Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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Steven Posch

Steven Posch

Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.

Posted by on in Culture Blogs
In Praise of 'Rosemary's Baby'

"Anything they say about us becomes ours, to do with as we please."

(C. F. Moore)

 

If (like me) you're one of those who has read pretty much everything that there is to read on the subject of witches, let me ask you: what do you think of J. R. Hanslet's 1933 All of Them Witches?

Isn't it a classic? Beautiful writing, good research, and—best of all—all that hot, hot information on what the Craft looked and felt like back BW (Before Wicca).

If you've got a copy (that beautifully-crafted J. Waghorn edition, with the real gold lettering and the black goatskin binding), hold onto it. It's never been reprinted, and (if you can find one), it will go for more than $1300.

Ha! Gotcha! If you think that you've read Hanslet's magnum opus, apparently you're one of those witches (gods know there are plenty of us out there) who can't admit that there's anything Craft-related that she doesn't know. Call it the Granny Weatherwax Syndrome.

In fact, you can't have read J. R. Hanslet's All of Them Witches because there is no such book. It's straight out of Ira Levin's brilliant 1967 witchsploitation novel Rosemary's Baby. Remember? It's the book that Hutch leaves to Rosemary that enables her to figure out that her neighbors (the ones who brought over the black candles during the big power outage) are actually witches and are planning to sacrifice her baby to Satan.

Or so she thinks.

“It's a religion,” she tells her husband (but it turns out he's a witch too). “It's an early religion that got—pushed into the corner” (177).

Personally, I think Rosemary's Baby is required reading for every modern witch: a little black gem of a novel, beautifully structured, with lots of twists and a delicious hermeneutic of suspicion. Don't trust anyone: they're all of them witches.

And, I mean. When, in the closing scene, Roman Castevet ( Steven Marcato) cries out: “He shall overthrow the mighty and lay waste their temples! He shall redeem the despised and wreak vengeance in the name of the burned and the tortured!” (236). Well, really, how can you help but chime in with a Hail Satan! or two, regardless of whether you actually believe in him or not?

Whenever I'm drawing up a bibliography on the Craft that lists enough books to make it inconspicuous, I almost always slip J. R. Hanslet's All of Them Witches in amongst the others. For those in the know, it'll read as a joke. For those that aren't, well...let 'em wonder. The god of witches—Old Wagtail Himself—is a notorious Trickster, and we, his children, are like him.

Because, best of all, Rosemary's Baby is a true story. That bit about the Horned siring children on mortal women: it's all true. In fact, my dear brother or sister in the Craft, he sired you.

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Santeria Envy, or: What Do You Say When You Hear Thunder?

Sometimes you can't help but be jealous.

Guillermo was born in Havana, so naturally our conversation eventually turned to Santeria. Like most New Pagans, I've got a pretty pronounced case of Santeria envy.

Guillermo grew up surrounded by the Way of the Saints but doesn't really practice it any more.

“I still find myself saying Eparreí Changó whenever I hear thunder, though,” he said, laughing. “Some things you never lose.”

Oh, those fortunate intact cultures.

What do you say when you hear that first peal (or rumble, or crash) of Thunder in a storm? Certainly it calls for some sort of response. When someone you love and respect calls to you from across the room, do you ignore it and say nothing? Probably not.

In the old days, pretty much all cultures had a healthy respect for the Thunderer. It's hard not to. He's big, he's loud, he's powerful, and we couldn't get along without him. 1400 years ago, the Anglo-Saxon Hwicce—the original Tribe of Witches—called Him Þunor.

We call Him Thunder today. When I first hear His voice, I've taken to greeting Him by Name, along with a vocable: a word without literal meaning that signifies nonetheless.

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Recent Comments - Show all comments
  • Ian Phanes
    Ian Phanes says #
    I say: "Hail, Taranis!"
  • Anthony Gresham
    Anthony Gresham says #
    Honestly my usual response is: "was that thunder, or did someone crash their truck?"

Posted by on in Culture Blogs
Is Witchcraft a Religion?

