is not about you

If you want recognition, to be seen as an authority, or some other form of egoboo, then you are not going to be as good a teacher as you might be.  Charisma does help and there are some egotists who are actually excellent teachers; but it is generally in spite of that, not because of it.  The reality is that teaching does give you a position of authority, which you can’t manage well either by pretending it doesn’t exist or by diverting it to some purpose other than the task at hand… which is ultimately to empower your student.  If that sounds tricky, well, that’s why I felt the need to write about it.

The point is not to create an intellectual or spiritual copy of yourself, but to develop the skills, knowledge, and mastery of the person in front of you.  To that end, start with what they already know or are interested in; Victor Anderson was reportedly good at this, with the result that he taught each person slightly differently but with a recognizable basic core.  Give them a manageable chunk, in which you offer both the big picture including connections to what they already know and a breakdown of the new information into component parts.  Step back and let them use or demonstrate the knowledge.  Step up again and offer feedback; but be sparing with both criticism and praise.  The reason is that both are information, and tossing someone information while they are learning a complex skill is akin to throwing them a plate while they are juggling.  One is plenty; four is too much.  I generally tell a student what I think their biggest obstacle or problem is, the most important thing they are doing right, and give one concrete suggestion, until the next round.  Lather, rinse, repeat.

Be very aware of your language.  Use words that emphasize the student’s competence, and avoid ones that undermine it.  This includes describing someone as a “newbie” or the like.  I know some organizations have formal designations such as “neophyte,” etc. but I assure you students are aware of where they sit in the hierarchy and don’t need their noses rubbed in it.  Even when a student needs to be gently reminded that they came to you for a reason, there are better and more subtle ways to do it.  Always be asking yourself, “what is the best way for this person to learn?”  The answer will vary, and you have to stay on your toes, even as you keep them on theirs.

At the very same time, you don’t owe anyone your time and energy and knowledge.  Being a martyr to someone else’s spiritual progress is all kinds of bad, and they are likely to resent you for it in the long run besides.

Don’t get bored

In graduate school I had a delightful professor and mentor who only ever gave me one piece of direct advice about teaching:  “Don’t let them bore you.”

There’s no excuse for being bored as a teacher under any circumstances if you ask me; teaching is fun.  But doubly so if you are teaching a religious tradition which ought to engage you on the deepest levels.  If you are bored, you yourself have stopped progressing.  If you are bored, you are energetically disengaged (bad enough in a classroom, practically malfeasance when teaching witchcraft).  If you are bored, you probably don’t actually like your student very much… so do both of you a favor and refer them to someone else.  Most of all, if  you are bored you will be boring.

Different models of teaching and their uses

Let me begin by reiterating that I teach for my day job. I have experienced the workshop/classroom model for teaching Pagan and witchcraft topics as both a teacher and a student. I received my Faery training under an apprenticeship type one-on-one model, and I have taught my own students in a combination of apprenticeship and coven teaching, depending on what was going on at the time.

The classroom or workshop model

Fundamentally, this means that you have a number of students and one or two teachers, and the relationship between teacher and student is limited in time and space.  That is, they interact mostly in the classroom setting, with a variable amount of individual consultation outside of it, and once the term of the class is ended there is no presumption of a relationship beyond that.

The classroom model is good for imparting mainly intellectual information, or specific skills that can be practiced within the constraints of the course. It is also an efficient way to maximize resources… either in terms of making sure more people get access to a particular teacher or (if the teacher is being paid) ensuring that the teacher gets a reasonable wage at an equally reasonable rate of tuition for the students.

The classroom structure inherently creates more of a hierarchy than the other types, relatively speaking. This in itself is neither good nor bad, but is a tendency to be aware of, especially if your stated values are otherwise. The frequent internal fights I witnessed in Reclaiming about who was or was not deemed a “teacher”… and who got paid… I believe are traceable in part to the structurally hierarchical tendencies of workshops and Witch Camp straining against the anti-hierarchical sensibility of the tradition as a whole.  A classroom model also creates emotional distance, which is useful to me as a college instructor, but as a means of teaching emotionally intense spiritual subjects, it may be counterproductive.


