Wheel of the Year Art

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My print of Erica True’s “Wheel of the Year”

I’m in the process of setting up a permanent ritual space in my new apartment (well, permanent-ish…it is the guest room, too). It’s a pretty bare room right now. In fact, all that’s in it are my books and a round pedestal table I intend to use as an altar. It’s a tiny little room, so I really can’t put much more in there and still be able to cast a circle. But I did want to at least put a little art on the walls.

One piece of art that I enjoy having in my ritual space is a representation of the Wheel of the Year. This is a move that my coven leaders did both in my former California Tradition coven in Eugene and Tacoma and in my current Gardnerian coven in Indiana, and I suspect it was to help all the coveners memorize the Sabbats and keep them straight. The Sabbats are easy enough to memorize, so it isn’t as though I need it to jog my memory or act as a calendar. (Truth be told, I do frequently transpose Litha and Lammas…though I’ve been better since I started calling Litha the Summer Solstice.) But I do enjoy evocative, detailed art that I can look at for some time and meditate upon. I actually had, at one point in time, a nice Wheel of the Year print that I hung in my bedroom and that served this purpose, but it was destroyed in my move to Indianapolis.

A lot of pagan art has come out since I first acquired that print, and I was surprised at how many different versions were out there. But few had the level of detail I wanted. But then I saw Erica True’s version.

Wheel of the Year True

Image from Ms. True’s Etsy store, The Stag Sundry Company.

What a show stopper! I love how she crams so much imagery into each slice of the pie, as it were. My favorite thing, though, is that she allows all the symbols to stand before the wheel spokes. This blurs the divisions between them, for the symbols of one Sabbat seem to flow into the next. To me, this helps convey the idea that the wheel is constantly turning. We don’t just move to a point and stop for six weeks until the next Sabbat comes along: the days slip by and bleed together. We’re just as likely, for example, to bake bread at the Autumn Equinox (Mabon) as we are for Lammas. And some years I barely clear away the Yuletide decorations before I start seeing the snowdrops heralding Candlemas’s arrival (Imbolc).

I am definitely enjoying having a print of Ms. True’s artwork in my sacred space, and look forward to following the offerings available at her Etsy store.

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Pondering the Future of My Broom Closet

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This is my life now.

Ever since moving to Oregon in 2008, I’ve been a mostly “out” Pagan. I have never told my family that I am Pagan, but that has had very little impact on my day-to-day life over the past decade, if only because I’ve lived far enough away from them during that time that they have come to see me very rarely. And when they do, it’s a fairly simple thing to take time the week before they visit to box up my pagan paraphernalia throughout the house and stow it someplace until they leave.

And, to be honest, I would be completely out of the Broom Closet if it was not for my mother. The rest of my immediate family are pretty much secularists these days, but my mother…she may not believe in everything the Catholic Church espouses, but she vehemently defends what she perceives to be the “real truth” beneath Rome’s teachings. And a big part of that is rejecting Satan and all his works.

Unfortunately, my mother strongly believes that anything under the occult umbrella is Satanic and that those who dabble in them are playing roulette with their mortal souls. She believes this as completely as I believe the sun will rise tomorrow morning. I was almost never disciplined as a child and teenager because I rarely did anything truly ‘bad’. In my early teens, I thought my mother was a blithering idiot and sassed off to her terribly. I usually got slapped for it, but that was about the extent of it. (I totally deserved the slaps, by the way: I said horrible things to her.) But when I was a junior in high school, she found a couple Wiccan books in my bedroom and proceeded to ransack the place looking for other paraphernalia. She then proceeded to burn everything she found and told me that if she ever saw any indication of my interest in the occult again, my family would not contribute to my college tuition.

I was furious with her. And I recall yelling a lot about how manipulative it was to threaten my future over a few books. And there was a huge part of me that wanted to have the whole “coming out” scene. I wanted to explain to her what I was beginning to practice, why it resonated with me, and why I felt it was helping me to be a better person. I wanted to show her how there was no evil in it, especially the way she understood evil. But when I looked at her, I did not see anger in her eyes. When she screamed, I did not hear rage in her voice. She was scared. Terrified. And that scared me. So I put up enough resistance to be convincing and accepted her terms. I did not stop practicing, but I made certain she would not see any indication of it.

