Faery is not academic training. Faery isn’t beginner witchcraft training – though sometimes brand new witches cut their teeth here. Faery isn’t advanced witchcraft training, either; many craft traditions offer powerful access to craft training and currents. How Faery differs from some other traditions is its shamanic, ecstatic, and rather primal current. There are shifting forms here, and while there is a rich body of liturgical material within Faery, this current spills out of containers.
Faery is a peculiar and particular WAY of working magic, and the only way into it is through initiation.
Some traditions are training traditions, in that they prepare students to be witches; Faery is not that. While some traditions view initiation as stepping into acceptance and acknowledgement of yourself as a witch, Faery initiation is not that, either. There may be traditions that offer initiation after a year and a day of training, or in exchange for regular circle attendance; Faery does not. Initiation for some occurs after learning certain liturgy or ritual roles; Faery doesn’t do this either.
How in the world, then, does someone enter in to Anderson Faery?
Well, if you want to learn Faery, there are several things you must do:
Find a teacher.
Ask the teacher if they will teach you.
If the teacher says yes, ask what you need to do.
Do what the teacher asks and report back.
Diligently repeat steps 3 and 4.
Faery initiates are not going to push you to do anything. In fact, most Faery initiates will not set clear expectations or give much in the way of direct instruction. What they will do is sit back and watch what you do. Remember, Faery is not a training tradition but a WAY of working magic. An initiate who has taken responsibility for possibly shepherding you to the Gate is looking for signs. They will give you exercises and material that may foster this WAY of working magic, or strengthen it, but only if asked.
Faery initiates want to see your compatibility with the current. Beating down doors, and risking rejection, is something we look for. You’re welcome.
Once you have a teacher, they are still going to largely sit back and watch what you do with what they tell you. If you do nothing, they will not email, phone or otherwise check-in to see why you are doing nothing. Faery initiates are not your parents. If you need them to be, I suggest you seek therapy first, and then come back to witchcraft.
If you want to learn Faery, you need to push, you need to ask, you need to keep at it, you need to do the things you are given, you need to tell the initiate you did the thing, you need to keep asking for more. And after all that, you still have to ASK for the initiation. Remember, Faery isn’t a tradition that offers initiation after a year and a day, or a day and seven years. When you do finally ask, the initiate may say no, off hand, to see how you handle that, to test if you will ask again. Yet even if you ask again, and again, and again, the initiate may still say no, because they may not see the signs. There is no guarantee of initiation in Faery. That does not mean you are less of a witch. It just means the “fit” for the “family” WAY of working isn’t there. You may be family elsewhere.
Did I mention that Faery initiates are not your parents? We aren’t your High Priestesses, either. We are Witches, and we seek other Witches who are Peers with the Gods.
Do you think you might be a Peer? Get ready to beat down some doors.
“God is Self and Self is God and God is a Person like my Self.” –Victor Anderson
Victor Anderson: An American Shaman is a candid look at the Feri tradition’s most important teacher. The book is loosely arranged into two parts. Part I contains a series of interviews with Victor and Cora Anderson conducted around 1999, about two years before Victor’s death. The interviewer is Cornelia Benavidez, the Andersons’ friend of two decades and an initiate of Victor’s. (Charmingly, the book opens with a copy of a letter of reference for Benavidez from Victor, recommending her as “an honorable person and good witch.”) Victor’s remarks are interspersed with explanatory notes from Benavidez to provide context and additional information. Part II contains supplementary material, including an account of Victor’s last days from Benavidez, an essay by Sara Star that attempts to historically contextualize Victor’s initiation story, comments by Benavidez on the development of Feri after the deaths of the Andersons, and extensive genealogical information on Victor compiled by researcher William Wallworth.
Those who have read earlier interviews that Victor gave over the course of his life will find many of the thoughts recorded here to be familiar. However, in response to Benavidez’s clarifying questions, Victor unpacks many of his views in more detail than was previously available in print and clears up potential areas of ambiguity. Further, since most of the earlier interviews were published in zines or now-out-of-print collections, many readers will be encountering this material for the first time. This factor alone makes An American Shaman an important primary source for the study of Victor and Cora’s lives.
Readers who have primarily encountered Feri witchcraft through websites or in books put out by large publishing houses may be surprised at how little of the material frequently presented as “the Feri tradition” appears in Victor’s final statements of his views. The plain-spoken interviews focus on the Andersons’ core values of love and respect for others and the importance of sexual ethics. Many pages are spent on Victor’s complex ancestry and his relationships with indigenous people. The Andersons’ opposition to American racism and what we would now call cultural appropriation are major emphases, but as a person born during World War I, Victor’s framing of these issues is very different from those of twenty-first century activists. New readers may struggle greatly with his words, finding Victor confusing or downright infuriating.
