I am happy to announce that I am now part of the team for Starsdance Mystery school! This year, the witches at Starsdance will start offering classes in Astrology from a queer perspective. I will be serving as tech witch and fellow student of the celestial realm.
If you want to see what the mystery school is all about, follow this link for more details.
This is a hard topic to explain. Normally, I don’t write about why I do things. I focus on the what. I think way too often people hem and haw about trying to find others who think the same as they do. We’re not all supposed to think the same. It makes a lot more sense to find people who are doing the same things I am doing. I try to lead workshops where people do the thing I’m trying to describe instead of talking about it. It works, too. People can find the value for themselves in the action.
Since I started down this path, I’ve seen a few people who have reservations about my deities coming into pagan spaces. On the one hand, I get it. Christians have hurt a lot of us. There’s an evangelical proto-fascist “conservative” movement in the US that’s been wreaking havoc since the late 60’s. The list of potential traumas is long and in itself traumatizing. Out of respect for that, instead of just pushing my way in, I want to have a conversation. I want to explain why I do what I do and why what I do is not Christian. I believe that the process of repaganizing these practices is one of multiple avenues from healing the spiritual sickness of whiteness, and it is my search for that medicine for myself that brought me here.
In order to understand the medicine, you have to understand the disease. White is a racial category created through laws, social mores, and bad science that seeks to unite wide swaths of people into one identity. This identity can then be used to incentivize and excuse violence on behalf of the state. One very large example of this is the settler colony of the United States. People labeled white were given special protection under the law for most of the country’s history, and even today the justice system favors white people. People performing whiteness were and are empowered by the government to commit genocidal acts against indigenous Americans in exchange for land or money. They were and are given extra opportunities for employment, which means access to better food, housing, and healthcare.
Now, for those who haven’t had the same teachers as me, I want to bring some nuance to this definition of whiteness. First, who is and is not white is far more complicated than your skin color. People with albinism of black ancestry are pale, but are categorized as black due to other physical and non-physical markers. My mother is white until she opens her mouth and people hear her accent. Someone with all the physical features of whiteness and a British accent, however, does not lose their whiteness once the accent is revealed. Whiteness is a category that people can float in and out of and whose lines can be blurred. Also, just because someone is firmly white by all institutional measures does not mean they are always performing whiteness. It does mean that being placed in that category brings some advantages (though they don’t always help very much), and that all of us who are placed there have a responsibility to dismantle the entire structure.
Whiteness comes at a cost. First, there is a profound loss of well-being and safety that comes when all that brings you life is rooted in large swaths of violence, regardless of your race. The food I eat is grown on stolen land, in ways that slowly promise a future mass extinction event for humanity. All the clothes I can afford to buy are made in part or in full by sweatshop workers. All the material wealth I have, and much of the emotional wellness I have, was not earned by me. It was arbitrarily handed to me by a series of institutions that could just as easily take them away. I have cried over this more times than I care to admit.
The second cost I want to point out is that of ethnic identity. As a white-passing immigrant, let me tell you that whiteness is actively recruiting me, and I hate it. Language, food, dress, history, spiritual practices: whiteness tries to strip potential recruits of these markers. Some things you lose because of inconvenience. Some you lose because of internalized shame. Some you give up for economic benefit. The process looks different in every decade, and is ongoing today.
So when it comes to the task of looking for a polytheistic, animist, ritual-based, and/or earth-worshiping practice, white Americans are multiple layers of fucked. People raised protestant, atheist, or agnostic are an additional layer of lost because most Protestantism stripped itself of anything we might even remotely call culture and never bothered to grow it back, like a human missing a liver who somehow managed to keep living by drinking only water and pre-filtered piss.
Then what do baby pagans do? One of two directions: they go out or back. I’m going to start this section by admitting that I went both directions, so if I’m calling anyone out here, it’s myself. Also, both of these approaches to finding a practice have good solutions and paths inside them. What I want to highlight are the issues that kind of stuck in my craw like a fishbone I never managed to swallow or a cough that lingered months after the initial infection.
Going out means engaging with a living tradition from another culture such as Hinduism or Shinto. On the one hand, serious long term conversion can be a good and wholesome path. That’s between you and your spiritual adviser from within the tradition. The issue comes when you try to take a deity or kami out of their contexts, as is the case with many eclectic wiccans. Going out runs into the issue of what is and is not cultural appropriation. It doesn’t really solve the spiritual sickness whiteness creates.
