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I am a woman magician. By woman I mean that I was born into a culture which recognizes two biologically based sexes and that I was raised in the female sex. I have always been comfortable with my body's sex assignment, but I have not always been comfortable with the assumptions made about me because I am a woman, and the way I am expected to behave. Also, I have not always been comfortable in the company of other women, although I have come to understand and cherish women's culture.
By magician I mean that I practice Western Traditional Magic. Magic feels like home to me. I've jumped at every scrap of information I could get about it since I was a little girl. I've spent a lifetime organizing, writing, teaching, and living in the magical communities. Even so I have often felt as uncomfortable in magic as I have been as a woman, and for many of the same reasons. This sense of standing outside my home has led me to spend decades studying religion, history and philosophy, seeking to understand how magic has come to be what it is today and how it has come to view women and men the way it does. This work is an exploration of the tradition from a woman’s point of view. It explores what the tradition gives us, how it fails us, and how we can shape it to serve us better.
Throughout this book I use my own life as a jumping off point for discussion. I do this deliberately, as a reflection of women's ways of knowing, which insist on grounding in the historic, the specific, the useful, and the intimate, deriving authority from personal history and embodied experience.
I was not born into the lineage of Western Traditional Magic. I was born a year before the Witchcraft laws were repealed in England, at a time when very few were being raised as Witches. I was raised Catholic but converted to Witchcraft at sixteen.
As a Catholic I grew up immersed in stately and majestic ritual lofted by music. The priest's robes, the magical language, the gestures, all seemed fantastically sacred to me. I looked longingly at the robes of the priest and said, that's what I want to wear, that's what I want to do. If I had been a man I would have said I had a calling and gone into the priesthood. The glitch here of course is that I am a woman, and the Church did not then and does not now permit women to enter the priesthood.
I set out to find a religion which accepted the positive contribution of women. In the pre-internet 70s as a minor child my exploration was limited to what I could read. When I picked up a copy of Sybil Leek's book The Complete Art of Witchcraft, I found my religion. This book was written by a woman who modeled a way of being in the world, one which acknowledged the natural forces and sought to work with them, as well as opening a gate into mystery. As a Witch, a woman could conduct ritual – I could conduct ritual on behalf of my coveners.
Many of us enter the tradition in this way, through books, and now through the internet. Western Traditional Magic is a literate lineage, recorded and passed through the published text.
I spent a number of years reading the handful of books available and constructing a practice from those. My earliest attempts at ritual taught me the lesson that has been the most important of my magical career. There were a lot of rules to Witchcraft when I first started practicing it, and in my teens I endeavored to follow them all. I ordered a silver cup from a jeweler. I buried a knife in the ground for seven days. I bought a length of red fabric trim for my cord. Following the rules, I used my cord to measure my living room. The circle I was trying to cast was supposed to be nine feet wide, but I discovered I did not quite have nine feet of floor space in the room. Standing up next to my couch holding the end of the cord in my hand, confronted with the choice between sticking with the text and not doing the ritual or going forward, I made my first and most enduring rule: you can change it so that it works.
When I entered into the magical communities, the cutting edge of magico-religious thought was centered in the Neo-Pagan and Women's Spirituality movements. The first group I encountered was a Dianic woman-only study group centered on the teachings of Zsuzsanna Budapest. As this study group was also primarily composed of women in the local National Organization for Women chapter, I simultaneously entered the world of feminist discourse and action. We cast circles, ran consciousness raising groups, and protested injustice, and each action supported both our feminism and our spirituality. Through Z.'s work I experienced the power of women’s magical community.
Through the occult bookstores of the era I encountered Aleister Crowley's work. I had at one point a shelf of his books. As I read his work I'd come across a misogynistic passage and throw the book against the wall. There was no entrance for a feminist woman into this work at that time. I gave the books away and turned away from that part of the path for some years.