For the reader who is willing and able to encounter Victor Anderson as a whole human being, however, there is a great deal of insight, humor, and hope recorded in this text. Victor’s Feri tradition is not a set of doctrines or an ideology, nor is it an elite occult club for the sexually alternative. Rather, it is a craft of relationship, devotion, creativity, and joy that the Andersons hoped would help lead humanity away from its most destructive tendencies.
The individual captured in this book’s pages (however incompletely) was a person of striking uniqueness. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the strain of witchcraft that he helped to create continues to be rich, vital, and extremely contentious. As the years pass and the initiates that knew the Andersons pass away, documents that preserve Victor and Cora’s voices as complex, idiosyncratic human beings become ever more important. Within any group, there is always a temptation to simplify and sanitize the life and views of deceased leaders, lest their inconvenient human realities damage the group’s public face. Yet Feri has a deep commitment to authenticity, and its practice demands great personal intimacy between practitioners. Allowing Victor’s humanness to be forgotten, therefore, would betray our most deeply held values.
As Feri initiates, it is our loving duty to remember Victor honestly and to continue to learn from his teaching. Accordingly, Victor Anderson: An American Shaman is a text recommended for any Feri seeker or student—one that must be read slowly, struggled with, questioned, laid aside and taken up again.
“There are many things I would still want to learn, I’m willing to learn from anybody regardless of their degree of initiation […] I still am anxious to learn anything I can, and apply it and see if it works. If it works I will use it. This is our science and this is how we learn and grow.”
Bardic, Shamanic, Ecstatic: these are the three adjectives that introduce AndersonFaery.org at the top of every page. All three are commonly used by initiates to describe Anderson Faery witchcraft. What do they mean?
Historically, a bard is a traveling poet who composed and recited epic poetry, usually while playing an instrument. Over time, the term has loosened to include poets in general, with “THE Bard” often referring to William Shakespeare, a word artist of both poetry and prose.
Poetry, song, storytelling, and drama are ways in which a group performs its shared values. Our ancestors both entertained themselves and learned about who they were through group gatherings where stories and songs were shared around a fire. Many of the world’s religions continue these practices of singing and storytelling, though in the West they have become more structured. A visit to nearly any Christian church, for example, includes reading of scripture (much of which is narrative) and singing of hymns; similarly, historical and mythic narratives and traditional songs are key elements of most Jewish holidays.
Poetry and song have always been an important part of Faery Craft. Part of their importance is to retain knowledge of history, myths, and lore, an understanding of which connects Faery witches to the past and ties them together in relationship. Gwydion Pendderwen, one of the Andersons’ first and most influential initiates, recorded two albums of music that celebrated nature spirituality, folk lifeways, and the Gods. He also penned liturgical pieces for use in private rituals. Faery witches continue to sing Gwydion’s songs and recite his poetry, both to connect with the ancestral traditions that Gwydion felt called to, and to connect with the memory of Gwydion himself.
Poetry was also a passion of the Andersons. In 1970, with Gwydion’s logistical support and Cora’s life savings, Victor published Thorns of the Blood Rose, a passionate book of poetry that led many future initiates to seek the Andersons out for teaching. Victor’s poetry celebrates the natural world, the Gods, and sexuality; but like those of Yeats, the great occult poet of the twentieth century, his poems are also densely layered with meaning and can act as keys to occult revelation. Victor’s poetry rewards the patient and careful reader who is willing to read and reread, recite and contemplate again and again.
Victor was adamant that the images in his poems were not intended metaphorically. Poetry is a way of expressing realities that cannot be captured by linear thought and plain speaking; it is a way of gesturing toward mysteries that are beyond our rational understanding, but that we can experience in our bodies as beings of flesh and spirit.
Cora was also a poet. Some of her simple, striking verse is included in her memoir Childhood Memories (now out of print, but a version of the book called Kitchen Witch is still available). When I met Cora near the end of her life, she spoke with great pride of the poetry that she and Victor had written. She clearly considered this creative work to be one of the great achievements of their lives.
Though not every Faery witch need be a poet themselves, Faery witchcraft cannot be worked without poetry. Poetry and song bind us together. Through them, we share our innermost dreams, longings, and desires; we connect to the ancestors and the Gods; and for those with ears to hear, we convey our most precious truths.
