I used to be afraid of the word “witch” because it sounds pretty nuts. I’m not into LARPing, I don’t go around talking about the “goddess” or casting spells, and, okay, I do read too many fantasy books, but that’s beside the point. Witchcraft has a long, time honored tradition that my faith is directly descended from. I’m not a Wiccan (although many Wiccans consider themselves to be witches). People used to live mostly in harmony with magic users and had many names for them: witches, shamans, druids, kabbalists, and, yes, even priests. They were often healers, teachers, and holders of spiritual knowledge.
Here’s what “pagan” means to me – paganism is a spiritual practice outside of the Abraham tradition (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). From a historical perspective, it included a wide variety of indigenous and polytheistic religions, such as the Greek and Roman pantheon and mythology of the classical world. Neo-paganism, or modern paganism, is an equally wide variety of spiritual practices with no single set of beliefs, practices, or texts. There’s some common threads that run through many of the faiths, however, such as polytheism or worship of nature. (Still, these beliefs are not rules – for example, I’m a pantheist, not a polytheist or monotheist, meaning I believe all things are part of the divine.)
My Spiritual History
Let’s start with my background – I wasn’t raised in a religious home. Sure, we celebrated Christmas and Easter, but only in the most secular of ways. I’ve never been to a church service before beyond a wedding. If anything my dad was agnostic and my mom was Buddhist-ish, spiritual hippie. I was, however, completely fascinated by the Bible. I inherited a children’s picture book version from some family members and would spend hours flipping through the stories of Joseph and Jesus and Moses and all the rest. My pagan-leaning mom was completely convinced I was going to grow up to be a Christian.
At the age of 11, I stumbled onto Wicca. Like many girls of that age, it was a religious concept that spoke to me because it helped me feel more in charge of my own life. For those of you unfamiliar with Wicca, it’s a modern, earth-based religion that identifies as a form of witchcraft. It’s fundamental principles are harming none, connection with nature, and the law of three (whatever you do comes back to you 3 times as strong – kind of a form of karma). It’s not a cult or a form of Satanism – as I said, it’s outside of the Abrahamic tradition, and fundamentally Wicca doesn’t really believe in “true evil” at all. It’s a pretty hippie-dippy spiritual practice.
I was always a very thoughtful child, fascinated with the philosophical, moral, and spiritual implications of death, god, and so forth. I was also pretty lonely and isolated, partly because of this pretty premature curiosity. I didn’t have many friends that were interested or could keep up with my questions, although I was lucky enough to have a mom who nurtured and encouraged my penchant for philosophy and religion.
In high school, I finally stumbled into a group of girls with a similar set of spiritual beliefs who loved having the same sorts of philosophical and religious conversations I craved. I was very lucky to find them, and for the first time in my life, I didn’t feel isolated by my faith. Interestingly, many of our mothers shared our “quirky” ideas about the world, and there were many trips to the renaissance faire, equinox rituals, bonfire dances, and trips to our local spiritual bookstore. I bought my first tarot card deck (and then another four after that…). I had dozens of books about herbs and runes. I had a trunk full of candles and incense. And I remember late nights and long walks where my girl friends and I would discuss the divine, death, and our beliefs.
Although I grew out of Wicca specifically as a spiritual practice, the word pagan seems to be a good word for where I currently find myself spiritually. I find it to be a good “catch all” term for salad bowl spirituality, where I can pick and choose my favorite parts from every religious practice rather than sticking to a particular book or leader. I find that helps me stay more true to myself.
Although I never grew up to be a Christian, I did get my BA in Classical Studies in college with an emphasis in Biblical Studies. I have more than a passing understanding of the Old and New Testament. On a whole, I still find the stories and teachings to be compelling, but I am fascinated with it as a historical text, not a spiritual one. I don’t think Christianity (or any religion for that matter) is fundamentally bad – I think there are some worthwhile teachings and stories to be found within its texts. I think it’d be wonderful if all of us, both Christians and non-Christians alike, were better about practicing charity, compassion, and some of the other positive principles that the New Testament emphasizes.
What do I believe now? The specific spiritual philosophy I subscribe to is called Chaos Magick (which sounds way more outlandish than it actually is). If it sounds familiar, it’s probably because Sophia Amoruso mentioned it in her memoir, #GirlBoss. The basic concept is pretty simple – intention and symbols have power. I discussed this in my recent post about tattoos. After all, having a saying or a symbol permanently etched on your body that you and other people will see on a regular basis is some pretty significant stuff.
Here’s another example: Let’s say you have a portrait of the Virgin Mary put up by your front door. Every day when you leave the house, you look at her picture and think about all the things she embodies (kindness, courage, etc.) and you go on with your day thinking how you would like to emulate those traits. That intention imbues “energy” into your actions, thoughts, and conversations.
The important thing to note, however, is the power doesn’t come from a particular symbol (like the Virgin Mary), but rather the intention behind it. Replace Mary with anything else – the peace sign, swastika, or even a cartoon character. When we “meditate” on these things, placing them around our home and on our bodies, we bring their energy into our lives. Even if the symbol is a non-traditional one like your favorite Disney character, all that matters is it has significance to you.
Chaos Magick arguably isn’t even a spiritual belief at all, but rather a psychological practice. Of course, when you think about something regularly, you’re more likely to embody that thing. Some people take it with more spiritual weight, believing in a metaphysical “energy” that charges these symbols and intentions. I’m somewhere in the middle. At the end of the day, what really matters is the belief in something. If you believe in Christian teachings, than you make those true in your world. If you believe in Islam, astrology, or ethical atheism, same thing.
If you’re interested in learning more about neo-paganism, I highly recommend Generation Hex, a compilation of essays from a number young pagans. Condensed Chaos is widely considered to be the go-to manual on Chaos Magick (although Sophia did a decent job discussing it in #GirlBoss). For some quick reading on witchcraft and Wicca, Gala Darling did a great interview on her website with two practitioners.
*Blogger’s Note: It was more-or-less complete coincidence I decided to share this on Halloween (also known as Samhain, one of the Pagan Sabbats). I’ve actually been sitting on this post for a few weeks, editing it and re-editing it because it’s such a personal subject. Anytime we expose anything deeply close to our hearts on the internet, it can be kind of terrifying, especially something that might be deemed “controversial.” That being said, the longer I’ve blogged here at Oddly Lovely, the more important it has become to feel like I’m being real and honest with you guys. This is probably not a topic I’ll talk about regularly, but I wanted to share it, because it’s part of who I am. Please don’t hesitate to let me know if you guys have any questions or want to know more!
First photo is taken by my homegirl Justine Highsmith.