Friday, April 27, 2012

I is for Identity

A more personal one, this week. Not that Heathenry wasn't personal, I guess.... First Identity more generally, using the example provided by Wicca. Then for me specifically.

I have an unpopular stance on Wicca. On what it is, on what it involves, on who can (or should, I guess) call themselves a Wiccan. I've gone through a variety of changes in how I deal with the whole concept, and how I speak to others regarding it.

A lot of people who I don't think are Wiccans still identify as Wiccans. They've been told, one way or the other, that what they do and believe is Wicca. And that is absolutely fair. I don't think that what they do and believe is Wicca, but what I do understand is that this is a term that a lot of people identify with strongly. It forms a part of their identity, and when you say "that's not Wicca", people react negatively, because you're shaking the foundations of who they are. Or who they feel like they are. 

And, OK, shaking those foundations, when it comes to spiritual growth, is actually important. I didn't identify as a Wiccan when I found out what Wicca was (as you will read below). I suppose you could say that discovering Wicca might not be related to the widening of my understanding of Paganism, the opening up of my Pagan world, but it certainly felt like it. And it's certainly true that I've had people come to me months or years after an initial dust-up over "The Definition of Wicca" to apologise if they acted poorly, and thank me for whatever initial jolt I provided that made them take a look at who they were, where they were on their path, and where they wanted to go.

That sounds a bit arrogant. But it's true. It's also very moving. I'm not a teacher, I'm more the sort of person who butts in and says "AC-tually, you're wrong...". I mean, I have to force myself not to do this on the bus and so on. (I can't even blame Loki's influence on this one because I'd been doing it for years before I met him.) But a side-effect of being the person everyone loves to hate in those sorts of situations is that unlike a teacher, you rarely see how things turn out. The obstinate person who maintained that Wicca was Cunningham's teachings, or whatever, and stormed off in a huff might have had some sort of personal revelation, and become a Wiccan initiate (or discovered Kemet, or Buddhism, or CR, or become an Anglican priest.... or whatever) as a direct result of my losing my temper in a stupid internet argument. And unless they track you down, you never find out. So it's gratifying.

Where was I? Oh yes. The "Wicca" discussion.

So. I started out being fairly polite, when the topic came up and I inevitably corrected people with what I understood Wicca to be. But there are a lot of people who think Wicca is something you can initiate yourself into, so... it gets tiring. And everyone has the same argument. It starts with "Actually you're wrong, I read it in all these books by these shitty authors" and usually involves "but what about self-initiation?" and "what about those people who can't find a coven?" as if Wicca is going to change the fundamental nature of what it is to suit people who can't get to coven. After a while of dealing with this, of repeating the same stuff time after time, of citing the same stuff only to have people tell you you're secretly a Christian, or call you a fucking bitch, or say "I left Christianity to get away from this sort of thing!".... you get exhausted. You get burnt out. You get frustrated. And you stop caring.

Not about the issue. You stop caring about people's feelings. You forget to moderate what you're saying because you've said it all so many times before that you provide a pared-down version. Quick, short.... and very blunt. So people react poorly. But people have always reacted poorly, so you feel like you have no reason to be polite. No reason to hold someone's hand through it. And when you do come to your senses and realise you're being a dick, you decide to reform. Next time, you think, I will be Nice. And you are. You're Nice. You're as nice as nice could be. You're compassionate, you're understanding. And you still get called a fucking bitch. 

Fuck it, you think. Why should I be nice when people are so horrible? Why should I even fucking try? It takes so much more energy to be compassionate and walk people through the concept, so why bother if the result is someone swearing at you either way?

Actually not having the discussion at all doesn't really occur. For a few reasons... partly because when you know a few Wiccans, and how strongly they feel about people using a title they worked so hard for inappropriately, you feel like you have to shoulder their burden every once in a while. To pull together with them. Because having had these arguments, you know how exhausting it can be. And partly because you were in the same place as these people once, and you know how much wider and better things are when you have a clearer view of them, and it's only fair that other people have this same opportunity. They can take it or they can leave it. And because, honestly, Wicca is a fantastic religion. From the outside, it seems really awesome. I don't want to join it, because there are elements of it that don't mesh with me, but it is still pretty cool, and I hate the fact that what Wicca is has become so totally obscured by completely different religions using the same name.

I'm at a point now where I find it easiest to just assume everyone has the same definition of "Wicca" as me. I respond to all their comments and questions as if they thought the same way about it as I do. If they ask me why I'm responding in such a way, then I clarify. I feel like overall this is more respectful, but it's also a lot better for my blood pressure. By doing things this way I'm not compromising my own views on Wicca, I'm not lying to myself or to others about what Wicca is, but I'm also not correcting people constantly. It's less tiring. I'm not butting in so much. 

