We drank the wine, and broke the bread,
And ate it in the Old One’s name.
We linked our hands to make the ring,
And laughed and leaped the Sabbat game.
Oh, little do the townsfolk reck,
When dull they lie within their bed!
Beyond the streets, beneath the stars,
A merry round the witches tread!
from The Witch’s Ballad by Doreen Valiente
People assume a lot about witches and pagans, and much of it springs from the fanciful pages of gothic and paranormal fiction. Sometimes I really wish I could be at least half of all the things they imagine, but I daresay that most would find my witchy life quite mundane in comparison.
Many moons ago (I’m not going to say exactly how many), when I began testing the uncharted heathen waters, I found divided camps. Now, keep in mind that I was exploring paganism in the southeastern U.S., and many witches here (self included) were brought up in extremely conservative, fundamentalist churches. On one side of the pagan fence, I found those who practiced a freewheeling, skyclad (sans clothing) version of Wicca. On the other side of the fence, I found those who preferred to stay fully robed and far, far away from anything resembling an unbridled, ecstatic rite.
It was a bit confusing. Did we not leave the repressive church to experience something different? Were we simply trading one dogma for another?
I began circling with all-female groups, mostly because I had heard stories about lecherous male pagans and high priests who insisted on sexual initiations for female coven members. That sort of thing tended to get my feminist hackles up, as I did not want to be in yet another situation where men had ultimate power and women were subservient. Looking back, I wonder if there was even a kernel of truth in any of those stories. I’ve met precious few men in the pagan world, but most have been kind, strong and deeply respectful of women as the embodiment of the Goddess. Had the patriarchy infiltrated so deeply into paganism, or was it all just a projection of deep-seated fears that women have carried for millennia?
Most of what we knew, or thought we knew, about covens came from British Traditional Wicca. When I review the works of Valiente, the Farrars, and other witches who were writing and publishing throughout the 1970s, it seems as though their ideas were somewhat diluted in the crossing of the Atlantic to America. Perhaps it’s because they landed on Puritanical soil, which wasn’t quite ready and willing to receive them.
What I love most about these foundational writings is that they address sexual polarity and how central it is to Wiccan philosophy and practice. There is always a High Priestess and a High Priest, serving in equality, as representatives of the Goddess and God. The balance and beauty of that is undeniable.
Early covens also adopted ritual nudity in order to be completely free of the notion that the body is profane, to rise above ego and persona, and to increase psychic power and awareness. Perhaps this was partly inspired by the sexual revolution of that era as well, but even so, they were tapping into something ancient and transformative. The poetry and passion in their rituals, indicative in the High Priest’s invocation below, is deeply moving.
Altar of mysteries manifold,
The sacred Circle’s secret point—
Thus do I sign thee as of old,
With kisses of my lips anoint.
Open for me the secret way,
The pathway of intelligence,
Beyond the gates of night and day,
Beyond the bounds of time and sense.
Behold the mystery aright—
The five true points of fellowship…
Here where the Lance and Grail unite,
And feet, and knees, and breast, and lip.
(written by Doreen Valiente)
Fast forward 30 years, and you would see a plethora of books on Wicca and witchcraft, but you would find only the barest hints of erotic mysticism within their pages. Skyclad covens were getting seedy reputations, whether they deserved them or not. Sabbat rituals were becoming short, saccharine, and whitewashed of anything that might offend tender sensibilities. More’s the pity.
You would also find female centric covens that worshipped the Goddess while stripping away her sexual nature. The male aspect of divinity was, at best, a mere consort who sat politely in the background, waiting to be called forth like a faithful hound. It was a clear backlash against the patriarchy, as women rediscovered their power, the Goddess within, and Her awakening presence in the world. The only problem is that the Goddess isn’t singular or chaste as the Virgin Mary. She is Shakti…always cavorting and co-creating with Shiva. I am a great proponent of women’s circles and women’s mysteries, but only if we extend that healing outward to include the sacred masculine from which we are never separate.
Deep within, I believe all human beings have a natural craving for ecstatic ritual, but how often do we ever really let go and surrender to such power? All of the poetry, the pageantry, and the ritual nudity that characterized Wicca’s beginnings were just ways of getting above the mental blocks that keep us rooted in a third dimension reality. In a world that is fraught with so much sexual wounding, can we step through our shadows long enough to feel the light? How do we reclaim ecstasy in a way that honors the gods and the highest self?
I may be an idealistic witch, but I believe we reclaim it by owning our stories, standing in our power, honoring our bodies in whatever way we choose, embracing each other’s strengths and weaknesses, building circles of trust, daring to be vulnerable, stripping off our barriers (and perhaps our clothing), dancing wildly, drumming passionately, loving deeply, and becoming the alchemists of a New Age.
So Mote It Be
©2016 Jennifer R. Miller