Physics is like sex. Sure, it may give some practical results, but that’s not why we do it Richard Feynman
As a fertility cult, Traditional Wicca makes use of symbolism of sexuality as a generative force. Most obviously in the Great Rite, and the blessing of cakes and ale, though also in its use of male–female polarity in ritual interactions, the blessing of generative organs during the Five-Fold Kiss, and the use of a kiss as the Wiccan salute.
Every one of these aspects has made it into some Innovative Witchcraft practice, but all have been omitted or altered in some as well.
Anything which requires a male–female polarity is obviously going to be dropped by single-sex groups, such as those Dianic witches which work in female-only groups. The Traditional male–female creative polarity has also been seen by some as homophobic.
In defining the terms Palæopaganism, Mesopaganism and Neopaganism, Isaac Bonewits includes:
Some Paleopagan belief systems may be racist, sexist, homophobic, etc.…
Examples of Mesopagan belief systems would include… most orthodox (aka “British Traditionalist”) denominations of Wicca.…
Some Mesopagan belief systems may be racist, sexist, homophobic, etc.…
Neopagan belief systems are not [emphasis his] racist, sexist, homophobic, etc.… Examples of Neopaganism would include… most heterodox Wiccan traditions,…1
It is notable in itself that, “most orthodox (aka ‘British Traditionalist’) denominations of Wicca,” are categorised so differently to, “most heterodox Wiccan traditions,” since this presumably corresponds closely with the distinction between what I label Traditional Wicca and Innovative Witchcraft in this work.
Bonewits’ inclusion of the claim that Palæopaganism and Mesopaganism, “may be racist, sexist, homophobic, etc.” would seem to mainly be to contrast it with Neopaganism; “are not” could be a definition, “may be” at most an observation. The wording is hence not very conclusive as far as Traditional Wicca goes; it could after all be just as non-homophobic as he claims Neopagan Witchcraft is, while still belonging to a category that contained other religions that, “may be… homophobic”. But, it is quite emphatic when it comes to the Neopagan category, in which he includes “most heterodox Wiccan traditions.”
While this probably is not intended to imply that nobody that identifies as Neopagan could ever be homophobic, (or for that matter racist),2 it does still strongly suggest that a lack of such discriminatory views is not just common in Neopaganism, but typical of it. Even if significant degrees of homophobia were to be found in Neopaganism, whether explicit in a tradition or merely found amongst individual practitioners, such a statement by a well-known Neopagan stands, at the very least, as a firm statement of what Neopaganism should be, that we could expect to find expressed throughout Neopaganism.
Returning to the male–female polarity used in Traditional Wicca, this heterofocal aspect could be seen by some, both inside and outside, as heterosexist or outright homophobic. Gardner’s fears for acts which could perhaps induce sexual feelings occurring between members of the same sex is now quite widely condemned as homophobic, even by many Traditional Wiccans. The Farrars’ statement that they do not feel qualified to write about homosexuals in the Craft has also been seen my many as homophobic, (though those who prefer that people qualified by identity speak on such matters, may well have quite the opposite view), and their suggestion that two men would be unlikely to work well together as witches, even more so. Even their declaring that they had no problem with gay or Lesbian practitioners, would raise objections for the wording, “assume the rôle of their actual gender,” conflating gender identity with sexual orientation.3
Counter to this, the emphasis on fertility is not exclusive to any other expression of sexuality in a practitioners life. The rôle of fertility as source of crops, livestock, game and children is celebrated, but this is not given as the sole context in which one may, “make music and love, all in my praise.”4 There is perhaps, a colouring added by the much publicised decrees of Christian denominations, such as the Roman Catholic Church, on issues of contraception, fertility treatments and homosexuality. Their condemnation of contraception, in particular, allows for sexual intercourse, solely in a manner that is, at least theoretically, open to being part of the mechanism of fertility. Since few people in the Western world would be entirely ignorant of their position on such issues, this would create knowledge of a particular conflation of sexuality, fertility and religion, that does indeed condemn homosexuality, and which could colour assumptions about how any religion holding fertility to be important, would also view homosexuality.
Of course, the Roman Catholic Church does not generally consider itself to be a fertility cult! The manner in which it comes to value fertility is quite different from a hearty celebration of it, but rather a concession to its necessity, within an Augustine context that otherwise limits all sexual experience.