An apprentice is something like a student and something like an assistant; learning comes from both discussion and practice, often in partnership with the teacher, and it easily (almost inevitably) spills over into a personal friendship.  This approach is generally far less structured, which can be both an advantage and a disadvantage.  The down side is that sometimes major topics get skipped because they just didn’t happen to come up; the up side is that the practice is very much integrated into daily life and the student sees the teacher’s practice in action, not just in theory or by self-report.  This is the most supportive form of the teacher-student relationship, and that level of support is essential for some of the shamanic and ecstatic types of practice. It is also the most time-intensive, on both the student and teacher’s part.

Teaching in covens

In practice this is often a combination of the two, both structurally and in a kind of linear progression; that is, a coven may have “outer court” classes which are taught by coven members to a group, then as students advance they wind up working with a teacher one-on-one.  In a tradition like Faery where there is only one initiation and several initiates may be part of a coven, each initiate may have a student under his or her supervision for individual work combined with group ritual and other activities.  Ideally coven-teaching is the best of both worlds; in practice I could see the potential for screwed-up interpersonal dynamics finding a foothold or being exacerbated.  I will say that in my own personal experience that for any witchcraft beyond the most basic “this is how to cast a circle, here’s the Wheel of the Year, let’s talk about directions and elements” kind of information, the closer the teaching model is to apprenticeship, the more functional it tends to be.  There also needs to be a clear path forward for students, and a clear understanding of who is responsible for what.

Generally speaking, the more intellectual and dry the information you are conveying, and the less expectation you have of any relationship beyond the term of the course, the better a classroom or workshop model will suit.  The more intense and volatile the training, the more an apprenticeship or coven model is necessary; this is why the principles listed on the Faery Tradition website include “We recognize that Faery is highly transformative and extremely experiential, requiring closer attention and responsibility than workshops, seminars, or intensives provide.”

From both the teacher and student’s perspectives, knowing what your goals are (both short term and long term) is vital.  How much support and attention from the teacher do you need/are you able to give?  I have seen people struggling with the emotional fallout of practices learned via a book or a relatively inaccessible workshop teacher, sometimes to their detriment; in my own experience I have found that approach too ungrounded for anything energetically intense.  There are also potential pitfalls for the teacher: in an interview for the article “The Teacher Will Appear” by Christine Hoff Kramer and Sierra Black which appeared in Witches and Pagans #25, I made the observation that “in group situations people are much, much more likely to project their shadow stuff onto me than they are in situations where we have a more organic and personal relationship.” Obviously, I don’t think a classroom model is inherently bad; I teach in a classroom every week.  I have also given my share of Pagany workshops and talks.  I do think that for both teacher and student, understanding the limits and advantages of a given approach will help to avert difficulties and make sure the education you are seeking happens.


In academia where I spend most of my time, teaching is an entire skill and field of study (pedagogy) in and of itself.  I would like to see the awareness that how you teach can be as important as what you teach more widespread in Pagan circles.  As you contemplate your own teaching, consider that values, world-view, your relationship with your student, even theology can sometimes be more clearly conveyed by what you do rather than what you say.  To that end I try to be open, grounded, connected, and flexible as a teacher, emphasizing relationship and experience over declaration while being firm in my own knowledge and practice.  My own witchcraft and the results of it in my own life are the best teaching I can offer.

I Break Containers (by Elinor Prędota)

Since I caught its scent in 2000 and realised its current had been nudging on my awareness for ten years already, I’d done what I could to study, learn, connect with and generally be in the same vicinity as Feri tradition. During that time I’d strongly received the message, from Feri initiates, teachers, from dedicants of all sorts of other paths and religions, that daily spiritual practice is a Good Thing – that it is, in fact, essential. But it didn’t occur to me until half a decade ago that, as for Vizzini in The Princess Bride, that did not mean what I thought it meant.

One practice I’d been doing throughout my Feri/Faery training was making Kala, or, as the teacher who would finally initiate me names it, the Water Trick. I’d had four cups that I’d bought specifically for the purpose of making Kala. Every single one of them ended up cracked or broken, or developed a leak.

First of all there was the beautiful clay goblet with a powder blue glaze that I picked up in an Oxfam shop in Edinburgh: it fell off its shelf onto the floor and broke in two. Then there was the gorgeous, apple wood, hand-turned chalice which I’d bought in the mid-1990s in Bath: the centre fell out of the knot in its side making it no less beautiful, but utterly unusable; the cup I made myself at a pottery class and which, although properly fired and without visible cracks, holes or fissures, conspired to dribble its contents out of its base every time it was filled; and finally, the round-bellied, clay chalice with a glaze shifting from tan brown to mustard yellow, another charity shop purchase, which spontaneously developed a crack overnight, without ever moving from its spot on the altar.