A shaman is a healer and spiritworker who is in service to their local community. On behalf of that community, the shaman seeks altered states of consciousness in order to communicate and negotiate with spirits. Shamanic practice may include the use of local plants to heal and work magic, as well as magical practices based on spirit relationships. Although the term “shaman” probably originally came from the Tungusic Evenki language of North Asia, in Western religious studies it is now used to describe this kind of spiritworking cross-culturally.
Faery witchcraft is worked in a container of beloved relationship. This includes relationship with one’s human community, but even more importantly, it includes the local plants, animals, streams, and hills in all their aspects (physical and spiritual), as well as the Gods who manifest through the land and through our flesh.
Third Road founder Francesca De Grandis wrote, “A healthy priest makes all things sound.” Faery witches seek harmonious relationship with the land and people where they live. We seek to be whole and balanced in ourselves so that our positive influence ripples outward through all we touch. At times, of course, seeking harmony may require conflict, as we are called to defend human or other-than-human beings in our community who are in danger. A witch’s action to restore harmony may take place in the human realm, in the newspapers in the courts; or it may take place in privacy, through magical intervention or one-on-one negotiation with humans or spirits. In any case, right relationship is the source of a witch’s power. A witch’s work involves constantly strengthening ties and setting boundaries—but our responsibilities are not just to the human community.
Serving in a shamanic role is not easy. The conflicting needs of humans and other-than-human beings can lead to difficult decisions, and as a result the witch may not always be appreciated or loved by other humans. When we serve as mediators between humans and spirits, between the wild world and what we speak of as “civilization,” we put ourselves outside of ordinary human society, and we may suffer for it—if not through persecution, then through being treated as an outsider or a fool. To serve as a shaman means having knowledge that others do not, and this state can be uncomfortable and isolating. It is not a glamorous role, though the moments of beauty and connection it brings may be worth the pain.
Like the rest of our society, twenty-first-century Faery witches struggle with environmental damage and community erosion caused by the ways we have chosen to use technology. Some of us were lucky enough to be raised with a spiritual awareness of the land where we live; others, having grown up disconnected and rootless, must work hard to form the relationships that make a powerful witch. But without being integrated into a community of all types of beings—without, in other words, taking on a shamanic role—a Faery witch’s work is not complete.
Ecstasy is a rapturous state of altered consciousness where the usual boundaries of the self are left behind. The original Greek term, ekstasis, translates as something like “standing outside oneself.” Ecstasy is a sensual, embodied, fleshly state; it is not one where we transcend the body. However, it is transcendent because in this state, our awareness of our individuality and our boundedness from other beings falls away. We transcend our everyday selves and experience communion: with other Selves, with the Gods, with God Herself.
Allowing ourselves to experience ecstasy can be a difficult and even frightening process. In order to freely let go of one’s ordinary everyday self, one must be comfortable with that self and know it well. Our society, however, often does not support individuals in forming a healthy, stable self. Mainstream society is full of casual boundary violations, especially of the bodies and selves of marginalized people, as well as complicated social expectations that may encourage inauthenticity or even be actively exploitative and damaging. If a person is struggling to build good boundaries and experience healthy relationships with other human beings, it is natural that they may cling to whatever sense of identity they have already built—in fact, it is probably healthy to do so!
Ecstatic experience loosens and breaks down individual identity. It may change small elements of our personalities, like preferred hobbies or tastes; or it may leave us questioning elements we thought were foundational and defining, like sexual orientation or professional calling. Ecstasy can be a joy so big it bursts the heart open, leaving pieces that no longer seem to fit neatly together. It offers us freedom, but at the cost of structure we may have come to depend on.
Ecstasy is life force itself. If we are willing to let it flow through us undammed and be changed by the flood, our ability to contain that force expands. We become more powerful witches—but “power” rarely looks like what we imagine beforehand. There is no predicting where ecstasy will take you, or how it will leave you when its surging waters recede from the banks. Those who stay out of the way of the flood—either out of fear, or because they genuinely love themselves the way they are—are not unwise. But for Faery witches, there is no life without ecstasy. We embrace its risk, and its freedom.
Using historical references found within Gardnerian and Wiccan mythology, I will demonstrate how history supports the inclusion of Qwyr folks in Gardnerian and Wiccan circles as working partners. Based on ancient folk customs, I show how transvestites are explicitly connected to fertility rites still performed in our modern world. Finally, I explore how modern Witch mythology informs the intimate connections between ecstasy, fertility and creativity and what that could look like in Qwyr ritual magic. In addition, I explore the benefits to our society of the collusion of Qwyr magic with non-Qwyr magics.