What happens when you go back? Going back to pre-Christian practices of Europe gives us reconstructionist and revivalist paganisms. There’s a lot to like here, and I know a lot of people for whom this works really well. The issue that comes up is that whenever you make a narrative that goes back to a “better time” before the culture was “ruined”, you attract nationalists. White nationalists are a known issue in Heathenry. Religio Romana has an infestation of fascists. There are even some white nationalists in Celtic Polytheism. I have a deep respect and admiration for the people who are fighting to keep their beloved practices out of the hands of these nationalists, but I can’t help wondering if this is a case of treating the symptoms rather than the illness itself.
I want to be thorough, and that means I have to address the three Modern Witchcraft practices: Wicca, Tradcraft, and Feri. I don’t really understand enough about Tradcraft (in the Cochran or Chumbley sense) to really place it within this discussion, so I’m not going to. Wicca and Feri I feel confident describing as going out. Neither, to me, stay in the present ancestral/cultural context and address the wound itself.
This is where re-paganizing comes in. Instead of going out or back to look for ethnicity and polytheistic spirituality, I started by being in the present moment and the current place. Where am I? What am I? How did my surroundings get to be this way? Why don’t I have something to draw from here?
What is going on, really, is that institutional religion is always in cahoots with other political institutions to maintain power for the tippy top of society. Yeah, they fight over theological issues like what god even is, but priests are all after the same thing: keeping their jobs. Keeping your job, no matter what industry you work in, means keeping the guy with the money happy. It just so happens that Christians are taught they have to respect authority or face hell. That much is not new to pagans. It’s much of the reason we avoid Christianity and all things linked to it. However, it is obvious that Christianity is the institution that creates spiritual whiteness, and we carried the disease of whiteness out of its home from Christianity into our Paganism.
What role did Christianity play in creating whiteness? Simple. Institutional Christianity removes aspects of ethnicity from spiritual identity. Since the Council of Nicea held by Constantine I, being a Christian in Europe has slowly become a matter of what you believe rather than who you are connected to. The way in which Christian institutions split off and argue over things like how old you should be when you get baptized only reinforces that dogma and not community is what you should be bonding over. Can you imagine a Catholic church where it was acceptable to worship Lucifer as the bringer of wisdom? No, because believing something so radically different would go against what the church is. Nevermind how many generations of your family have been members. It doesn’t matter how many friends and loved ones are there. No one will care how often you brought food to sick members or how often you laughed together. If you do not hold the same beliefs, you cannot be in the same spiritual group as the others.
That identification works in another way as well. If someone comes to the same church and has the same creed, they are of the community instantly. On the one hand, that’s a beautiful bond of siblinghood and hospitality. On the other hand, this has been abused by kings, presidents, congresspersons, and businesspeople to convince people to do terrible things. Colonization in many parts of the globe began as missionary work. A lot of cultural genocide was carried out in the name of saving souls, which is to say violently programming children to believe the “right” ideas.
In summary, whiteness brings spirItual sickness. Christianity is the religion that helped build whiteness. Part of the sickness of whiteness is that whiteness removes our ethnicity, encourages us to perform state-endorsed violence, and replaces real connection to other people with crap like consumerism and dogma. So when polytheists reject Christianity, we don’t always escape the illness of that whiteness. The two most prominent ways we bring whiteness into our polytheism are commodification of other cultures (cultural appropriation) and the building of genocidal false identities (white nationalism). Even though there are polytheisms that resist and reject whiteness (Anti-Racist Heathens, for example) I’m not sure the practice inherently addresses the illness of whiteness that is structural to our ways of being. To be fair, you get called where you get called, and if Brigid or Odin calls you, what are you gonna do? Say no and lose a deeply satisfying spiritual path? No, you’re going to answer the call. I’m only saying I wasn’t called, so I kept looking.
How to address the sickness, then? To me, the source of the sickness are the regimes that benefited from the creation of whiteness and the stripping away of other identities. What benefits them makes us sick. What they try to suppress can be a place for healing. So what has historically been suppressed by the regimes? Diversity of religion and practice is by far the answer. Politicians and rich people can’t rule effectively over populations who don’t share an identity or have similar values. So differing from each other in our spiritual beliefs and practices, pluralism, is something polytheists already handle incredibly well. Everytime I hear a call for pagan unity from a frustrated organizer, I have to admit it makes me smile. “Ah yes,” I sigh contentedly, “We have become ungovernable. Good.”
I mention this not just because it is the largest answer, but to underline that I am not writing this essay to convince anyone to do what I am doing. I recognize that as not only a fool’s errand, but an evil one. What I hope to gain is that my relationship with my gods will be able to be talked about as a pagan one in pagan spaces. I want this path to be one more option amongst many, not the one and only way.