I've deviated from the point - I didn't have to explain all that here, I guess. But I did. It's all related to the Identity issue; the terms you identify with become a part of who you are, and losing them is painful. It involves looking at yourself and realising you may have been seriously Wrong. It involves realising you may have been a bit of a dick, too. But a disruption in your personal identity can also lead to incredible growth. You can shed an old skin and grow a new one. I think from time to time, this sort of disruption is incredibly beneficial. That doesn't mean you should thank everyone who has an argument with you or anything, of course. And... maybe overall, not that many people grow. There are some people who are so attached to their old labels of identity that they won't let them go, and they stay static. They grow, but not in the same way. There's only so long you can hold on to a word that doesn't describe you. In the end, you're lying to yourself, and buying into the lies of others. 

Now. Me.

To begin with, I believed what I read; I thought only Wiccans were witches and that Wicca was whatever you wanted it to be. I read that if you felt like a Wiccan, and a witch, then you were one, so that's what I believed. (Oh the follies of youth -.-) I went in chat rooms and told people they couldn't be witches if they weren't Wiccans, because I was a fucking moron. Blah blah threefold law, etc. I can't remember anyone telling me off for it, which only goes to show I was probably talking to other fucking morons.

Then I realised that that wasn't really true, that you could be a non-Wiccan witch, and that there was eclectic Paganism beyond Wicca,. My world expanded a little. But I still thought I was a Wiccan. I started to identify more as a grey witch than a white one; I had always been an "occult" child and had trouble with the idea of the Rede from the get-go. My first idea was "how do I get around it?". I had no intentions of cursing anyone or anything like that, it was just an uncomfortable fit for me. But I kept with it because I didn't know there was a choice.

Then I started to feel like maybe I wasn't a Wiccan - or that maybe I shouldn't be. I discovered websites about "traditional witchcraft". Various types, but mostly the non-Ceremonial, non-Cochrane type, based on spirit work. No circles, no fancy rituals, nothing like that. And most of all, it wasn't related to the Rede. I made tables comparing Wicca to Trad craft, and ticked off the particular things I believed or did. I realised I was much closer aligned to Trad craft than my shitty misunderstanding of Wicca (let alone Wicca itself!) so I dropped the title. I wasn't a Wiccan. I was an Eclectic Pagan and a witch. And it was so incredibly freeing. I had been trying to force myself into a mould that didn't fit for way too long, and the realisation that I wasn't a Wiccan left me able to explore things I hadn't done before. It also meant that when I found out what Wicca actually was, I took to it easier than some as I wasn't identifying personally with the word.

It was around this time that I picked up "Exploring the Northern Tradition" by Krasskova. I'm sure I've gone into all of this elsewhere... but anyway. I picked it up because I felt as an eclectic Pagan I should be studying various different pantheons, even if I never worshipped any of them. There were a vast number and it felt a bit overwhelming, but I had always felt a Northern pull. The Norse gods had always sat next on my List of Gods to Research, after the Greeks. So I had a look. And then turned up, and had a look at me.

From this point it was a bit of a slow change. I incorporated more and more aspects of reconstruction into my practice. Gods I had previously worked with handed me over to the Norse gods; some I still honour from time to time, even now, but only a few. One in particular with whom I had worked closely let me go entirely, which was painful, but I think she did it because her time with me was over. She'd been watching me until I discovered Heathenry and then eased away, finally handing me over and then leaving. But it took me a long time to identify as a Heathen. I hung on to that "eclectic Pagan" identity longer than perhaps I should have, because I wanted the freedom of that eclecticism, and because I felt like I shouldn't identify with the term "Heathen" without being sure. For about two days I toyed with "Wiccatru" before realising it was a harsh insult and laughing about it. 

Of course, the problem with being an eclectic is that you're a bit rootless. You don't have that term to identify with that ties you to other people who believe the same things. If you're a Heathen you know other people who are Heathens worship the same gods in more or less the same way as you. If you're an eclectic, you don't have that. This was the sort of thing that I hated about being eclectic. I wanted that term to identify with. It gives you earth to root yourself in. It gives you an element of stability. I wanted that. But despite wanting that it still took me a long time to realise, yes, I was a Heathen. And having done so, it is as good as I thought it would be to identify with a specific religion, and know other people who identify with it are Folk of the same gods as you. That identity is fucking fab.