I was drawn to Crowley because I was reaching for information about sex magic. This was just at the moment when feminist movement took its sex-negative turn. My Dianic group no longer offered me the experiences I was drawn to explore. As a woman and a heterosexual sex magician I needed to work magic with men. I undertook an apprenticeship and a first degree initiation as a traditional Witch.
One characteristic of Western Traditional Magic that all the groups share is that while you can practice on your own, and learn from books, to truly belong to the lineage you need to be initiated. Some person or group must conduct a ritual which among other things inducts you into the group.
Initiation is a perilous topic. While initiation confers membership into a group, that group will almost certainly be a subset of the lineage. Initiations are quite emphatically not recognized by other groups, even groups which are quite similar. Witches may be Gardnerian, Alexandrian, Georgian, each of these lines taking its name from its founder whose ritual or initiatory lineage differed in some way from his predecessors. Today you can be a traditional Witch, eclectic Witch, Wiccan, each name describing some further subdivision of religious practice. Golden Dawn groups splinter like split firewood. O.T.O. groups are not only mutually exclusive but actively hostile to one another.
Initiation into traditional Witchcraft exposed me to the gender expectations that I had avoided while sheltered in the Dianic woman-only world. So soon as I was initiated, a sexually charged twenty-one-year-old woman, I was hit on by every man in the group, which alarmed and alienated me. As a feminist I could not help but notice that the High Priestess who was supposed to be in charge of the group was a housewife who deferred to her husband in the day-to-day world. It wasn't as much as a year before I left that organization and struck out again to find a way to practice where I was safer from masculine predation.
What I found was a Ceremonial Magician. He provided a door into the world of ritual magic for me. He stood beside me as a man who cared about me, understood me, and who supported my feminist ideals. We married and went on a three-year retreat, living and working in an apple orchard in Eastern Washington while devouring works on history, psychology, philosophy, the new physics. In his company I started a course of independent study of Golden Dawn and Aurum Solis magical texts.
The path I took into the Ceremonial lodges is not unusual. While some encounter a practicing group and take initiations while studying, others spend years studying the material before seeking out initiation. Also, while some women are drawn to Ceremonial Magic on their own, it is common for a woman to enter into a Ceremonial system through relationship with a man in the system.
During this retreat I was invited to join a group called the Feminist Qabbalist Collective. It was the mid-1980s, the high water mark of feminist movement in the twentieth century, when women exuberantly explored many realms previously barred to us. Collective members wrote essays, photocopied them, and sent copies to each other, in a pre-Internet discussion group. The stated goal of this group was to write a book to be called The Feminist Adept. I was one of the youngest, least experienced and least well read members of this group. When the group disbanded a few years later I determined to gain the education and experience to be able to write that book.
In the decades since the collective took its first feminist look at Qabbalah there has been very little feminist or woman-centered work done on ceremonial magic. Ellen Cannon Reed, Rachel Pollack, and Judith Laura are the pioneers in this field.
My husband and I moved to an urban area where we rapidly connected with the magical communities. I spent the 1990s in community work as a Witch and a Pagan organizer. It was only in 2000 that I returned to the ceremonial lodges to work my way through O.T.O. and Golden Dawn initiations.
As I entered into lodge practice I laid aside my feminist understandings. There were many places where the metaphors didn't work for me, where the ritual seemed like a coat cut for a man. At one point I acted this out - I went to a 20's themed costume party dressed in a man's suit and tie, sporting a fedora. I didn't verbalize this sense of displacement, but I entered into the initiations as a full participant, willing to learn and to experience the tradition on its own terms.
After one of my O.T.O. initiations my initiators asked me, "Why do people think the O.T.O. isn't feminist?" There it was, the question of my life. Carol Lee Flinders talks about this moment, when she felt a conflict between feminism and her spiritual path, and "there was no way in the world I could go on pretending it wasn't there" (Flinders 1998).