Looking back, I think perhaps the Gods ‘engineered’ this moment with my mother. Prior to this blow up, I’d planned to properly come out of the Broom Closet to my parents. I had decided that I should probably undergo a year and a day of Wiccan study before I told them I was a Pagan. And the end of that year and a day was rapidly approaching–the whole reason I had those books in my room (and not in my stash in my school locker)  so that I could have reference material to plan my solitary ritual for Samhain, which would have marked the end of that first year. My mother, not one prone to snooping in my things, only found them sandwiched between my mattress and box spring because I uncharacteristically left my bed unmade that morning, and she–equally uncharacteristically–thought she’d do me a favor by making it for me.

I had thought my parents and loved ones would have considered a year and a day of serious study enough experience for me to make an informed decision on how I wanted to continue the rest of my spiritual life, but in that moment where I saw my mother’s fear, I realized that it was not enough. It was no where near enough. If I wanted her to be able to accept this part of my life, I realized that I needed an iron-clad case. I needed to know what I was leaving–my family’s Catholicism–backwards, forwards, and upside down. I needed years of study and practice under my belt, not just one short year. And, frankly, my mother would not accept any form of solitary practice as valid because I would be ‘making it all up.’ So, at the very least, I would need to find and learn from an established community and have my personal beliefs challenged and refined by them. And even if I had an exemplary spiritual training and practice in place, there was no way my mother would accept it if my personal life was a mess. She would blame any shortfall in my personal life on God showing his displeasure with me for forsaking him.

So here I am today. I did go on to complete my church’s catechism training and was confirmed (only one of my siblings to do so, so clearly Mom got a lot more lax with the boys), and I continue to study it. In fact, I finally found some part of Catholicism I understood when I started reading Jesuit writers and I have subsequently incorporated several points of Ignatian spirituality into my Pagan ways.  And those ways have now been practiced far longer than a year and a day: I’ve been a practicing Pagan for over half my life. I have been an official student of some form of British Traditional Witchcraft since 2010, and a valid Gardnerian initiate since 2015. I’m now starting to think about how I would lead a coven and the skills I need to hone to be a good Craft Elder and potential future High Priestess. In my mundane life, I graduated with Latin honors from the university my mother threatened not to pay for, and I went on to get two more graduate degrees without any financial support from the family. I have a fulfilling career (that I still find frustrating at times, particularly in how underpaid the profession is). I have no debt. Over the past decade, I might not have made much money, but I have always been able to live within my means and still afford some luxuries. I have proven to my mother so many times that I am a moral and ethical person that she now comes to me when she has an ethical problem that she’s struggling with because she knows that I will give her sound counsel.

So I began thinking…maybe its time to come out of the Broom Closet?

I think I got a nudge from the Gods recently. I began working at a new school at the end of September. I moved to the town where it is located at the start of November, and my mother came out from Pennsylvania to help me with the move. I’d done most of the major things before she’d arrived, so most of what we did was to pack up the kitchen, pick up a few pieces of furniture I’d arranged to buy through Craigslist, and tackle the job of unpacking. I’d had the movers put most of the boxes in the basement, and I’d marked each one that had something Pagan in it with a star next to a generic description of the box contents. Before my mother showed up, I set aside all the starred boxes and stacked them in a corner and lined up other ones in front of it. I figured we would just work our way down the row in unpacking, and when we got to the starred boxes, I would tell mom that they contained random ‘decor’ that I would need to sort through to see what I would keep, donate, or discard now that I was in a new space.

That plan worked freakishly well, incidentally.

Unfortunately, I had one small plastic tote that I left out of the cardboard starred boxes. It was mostly candleholders, but also had a few pagan-y items in it, so I set it on top of the starred stack. And while my mother and I were constructing storage shelves in the basement, I accidentally knocked it over and we both heard something break inside.

I told my mom to ignore it and that I would take care of it later, but while I was hammering a shelf, she thought she’d be helpful.

“What the heck is this?” she said with alarm, and I turned around to see her holding a silver goblet engraved with a pentacle.

In that moment, I realized that this could be the big moment: the big coming out. The timing was almost right, and how amazing would it be to finally have that conversation? At the same time…I was sweating in a dirty, cobwebby basement with two half-constructed storage shelves and a mountain of half-unpacked boxes. Maybe the timing was okay, but neither of us were in the best place to talk theology. So I stalled for time.