Another heterofocal aspect of Traditional Wicca, is the advantage seen in the High Priest and High Priestess being lovers or life-partners. Since that is not often possible for a gay High Priest or Lesbian High Priestess, and would seem to devalue the homosexual attractions a bisexual High Priest or High Priestess may experience, this too could be viewed as homophobic. Ultimately though, it is seen as advantageous but not as necessary, and only advantageous for quite specific reasons. It is not appropriate for all straight High Priests and High Priestesses either, (including Gardner), and has not impeded a very large number of gay, Lesbian, and bisexual people, along with straight people in monogamous relationships with people outside the Craft, from fulfilling those rôles. That some in the Craft did see homosexuality among priests as problematic, does necessitate an examination of whether this is inherent to Traditional Wiccan practice, or depended merely upon prevalent homophobia in the wider culture. Leo Martello’s account of a public disagreement, between himself and the editor of The Wiccan magazine, (now Pagan Dawn), points sharply towards the latter. While both engage the question of the gay and Lesbians being involved in a fertility cult examined, and dismissed, above, much of the commentary in The Wiccan is nonsensities, like stating that their contact service for seekers should not be used by homosexuals because,
we are NOT a queer’s contact service [original emphasis],5 a statement that is clearly much more of a jeer, than of any theological position.
This advantage in working couples also being lovers, does though stand as one reason why gay or Lesbian couples may wish to work witchcraft together. While that would stand outside of much Traditional Wiccan practice, some of the advantages of working with one’s lover and life-partner would still pertain to homosexual working couples. Further, while the compatibility of gay men and Lesbians working in a fertility cult has been defended above, this does not mean that some gay men and Lesbians may not personally feel to be placed outside of the mechanisms of fertility by their sexuality, (for that matter, straight people may also feel their relationship to their own sexuality does not relate much to how they perceive the cycles of fertility as operating). For this reason alone, the development of a witchcraft which does not relate to fertility as Traditional Wicca does, is perhaps inevitable. Finally, there has long been religious and mystical expressions of homosex as having its own mysteries, which would be an obvious attraction to some gay, Lesbian, and bisexual witches, along with other non-heteronormative rôles in other cultures such as that of the two-spirits and hijras.
The women-only nature of much Dianic practice, makes it an obvious basis for the development of a Lesbian stream of witchcraft, (if anything this is overstated, given that Dianics, and other Feminist witches, often find it necessary to point out that they are not a Lesbian-only tradition6). Radical Fairies,7 and the Minoan Brotherhood,8 both stand as examples of traditions for gay men.
Perhaps more influential on the development of Innovative Witchcraft as a whole though, are streams which attempt to more comprehensively deal with the sexuality of both straight and gay practitioners. Feri’s ecstatic nature has always enabled it to do so, and as seen above, the influence of Reclaiming on much Innovative Witchcraft has brought Feri elements into the meme-pool from which Innovative Witchcraft operates.
Feri is not a fertility cult though. Standing on its own quite separate from Wicca, it simply is what it is, and homosexual expression is not at odds with any heterofocal elements. Where people take a large Wiccan influence, along with such moves to accommodate homosexual expression, matters can get more complex.
One such attempt used rites which alter the Traditional pairing of athamé and cup, to allow for a pairing of two athamés, or two cups. To do so though, retroactively reïnterprets the original pairing, so that it is not a procreative pairing, but purely a sexual one. As well as removing much of the original symbolism, it could also lead to those traditions, including much Innovative practice, that allows only for the pairing of athamé and cup, to be misunderstood in the newly created context; a misunderstanding where it would be unfairly seen as homophobic, when it is really operating with a different meaning.
An easier way to deal with any such concerns though, is to simply downplay all sexual aspects until the potential issues no longer exist. Many Innovative publications simply omit all reference to sexuality, fertility-based or otherwise. D J Conway stands as quite remarkable in the degree to which she, not only actively moves away from any sexual aspects, but assumes that such attitudes will find many like minds. As noted above she states, “In my opinion, Gardner seems to have been obsessed with nudity, sex, and scourging, traits that may not have appeal to other Witches.” Leaving aside the issue of scourging, as already examined, the two matters left are nudity and sex. Nudity is very much not highlighted in pretty much any form of Wicca or witchcraft that I have come across. To highlight nudity, one would need to place it in a context where others are dressed.9 This is not the norm of any form of skyclad ritual, where if anything one person might be made a focus by being temporarily robed, rather than the other way around. At most, such an unbalance is rarely used in initiatory experiences. Considerations of Conway’s statement about nudity can therefore, probably be folded into what her statement says about sex. It is here that we find the strangest accusation. Compared with such fertility traditions as copulating amongst growing corn, Wicca’s use of sexual symbolism is relatively restrained. An accusation of obsession with something needs more justification than it merely being referenced. At most, we can detect not an obsession with sex, but merely an interest. I would suggest that such an interest is shared by the majority of people, indeed the majority of higher animals. Even if fertility aspects are abandoned, to suggest that many people would not still have an interest in sexual matters, seems to require a much greater defence. A further reflection of much the same attitude comes when she describes the well-known sexual symbolism of the besom as, “notorious.”10
Where does this suggestion of notoriety come from? While Conway may perhaps be atypically prudish amongst Innovative Witches, it seems unlikely that talk of notoriety can be merely a case of false consensus bias on her part and nothing else. Again, concern about sexual elements of Wicca being viewed negatively, has been expressed in Wiccan writing since Gardner’s, “I have been told by witches in England: ‘Write and tell people we are not perverts’….” The difference is not in perceiving that there could be a problem, but in the solution found. Explaining the sexual elements of the Craft dispels some unfair accusations, as will describing policies of propriety that individual practitioners may have, such as Stewart Farrar’s reportage did for Alex Sanders.11 Apart from those who will quite simply refuse to believe what is said in any case, there is also the simple fact that even the element of sexuality that does exist in the Craft, will meet disapproval in some quarters. With sufficiently high emphasis on making the Craft acceptable, there can enter a desire to remove what sexual elements do exist.