I launched into an effort to understand my spiritual path in the light of my feminism. I read, I wrote, I talked to other women. At first I thought it was a work that would be accomplished and then incorporated into my life, that I would move beyond it. I'm not so sure now that this work is ever actually finished, and for most of a decade now this work has been central to my life. There is so much to be done, it is not work that can be done in a short time, or by only one woman. It takes much time, study, discussion, experimentation, and the input of many women.
My husband has become more fiercely feminist over the years. He, my inamorata, and with other men in our magical family act to support the women around them. I have come to understand how vital it is that men support women in our explorations. They are our allies as well as our fathers, brothers, lovers, sons and friends. One of our most important works is to revision our relationships with them.
It is also important that women talk and act together. Many women in my internet-extended magical world are exploring similar questions: who were the women who came before us? What did they write? How do we adapt these systems to meet our needs? How do we relate to each other as women in the magical world? Our most important work is to revision how magic works for women.
This book is really a set of notes about my course of exploration, what I have learned so far, and some ideas about how the work can move forward. Again and again this work challenges me to listen to myself. At its best this is what all philosophy, theology, spirituality imparts, the importance of really hearing ourselves, of finding our own truths, and faithfully clinging to those truths whatever may happen to us. When we touch down to the truth about ourselves we find the truth of life, the sacred center of the universe. In the words of Doreen Valiente’s Charge of the Goddess, “If that which thou seekest thou findest not within thee, thou wilt never find it without thee” (Valiente 2000).
There are enemies to this voice. The root enemy is the philosophy that gives rise to racism and sexism, to the destruction of the Earth’s lovely web of life; the philosophy that authorizes war and atrocity, turning people and places into things, taking sacred creation and converting all into objects to be used. Carol Lee Flinders cites bell hooks as saying: “There is nothing in you that is of value; everything of value is outside you and must be acquired” (Flinders 1998).
Once we learn to listen to the voice within, to distinguish this voice from all the other voices outside us, it rings clearly, like a bell. It is unmistakable. But it is hard to get to the place where we can hear it. It takes extraordinary measures. This is what magic is about, getting us to that place. The concerns of the world pull us away from that endeavor. Even when we finally hear that voice, it is the easiest thing imaginable to let it go, to drift back into the comfortable place where we do not have to act on what we know. Even when we faithfully cling to that voice, the enemies of that voice strive to drown it out.
But if we let go of that voice we lose ourselves. As I write I sit in front of a window looking out on the ocean at Long Beach, Washington, in December. Wind slams rain into the window glass. Later I will bundle up and walk along the beach. It’s eleven miles in length and varies in diameter with the tides. As I walk I will keep my eyes on the water, wary of sneaker waves, unexpectedly large waves that land much higher on the littoral than the ones before and after. The ocean here isn’t swimmable, even in summer; vicious rip tides swirl everything out to sea. It is said that once you lose your footing on the beach, you have lost your life.
You have lost your life, that is, unless you are rescued. Again and again I lose my footing, swept away in the tide of voices speaking with the authority of ages, the authority of position, the authority of certainty. It is hard for any woman to speak authentically; I continually lose the thread of my story. Again and again I am rescued by listening to other women’s voices: the spiritual women, Sister Prudence Allen, Judith Plaskow, Rita Gross, Irshad Manji; the sociological women, Mary Belenky, Blythe Clinchy, Nancy Goldberger, Jill Tarule; the philosophical women, Andrea Nye, Marilyn Frye, Christine Battersby; the magical women, Vicki Noble, Ellen Cannon Reed, Rachel Pollack, Judith Laura; the historians of magical women, Alex Owen, Mary Greer; Carol Lee Flinders, whose voice I return to again and again; and to the magical sisters in my life, Kallista, Shellay, Onyieh, Egypt, Heather, Courtney, Helen, Soror Inde Seraphina. They set me back on my feet. They hold me to my story. They are the sisters of my heart.