I hate to admit this, but one of the more successful strategies for deflecting my mother is perilously close to gaslighting: maintain that everything is fine and she’ll begin to doubt herself.  So I shrugged and said “Looks like a wine glass with a star design. I’m pretty sure my friend Gloria gave that to me last time we met…we bonded over a night of wine and Cards Against Humanity, so wine is kind of our thing now.” I literally saw tension flow out of my mother, which broke my heart a little. She did grouse for a minute about how it looked occult and how I should get rid of it. At one point she asked me “Are you into occult stuff?” I replied “Mo-om!” just as I would have done if it was just a wine glass and asked her to help me put the next shelf on the rack. She completely dropped it. She’s probably forgotten all about that goblet by now.

My mom’s reaction was clearly not a 180-degree turn around from when I was in high school, but I can’t help but feel like these two incidents were similar. In both, my mom found an occult thing I was trying to hide while she was being helpful. In both, she had a negative reaction. But in this recent one, that deep fear was absent. She was alarmed, yes…but not terrified. I think that at the very least, a part of her recognizes that she’s not responsible for me any more.

The incident made me think that maybe at some point soon, the coming out conversation might actually be a thing we can not only do, but survive.

And now that it’s a possibility, I’m terrified to do it.

In Honor of Buckland’s Passing

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Raymond Buckland, 1934-2017

The death that has occupied celebrity news this week was that of Hugh Hefner, founder of Playboy magazine. In the Pagan world, however, that news barely registered in the wake of another passing that same day: that of Raymond Buckland.

Buckland was one of the more influential figures in late 20th century contemporary paganism. He and his first wife Rosemary founded the first Gardnerian coven in New York–and quite likely the United States. When Buckland left Gardnerian craft in the early 1970s following his separation and subsequent divorce from Rosemary, he went on to found Seax-Wicca, which was groundbreaking in being a complete, working tradition that required no initiation to join. Anyone who studied its main text, The Tree, and chose to self-dedicate could become a Seax-Wiccan, which was incredibly liberating at a time when access to Wiccan covens was practically non-existent for most of America.

Since about 1969, Buckland served his Craft best as a professional writer and has one of the more impressive bibliographies I personally have ever seen, with at least 40 or so titles to his name in both nonfiction and fiction–and all without the use of ghostwriters. Of course, not all are memorable and some–notably The Magick of Chant-o-Matics–are downright silly. Professional writers do have to pay the bills, after all. But in between texts clearly designed for mass media and fast sales, Buckland produced important work. American paganism would not be what it is today without The Tree and the influence of Seax-Wicca and, perhaps more importantly, the influence of Buckland’s Complete Book of Witchcraft, the giant cobalt tome that so many in the community have renamed “Uncle Bucky’s Big Blue.” The BCBW is such a clean, useful, and popular book that it is one of the only books on contemporary witchcraft that any publisher has bothered to make into an audiobook. It is, as they say, kind of a big deal.

Outside of paganism, Buckland also achieved a high notoriety among American Spiritualist communities, in large part due to his publications on mediumship, the most beloved of which is The Spirit Book and the most comprehensive of which is Buckland’s Book of Spirit Communications, or “Big Red”. I grew up in spitting distance from one of the largest spiritualist camps in the country, Camp Chesterfield, and visited there only last week. I can personally attest that the Raymond Buckland section in their bookstore is comparatively prodigious and clearly well-loved. He even made an appearance in a 2011 spiritualist documentary produced by HBO, No One Dies in Lily Dale. (The link should take you to his appearance, about 47 minutes into the film.)

Buckland was a complicated man with a complicated life. He made plenty of close friends and alienated others. But whatever issues anyone may have had with him, Paganism in American would have looked very different without his influence, and the community honors him as one of the Greats.

Bringing Still More Deity Representations to the Altar

 

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Mihaylo Melnichuk‘s Aradia and Cernunnos out in the gardens near my home.

Have you ever seen something and instantly thought, “I have to have that!” That was the case with me and these wood carvings of Aradia and Cernunnos. I saw a notice from the artist, Mihaylo Melnichuk (Михайло Мельничук), on a Facebook group announcing he’d started an Etsy store, which would allow him to be able to accept PayPal. He is based out of the Ukraine, and I suppose it is harder to use that service there. The announcement was accompanied by a picture of his Aradia carving and the next thing you know…I was smitten.

