22 August 2013

A Witch at Heart (The Story of a New Year's Resolution)

I don't write that much openly about religion or spirituality, mostly because they are very personal topics that are very difficult to communicate. But on the other hand, writing is a great way to process thoughts. Trying to shape them into actual, intelligible words and sentences forces us to look at them from different viewpoints, and sometimes we may even learn new things in the process. So, for a change, I'll write a little about me and my relationship with religion.

I have mentioned my interest in spirituality and occultism before in this blog, though. A theme of those posts has often been change and instability. I have had great difficulty in the past settling on a particular approach that would satisfy my spiritual needs. (Or perhaps I should say settling on particular details; a lot of the really big issues have remained more or less the same through the years.)

A lot of my problems with this stem from a basic dilemma in my make-up. I am, by nature, a child of the modern, scientific age—a naturalistic, empirical person. I've seen no convincing evidence of conscious entities controlling our world, or of life after death, or any other 'supernatural' phenomena. Yet, regardless of all this, I seem to have a deep-seated yearning for spiritual experiences. How does one satisfy a yearning for something that one doesn't, at least in literal terms, actually believe in?

It's largely a question of psychology, of course. Religion, in one form or another, has been a part of our lives since... well, basically since mankind has existed. Our cultures have been shaped by religion, so it should hardly be surprising to feel its pull. On the other hand, I believe religion (and ritual) can have a real beneficial psychological effect on individuals. However, to do so religion must be able adapt to a changing world. Sticking to age-old tenets that clearly go against scientific evidence and common sense can be quite harmful, even deadly in extreme cases.

I hope that clarifies my stance on religion at least a little. But what does this all mean in practise then? As I said, my spiritual path has been one fraught with change and instability. I was basically raised Christian, like the majority of Finns still are (though in an increasingly secular atmosphere), but by early adulthood I'd grown to feel that wasn't my path. For many years in my early twenties I'd have described myself primarily as an 'agnostic'.

The crucial turning point came when I was in my mid-20s (I don't remember the exact year now, I'd guess sometime between 2005 and 2007). On a whim I borrowed a couple books on Wicca from the local library. What I found within intrigued me. I'd always been fond of nature, and had flirted with neopagan ideas as a teenager, though I'd never delved very deep into the subject back then.

Wicca, in a nutshell, is a neopagan religion largely created by Gerald Gardner in the early 20th century based on theories—popular at the time, but now disputed—about ancient matriarchal religion focused on Goddess, rather than God, worship, and a witch cult carrying on these traditions. (Gardner claimed to have been himself initiated into this tradition, but there is little concrete evidence of this. Whatever the origins, it's clear that he wrote at least part of the early material himself, and borrowed much from Victorian occult tradition. In any case, the origin of the religion isn't really what matters.) 'Wicca', derived from an Old English word for 'witch', is a slightly more modern term—originally the tradition was referred to simply as 'witchcraft'. (Oh, and the word 'witch', in Wiccan use, refers to both male and female practitioners.) Wiccans traditionally revere a Goddess and a God, though interpretations of them vary widely. The Goddess is frequently associated with the earth, the moon, birth (and death) etc., the God (often pictured with antlers or horns) with animals, the sun etc. Together they often represent the basic rhythms of nature—the seasons, fertility and the harvest, and so forth.

Originally Wicca was a communal movement, focused on 'covens' of initiated members. In recent decades, however, as material has become more freely available, the number of solitary practitioners has increased dramatically. There may still be some traditionalists out there who'll say you can't be a Wiccan unless you're initiated by another Wiccan, but they are likely a minority these days. I don't believe in such sentiments. In matters of the spirit, you are what you feel you are. Religion shouldn't be about strict rules and definitions. It should be about the feeling it invokes, nothing more, nothing less.

Anyway, as I was saying, what I read about Wicca intrigued me. I soon came to the conclusion that this could be the faith for me. I decided to be Wiccan. It was as simple as that. Even back then I was probably not the most stereotypical Wiccan, though. There have always been aspects I don't agree with, a more 'new agey' side to the religion in many authors' writings. Many talk about reincarnation, for example, but, as I already wrote, I've seen little convincing evidence concerning any kind of afterlife. But being an 'eclectic, solitary Wiccan', I could pick the parts that appealed to me. I think I espoused enough of the core ideas, the spirit of the tradition, to justifiably identify myself as Wiccan. The deities I would interpret less as literal entities, but rather as symbolising forces of nature and/or psychological constructs. (This, I think, is a relatively common approach among modern neopagans.)