A historical basis for including Qwyrs in Wiccan circles
Despite institutionalized homophobia and the heterocentric notion that the God/Goddess pairing is the only way to operate within a Gardnerian or Wiccan coven, there is a liturgical and historical basis for including Qwyr people in these rites. Wiccans often use a well-known piece of liturgy called the “Charge of the Goddess.” This liturgy is published in the Farrar’s book Eight Sabbats for Witches and starts with the words: “Listen to the words of the Great Mother…” The Farrars write:
In the [what the Farrars describe as an Alexandrian] Book of Shadows, another sentence follows here: “At her altars [of Artemis] the youth of Lacedemon in Sparta made due sacrifice.” The sentence originated from Gardner, not Valiente. (Farrar: 1985, 42)
According to the Farrars, most covens omit this historical reference, considering it to be too “gruesome” for modern Craft practices. Oddly, this same piece of information that points to a historical antecedent of modern Witchcraft is also a precedent for including sexually active Qwyrs as working partners in Wiccan circles. Curiously, in Starhawk’s The Spiral Dance this historical reference is omitted in her version of the Charge. In most Faerie circles the Charge of the Goddess isn’t traditionally used, but it is still loved and preserved by many Witches of different traditions who feel it expresses their concept of the Goddess.
Shedding light on the Charge of the Goddess
The early Dorians in the 12th century BCE established their capital at Sparta. They maintained many of the most ancient traditions of earlier ages, especially with respect toward women. Spartan women wielded the power to compete with, publicly praise, or censor men, and they had greater authority over property than anywhere else in Greece. Elsewhere in Greece, women were only allowed to call their husband “Lord,” were not allowed to eat meals with their husbands and only lived inside the house. In addition, Plutarch wrote in his 1st century CE book Lives that “the unmarried women love beautiful and good women” (Evans: 1978, 34).
Homosexuality had a high status among the Dorians. In fact, homoerotic activity was more highly regarded in Sparta than in Athens during the later classical period. Male homosexuality often took the form of paiderestia – the love of an older experienced man and a younger, more inexperienced man. Paiderestia was a form of religious, military, educational and sexual training. The experienced man initiated the younger man into men’s mysteries. The holy act of transferring semen conveyed an older man’s soul power to the youth and was called “inspiring” the inexperienced man (Evans: 1978, 34). In fact, this is still practiced to this day by some of the Kahunas of Hawai’I as explained to me by Kahunas I met there.
Doric paiderestia is a continuation of familiar shamanic and religious concepts that date back to the Stone Age. The Dorians, though coming later than the Mycenaeans, remained much closer to the earlier sexual traditions. According to the German scholar Bethe, the myth that homosexual men are always contemptuous toward women flounders on the fact that precisely in Sparta and Lesbos, where man-love and woman-love are best documented, the sexes associated more freely and women had more economic and political power than anywhere else in the Greek city-states (Evans: 1978, 33-35).
Historically, social acceptance for homosexuals is associated with a high social status for women. Patriarchal authorities have always oppressed both women and men who “act like women.” Therefore women and homosexuals often have a natural bond born from a personal understanding of the nature of oppression. Witches often tout that the Craft is female affirming; according to this historical reference, the Craft is also homosexual affirmative. Although in Faerie Witchcraft, the Charge of the Goddess is not used much, we do often work with the Divine Twins who are intimately connected to worship in Sparta. The Divine Twins Castor and Polydeuces, the youths of Zeus, are native to Sparta. They grew up with Helen in the house of King Tyndareos, and They fetched Their sister back from Aphidna in Attica.
In the ancient Greek world, these Gods were referred to as Dios Kouroi, Kouretes or Kabeiroi. The worship of heavenly riders of white horses clearly derives from a much older common Indo-European heritage, paralleled in Vedic mythology by the shining horse-owning brothers called Asvin. Twin horsemen who rode white horses were also the legendary founders of ancient Thebes. These divine Twins, found in various cultures, are described as being in the service of the Goddess. The Dioskouroi were called Tyndedaridai in Sparta and had a special relationship to the dual kingship of Sparta. The Spartan cult of the Divine Twin lovers flourished in the context of a warrior society in which initiations included an encounter with death (Burkert: 1985, 212).