I cannot describe how much I love these statues. The craftsman ship is incredibly good, and the artistry even better. Clearly Melnichuk does some research before applying his chisel and Dremel tools to the wood. He has a whole series of Norse gods, which are gorgeous. I’m particularly fond of his Hel, and rather envy this person’s whole collection. Just looking at the various figures alone has helped me get a sense of that Pantheon. All these pieces as well as the Aradia and Cernunnos I purchased are relief sculptures, but Melnichuk is also highly skilled at independent sculptures, too. Just take a look below at a figure he carved of a cossack.

Cosack

That’s some good work. I have no idea how he was able to keep all the proportions so realistic while working with wood. It’s not really a medium that lends itself to such precision. Or perhaps just the artists I know are not as skilled.

My absolute favorite thing about these relief statues, though, is their portability. I really dislike transporting my other statues because I am so worried about breaking them. Most of them are resin, which is fairly durable. However, having broken my fair share of precious figurines in my childhood…I know transporting them without lots of Styrofoam and big boxes is not a smart idea. One small knock could chip the resin or break off a limb or antler. Wood has a bit more resiliency, but the relief nature of the sculpture means there’s no small parts that can break off.  If I want to take these to a festival or a coven members house, I just place these back to back (the backs are completely smooth), then roll them up in a soft cloth. They remain totally secure and safe. And they certainly are light! I barely notice them in a bag. For now, they’re enjoying hanging out on my Altar, and I’m enjoying having some new representations to cycle into my rotation.

Since I ordered these figures, Melnichuk’s store has received quite a bit of traffic and I do not believe he currently has much in stock, but he is accepting orders and also does custom work. And I believe he may be expanding his pantheon offerings. In addition to his sizable Norse collection and the “Celtic” collection of Aradia and Cernunnos, he recently added the Greek Hecate. If you want something different, he’s open to custom work. And if you want something he’s already created but sold, he has a knack for faithfully re-creating designed piece. His prices also seem fairly reasonable. These hand carved relief statues are only about $50 a piece, and they’re a pretty good size. Mine are about 8.5 inches tall. He can scale the size up or down, too. Last I checked, he estimated a 1-2 week time to complete carving, and it took about a week for my carvings to arrive from the Ukraine. I also had the opportunity to ask him a few questions through Etsy, and was very pleased with the promptness and thoroughness of his replies, which were in English. (Most excellent, as my Ukrainian is non-existent.)

So if anyone was in the market for deity representations that were a bit different from the resin pieces that are readily available, I highly recommend this artisan!

Modern Village Witching: Cursebreaking

One of my best friends from grad school round 2 has been having a tough time of it lately. She went on to do her own round 2, and she has been struggling to manage her new program’s demands. To try to space out her work load, she decided to take lots of summer classes and double her summer teaching load, which would reduce the courses she needed to take during this school year as well as give her a semester off teaching so that she could have more time to devote to her own dissertation. She also decided to move so that she could live closer to campus and cut down her long commute time, so she scheduled the move for the only ‘free’ week she had…the only free week she has had since she began this program, and the only one she will have until Christmas, provided she completes all her semester work before then.

And that was when the trouble began. Two weeks before the move, she found bedbugs in her old apartment and the landlord refused to do anything. She had to tackle all the extermination and prevention in her old place on her own dime as well as take all the precautionary steps and treatments in her new place, too. Much of the support she had lined up to help her move backed out because they didn’t want to be exposed to a possible bedbug threat, so her move was more laborious and expensive than anticipated. She’s been settled in the new apartment for a few weeks now, but this past weekend she discovered that her indoor cat had fleas. Upon tearing up her new apartment to determine the extent of the flea problem, she discovered evidence of a major mouse infestation (likely the source of the fleas, too). At that point, all the stress and exhaustion caught up with her, and she got caught in a Murphy’s Law loop: everything that could go wrong did.

This friend knew I’m a witch, so she called me up, described all her troubles and said, “Melissa, you know I’m a hardcore atheist, but I think I’m cursed. Can you help me break it?”

Three horsemen

Are these the harbingers of a modern day curse?

Even though I’m a witch and therefore hold an awful lot of beliefs that seem kooky from the outside, I’m pretty skeptical when it comes to curses. I don’t deny that they are a thing some magical practitioners do, but honestly they take a fair bit of time and planning, not to mention mundane and magical effort. Most of the practitioners I know would rather spend their time working more positive things to help their own selves out rather than heap negative things upon someone else. Of course, some non practitioners can deliver some walloping curses, but usually that is because you’ve delivered them an egregious wrong, and you are the focus of all their anger and frustration. Unless someone is seriously pissed off at you, you are unlikely to be the target of a curse. And because most people don’t actually do terrible things to each other, the likelihood that anyone is being cursed is extremely low.