I would celebrate the full moons and the eight 'sabbats' with simple rituals, and experiment with magic—though I've always been much too lazy in that respect and can't boast much success (I should perhaps emphasise that I view such things as primarily psychological exercises, meant to interact more with the subconscious than the world around as, not as actual supernatural forces).

However, as Wicca was obviously influenced by a long tradition of Western occultism (even if the existence of a long-standing 'witch cult' it was supposedly derived from is somewhat doubtful), I eventually begun to read more widely about occultism. I got carried away with Hermetic traditions and Qabalah and begun to incorporate elements from these into my philosophy and rituals. This let to a lot of experimentation with different influences, at times returning to more traditional Wiccan ideas, at other times going in very different directions. While this was all quite fascinating, the downside was that I eventually became more confused than ever about what my religion was. No path seemed to fit any longer.

Last Christmas I spent a couple weeks at my grandparents' old house, where I've spent most of my holidays since I can remember. With limited internet access and all, I had time there to think about things, and as often in such circumstances, my mind turned to spiritual matters again. I thought particularly about Wicca again, about how it had been my starting point on my spiritual quest, a foundation for all my later experiments, and how I always kept returning to Wiccan ideas. I made a New Year's resolution then. I decided I would try to be 'just' Wiccan again, for a whole year (or a 'year and a day', which has a more Wiccan ring to it). Practise simple rituals like I did in the early days, and focus on (re)discovering the Goddess and the God. Some eight months later, I'm still feeling good about it. I'm not saying it's gone perfectly—as usual I've been much too lazy with my rituals, and my ideas still aren't exactly stable, but it's more fine print stuff than major questions—but I've felt more at home with my spiritual side than I have in a good while.

It's been a long, roundabout journey that has now, in a way, come 'full circle' again. I regret none of the, shall we say, 'detours' I've take over the last few years. My explorations of other traditions have given me a lot of insight and new perspectives. My experience with Qabalah and ceremonial magic has taught me to beware overly complex structures and symbols. They have a habit of getting in the way, the proverbial trees keeping me from seeing the forest. I need a simple, more down-to-earth spirituality, and Wicca is a perfect fit there. On the other hand, more modern philosophies like Chaos Magic and Discordianism have taught me not to take everything too seriously, and to seek inspiration in less conventional places, such as popular culture.

What this blog post boils down to is a simple statement, for public record, that I identify as Wiccan. I have done so for the past half a dozen or so years (with varying levels of enthusiasm). Whether I will still identify as Wiccan next year this time, I cannot say. But to me spirituality is about living in the moment. This is part of who I am. This is my statement of pagan pride. A sort of 'coming out of the broom closet', I might say, except of course I have actually written about a lot of this stuff before—though I don't actively or publicly speak about it much, it's never been a big secret.

To round up this long post, some readers may well be asking what it is exactly that I believe in, what this whole being Wiccan thing actually means.

To put it simply, I believe that this universe is an amazing, wonderful thing; an intricate web of endless cause and effect; an infinite dance of unnumbered, unseen particles. It is something to be seen with awe and respect—and reverence. So much so, in fact, that I choose to call the universe a Goddess, a cosmic being of untold beauty. But I also believe that each unique living being is just as wonderful in its own right. We are all individuals with our own drives and desires, our own strengths and weaknesses. This 'life force', for lack of a better term, to me represents the Wiccan God, pictured as a horned man—a primal figure part man and part animal.

(These are by no means the only interpretations of the Wiccan gods—not even the only ones in my mind—nor necessarily any kind of standard views held by other Wiccans. But they are the most powerful images I currently associate with them. They are, of course, symbols created by human beings, but they are also something more, as they represent primal forces of nature and human consciousness. Not conscious forces, of course. Except for the tiny parts of them that are, in fact, our minds, since the gods, in a very real sense, are us. Should I pray to these gods, it is my own conscious and subconscious mind I'm really speaking to.)

And lastly, and perhaps most importantly, since ideas in the end mean little without practical applications, I believe that ritual is always a worthwhile endeavour, whether a simple moment of meditation or prayer, or a full-blown celebration of the full moon or changing seasons. It is a way of relaxing, of escaping the hubbub of the modern world for a short time. It can be therapeutic, exhilarating, or just plain fun. And that, to me, is what religion ought to be about: making you feel good, while appreciating the world, and people, around you.

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