In another rite, young Lakedaimonian males, in preparation for combat, flagellated themselves and engaged in same-sex eroticism at a festival honoring Diana (Conner: 1997, 69). [i]
The worship of the Brauronian Artemis by homosexually active men was brought from Tauris (Taurica Chersonnesus or Crimea) to Attica by two male lovers called Orestes and Pylades ”whose romantic attachment to each other has made their names synonymous for devoted self-sacrificing friendship.” Orestes was the son of Agamemnon, who had incurred the wrath of the Furies by avenging his father’s death. The Oracle at Delphi told him the only way to pacify the Furies was to bring the statue of Taurian Artemis from Tauris to Attica. Upon arriving on Tauris, Orestes and his faithful friend Pylades were seized to be sacrificed; however, Orestes’ sister Iphigenia happened to be the officiating Priestess of Artemis there (Berens: 95).
Previously, Iphigenia was to be sacrificed by her step-father Agamemnon prior to the Trojan War, but Artemis transported her to Tauris on the north shore of the Black Sea and left a deer in her place to be sacrificed instead. She became one of the legendary women called aoroi, or those who die before their time. These immortal female attendants of Artemis are often renamed Hekate (Von Rudloff: 1999, 43-70).
With the help of his male lover, Orestes and Iphigenia recognized each other and they all escaped back to their homeland. They stole the statue of Taurian Artemis and carried it with them to Brauron in Attica. Thus She became known as the Brauronian Artemis and human victims were bled to death in both Athens and Sparta (Berens: 96). The sacrifice to Artemis in Sparta at the Ortheia festival was scouring until blood came (Burkart: 1985, 152).
The revolting practice of offering human sacrifices to her continued until the time of Lycurgus, the great Spartan lawgiver, who put an end to it by substituting in its place one which was hardly less barbarous: namely, the scourging of youths, who were whipped on the altars of the Brauronian Artemis in the most cruel manner. Sometimes they expired under the lash, in which case their mothers, far from lamenting their fate, are said to have rejoiced, considering this an honorable death for their sons (Berens: 96).
It is interesting that initiations into the religion of the Divine Lover-Twins were associated with an encounter with death. This is similar to the modern Craft traditions where initiations are also associated with an encounter with death. This may reveal a connection between Spartan traditions and modern Wiccan traditions, referred to by a published Book of Shadows.
According to the Heritage dictionary, “youth” means a young person; especially a young man. So it seems that the “youth of Lacedemon in Sparta” refers to homosexuals and that the “due sacrifice” to the Spartan Artemis was scouring. If this historical reference was meant to include cross-sex flagellation, then surely the word maiden would also have been included to make clear the scourging was only with male and female partners.
The Charge of the Goddess says the youth made due sacrifice, and Berens states that the youth were the sacrifice. So in Sparta, in worship of Artemis “due sacrifice” was young men scourging other young men! Even though scourging was later introduced in Sparta to replace human sacrifice to the Goddess, sometimes the scourging was so severe that the Lacedemonian youth would perish. Presumably, this is what the Fararrs considered to be too gruesome to mention. Later in the Charge, the Goddess says She demands no sacrifice and so it is in modern times – but She will accept a sacrifice given freely with love.
Not only is Artemis mentioned in the Charge of the Goddess, but so are Diana and Aphrodite. Diana was famous for Her loving attachment to Her female attendants. Diana’s religion was organized like a bee hive, Her priestesses were called melissae or “bees” and Her high priestess was the queen of the bees. Diana was also served by a special class of antineirian priestesses. These particular priestesses were women who rejected marriage, loved hunting, were skilled warriors, hated patriarchal values, and enjoyed the company of other women and gender variant men. These priestesses danced around a sacred oak or beech tree at Ephesus in a circle with their shields and swords (Conner: 1997, 69). [ii]
Portraits of the gender variant priests of Diana called the megabyzoi were hung in Diana’s temples and in tombs contrary to the wishes of Quintillian, a Roman rhetorician of the 1st century CE. He insisted that painters and sculptors refrain from depicting any megabyzoi on aesthetic and moral grounds. Apparently, Quintillian thought these priests were ugly and indecent (Conner: 1997, 229). [iii] Unfortunately, Quintillian was not the last, frightened male to object to the flamboyant freedom of Qwyrs.
The megabyzoi wore a mixture of feminine, masculine and priestly articles of clothing. They shaved, powdered and painted their faces. They wore their hair in a feminine style by looping one lock in front of each ear. They also wore long-sleeved murix-purple garments decorated with golden circles, meanders, diamonds, swastikas, flowers and animals which were all sacred to the Goddess. The color of purple they wore was associated in the Greco-Roman empire with both royalty and effeminacy (Conner: 1997, 229). [iv]
The megabyzoi and melissae were not the only gender variant priests and priestesses who honored Diana with cross-dressing. In the kordax, a religious dance-drama, women dressed as men and wore lombai or “enormous artificial phalli” which they used for penetrating the male dancers who were dressed as women. Not only is the Goddess Diana homoerotic friendly, historically She is bisexual. Britomartis, Cyrene, and Anticleia were Diana’s female lovers who were the first to wear Diana’s gallant bow and arrow-holding quivers on their shoulders. So wrote Callimachus, the royal poet and lover of Pharaoh Ptolemy Philadelphus in his hymn to Diana (Conner: 1997, 69).
