In the early stages of solidifying my spiritual practice, I have veered away from using words like “pagan”, “ritual”, “magic” and “witchcraft” – or even “spirituality”. And I’ve found that I’m not alone in the tendency to eschew certain labels or words. John Halstead has often written about his conflicted Pagan identity, including two posts that explicitly discuss his embarrassment surrounding the label. Kelly-Ann Maddox has talked both on her blog and on her youtube channel about owning the term “witch” following an on-and-off relationship with it as a label.
I am, I hate to admit, deeply embarrassed by all of these labels. At first I thought I was just being private about it. But when I realised how awfully embarrassing and awkward I found it to explain to my boyfriend about my spirituality, I saw that it really is just a deep-seated shame. It took me eight months to actually sit him down and tell him about it – and we’ve known each other for seven years!
By the wayside
My on-and-off decade of Paganism has immersed me in a host of terms and labels, and although I am starting to see the need for reclaiming some of them, there are others that I’m still quite happy to have shrugged off.
Magic is possibly a term I will never embrace, despite my ongoing fascination with the subject. It has never really resonated with me as an idea on a personal or meaningful level. There are certainly naturalistic pagans who do utilise this term and who have clear and unobjectionable naturalistic definitions or explanations of what they do. I’ve just never had a use for it – I’m happy enough with thinking of anything I do as ritual, meditation, or self-exploration and development. The long and short of it is that I don’t think I believe in anything that I would consider to be magic – I may believe in things that other people call magic, but that’s not really of any relevance to me on a personal level.
Witchcraft and witch are terms that I have rarely seen used by any overt naturalists or atheists, loaded as they are with supernatural or mystical associations. But if magic (or some interpretations thereof) is compatible with a naturalistic path, then I’m not sure why witchcraft isn’t. Although it’s not a label I have ever adopted, it was my fascination with witchcraft from a very young age that led me towards Paganism in the first place, and I do distinctly remember telling a complete stranger I was a witch while incredibly and embarrassingly drunk on my 23rd birthday, Samhain 2011. I can understand the reasoning behind some people’s reclaiming (or in my opinion claiming, but that’s a whole other post) of this term; it’s just not for me, mainly for reasons relating to my thoughts on magic.
But some of these labels and words are definitely relevant to me, and I’ve been coming to embrace them more and more over the past few weeks and months.
This is one that I now, having become more open and self-accepting about my practice and my path, can hardly believe I had a problem with. I wrote in a previous post that I was unsure about it because it seems to suggest a belief in spirits. But since writing that, I’ve come to realise that it can mean much more to me, and can actually function quite satisfyingly as a general descriptor of this aspect of life. As B. T. Newberg points out, its “root meanings of courage, vigor, breath, to breathe, and to blow all have naturalistic overtones” and “the usage of the word to refer to a supernatural being is relatively late”. There may be an element in which people’s associations with the word may not quite match up to what I do and what I believe in, but I’ve come to the belief that there is probably no better term as a general descriptor in the place of “religion”.
This is another one that baffles me in how fervently I initially shrugged it off. I associated it very strongly with Wicca and with magic, rather than seeing it for what the definition of the word really is. I believe that one of the core reasons for my spiritual leaning stems from an innate human need for ritual, particularly when connected with mythologising or storying the universe. I think my reframing and renaming of everything in my practice came from a genuine need to push the boat out and away from my Wicca-based Pagan beginnings, but it’s come to a point where I need to call a spade a spade and acknowledge that I perform fairly formal ritual as a core aspect of my spirituality.
During my time of moving away from “ritual” as a descriptor, it started to seem strange to define myself as Pagan. If I didn’t believe in deity, and I wasn’t doing “Pagan ritual”, what exactly was there left to tie me to the label at all? As a label, it’s rather fluid and even slippery anyway, and defining Paganism is a common thread of discussion in the community. But the other week, I had an aha moment of the who am I kidding? variety. I follow the wheel of the year, and perform rituals that are loosely based around the structures of ceremonial magic that are at the basis of most if not all neo-Pagan practices. And even if my divine is not deity (does that even make sense?), the metaphors and archetypes and the framework for my understanding of the divine cosmos are utterly steeped in Pagan traditions of thought.
Although I’m not proud of this embarrassment, I am aware of where it comes from: a combination of my father’s deep disapproval of my exploration of Wicca in my early teens; my own attitudes towards religion and mysticism and a tendency towards scepticism; and a prevailing culture of atheism and deep sceptisicm amongst nearly all of my friends and peers in school, university, and beyond.
I’m not about to “come out of the broom closet” so to speak, and announce to the world that I am a practicing Pagan. But I think finally opening up to my boyfriend about my spirituality has triggered new acceptance within me. I’m starting to think that my pulling away from certain labels and practices – and maybe even theism as a whole – may stem from a deep lack of self-acceptance. I have, at some point down the line, decided that feeling and believing these things denotes some sort of silliness or maybe weakness in me, despite the fact that it has remained a sort of recurring rash in my life for over ten years. I’m realising now that it’s time to step up to the bar and have some pride in myself, my beliefs, and the things that are meaningful to me, no matter what anyone else might think.
This post took me a few weeks to write in its entirety, and the process of writing it has brought up a lot of other deeper issues for me to deal with, regarding my theism or lack thereof. It’s becoming apparent that there is a lot of stuff lurking under the surface of my spiritual practice that I have not yet properly addressed. I suddenly feel that I am at the very beginning all over again.