Another motivation can exist in the fear that people may use sexual elements as a tool in seduction or coërcion. This is both a genuine concern from the inside, and a fear of how the Craft may be perceived from the outside.
From the outside, the image of the magician unscrupulously seeking to use the arts to seduce women, has been with us since before Dr. Faustus first set eyes on Gretchen. In creating a story of a malicious magic-worker, whether for propaganda, or merely as entertainment, one needs believable motives for wrong-doing, and lust has always been up there with greed and ambition as such motives go. In such manner, the motives of the likes of Faust are no different than villains from an Agatha Christie whodunit, but their means introduces an uncanny element to their crimes; while a mundane criminal may commit rape, or be motivated to murder by the consequences of their own adultery, the supernatural rapist, whether a magician like Faust or a præternatural creature like Dracula, has the ability to control their victims at the level of their own psyche, reflecting fears of lacking control in one’s life to circumstance, or to unvoiced desires. The fear therefore strikes a deeper nerve.
Outside of the realm of fantasy, there have long existed cults whose leaders exercised an extreme degree of sexual control over practitioners. The 1990s saw considerable interest paid to such abuse occurring within the larger established Christian Churches, or criticism against the sexual control they maintained, in what they prevented practitioners from engaging in, rather than insisted upon. For the most part though, history has seen allegations made against new or small groups, ranging from the absurd, (the classic allegation of the orgy following the rite and feast made by the Roman authorities against Christians, and later forming a central theme in the mediæval story of the witches’ Sabbath), to the clearly demonstrable; State of Utah v. Warren Steed Jeffs,12 being that receiving most media attention at the time of writing. This has a twin effect upon the Craft. The first, is that it colours assumptions people are wont to make in relation to any religious grouping, especially if small. The second, is that the Craft’s self-perception of itself as valuing freedom, and hence as having a smaller degree of internal control, leads its practitioners to view themselves, not just as being completely removed from the cults which sporadically grab media attention, but as even further removed from them, than are most other religions. The effect therefore is both on public perception of the Craft, and internal perception of what that public perception is. This cannot help but influence how both Traditional and Innovative alike, write and speak about their Craft, and hence they would inevitably preëmpt possible accusations of the Craft being used for sexual exploitation, which in turn would influence how successors were to write, and so on.
Meanwhile, Feminists in the Craft would also have had an influence. Such examples of sexism as Stokely Carmichael’s statement that, “Women’s position within the SNCC is on their backs,”13 the survival of conservative gender rôles into radical politics complained of by Marge Piercy in, “In the Men’s Rooms,”14 and the sort of gender issues within the New Left highlighted in Robin Morgan’s, “Goodbye to All That,”15 all taught Feminists, that when it came to other movements they were involved with, they would not be able to assume freedom from sexual harassment and exploitation, but must work to ensure this was so themselves. It would have been foolish to assume that any form of Paganism would not contain much the same problems, without an active pressure to ensure it didn’t.
And finally, as numbers involved in Pagan witchcraft specifically, and Neopaganism generally, grew, the chances that there would indeed be sexual predators within the community naturally increased. The self-selecting nature, all the more pronounced the wider the definitions one is using, meant that there was nothing in the way of formal sanctions to prevent such behaviour taking place. The only real weapons available to those who would ensure that it did not, is to work to establish an intolerance for such behaviour as a cultural norm within the communities, and to warn members, especially newcomers, to be on their guard for the possibility.