Aphrodite was above all a Goddess of love in all its forms, so much so that She was nicknamed Philommedes, “genital loving.” In fact, the Greek term aphrodisia, meaning the “things of Aphrodite,” refers to sexual intercourse according to the classical scholar K.J. Dover (Conner: 1997, 64). [v] Aphrodite has Her own bearded gender variant forms and through Her association with the castrated Cronus is linked to gender variant males. It is She who gave birth to Hermaphroditus, the essential divine form of gender variance. Her beloved priest Cinyras, a legendary ruler of Cyprus, was a transvestite and lover of Apollo. Even the apparently heterosexual favorite of Aphrodite and abductor of Helen, Paris was said to be “unwarlike and effeminate.” He was so favored by Aphrodite that She blessed him with a retinue of eunuchs (Conner: 1997, 64). [vi]
Since ancient times, the Goddess of Love — especially in Her form of Aphrodite Urania, or Heavenly Aphrodite — has been known as a patron of men-loving-men. K.J.Dover points out that in the homoerotic verse of Theogenes, his beloved is considered to be a “gift of Aphrodite” (Conner: 1997, 64). [vii] When Aphrodite appears as a hermaphrodite with female breasts and an erect phallus, She was called Aphroditos or Bearded Aphrodite. She was associated by the ancient Greeks not only with the planet Venus but also with the moon (Conner: 1997, 64). [viii]
In ancient times, this Goddess mentioned in the Wiccan Charge of the Goddess was certainly a patron of sex, one who did not discriminate based on who entered whom. Gardner’s fear and the inclusion of the condemnation of homosexuality in the brand of the Craft which bears his name was contrary to the way his own Witch teachers did things. Gardner’s initiator Dorothy Clutterbuck lived with Elizabeth Slatter instead of with her husband. Elizabeth was described by locals as Dorothy’s “companion” and she went by the name of “John.” Dorothy also wrote passionate love poetry to mysterious women (Hesselton: 2000, 126-176). Perhaps Gardner was caught up in the Christian moral of hating homosexuals, or perhaps he found Dorothy’s lesbianism to be sexy and only condemned male homosexuals.
The sexiness of lesbianism (making it tolerable) may be the reason why some Wiccans insist that two men cannot stand next to each other in circle or work together as partners while at the same time allowing women to stand and work together. Conceivably, it is merely practical for women to be together as there aren’t enough men to go around. However, if Wiccans were really serious about the “rule” for alternating men and women, they would only allow equal numbers of both sexes in circle. There have been many times that I have been in Wiccan circles where the women outnumbered the men. There seem to be objections only when two men stand or work together. Like so many other such “rules,” they are only enforced when useful. Regrettably, too many people still think for a man to emulate a woman is unnatural – that it is improper for a man to relinquish his privileged status. Regardless of prejudged attitudes, the Wiccan Goddesses’ all-encompassing, libertine-loving nature is still remembered in Wiccan circles every time She says, “All acts of love and pleasure are my rituals.”
The ancient association of transvestites with fertility
Perhaps the rule that men and women should stand alternating in a Wiccan circles is a mis-remembering of the tradition of cross-dressing in connection to fertility rites in ancient Britain.[ix] Those individuals who say that there is no place for sexually active homosexual priests or priestesses in a fertility religion should give more thought to the purpose transvestites played in most fertility folk customs throughout Britain. Of course not all transvestites are homosexual, but the language of queerness is applied to both and they both express a non-standard gender.
In Britain, the horse was the most frequent animal disguise used to promote fertility in humans, the earth and in animals. Appearing frequently along with the sexually endowed horse was a man dressed as a woman. In 33 ancient sites in eastern and northern Kent, the transvestite “Mollie” carried a broom and appeared with the “Hooden Horse.” In southern Wales, a black-faced transvestite called “Judy” also with their broom cavorted with “Punch” during the appearance of the Mari Llwyd or “Grey Horse” previously called the Aberyn bee y Llwyd or the “Bird with a grey beak.” In villages around Sheffield, the broom-wielding, black-faced transvestite was called “Our Old Lass.” He took on the role of an old woman appearing in a hero-combat play between the butcher and the sheep-headed horse called “Old Tup.” Even today during the Horn Dance, which still takes place at Abbots Bromley in Staffordshire in early September, there is a transvestite called “Maid Marian” who carries a collecting ladle as a token of their sacred office and appears with the “Hobby Horse.”