But right before I opened my mouth to tell my friend she was being silly, I stopped. It occurred to me that when it comes to curses, the number one suspect on the list of people who could have cursed you is…you. We’re our own worst enemies. I guarantee that no one thinks as many bad thoughts about you as you do yourself. People are egocentric creatures, and most don’t care enough to focus their ire upon someone else.

I knew my friend has been struggling for a long time with lots of issues. She doesn’t feel like she’s good enough for anyone to love her, so she’s largely stopped dating. She also a victim of imposter syndrome, something I know all too well. She’s also in a hypercompetitive world class graduate program, and the people in her cohort are much more likely to feed into her feelings of inadequacy than they are to help her overcome them. And I know from my own struggles that when I feel bad about myself, the mundane struggles that come up seem much bigger and are much harder to solve.

So I decided to become a cursebreaker.

Curse

Here is a stolen image of exactly what I did not do.

It doesn’t really take that much time. In this particular instance, the thing that pushed my friend into panic was the litany of pests. But these are a symptom and not the curse itself. So I took a couple days to visit her and give her a hand. We scrubbed down all the cabinets in her kitchen with a bleach solution and removed all the mice droppings and urine trails. Then we rubbed peppermint essential oil into all the nooks and crannies and placed a few different traps about the place. I made her up a ‘spelled’ peppermint floor wash to use in her (awesome) spray mop, which she uses daily in the kitchen. And we re-organized her pantry and made sure that all food was stored in rodent-proof containers.

To combat the fleas, we treated her cat as her vet instructed and washed all her bedding and linens. We used a flea spray on her carpets and furniture and sprinkled some of the diatomaceous earth she’d got in the bed bug incident on them, too. We did a solid vacuuming of the whole place with my shop vac (diatomaceous earth murders vacuum filters), and we ended up buying her a new Dyson vacuum to replace the broken one she’d been using and doing another thorough vacuuming with it. We also timed how long it took us to vacuum the apartment (25 minutes) and figured out how my friend could work that into her schedule at least twice a week. (Regular vacuuming, if you don’t know, is a major deterrent for most insect problems.)

Simply having someone to help her with all these mundane issues did a wonder for my friend’s outlook.

After all the cleaning, we performed a house blessing to help her feel settled and secure in her new home. And then I helped my friend create a working schedule that could help her balance her classwork as well as allow for some things people just need. Like Netflix and Facebook. Or time to cook, clean, and exercise. Or time to call your parents and friends. Or time to pamper yourself. I gave her a ‘spelled’ bath salt mix of rose, lemon verbena, and mint to use on her new Wednesday spa night and some vaguely magical visualizations, cleansings, and affirmations to do to help her relax and feel good about herself.

Did I do magic to break a curse? Maybe not the ritual magic my friend probably meant when she asked, but I think we worked a far more effective magic with friendship, support, and a few fun witchy window dressings.

13 Things Effective Pagan Leaders Avoid Doing

True Leaders

One of the things I appreciate most about the post-millennium pagan community is how easy it is to communicate with various leaders. There are so many pagan festivals these days in so many different locations and with various levels of accessibility that the likelihood of being able to actually meet and talk with various authors, activists, and other Big Name Pagans is pretty high. And then, of course, there is the wonderful world of social media, which lets you get to see how people act and think when they’re not on their best public behavior.

Having been an avid participant in festivals and a lurker on many a Pagan forum for several years, I believe I’ve been able to see a bit of the real people behind many high recognizable names, and their personalities have taught me a bit about some of the things the egomaniacs in our community do that are noticeably absent or minimized in the true greats. And because it’s a lazy Saturday, I decided to to list them out, Buzzfeed style.

The best leaders in our community do not…

1.    Crave Community Approval. Curiously enough, the best Pagan leaders are entirely disinterested in proving their superior witchiness to the rest of the community. They do not rest on their (usually) well-deserved laurels and continue to spout and promote their own gospels. They don’t seek celebrity status. If they publish a book or organize a festival, it’s because they have something they genuinely want to share with the community and think the community could use. They don’t name drop or allude to their connections to other notable Pagans to impress others or (worse) to begin or end an argument. Rather, they continue to hone their Craft throughout their lives and see themselves as seekers as much as they are teachers. And they are happy to incorporate and share the lessons they learn along their spiritual journey.

