Witch at Large: Ruminations from a Grey Perspective

Seeing Paganism in terms of being a movement, explorations of our history, societal context, comparisons to other religious movements, and general Pagan culture.

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Honoring Our Ancestors -- at Samhain and at the Polls

Reading is as necessary to my life as air and water. I read lots of different genres, but one that's captivated me the last several years, in part because of the genealogical research I've been doing, is history, American history in particular. I read history in order to understand humanity and the way we humans have organized ourselves, intentionally or not, into tribes, states, nations, even neighborhoods.

I also read to try to understand the lives, the circumstances, and the motivations of my ancestors. As Samhain approaches I reflect upon the lives of some of my ancestors. For instance, my maternal grandfather's grandfather, William H. Van Tine, (pictured here) served in the Pennsylvania 58th Infantry and was killed in April 1863 in a battle in New Bern, NC, so I've been reading some Civil War history. Another ancestor, my grandmother's grandfather, The Rev. Alpha Gilruth Kynett, was, among other things, a founder of the Anti-Saloon League. His brother Harry, a medical doctor, served on the U.S. Sanitary Commission in the state of Iowa. The Sanitary Commission was a private relief organization created during the Civil War to care for sick and wounded soldiers, the precursor to the Veterans' Administration.1

Pvt. William H. Van Tine

It is particularly at this time when we Americans elect our legislators and vote on local and state policy, coinciding as it does with the season when we celebrate our beloved dead, that I remember those from whom I trace my bloodlines who helped make it possible for us to exercise this right. I think of what I've learned of a 17-year old Lawrence Peterson who joined George Washington's Army in the war the freed the European colonies in North American from English rule. One of his daughters married one of my Kynett ancestors, and from them eventually I came along.

I also read history to learn more about our Pagan heritages. One area where I see commonality between European immigrants to North America and modern-day Pagans is our dreams of a Utopia. (More about that in a subsequent blog.)

Although I'm unaware of any American ancestor having been Pagan (or even pagan), I'm sure if one traces far enough into the past, we all have pagan ancestors. Reading about their times, their history, which is our history, informs how we see view society and the world.

From our pagan ancestors in Athens of the early sixth to mid-fifth centuries B.C.E. we learn the concept of democracy ("rule of the people"). They practiced direct democracy in which nearly all citizens in residence participated. Citizenship itself was restricted to males who were born citizens. No metis (resident foreigners), women, or slaves (mostly Slavs) could vote. This system excluded much of their populace, but still the seeds were sown.

In the centuries since the Golden Age of Athens the notion of democracy has been refined and expanded. Perhaps your great-grandmother was a Suffragette working to enfranchise women, a struggle lasting from approximately 1850 to the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920.2 Perhaps you parents traveled to Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1964. Or, like me, you had forebears who fought in the War Between the States.

May 10, 1915, New York City

We honor the memory of these ancestors when we participate in our own democracies. First and foremost I believe we are duty-bound to vote. We dishonor their memory if we grow complacent and disengaged.

I think that the more we Pagan voters express our will at the polls, the greater our potential influence in creating a world more harmonious with our values. I love seeing out Pagans in prominent political positions. So far, however, the only Pagans I've known in political life are those who've felt it necessary to keep silent about their religious affiliations. I'd love to see the day when we recognize ourselves in those arrayed in the political fora, along with other citizens from minority religions.

Whoever your ancestors are, whether American by birth or more recently arrived, by whatever means and due to whatever circumstances of life, I urge you to honor their lives by participating in the democracy they made possible, or immigrated to enjoy, and by voting on November 6 (if not sooner).

I end with the words of a spell articulated by Nora Bee and Walker that you may wish to use:

May the American people open to clarity, connection and compassion.  May our leaders take actions that honor the dignity of all beings.  May we have the courage to live in our vibrant and thriving future, which supports the wellbeing of all.

So mote it be!



  1. Knowing this makes me read the "paganish" Walt Whitman, who cared for wounded soldiers throughout the conflict, with more immediacy for the sense of their experiences (Walt's and Great-Great Uncle Harry's).

  2. In 1913, my late Faery friend Alison Harlow's grandmother and aunt marched down Fifth Avenue in New York for women's right to vote.

© 2012 Aline O'Brien (M. Macha NightMare)

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Aline O’Brien (M. Macha NightMare), Witch at Large, has circled with people of diverse Pagan paths throughout the U.S., and in Canada and Brazil.  Author of Witchcraft and the Web (2001) and Pagan Pride (2004), and co-author, with Starhawk, of The Pagan Book of Living and Dying (1997), Macha has also contributed to anthologies, periodicals, textbooks, and encyclopedias.  A member of the American Academy of Religion, the Marin Interfaith Council, and the Nature Religion Scholars Network, Macha also serves as a national interfaith representative for the Covenant of the Goddess (CoG) and on the Advisory Board of the Sacred Dying Foundation.  Having spent the last eleven years developing and teaching at Cherry Hill Seminary, the first and only seminary serving the Neopagan community, Macha now serves on its Board of Directors. An all-round Pagan webweaver, she speaks on behalf of Paganism to news media and academic researchers, and lectures at colleges, universities and seminaries. www.machanightmare.com


  • Hunter Liguore
    Hunter Liguore Wednesday, 31 October 2012

    Really appreciated the historical elements to this piece. This line in particular should be chiseled and hung somewhere: "We honor the memory of these ancestors when we participate in our own democracies. First and foremost I believe we are duty-bound to vote. We dishonor their memory if we grow complacent and disengaged."

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