According to the Twitter witches, witchcraft isn't a religion, it's a magical technology.

According to Margaret Murray, Gerald Gardner, and several million Wiccans worldwide, witchcraft is primarily a religion with a strong grounding in magical practice.

So who's right?

If I had to pick a side of the hedge to stand on—I can scarcely believe that I'm saying this—I would be among the nimble-thumbed Twitteratti. But let me add a caveat.

As I see it, the Craft is an inherited magical technology. It's the ancestral magical technology of the Tribe of Witches. As such, it does not per se constitute a religion.

But here's the caveat: just like everything else, magical technologies are not culturally freestanding. Every magical technology is, of necessity, grounded in a particular culture.

Ours roots in the tribal culture of the Tribe of Witches, in which—like pretty much every other pre-modern culture—religion and everyday life are so thoroughly interlaced as to be indistinguishable from one another. There's no separate word for “religion” in the old Witch language.

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  • Anthony Gresham
    Anthony Gresham says #
    I would have said that witchcraft is a way of looking at and interacting with the world that is contrary to the general beliefs of
Tribe of Witches, or: Which Witch is Whitch?

I wish I could remember which book I first read it in.

(A friend later confirmed for me that he, too, had read the same book, and mentioned some details that I had forgotten, so I know that I'm not making this up. Alas, he couldn't remember what book it was either.)

(I'm pretty sure it was one of the Second Generation of Craft books, and that it was by one of the Mothers of the Modern Craft: probably Doreen Valiente or Pat Crowther. Anyone?)

So: supposedly, there's this group (read: coven) out there that claims descent from the Hwicce, the original Anglo-Saxon Tribe of Witches. They claim to be practicing the old tribal religion. When you're initiated into this group, you become a member of the tribe, and a participant in the ongoing life of the tribe.

Now, I have to say: If true, this is one of the most compelling stories that I've come across so far in the modern pagan narrative. Everybody wants a tribe to belong to, pagans as much as anybody.

In 2008 maverick British archaeologist Stephen J. Yeates published his Tribe of Witches: The Religion of the Dobunni and Hwicce, which makes a similar claim: that modern witchcraft descends from the old tribal ways of the Hwicce: Goddess, Horned God, and all.

Personally, I'm not convinced of the historicity of this claim. It looks to me as if Yeates started, not with the Hwicce, but with modern Wicca, and worked backward. The Wikipedia article on the Hwicce even cites me on this.

Linguists mostly agree that witch and Hwicce come from different roots. Exactly what the tribe's name originally meant is unclear. What we can say is that hwicce is also a common noun in Anglo-Saxon meaning “chest, barrel.” (This seems an unlikely source for an ethnonym, but who knows?) In fact, this word survived into Middle and Early Modern English as whitch. Draw your own conclusions.

The Anglo-Saxon Hwicce inhabited the basin of the Severn River. (The Severn is still counted as the Sacred River of the Witches, and we still name our daughters Sabrina in her honor.) As it happens, we can make both an archaeological and a genetic case for continuity of both population and culture between them and the Keltic Dobunni, who lived in the same area. According to novelist Parke Godwin, Artos the Bear—him that the cowans call King Arthur—was himself a Dobunni lad. J. R. R. Tolkien, in a letter to one of his sons, claimed Hwiccan ancestry (from Wychwood, no less: the "forest of the Hwicce"). Some of my own family hail from that part of the world, for what it's worth.

So the historical Tribe of Witches (or Whitches) was a mixed people, Keltic and Anglian, just as the modern Wheel of the Year (for example) is a mixture of Keltic and Germanic. Well.

Now, tribes are interesting things. You can be born into a tribe, but that's not the only way to belong. You can marry in, you can adopt in, you can initiate in, or you can enculturate in.

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  • Anthony Gresham
    Anthony Gresham says #
    I finally got a copy of "The Tribe of Witches: The Religion of the Dobunni and Hwicce" by Stephen J. Yeates. It was interesting.