Love Me

2.    Cede The Moral High Ground. Leaders of all sorts understand that a “game of thrones” accompanies any leadership position. As great as a leader is, there is always someone who thinks they can do it better. Or worse, some just want to take away the successes of others in order to make themselves feel bigger. Neither of these people are above petty psychological attacks. Great leaders, however, understand that while they cannot control the actions of others, they can control their responses to those actions. Their power as a true leader is to manage that response and act with grace and compassion instead of additional low-handed tactics.

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3.    Begrudge Others Their Successes. In some groups, leaders seem to leech of the energy of others. If someone comes to share a success with the group, the leader is quick to re-direct attention to themselves. This is obviously highly problematic and can quickly become abusive. Even mediocre leaders have the ability to celebrate the achievements of others in the group. But excellent Pagan leaders are able to feel genuine joy and excitement for other people’s success and communicate that joy. If that success reveals a personal failing to them, they do not detract from or attack the covener who succeeded. Rather, they work to improve their own chance at success.

envy

4.    Become Control Freaks. Effective Pagan leaders are not complainers. They tend not to dwell on the niggling inconveniences of daily life, but more importantly they also don’t fret about the actions of other people. If a student or covener chooses to leave the coven, they wish them well and help facilitate their transition. If another Pagan in their tradition does something they disagree with, they have a conversation with them so that they can understand their actions and motivations. If that Pagan is outside their tradition, they recognize that their opinion is not highly relevant and leave those in that tradition to have those questioning conversations. Instead, they tend to their own garden as best they can.

Control

5.    Live In The Past. Amazing, dynamic Pagan leaders spend their time creating strong practices now that can be useful foundations for the future. They learn from their tradition’s history and from their own past experiences, but they are able to avoid investing all their mental and spiritual energy in fantasies of the bygone “glory days” and other disappointments. The past hundred years have seen a sea change in the secular culture, and as we have seen, religions that cannot find a place to work with secular cultures are doomed to die out. (Just ask the Shakers! Oh wait…)

dwell on past

6.    Become A People Pleaser (or Hater). Coven leaders know that they will drive themselves crazy if they cater to everyone’s whims, and they know where the line is between thoughtful accommodation for a need and bending for a preference. Similarly, they do not try to undermine the authority of others, especially in an attempt to make themselves look stronger, more knowledgeable, or a better Witch. Instead, they try to be fair and kind to others, and they speak up when they see that someone needs an advocate. The can understand that some may be upset with their actions, but they can navigate the situation with grace and develop useful compromises if necessary.

Please

7.    Avoid Change. The best Pagan leaders have no desire to re-invent the wheel and rebuild their tradition(s) from scratch, but they also welcome new challenges and embrace change. If a ritual from the early days of their tradition wants participants to kneel for 15 minutes, but they know that one of their coveners just had knee surgery and some others are battling arthritis, they will find creative ways to accommodate the physical needs of their group while simultaneously honoring what the spiritual intents of the ritual are. The biggest ‘fear’ of a strong Pagan leader is of becoming stagnant in a rapidly changing world by allowing their tradition to lose the intent and power of their rituals through relying on unexamined orthodoxy.

Winds of Change

8.    Repeat Mistakes. Everyone has heard the definition of insanity: performing the same actions again and again while hoping for a different outcome. Great Pagan leaders are not insane. They are self-reflective in accurate and productive ways. They take responsibility for their past behavior and learn from their mistakes. If they realize their rituals have become the Priestess and Priest show, they’ll re-work their structure to find more opportunities for the coveners to actively participate and learn. If a student decides to drop classes because they’ve devolved into rambling lectures, the leader will re-work planned lessons and experiment with more ways for students to engage with the material.

Mistake

9.    Avoid Risks. An ineffective Pagan leader either jumps headlong into foolish risks or refuses to risk anything at all. In contrast, a strong Pagan leader is willing to take calculated risks. They have the ability to thoroughly weigh risks and benefits to their actions, and they fully assess potential downsides and worst-case scenarios and address ways to minimize them before they take any actions. They understand that the health and safety of their group is one of their most important obligations, and they find ways to help their coven grow and be challenged while remaining secure in Perfect Love and Perfect Trust.

