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.

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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.

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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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How Much Is Good Ritual Worth?

How much is good ritual worth?

I have a friend who's a shaman. (That's not the term that she would use, but it will suffice for our purposes here.) She's the real thing. Anyone that knows her knows that she's the real thing.

She charges $400 an hour.

When people come to her for ritual or for teaching, she tells them: My fee is $400 an hour. How many hours do you think you'll need?

 

Unlike the ancestors, a lot of modern pagans are squiffy about paying for ritual. In a situation in which few traditions have much time-depth, and anyone who declares herself an expert can pass as such—at least for a time—that's perhaps understandable, but it also explains the currently low standard of so much contemporary pagan ritual.

What it doesn't explain is why so many people who are willing to pay a trained expert to fix their cars, their plumbing, or their wiring, expect ritualists to work for free.

Few pagan ritual experts receive a salary from a congregation. Like everyone else, ritualists have families to raise and bills to pay.

With ritual—as with most other things—you get what you pay for.

 

My shaman friend was invited to be a guest at a local festival. When she arrived, she introduced herself to one of the festival's organizers, a woman widely known in the local community as a notoriously incompetent ritualist.

“Oh, I know who you are,” the woman told my friend. “You're the one who charges for ritual.”

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The Charge of the Generic Modern Pagan Deity

Just fill in the blanks.

 

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  • Jamie
    Jamie says #
    Mr. Posch, Splendid! It reminds me of the episode of "Robot Chicken", where an entire episode of "Law & Order" is re-enacted ov

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