The sacred transvestite did not only appear with holy horses, they appeared as an important figure in all manner of fertility rites. In Kent, during the Horn Fair at Charlton, any man could appear in public dressed in women’s clothing. On May Day the lucky London sweeps celebrated with “the Lord and the Lady,” who was, of course, a transvestite. In the May Day battle between the Queen of May and the Queen of Winter on the Isle of Man, the Queen of Winter was a man.
“Moggies” together with his husband can still be seen during the fertility rites on May Day at Ickwell in Bedfordshire. In north Wales the principal character of the fertility dances held in May was the transvestite “Cadi.” The transvestite “Bessie” blessed the ceremony of Plough Monday while the transvestite “Betty” carrying a broom sanctified the Goathlan Plough Stots in north Yorkshire the following Saturday. Ritual cross-dressing for the purpose of promoting fertility was a worldwide folk custom of antiquity which was first recorded in Europe around 400 CE by Severian when he wrote about the kalends (Bord: 1982, 201-218).
Cross-dressers appeared at many fertility folk customs throughout ancient Europe. Sometimes the man (like the Cadi) was dressed as a woman only from the waist down. The image of a man dressed as a woman (in part or completely) carrying a broom was an essential ingredient in most rites to invoke fertility. Feasibly, this is in honor of the role that the mythic bisexual progenitor played in the creation of life on earth. Similar to the image of the brush and pole of the broom which they carried, the image of a single person embodying both sexes implies the psychological/physical/energetic/mystic union of male and female. This is not the union which comes after creation, but their union prior to the forming of men and women that is the source of maleness and femaleness. Thus gender variant individuals participate naturally in the source of creation. To honor them is to honor the act of creation itself thus promoting fertility for man and beast.
What could Qywr magic look like in today’s world?
The Holy loves us with the same love with which we love each other, but raised to the level of the Divine.
–Victor H. Anderson
The Minoan Brotherhood and Sisterhood were created in the 1970s by Edie Buczynski and Lady Miw because they were frustrated with the homophobic attitudes enshrined within the Gardnerian tradition. Part of the Minoan tradition’s mission was to do magic to promote the social acceptance and legal equality of GBLTQ folks. In the Minoan Brotherhood, the Great Goddess of our people is the Mother of the Divine male Lover-Gods. This is similar to the Faerie Tradition of Witchcraft which views the Star Goddess as the progenitor of all life in the universe. Her first born are the Divine Twin-Lovers who can be male-male, female-female, or male-female pairs. They switch gender at will to appear to us in the most suitable and helpful form. They also appear in diverse shapes, sometimes terrifyingly awesome or stunningly beautiful. They always appear in the form which has our best intentions at heart.
This mythology is similar to many different cultures throughout time and in diverse places. Many ancient peoples not only recognized the social reality of homosexuals born of heterosexuals but also recognized their value to society as well. In the recent past, Qwyrs had lost all standing in society but were still valued for their entertainment and decorating skills. Now that the will to oppress homosexuals/bisexuals/transsexuals/queers is lessening in society because of the weakening power of religious ideologues, once again gender variant people can be valued for the multi-skilled talents they so often possess, as well as for simply being who they are.
The mythology of a Mother Goddess and Twin-Lovers is ideally suited to informing Qwyr religion, myths, customs and magic, not only because of its venerable history but also because of its simplicity and beauty. The mythos of a primal Goddess giving birth to Divine Twins of indeterminate gender is so powerful because such a mythic arrangement naturally participates in the magical triangle of manifestation. The power of the One becoming Two and the Two becoming One is the power of creation itself!
The fact that Divine transsexuals such as Ymir, Vishnu as Mohini, Shiva Ardhanarishvara, Baphomet, Hermaphroditus, Mollie, Judy or Bessie are associated with creation and fertility is because They can bridge the gap between women and men and directly show us that within every man and woman lies the power of creation. Every man has female hormones, and every woman has male hormones, each person with their own unique balance.
Utilizing the power of creation — which is the power of love and desire — provides the ecstasy that raises power directly from our bodies and feeds our spells and magics. The use of ecstasy as a main path to the Witch Power is a specialty of gender variant covens. Qwyr folks are adept at ecstatic states which bridge the gap and discharge the force needed for spells because we naturally understand in our guts the intimate connection of ecstasy and creation. This may be why even during the worse times of our persecutions, Qwyr folks were often associated with creativity. This would explain the prevalent folk custom of including a transsexual in fertility rites to represent the ecstasy of union that empowers all kinds of fertility and creativity.