Calculated Risks

10.    Expect Everything To Happen RIGHT NOW. Great Pagan leaders know that the best results take time. They know that it will take years to build a strong coven and decades to develop a healthy downline. They know that training cannot be put on a timeline and that some rare people are ready to become a third degree after three years, others will never be ready after thirty and still others will never want to. Instead of running ragged to make everything perfect now, effective leaders make the most of what they do have. They also take care to give their time and energy in measured doses and celebrate the steps and milestones of the journey as much as they do its end. They know they are leaders for the long haul. They work to develop their staying power, and they know how to delegate tasks and ask for help.

Veruca

11.    Play The Victim. Caring Pagan leaders take responsibility for their actions and their outcomes, and they know that life just isn’t always fair. Instead, they view difficult times and challenges as opportunities to grow, and they often emerge from these situations with strong self-awareness and gratitude. They don’t immediately assume that they’ve made an enemy in the community or that they’ve been cursed or that they’re receiving a karmetic reward, and they make sure to determine and address mundane causes for their problems before seeking magical solutions.

Victim Card

12.    Yield to Failure. We don’t say it outright, and perhaps we rarely think of it as such, but the Pagan community highly values attaining success. Many of us, especially newer witches, only tend to work magic to help us secure the things that we’re failing at attaining mundanely. Just think of all the luck spells, money spells, job spells, love spells, and all the rest that have been written and performed across all the Pagan branches. I suspect that few of us have groups that routinely practice the skills needed to support a covener through a personal or magical failure, and doing so with a leader can be pretty awkward. After all, aren’t they they ones who are supposed to have their ducks in a row? But leaders fail. Even strong ones. But strong leaders don’t let their failures be the end of their story. They tend to see life’s hiccups as learning experiences, chances to improve, or ways to create something even better than they’d originally dreamed.

Failure

13.    Ignore Their Need For Personal Space. While many Pagan paths bestow all initiated or dedicated members with the titles of Priest or Priestess, the group leaders tend to wear the clergy mantle. We go to them with our personal problems and entrust them with our spiritual struggles. They are also the ones who take on the majority of planning and behind the scenes work, and most of them work their own full time jobs (or more!) on top of it. Clergy burnout is a real thing, and Pagan leaders risk losing other critical parts of their identity on the altar of the Ideal Priest or Priestess. Effective Pagan leaders, therefore, are able to set and work within clear boundaries, and they are able to refer people to other professionals when and if it is necessary. They can also rely on the those they are training to step up and shoulder some of that burden as well. In fact, they should actively plan for these opportunities so that they can attend their own spiritual needs while their trainees develop their own leadership skills. In short, strong Pagan leaders know they have a life outside Witchcraft, and they create the infrastructure they need to make sure they can live it.

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Practical Defense Against Internet Trolls

Internet TrollIf you would have asked 15-year-old me if Witchcraft as it is practiced today believes in trolls, I would have laughed you out of the room. But 33-year-old me would sadly nod her head. The pagan religions attract a lot of amazing, thoughtful, conscientious, creative, and loving people, but they also attract power-hungry egoists who delight in stirring the pot. And this, unfortunately, means that our community has its fair share of trolls. Worse, since a majority of communication between pagans happens online rather than in real physical space, our trolls can have a much larger impact upon our community than what other faith groups may experience. A few well-placed comments by a troll can monopolize conversation in the magical community for weeks.

For those not in the know, an Internet troll is person who uses an online avatar to instigate or contribute to a discussion by posting comments designed to upset others and disrupt discourse. Very often, it appears that the trolls have no reason behind their posts other than to upset other participants in the conversation. Their language often contains falsehoods such as deliberate misrepresentations and outright lies, hyperbolic statements, and insults. Increasingly, these insults denigrate the ‘other.’ They can be misogynistic, homophobic, racist, abilist, body-shaming, and every other vile thing under the sun.

It takes a pretty twisted soul to be a chronic troll.

These past couple of weeks in both pagan forums and in responses to current events, I have seen conversations that caused me to wonder why trolls troll and how they can possibly maintain and grow an audience for their vitriol. Are these people in someway broken? Could they be fixed?