The other things the regimes of power have wanted to suppress over the years are heresy and identification with something not reliant on political boundaries. Jewish people have been persecuted under both of these reasons despite not actually being heretics. I want to pause here and make this part clear. Judaism is not proto-Christianity. Jewish people are not one messianic dogma away from coming into Christianity. Labeling them as heretics is part of how institutional churches justified the opression and murder of these people over the centuries. What’s really going on here that the churches label heresy is that groups with overlapping symbol sets were interpreting those symbol sets in a way the institutional church couldn’t influence.
But Cabra! What about the Protestants? First, Protestants are heretics depending on who you ask. Second, the reason why we don’t think of them as heretical Christians is because they gained the backing of a lot of fancy aristocrats and won a bunch of wars. So the same way that military institutions want to have the monopoly of violence, institutional churches in Christianity want a monopoly on interpretation. It is that desire for monopoly along with the desire for a unified people that fueled the suppression of different relationships to these divinities the Christian church deals with.
So then. Difference in interpretation without the validity of state power is a potential source of healing from the long centuries of violence that have shaped the Christian hegemony we live in today. A polytheistic, animist interpretation of Christian images and practices has many benefits in this context.
What does a polytheistic interpretation look like? For starters, there is a broader idea of what source material is and how to draw meaning from it. Decrees from Church heads, especially the papacy, can be completely ignored or used as a benchmark of what not to do. The bible is not one canonical text, simply a text amongst many with no more or less weight than the grimoires, lost books, and apocrypha. What does carry a lot of weight are those localized folk practices that have survived the years not as exact copies of previous practices, but as evolving conversations between the community and spiritual matters. When looking at texts, a feminist reading is important: context, author, bias, political motivations. These things must be taken into account.
Looking at things with this weight quickly showed me just how permeable and ridiculous national and racial identities are. It also gave me an understanding of ethnicity that I can finally put into words, even if those words are a sort of imperfect simplification. Practice and relationships are the two things that matter most in this form of identity building. For example, part of my queerness is that I extole the virtues of glitter. The act of going overboard on glitter is part of that identity, but the relationships I built with other queers in queer spaces is also important. I didn’t read about wearing glitter in a book and then just adopted it. I came to it through my relationships with people, place, and history.
Anyway, I take this lens and look at folk Catholic and folk Byzantine practices. I know enough about my family history to know my line centers on Iberian peninsula, French, and Dutch lands. I also have relationships with some divinities outside my blood relations because I have non-blood relationships. (Hail Brigid, Lady of Imbolc, Mistress of Blacksmiths and Poets) Now, my spiritual identity isn’t cut off from the last 1500 years of history. The Matron Goddess of my maternal bloodline has inheritance from the Gallo-roman pantheon, but her current cultus started less than 200 years ago. I can see my practices as good things that happened despite regimes of corrupt priests, not because of them.
As another summary, I want to explain the potential medicine here in another way. Imagine your hometown has a natural spring in it. Many generations ago, the town built a fountain on top of the spring so the whole town could make good use of the water. Washing, cooking, drinking: the precious clean water was shared. Different leaders of the town would try to control and restrict access to the fountain, but ultimately the water could be used for multiple purposes because of how the fountain was built.
Then one day, the leader decides to destroy the fountain and build a new one. The issue is that the new fountain doesn’t separate the water the way the old one did. So it can only be used for drinking. Sometimes grandmothers will sneak off with pans of water for cooking or laundry, but they would never admit that or the local leader wouldn’t allow them near the fountain again.
So you have a few options. First, you can move to another town where the water politics aren’t such bullshit (Going out). Second, you can get your water from the local river that feeds into the spring. It’s the same water, you just have to walk farther for it (Going back). Third, you can walk up to the fountain and just take the damn water. You have to deal with the local leaders being upset if they catch you, and you still want to put water that isn’t for drinking in pots to carry home like the grandmothers. However, until we find a way to oust the local leader and replace the single use fountain with a multi use one, you can wake up every morning knowing you use water from the fountain you have every right to use.
I’m not trying to get everyone to steal from the metaphorical fountain. All that will happen then is we will crown another leader and they will continue to make bullshit rules. Diversifying our water sources is important. What I’m saying is that when the river water folks have a water party, I’d like to be invited, and I’d like to bring my pan of reclaimed water to celebrate. Just because I carry the water the local leader has claimed is his doesn’t mean the water is actually his, nor does it mean the water can never be used for cooking. To bring it back to real life, just because Our Lady of Lourdes is an official Mary of the Catholic church doesn’t mean she isn’t also a goddess of healing springs, and I think there is a benefit in bringing her icon to any communal water altar in pagan spaces alongside deities such as Poseidon or Danu.