Qwyr culture not only has a spiritual role but also has a supporting role for heterosexual culture. Heterosexual pairings can create families based on bonds of love and caring for each other. However, it is the bonds of love and caring between men and other men as well as women with other women that creates community. It is the circle of community that surrounds the family units to protect them and provide services. Perhaps it is the Great Goddess’ design that we help each other. Heterosexual people give birth and nourishment to Qwyr people who in turn provide multiple services that enriches and enlivens society.
In today’s modern times we can forgo human sacrifice. Our Gods no longer demand blood sacrifice, as ancient Pagan societies started changing their beliefs in the need for and efficacy of blood sacrifice, in addition to recognizing its cruelty. Governments are now the arbitrators of human sacrifice, demanding their populace (but not the politicians) sacrifice their lives and livelihood to their gods of war.
We also don’t need paiderestia as an accepted social institution any more. Now we know the damage done to children from abuse by adults in power is counterproductive to healthy minds and normal social relations. In turn, the damage done to pedophiles destroys their sense of compassion, social appropriateness and their ability to relate to others without controlling them. This type of behavior can lead to abuse of power over others because that is what sex with students by their teachers is often based on. Those with smaller, less encumbered egos tend to try to please those they perceive as more powerful. This kind of abuse of power over others is passed by example onto other generations, destroying slowly the social fabric of community. One cannot build community while hiding sexual misconduct; eventually it will destroy any trust upon which a community is built.
Besides a mythology to help build forms of worship, one needs a healthy understanding of the relationship of sex and love. Victor Anderson used to say that if we had a real understanding of sex, we would feel no dichotomy between love and sex. Our sexual sense is one of our natural senses. It is just as natural as seeing something beautiful and feeling pleasure in the sight of it, or hearing a beautiful sound or music and being transported to an ecstatic state. In today’s world most of us are sexual cripples, crippled by religious morals, sexual predation, a lack of sexual education and a true understanding of sexual abuse as a power play. Most people in the societies of today are taught to ignore or be afraid of our sexual urges that separate our bodies from our nature and the nature of the world. It is no wonder why many people feel disassociated from others and the world.
Victor also said that the association of sex with guilt was accomplished by men who wanted all the power they could grab. They betrayed women and girls by enslaving the weaker willed into submission and taught this perversion down through the generations. Because people were not allowed to choose their own sex partner, but were told who they could and couldn’t have sex with by men in authority, sexual predation and abuse has been nourished up till modern times. Masses of people have easily become perverted into hate which has fed racism, intolerance and the belief that greedy men are natural rulers that ought to be emulated. Because love and sex have become separated, the natural urges that drive evolution became separate from natural sexuality. Our sexuality, once separated from our natural urges, became associated with violence and war. This is the force behind the world’s ubiquitous rape culture that blames women for the indiscretions of men.
Sex magic, on the other hand, can change all that because of its marvelous healing and creative power! It is wonderfully healing, self-empowering, and creative, because rites of sex can allow us to remove the fear, confusion, guilt and shame that authorities use to control us. The Divine desire to create the universe is reflected in our own personal desire for sex. When we realize that we as animals have the right to have sex with any consenting adult, we are naturally closer to the Divine power of creation because we are exercising our own choice rather than someone else’s.
In the ancient Pagan cultures, there are many examples of both acceptance and tolerance and in some cases an elevated status for Qwyr people. These attitudes were reflected in the myths of their Gods and in their laws. It isn’t until more modern times that homosexuality was raised from an ordinary Christian sin, like eating shrimp, into a crime that exceeds the prohibitions of even the 10 Christian Commandments. Consider how often some fundamentalist monotheists bear false witness with the lies they spread about Qwyr folk.
Modern Witchcraft culture itself has struggled with acceptance or tolerance of gender variant behavior. On the one hand is the libertine nature of the Goddess accepts all love and pleasure, which translates into a respect for all of human nature. On the other hand are the centuries of accrued prejudice layered onto the psyches of people by authorities. However, even Gardernians who had no problem with Qwyrs would often bend the rules of conduct because they recognized how ridiculous the rules were. It just wasn’t talked about, like so many other Qwyr things. However, not all Traditional Witchcraft traditions view Qwyrs with the same ambivalence. Some still remember the traditional inclusion of the transvestite in fertility rites to invoke the power of creation.[x]
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.
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.
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.
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 actonly 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.
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.
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 moveindependently 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.
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.
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.
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.