But if you've been reading this blog a while, you know there's another branch to how I identify. That other identity is "Hedgewitch". And I get pissy about this one, because for some reason some people think it means "witch who works alone" or "witch who has a garden" or something. Yes hedgewitches work alone, and some of them have gardens, but those things are hardly the defining aspects. If you're a hedgewitch, you cross the Hedge.

Before I had picked up the Krasskova book, I had been reading "Exploring Shamanism" by Hillary S Webb. To my everlasting shame, I had associated shamanism with First Nations and Native American religions. This book told me that instead it was more of a spiritual role and a practice; while anyone could practice shamanism, not everyone was a shaman. A shaman, said the book, fulfilled a particular role in the community. This wasn't a role I had much of an interest in filling, so thankfully I never identified as a shaman. (Which is good, because when I found out that the word was being appropriated and misused I would have felt pretty shitty.) Nevertheless this book both introduced me to a lot of things that... well, that I was already doing. It gave me some extra tools, and opened my eyes to extra ideas, but a lot of it was things I had been doing for years, even before I had discovered witchcraft or Paganism. They had become massive parts of my spirituality, and this book really expanded my understanding of what I had been doing. These things had always been, but then became even more of, an integral part of my craft.

Witchcraft is a big big area. I never felt right identifying as a "Traditional Witch" because the first sources I found about it were very... I hesitate to say fam-trad, but they were all about unbroken lines of practice from pre-Gardner times. Different families knew one another. It was how they identified, and honestly, I respected that to the point where the term didn't feel right to use. (Now, I tend to say something like "my craft is more a traditional type of witchcraft" or similar, even though I've discovered the term is a little wider than I had first thought.) But when you're a witch, and someone says "what type of witch?", you feel like there should be a concise way to answer. A type of witchcraft with which you identify. I wasn't Wiccan, or Dianic, or Seax, or Green, or Kitchen, or any of that. And so I started looking around at different terms. It wasn't that I wanted to find a specific sort of witchcraft to practice, but that I wanted to find a type of witchcraft that matched what I already did. While I searched, I toyed around with ideas. I liked "Border Witch", but never used it publicly because I was self-conscious about it, and felt a tad silly. But I kept looking. I discovered Hedgecraft, and realise it was more or less the Border-Witch term I had been identifying with already. It reflected the primary aspects of my craft. So I went with it.

There are other terms that contribute to my identity, Pagan-wise. First is "polytheist", because it's so central to my faith and practice, and always has been. Another is "animist", which is a fundamental part of who I've always been, but interestingly is not a word I really identify with.

There's the argument that labels limit, and tie you down. I can see where that would be the case, but I think also it gives you a place to work from. When it comes to Heathenry, it did me a great deal of good. When it comes to Hedgecraft... you know, I don't know why I like the term so much, or why it was important for me to have a particular sort of craft with which to identify. I think maybe it was a way of distancing myself from types of witchcraft with which I really did not identify, such as Wicca-flavoured witchcraft. In the modern world of witchcraft, to many people all witchcraft involves circles and the rede and so on. That is a part of things with which I do not identify at all, but in a lot of situations if you say you're a witch, that's what people will think. That's not me, and I really wanted to make that clear, I think. That's why a particular sort of witchcraft, a particular term that I identified with and that described my craft, was important for me to find.

I could talk about general Pagan identity and identifying as Pagan but seriously this is long enough as it is.

There are other aspects of my identity, of course. I'm speaking solely Pagan- and witchcraft-oriented here. One is "woman". Another is "writer", something that I have trouble with too because there's a part of a lot of writers that tells you you shouldn't identify as a writer until you've had something properly published, even though writing is a massive part of who you are.


  1. I just want to say a lot of yes to this post. And wish that people coming into generic neopaganism would get to see that there is a lot more to practices than merely watered down neowicca. Not saying everyone needs to go recon style, but a better understanding would surely help. Might also get ease up some of that spiritual shopping around.


    1. Agreed. One of the reasons it annoys me that religions like Feri get lumped in with Wicca is because on a real, practical level they are so different. And if you assume they're another form of Wicca, you miss all that.

    2. Seriously. Wicca is not an umbrella for all European-style magical practice and the greater community needs to wake up to that fact. Aie!

  2. Great post, much to absorb and think over here.

    I never identified as Wiccan because of the coven and initiation issues. There's a formality to Wicca I respect and would not think of myself as Wiccan just because I read some books.

    Right now my identity quest is finding out whether I am a Hellenic pagan or a Heathen. I am leaning toward Heathenry although there is much I enjoy about Hellenismos.

    1. Do you need to choose entirely? That is, can you practice both, separately but alongside one another? They are rather different but they're both very interesting, I agree.