Which brings me to my last point. If I claim my practice isn’t Christian, what do I mean by that? I’ve hinted at a lot of this throughout the essay, but it should be made explicit. The reasons why I am not Christian begin with rejecting the idea of a Christ. “Christ” is a title given to Jesus of Nazareth, a radical Jewish preacher who may or may not have been real. To be the Christ is to be the Messiah or Savior who gives each human the opportunity to cleanse themselves of original sin through belief in his sacrifice, his death on the cross.
To start with, I don’t believe in Original Sin. This idea that something fundamental in human nature makes us “sinful” and therefore separate from divinity is antithetical to my beliefs. Creator is not a source of perfect good, she is just the source. The reason why bad things happen is not because we are separated from her, but due to 2 reasons. 1) Things just die sometimes, and it sucks but that’s part of the journey. 2) Life is a continual experimental process and imbalance is just as important to life figuring itself out as balance is. We are never separate from Creator, we just engage in the illusion of being separate so we can come to know ourselves more fully. If Mary has an Immaculate Heart because she was born free from sin and fully in union with divinity, then we all have Immaculate Hearts.
So Jesus has nothing to save us from. The folkloric Jesus of Nazareth was not Christ, he was a zealot for HaShem who hated the Roman Empire and was killed for rousing people’s fervor. The Jesus we know now is one prophet, two sun gods, and two thunder gods all trying to squeeze into the same overcoat. (and maybe a mushroom? For flavor.)
Alongside not agreeing with Christian dogma, Christians are not the people I have relationships with. The pantheon I have a relationship with may be Mary, Lucifer, and the saints, but the way I conceive of and build those relationships is through the ritual structures of paganism. I wouldn’t even be able to do this if it had not been for the years I spent in paganism to learn how to think about the world from these perspectives. I had to travel far to see what was lost, to learn how to pull the poison from the root, to even know what community means.
So as much as I understand why many pagans may have complicated feelings about seeing a Mary or a saint on an altar, and as confusing as it might be to hear a pagan ramble on about Immaculate Hearts and what that means, I would really like to not have to leave my pagan community to go find space to do my work. I don’t want to have to choose between Lucifer and Prometheus, the Devil and Cernunnos, Freya and St Lucy. These entities hold the potential to be a continuation of the earth-based practices many of us gathered here for, one more thread in the tapestry.
I can’t do that unless there’s a real conversation about boundaries. I know I’m asking for a lot of time and attention, but I wouldn’t have spent weeks writing this essay to ask for this if it wasn’t important. Forcing this on people very easily recreates the same violence I was trying to get away from. I do think, however, that someone out there feels the same way me and my partner do. I think there may also be people who, while they do not work with these entities, may benefit from the conversation.
Para Nossa Senhora de Lourdes, que protege pelo menos 3 gerações da minha família, incluindo esse queer bruxe, a mae do ceu que me ama como eu sou.
For St Lucy and Freya, who charged me to “Write a story where I live,” and guarded me in that journey. May your golden shining continue until the end of humanity.
There are at least two kinds of saints that polytheists and pagans can form healthy relationships with: the Mighty Dead and Deities. To be clear, while any saint can be seen as a member of the Mighty Dead, not all can be seen as deities. Here, I will go over theoretical basis for each of these relationships, and give examples. My goal is not to say what the “true nature” of the saints is; I don’t believe there is such a thing. Rather, I want to leave you with the impression that saints are complex and sacred mysteries that have room for a polytheist and pagan interpretation. I want us to live in harmony alongside other faiths that interpret and make relationships with saints.
What happens when someone who was raised within a Christian culture but is not Christian takes a concept from Christianity and changes it? To put it in more general terms, what happens when someone takes a concept from the cultural hegemony they live in and reinterprets it? That’s what a living tradition looks like. That’s where folk magic comes from. The “misuse” of Saints as spirits of the dead to be prayed to or deities in themselves is exactly what they have always been, regardless of official church doctrine. In the wake of Christian regimes forcing their religion on others, it seems especially appropriate that their imagery and practices should be adapted by whoever.
Pagans who take the concept of sainthood are just stepping into a magical current that has been around us the entire time. Elevated dead, in particular, require no Jesus or Saviour or Monotheism. To say the saints are deities to be worshipped rather than spirits to be venerated strikes right where the institutional churches are most vehement in their denial. Further, the adaptation of a practice our ancestors would recognize can be very healing for some people. For myself, it is a feeling of being connected but different, a feeling of being properly uncomfortable instead of harmed.
My experience taking this idea from workshop to essay is that pagans raised in a Catholic context have no problem whatsoever with this idea. They often come to the discussion with a sense of relief and joy. Pagans and polytheists raised in a Protestant context vary. Some are curious, some are eager, and some find the entire idea ludicrous. Whatever your context, know that this material is open to you. Explore it at your own pace.