In such a context, even the most oblique reference to sexuality could seem inappropriate to someone developing or adapting their own practice of witchcraft, and even more so should it come to be published in a description, or in a how-to guide on how others could make use of that same practice. Statements would be made with one eye on a hypothetical hostile critic, one eye on a hypothetical potential victim of abuse, while struggling also to discourage a hypothetical reader who would indeed be inclined to take just such an opportunity to abuse. A tendency to downplay the sexual aspects of the religious rites, (and even more so the possibility of using sex-magic), would be natural, since any attempt to convey a genuine impression of the reality of the Craft must consider possible preconceptions on the part of the audience, and downplaying such aspects could indeed result in a more accurate portrayal overall.
Just how real the danger of such abuses is, is hard to say. Human nature being as it is, the idea that almost nobody has ever expressly attempted to use pagan or occult interests as a front to allow sexual conquests or worse, is pretty hard to defend. The fact that sexual relationships do develop within both within the Craft, and the wider Pagan community, from brief flings to long-lasting marriages, also brings with it the risk for abuse that occurs within relationships that start consensually, and of heavy-handed attempts to form them, that happen in the wider community.
While there are some well-documented cases, the majority of claims of such instances are very much anecdotal. More than a few contain a fair degree of mocking comedy. One example from a web-based discussion group aimed at mocking aspects of Pagan culture,16 aside from deriving humour from the incompetence of the attempt at seduction, contains several classic elements of the “foolish fluffy” story; goth sub-culture style of dress, use of the Necronomicon as a source, mispronunciation of athamé, and a naïf pretending to expertise. In this case the point is as much to condemn such folly, as any sexual misconduct, but such elements often appear in such stories; they are tales of the naïve preying on the even more naïve, rather than of cunning Svengali-like manipulators.
Does this mean that these stories are repeated or perhaps even created, purely for comic effect? It could be that such comic versions of the story are safer to repeat; we can laugh at the culprit and so reduce the fear of him. It could also reflect a moral philosophy where wrongdoing is seen as always foolish, and so the tale must demonstrate this. As such, the choice of evidence people choose to use in describing the potential for abuse, is itself coloured by a desire to downplay it.
Since works build on those works prior, this downplaying of the sexual aspects of the Craft will inevitably increase as time goes on, as later generations of writers are not just downplaying, but were introduced to witchcraft by resources which had already downplayed them. The stage is set for the uneasy descriptions of sexual symbolism in Conway, or for Ravenwolf’s infamously sexist and puritan description of loss of virginity, or the physical evidence of it, as impure; “… the traditional colors for Mayday are red and white, representing the blood that flows from the woman when her purity is taken.”17
The development of a public face of witchcraft aimed at children and teenagers, increases the desire for a form of witchcraft without any overt expression of sexuality, neither in terms of its rôle in fertility, nor the ecstatic, nor any other.
In the meantime, while it may be pressure to be more acceptable to a wider community, that has led to sexuality being de-emphasised in representations of witchcraft, that same increase in acceptance has given witches access to areas of the media that already have their own sexual mores. Fiona Horne’s Magickal Sex: A Witches’ Guide to Beds, Knobs and Broomsticks and Bewitch a Man: How to Find Him and Keep Him Under Your Spell, Stella Damiana’s Sex Spells: the Magical Path to Erotic Bliss, Stacey Demarco’s Witch in the Bedroom: Proven Sensual Magic and LaSara Firefox’s Sexy Witch,18 each take slightly different approaches to the intersection of sex and witchcraft, but are all marketed rather similarly. Ironically, this may not so much be a backlash, as the filling of a vacuum; the desexualisation of Wicca has left a tabla rasa, onto which commercialised sex can more easily be projected.
- [Bonewits 1979]
- If it is, I can sadly attest that he is wrong on both counts, from the example of some Neopagans I have met.
- [Farrar & Farrar 1984]
- [Martello 1972b]
- [Buckland 1986]
- [Adler 1997]
- Hence when nudity is fetishised, it is generally in a context such as, public exposure, forced nudity, nude male/clothed female, naked servants, etc., which all highlight it by putting it in an unbalanced situation. Even the most vanilla sexual representations of nudity reflect this, with stripteases involving people becoming naked, rather than being naked, and soft-pornographic nudes, of the kind found in British tabloids, capitalising on the relative rarity of nakedness in our culture.
- [Conway 2001]
- [Farrar 1971]
- [Utah 2008]
- His exact words were “the position of women in SNCC is prone,” but most commentators seem to assume he meant “supine” rather than “prone.”
- Piercy, Marge, “In The Men’s Rooms” in [Piercy 1972]
- [Morgan 1970]
- [Peregrine 2007]
- [Ravenwolf 1993]
- [Horne 2002], [Horne 2006], [Damiana 2005], [Demarco 2006] & [Firefox 2006]