I am no psychologist, but I am a scholar whose best friend in grad school did her dissertation on trolling culture. Through her, I learned that psychology research around the troll phenomenon is still pretty lean, but that many people rely on the findings of Buckels et al in their 2014 paper “Trolls Just Want to Have Fun”. In search of hard data linking trolling with the “Dark Tetrad” of personality traits, they conducted two online studies administering personality tests and surveys to over 1200 people.

Using lay speak, these Canadian researchers were essentially trying to quantify how evil the people behind the troll avatars are.

The term “Dark Tetrad” has become increasingly common in the 21st century as a sort of way to objectively measure evil. It describes various maladaptive personality features for which a form of measurement exists: psychopathy, narcissim, Machiavellianism, and Sadism. Briefly defined, these terms refer to:

  • Psychopathy: behavioral patterns defined by an absence of empathy that may signal the subject lacking the emotional aspects of a conscience.
  • Narcissism: form of self-obsession. Clinical narcissists are often described as arrogant, self-centered, manipulative, and demanding. They may also concentrate on grandiose fantasies of their own success, beauty, or brilliance and may be convinced that they deserve special treatment.
  • Machiavellianism: refers to one’s proclivity to manipulate a situation and one’s attitudes regarding that manipulation. If one has a detached, calculating attitude about it, they could be said to be highly Machiavellian.
  • Sadism:  the ability to derive pleasure from the suffering of others.

Alone, any one of these four traits could be fairly benign. For example, most sexual sadists negotiate consent with their partners and do not exceed what their partner has agreed to, thus causing no real harm. Similarly, a psychopath might not actively seek to harm or control others and a narcissist’s conscience could help guide their behavior more constructively in social situations. However, a psychopathic narcissist would have all the negative traits of egotism without the empathetic conscience needed to hold him or herself back. If one also condones manipulation to serve their needs, we can begin to see how truly evil decisions and actions can be made. Adding the fourth part of the tetrad, sadism, to the mix leads to what we frequently think of as evil: the active desire to cause pain in others through manipulations made to feed one’s ego.

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Screen shot from the Buckels et al paper correlating survey participant’s personality scores to their reported favorite online activities.

Cutting to the meat of Buckels et al‘s findings, comprehensive Dark Tetrad scores were highest among people who stated that trolling was their favorite Internet activity. However, they also found that “sadism had the most robust associations with trolling of any of the personality measures” and concluded that “the associations between sadism and GAIT [Global Assessment of Internet Trolling] scores were so strong that it might be said that online trolls are prototypical everyday sadists.” They believe that trolls, like the sadists they are, “tend to troll because they enjoy it”, and found that when they controlled for enjoyment, “sadism’s impact on trolling was cut nearly in half.”

The interesting thing about sadism is that one does not have to be the cause of another’s suffering to derive pleasure from it. And this is where I believe trolls find their audience. It does take a certain type of person to instigate any sort of action against another. Think, for example, of how difficult it can be to muster up the courage to call (or text, email, tweet, whatever) someone you just met for a date. That action takes a considerable amount of mental work. It is far easier for some sadists to effectively leech off the pain caused by others. And it is exceptionally easy for baby trolls to sit at the sidelines munching away at popcorn while they watch a particularly juicy flame war go down.

Jackson popcorn

My main take away from the Buckels paper, however, is their point that sadism’s impact on trolling was cut in half when enjoyment was controlled. To me, this implies that if trolling does not provide the troll with some near immediate short term pleasure, they are likely to move on to greener pastures. (It would be too much to hope they cease trolling, however. Sadism is a core part of their personality.)

In other words, it is your suffering that brings the troll pleasure, so the very best thing you can possibly do is ignore them. The Internet adage of “Do Not Feed the Trolls” holds a great deal of truth. If you do not show your suffering, the troll’s pleasure is greatly lessened. If you feel you need to alert your potential supporters to the troll, tell them who is trolling you, what they are saying, and where they are saying it. Then ask them to not rise to the troll’s bait. If the troll is exceeding the terms of use agreement of whatever site they’re using, by all means report them. Be aware, however, that many trolls have many avatars and that the report can, at least temporarily, feed the frenzy. If the troll is moving into libel, do not engage them. Instead, quietly collect your evidence and follow the advice of your legal counsel on the matter.

Offline, however, work your mojo to burn that crazy douchebag’s ass and protect yourself. Just because you’re not picking up what the troll’s putting down doesn’t mean you can’t do anything at all.