A Final Note: for the duration of this essay, please think of Mother Mary as the Queen of Saints and as a saint herself.
The Mighty Dead
Let’s begin with a very narrow interpretation of what a Saint is, then expand it. To start, let’s look at a definition so narrow that we can all agree it is bad.
“A saint is a saint because the pope said so.”
That’s obviously not true. By looking at why it isn’t true, we can come to a robust and nuanced understanding. To start, we’re pagans; we don’t take direction from the pope. Christians don’t even agree on whether or not to listen to the pope. Coptic, Orthodox, Protestant, and other churches all take direction from other leaders, and some of them have active relationships with the Saints.
When you look at how a saint becomes a saint according to the pope, the definition becomes a little wider. The first step to becoming a saint after dying in the Catholic church is to be a “folk saint”. That is, people venerate someone who has passed as a Saint. That veneration of the deceased is what cues the local church officials to investigate that person. So, one way to look at the sainthood process is that the people make someone a saint by venerating them, and the official church procedure just changes what kind of saint the person is.
Along with being able to widen the definition within Christian churches and cultures, there are many similar (but not identical) practices in other spiritual paths for which the only good translation into english is “saint”. Obviously, it isn’t a 1-to-1 matchup. Every culture and path conceives of its honored dead differently, but the permeability of the sainthood concept is important.
So who should we think of making a saint? Here are my general guidelines. Your mileage may vary.
1) The Saint has to be dead. They do not have to be a human (Balto) or a historical person (St. Cyprian of Antioch). They do have to be dead.
2) They should have accomplished something that was a benefit to their community or humanity as a whole. Doreen Valiente, for example, wrote the Charge of the Goddess, a poem that is referenced by many present day Neo-Pagans. My great-grandmother Nicacia, while an amazing woman, only really worked for the benefit of her family. (Obrigade, Vovo) They do not have to have been a perfect human being. Doreen Valiente certainly had her faults. But please refrain from trying to Saint someone who committed genocide or some other Obviously Terrible Bad Thing.
3) You must have their consent. Aside from issues of cultural sensitivity (Be careful about sainting Jewish people, for example. That’s a sticky topic.), some people just don’t want to be sainted. Some people. even if they do want to be sainted, don’t want to work with you. If you don’t know how to talk to dead people, that is a little beyond the scope of this essay.
Local folk heroes make great saints. Fred Rogers of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood fame seems to be very happy as a saint in Pittsburgh. Joe Magarac, a sort of steel worker counterpart to John Henry, also takes well to being treated as Saint Joe.
Some Christian saints don’t seem to care if their devotees are Christian or not. St. Anthony has been known to find lost things for all manner of heathens. St Lawrence, patron saint of cooks and giver of the middle finger to the Roman Empire, also doesn’t seem to care if the person praying to him is a follower of his Christ.
Another good category is ancestors of spirit. Queer History is filed with people who worked hard for Gay and Trans power: Marsha P. Johnson, Harvey Milk, and William Arondeus are all examples of people who did good for humanity and were queer. There are also ancestors of the craft such as Doreen Valiente and Isobel Gowdie.
From what I have researched so far, most syncretism between saints and deities happens under forced conversion. Forced conversion to Christianity has been happening since the reign of Theodosius in the 300’s. It continues right up to today. I can’t speak to many countries, but in Brazil there is a strong movement by Evangelicals and Catholics to repress the Afro-Brazilian religions. There, the government seems to look the other way all too often in favor of the Christians, making it difficult for the practitioners of Candomblé and other such faiths to protect their altars and sacred sites.
In the US the landscape is different, but we all know pagans who are or have in the past lived with Christian family members who punished any sign of atheism or paganism. The Wild Hunt has been covering the repression of non-Christian faiths in South Africa, though I have no idea if there is any syncretism with the saints in that country. Forced conversion to Christianity may not use the same kind of violence that it has in the past, but it continues to today on a massive scale.
In order to look at the relationship between saints and deities, let us begin by looking at La Virgen de Guadalupe. In the poem that is her sacred text, it is made clear that La Virgen is both a saint and an indigenous goddess. It is not a 50-50 split either. La Virgen is clear that she encompasses both things, and that is part of her miracle.
We can see a similar nature in Nossa Senhora dos Navegantes. Venerated in Portugal as a patron of fishermen, she was brought to Brazil and syncretized with the Orisha Iemanja. While her feast day in Portugal is the 15th of August, in Brazil she is worshipped/venerated on February 2nd. I have joined followers of Candomblé, Catholicism, Spiritualism, Atheism, and others as they go to the beach to give roses to the sea. Fishermen and sailors decorate their boats with flowers and take their boats out to the bay. Whether the person is celebrating a saint, a goddess, or just their culture, the entity of the feast holds all these interpretations and doesn’t seem to mind. Just be sure to give her roses.