As you might imagine, I became suspicious that Something Was Up. At the time of this final insult to my attempts to be a daily spiritual practitioner, I was about halfway through a two-and-a-half year training with T. Thorn Coyle. We did a lot of work with our tools, both physically and metaphysically, and the idea came up in discussion with my fellow students of the ‘cracked cup’ – the student on the spiritual path who cannot hold the benefits of their work, because they have an unhealed wound, or an unnoticed fissure somewhere in their body, physical or energetic.

This made a lot of sense to me, as I was at the time finally coming to grips with a lifetime’s untreated depression. It also made sense because I took my first steps into the occult through the Tarot. I did a lot of journeying into the cards in my teens, and returned frequently to the Ace of Cups. Again and again I experienced being the Cup, the vessel for the Holy Spirit and the water of Life to work through into the world.

From that point on, I didn’t acquire any more cups with the practice of making Kala in mind.

Over the next year daily practice became more and more difficult for me, to the point where I just about gave up, although it was always in my mind, especially once I asked my final Faery teacher to take me on as a student. After having some success with doing the exercises she suggested daily, I found myself thinking about them, but not doing them.

I said before that I didn’t acquire any more cups for making Kala: that’s true, but I did make one last attempt at having a ‘special’ vessel for the purpose – the very first piece of pottery I had ever thrown, fired and glazed, back when I was 18 and a year into my journey with the Tarot.

I had made it with the intention of pouring out libations to the elements; I had used four different glazes to represent the four elements, overlapping with each other to create eight colours. It was lumpy and uneven, some of the blended glazes had run where the chemicals in them had interacted to alter their properties under heat, and it was perfect. I had carried it with me and kept it safe for 22 years. This simple, sturdy, uneven cup I had made myself, this cup which had been with me for so long, which knew me so well, which I did not imagine for a minute could possibly succumb as the others had done – which, not long after, fell off a table and split in two.

Broken Cup by Joanna Bourne. Licensed under Creative Commons 2.0.
Broken Cup by Joanna Bourne. Licensed under Creative Commons 2.0.

Shortly after that, I received a waking vision:

It is sunny and there is a clear, wide, straight and even track stretching off into the distance, but I’m not looking at that. I’m looking at myself as I sit on the grass verge, dense woods behind me. I am unable to walk on along the path. This isn’t for lack of energy, through illness or injury, but through unwillingness. My will is not to walk the clear, wide, straight and even track in sunlight; my will is to walk into the wild woods, into the dark, the unknown, the trackless – into the arms of nature.

I had not connected the vision with the broken cup, but following conversations with my teacher and others, something shifted into place within me: all of those broken Kala cups were not because I am a ‘cracked vessel’, but because I simply do not fit within walls any longer, because my path was not one of form: I break containers.

Talking to my teacher and another initiate who is a close friend, I heard reflected back a confirmation of what I felt: that going into the wild, into the woods, into nature was what I needed; that, in my friend’s words, it was about time I stopped torturing myself trying to make myself do spiritual practice that way it’s ‘supposed’ to be done, and did it my way.

Fetch-me was so mightily relieved. No more rules! No more instructions! No more boring straight path! Relaxation and fun and doing stuff that kept Fetch-me happy was the order of the day.

This included a lot of walking in the woods, sitting by the burn (a particularly Scottish kind of stream), falling asleep on stones, conversing with buzzards and swallows, cuddling dogs, making healthy food, listening to the wind, standing and singing barefoot under the full moon. After a while, it also began to include mantras to the sun, T’ai Chi for the moon, alignment, salt water baths and whatever out of my existing bag of tools and tricks took my fancy and felt right.

And it was happening every day, which made it daily practice, right?

Which points to the vitally important nugget at the heart of all this. With all of those ‘Kala cups’, with all of the following instructions, I was making the mistake of turning daily practice into something special, something cut out, something disconnected, and, as my teacher said to me, the whole point of all of this is connection.

The point of daily practice is that it is not special: it is beautiful and self-expanding and joyful and full of wonder and connecting, but it is not special.

It is, quite literally, everyday.