Posted by on in Culture Blogs
Theological Emergency

A few years back, I spent the Spring holidays with my cousin and his family in Germany.

I was standing in the kitchen eating a piece of Easter candy when little Anja walked in. As usual, she didn't miss much.

She immediately took in the bag of candy—exactly the same kind of candy that she'd found in her basket a few days earlier—and you could see lights going on behind her eyes.

Her chin began to wobble.

“But I thought...I thought the Bunny brought the candy!”

Being myself neither a parent nor a believer, I was clearly out of my depth here. I said something mollifying and went to get my cousin.

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On the Brilliance of 'Blessed Be'

“'Blessed Be': that's what the Satanists say to each other,” said my friend Blaine.

It was the early 70s. Blaine and I were both in high school. Clearly, he'd seen some TV special about contemporary witchcraft which he hadn't completely understood and, just as clearly, something about the saying had caught his fancy.

“Seems like a strange thing for Satanists to be saying,” I said.

I was making a point while trying not to seem to be making a point. I already knew a thing or two on the subject, quite enough to know that it most certainly was not Satanists who were saying “Blessed Be” to one another.

It was also enough to be abundantly clear to me which side of the Hedge I stood on myself.

 

Blessed Be. (That's three syllables now, not two.) It's a blessing; it's a spell. It means many things: Hello, Good-bye, Amen. It means: I'm one, and you're one too. It means: I acknowledge you as an equal. It means: We belong to the same tribe.

It's also an allusion to deep myth and liturgy. Blessed be the feet which have brought thee in these ways, says the Horned to the Lady in the Underworld, as he tenderly kisses said feet. This story, of course, is the mythic charter for initiation, as well as for the act of liturgical adoration, the Fivefold Kiss. (“What is the Five that is Eight?” is a kind of Wiccan koan.) Blessed Be: a world of meaning in two simple words.

(When I once met the Goddess in the middle of a flowering summer meadow—but that's a tale for another night—my knowledge of this rite gave me a fitting liturgical response to a theretofore—in my experience, anyway—unprecedented situation.)

After decades in the Craft, I'll admit that “Blessed Be” had, for the most part, donned something of an invisibility cloak for me: it's so ubiquitous that I'd almost stopped consciously seeing and hearing it. “BB!” friends often write, at the end of letters or e-mails, or sometimes even say: an intimate gesture, yet by that very intimacy rendered even more mysterious and in-the-know.

Anyone who knows magic knows that this is precisely the situation in which words have their most powerful effect: when they operate largely, if not wholly, on the unconscious level.

Not all religions have their own greetings, but the Craft—insofar, at any rate, as one may consider the Craft a religion—is one of them, and it's a brilliant stroke. The phrase seems innocuous, even benevolent, as, indeed, it is.

But don't be fooled.

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Witch Island, or: Stands-in-the-Water

The way they tell it, Him that we call the Horned came down from heaven. Like a star he came down.

He came down to bring us Fire.

They say he looked down and saw that the People were cold and hungry, and in darkness, so he brought us the Fire of the gods. Like lightning he fell from heaven, or a star.

And that's where he landed: the Mountain that stands in the Mississippi.

Hay-nee-ah-chah, the Indians called it (that would be the Ho-Chunk): “soaking mountain,” and Pah-hah-dah, “moved mountain” (that's the Dakota). Trempealeau, the Frenchies named it, le montagne qui trempe à l'eau: the mountain that wades in the water.

Stands-in-the-Water, they call it, or the Black Mountain, because it's dark with oaks and maples.

(There's rattlesnakes out there, they say, to guard it.)

They call it the Sabbat Mount.

Nobody goes out there much, except for kids. Well, Indians too. There's mounds out there, if you know where to look for them, old mounds, some of them shaped like birds, or deer.

Well, and witches, of course.

Ever since he came down, that's been Witch Country down there, the Driftless. Witches all over. That's where they go for their jamborees, the witches, out to the Mountain that stands in the River.

You've seen the fires burning out there at night, and heard the drums. So have I.

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