Nothing pisses off tyrants like trying to rule over people who don’t have the same religion. It’s why the Romans killed Christians when they were polytheists, then turned around and killed pagans when they were Christian. As Christianity started to split off from Judaism, Christians were respectful of their Jewish neighbors. It was the propaganda of the priests, by then deeply ingrained in the politics of the day, that caused the shift from peaceful neighbors to the rabid mob violence that continues to this day. The violent sectarian conflicts within Christendom are almost always tied to some form of power struggle between elites.
When we look at the present day phenomenon of syncretism, it can give us clues to how previous eras of syncretism functioned. Some would argue, for example, that Saint Brigid of Kildare and the goddess Brigid are not the same entity. I disagree. I think the entity is both a saint and a deity, an unbroken line of worship from the Celts of antiquity to the present day. This interpretation leaves room for Catholics, Pagans, Atheists, and Agnostics to come to the same symbol and live as neighbors.
Since not every saint is a deity, there are at least a few different ways to figure out which saints are and which aren’t.
Obviously, when it comes to syncretism and deities of West African peoples and African diaspora, you can go ask your local practitioner as the practices are more out in the open then they have been in previous centuries. When we get to the Celts, Slavs, and Norse peoples, there is another goldmine of information called Interpretatio Christiana. The IC was a church policy for many centuries that is built out of the Roman Empire’s assimilation policies. Basically, priests will co-opt local temples and festivals of polytheist deities by dedicating them to their Jesus and their saints.
Brigid is an obvious example of the co-opting of a feast day and practices. The keeping of a sacred fire passed from druids to nuns. The feast of the saint is on the same day as Imbolc, a day many pagans know is sacred to Brigid. The cathedral dedicated to St Brigid in Ireland is on the same land that once held the goddess’s fire temple.
In addition to being a saint and a goddess, Brigid is also syncretized to a loa called Maman Brigitte in Haiti. Both the Haitian loa and the Celtic goddess have connections with fire and snakes. So Brigid is a good example of just how wide and nuanced the room for interpretation is. For those of us who don’t feel the need to find the “true” interpretation, only our own interpretation, interfaith respect and shared space is possible. In this case, interfaith respect includes respecting that Voodoo is a closed faith and has certain boundaries around who builds relationships with the loa and how.
Now I want to turn to another Saint, John the Baptist. His feast day is June 24, and in the northeast of Brazil, this is a very well-celebrated holiday. Fireworks are set off, bonfires are lit, and we celebrate our farmers, who work hard in a drought-ridden land to produce crops. All over Europe, similar traditions abound. Folks in Puerto Rico and Voodoo practitioners in Louisiana also have their own celebrations. Witches are rumored to meet. Ritual baths are taken. Bonfires are jumped. A lot of plant magic is done as well. From fern seeds to yarrow, plants collected on this day are said to have special properties of healing and luck.
Saint Eligius, a great example of a Saint who is not a deity, used the Interpretatio Christiana to lure people away from the pagan rites of midsummer toward the Feast Day of Saint John. We may not know all the deities St John is syncretized to, but we know some of them, such as Kupala from Slavaic Paganism. My belief is that you do not have to know what deity the saint was syncretized to. If the signs are there, all that is left is to ask the Saint.
That last point is truly what drove this essay.
So what are some practical, concrete things someone can do to start interacting with the saints as a polytheist?
Novena jar candles. Go nuts. Draw the folk saints that matter to you and modge podge the image onto a blank novena candle. I made one for Mr. Rogers, and he seems very happy with it. You can also look for novena candles of the saint-deities you want to reach out to, but most of what is available will be the saints syncretized to native Central American Deities and those who are popular in the Carribean. I have yet to see a St. John, for instance. So for those, you may want to draw your own as well.
Another thing I deeply recommend is bastardizing the rosary as a set of prayer beads. You can buy one and alter it or make your own from scratch. Either way, you will need replacements for the following prayers:
- The Apostles creed is a declaration of faith. Write your own declaration of faith or use this bead as a time to ground yourself before working. I chant a hymn to Death because that’s what feels right to me.
- The Our Father prayer is a declaration of gratitude to Creator. You could replace this with a prayer to Star Goddess or Gaia or to your own Sacred Self.
- Glory Be isn’t so much a prayer as an endcap. I’m still fiddling with this one, but there’s no reason you can’t use “Blessed Be” or “So Mote it Be” or a declaration of intent.
- The Hail Mary is the bread and butter of the Catholic rosary. Confession: Mary is my patron, so I use a version of the Hail Mary with the words “Jesus” and “sinner” taken out. You could replace this with a mantra or a prayer to any divinity you want, but if you have read this far in the zine then praying to Mary, Queen of Saints is something you should consider.
When praying a Rosary, there is typically an intent. Contemplating mystery, praying for the dead to find peace, trying to draw in a lover: you can choose the intent you feel is right. That intent is a good thing to replace the “Glory Be” with, as I mentioned above.
The last thing I want to recommend, especially if you cannot be open about your polytheism, is prayer cards. They’re very cheap and can be bought online or at Catholic shops. Yo can use them for hidden, informal altars, or add them to more formal workspaces.
I was recently asked to provide credentials on why I, and other Reclaiming Witches, have the right to call ourselves witches. Specifically, the concerns raised were that we call ourselves witches in the face of many ongoing deaths under the title, and that we are being culturally appropriative when we use the name.
I understand the concern. To be called a witch has been and continues to be serious accusation. Whether the accusation is of casting baneful magic on our human neighbors or of practicing illegitimate spirituality or magic, a witch is in many contexts not to be taken lightly. It stands in contrast to the joyful and sometimes flippant parade of altar pics on social media.
However, I cannot appropriate from my own culture, and the reclamation of the term witch is indeed that: a reclamation. We present day witches recognize that if we lived in a different time and place our actions would very well lead to our arrest and/or murder.
To provide a longer explanation, I want to begin with how we have inheritance of the term. The word witch comes to us through many avenues. The Puritans and other Christian sects who colonized the land very obviously brought the witch hunt with them, as evidenced by the famous Salem Witch Hunt. Many of us still deal with the spiritual repercussions: shame around the body, black and white moral thinking, and family from whom the practice must be kept secret. We also inherit other cultural baggage from those Christians: taboos around dance, drink, music, and just general fun.
Present day Evangelical Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Fundamentalist Christians have a very real belief in witches and will punish children who express interest in those forms of magic or spirituality. In the last 6 months I have seen at least 4 minors asking for help who live in this situation in the US and Brazil. Many of us come from families who hold these beliefs. I have seen my fellows deal with a deep set shame from this upbringing. Some of us, including me, are also immigrants from countries where the word witch, bruja, or bruxa is still used as a serious accusation.
Finally, Reclaiming has amongst its members people who are culturally if not religiously Jewish. Jewish people, heretics, and witches faced much of the same punishment and were often conflated for each other in the European middle ages until the early modern period. One of our most prominent writers and founders, Starhawk, is culturally Jewish. I also know multiple people from Jewish backgrounds who call themselves witches to this day. We can say very firmly in wake of the shootings at synagogues and temples in the last year in the US that violent antisemitism is still alive here.
It is easy to understand why someone might think we are divorced from this inheritance. Whiteness is a powerful cultural force in America, and one of the ways in which it establishes itself is to force us to be cut off from our ancestry in favor of being American. Germans, Jewish people, and even my Latina mother all have made decisions that prioritized their children fitting in over learning their history. Whiteness in this country does not just mean giving up folkways of our ancestors. It means fitting into a middle class, agnostic, Protestant spirituality. Poor Whites and those who do engage in Fundamentalist or Evangelical Christianity are often shamed and labeled “hicks”, “white trash”, and “crazy”.
The effect of this is that America (especially in our television and movies) presents itself as a monolithic culture that does not believe in witches. Even though the word witch means something a little different in the dystopia of this country, we still have a modern context affected by a direct cultural tie to places that did and still do believe in witchcraft. This doesn’t even get into the way the word witch was embroiled in the Satanic Panic of the 90’s.
We can’t appropriate from our own culture.
What does it mean to be a witch? Often, the accusation is false. People can be killed under the accusation of witchcraft to this very day because they hold land or some political power that makes them inconvenient to the plans of the rich and powerful. Silvia Federici has several books on a present day, global notion of what the word witch might mean. Undesirables were also labeled witch because they were easy targets to displace anger onto when the rich and powerful could not prevent famine or disease.
Who were/are the Undesirables? Old widows, herbalists, midwives, queers, those who refuse to follow Christianity, political organizers, people of color who refused to be treated as less than human, women who have had abortions: the list is long but rest assured we are on it. Reclaiming Witches, in particular, do not simply claim the word witch. No, we do our best to organize direct action against those forces which threaten the earth and humanity. We are street medics. We are jail support. We are prison pen pals. We call representatives, go to rallies, vote, continuously, educate ourselves, take part in noise demos, support strikes, and all other manner of political engagement.
We call ourselves witches to remind ourselves that we are lucky to be alive. For me personally, it is similar to why I call myself Queer. People died and are dying for me to have the freedoms I have today. I honor their struggle by wearing the labels as a badge of honor and by challenging myself every day to work hard to make more freedoms available for my descendants.
Finally, to the person who asked for my credentials, I offer this: what can I do as someone who calls themselves a witch living in present day America to stand in solidarity with those being accused as witches across the globe? If you have any ideas, I am open to hearing them.
A Loose List of Sources
Caliban and the Witch, Federici
The Devil and the Jew, Trachtenberg
Ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses and Ex-Fundies I know irl
Truth or Dare, Starhawk
Pigeon and I will be leading a ritual and discussion based on the Garden of Eden story. It is part of a four ritual arc we will be presenting this year with with the aid of the facilities of OTO Golden Thread Camp.
Where: 300 Camp Horne Rd. Pittsburgh, PA. 15202 Parking is available. The building has stairs and is dusty.
When: Sunday August 25th. Doors open at 1:30. Ritual starts at 2. Discussion after. Doors close at 4:30.
How Much: Recommended donation is $5 to attend one portion, $10 for both. All proceeds go to Golden Thread to cover cost of space.
Ritual Intention: When wisdom is found we are cast out of sanctuary. Let us be sanctuary for each other.
Discussion Topic: Mary in Mystical Traditions, the Black Madonnas, and Marian Apparitions.
A lot of people want to know how to get started with magic, polytheism, and paganism. My suggestion is very simple: start with divination, scrying, or augury. From tarot to water bowls to patterns in the clouds, there are countless methods to connect with your own inner guidance. You can, of course, ignore me. You may already know what calls to you, but here are a few reasons why I think divination makes a great starting point.
You are about to begin a conversation with yourself and with the spiritual universe. No one can really answer most of the questions you have right now except for you. What calls to you and why is a question about your feelings. No one can tell you how you feel except you. A lot of factors about what paths to consider also come into the very personal territory of race, ethnicity, family history, and current context. Those are nuanced topics, and most people don’t want to talk to a bunch of internet randos regarding this. Divination, on the other hand, helps you figure out how you feel, and lets whatever forces that may be interested in you start to make themselves known. Nothing except practice will help you build confidence in your intuition. Only practice will help you separate wishful things and anxiety from real messages. So, practice!
Practice is messy. You will have fits and starts, because life does not stop just because you started looking for magic and spirituality. Also, habits are hard to build. Time and space are hard to come by. Where I have had success is in adding magic or worship to things I already do rather than trying to make new space. My altar is the place in my room that is most personal: my writing desk. I listen to podcasts while working because I do not always have time to read books. I replaced my social media feeds with an rss app (Feedly) that gives me updates from blogs that I like. I use a spiritual cleansing soap in the shower. It is very likely that you already have something you do on a regular basis that is magic, you just have to learn to see it for what it is.
Finding and trying divination methods encourages research. This will help you find out what sources are available and which ones you trust. It will help you start thinking about history and theory. You can also reach out to local practitioners and shops while looking for supplies. It will also help you decide if this is even work you want to do, because skillbuilding is work, and all branches of magic and paganism require skillbuilding.
Finding local practitioners depends a lot on where you are and how much access you have to transportation. Some places have good shops; some don’t. Some places have groups doing open ritual; Some don’t. Witchvox and Facebook are easy go-to’s. You may also want to check your local paper for event. Unitarian Universalist Churches and Friends’ Meeting Houses tend to draw pagans due to their accessibility for ritual. Non-chain bookstores that sell metaphysical books or tarot decks may also have information on local groups and events. Don’t be afraid to keep asking.
Divining helps build a workspace. Whether you carry your tools with you or leave them in one spot, you will begin to work, and that means learning when and how you work best. The time and place you work best will also help clue you in to what forces you should look toward. I write best in the early morning because I am a solar energy kind of witch. I work best at my writing desk because I am an art witch. Funny enough, Horus slid right into my practice like a falcon landing on a tree branch. Rosemary, one of my top three plant allies, is a solar plant. Before you reach out to the universe, reach in to yourself. Learn yourself.
You will learn all the basics, or at the very least you will have a magical operation that allows you to test all the basic skills as you learn them: setting a container, grounding, focus, non-chemical methods of altered states, etc. Two other skills divination helps you pick up are journaling and giving yourself permission to mess up. You are learning a whole bundle of skills. You will not get them right all the time.
So, there you have it. I think the best place for a new person to start is divination. If you really don’t know what form of divination to start with, tarot is everywhere and works just as good as anything else. You’ll have no shortage of people to talk to, and tarot isn’t picky about what faith or lack thereof you have. Christians, atheists, pagans, and all manner of folks make use of the cards. Good luck.