February 12, 2005

What's in a name?

At this point in time, I do not call myself a "witch," and I do not consider what I practice to be "witchcraft." However, many people might consider my interests and pursuits to be exactly in keeping with the modern witchcraft tradition, and so I return again and again to the question of whether or not I am comfortable adopting such a term. Below, I list some points which play a role in my consideration, and my reasons for my current (though somewhat ambivalent) rejection of the term (and why I feel more comfortable with the term "Craft," which some might consider so close as to be a meaningless distinction).

  • Historic Tradition : The term "witchcraft" has an historic tradition which, quite frankly, I know very little about. I seem to recall from Hutton's The Triumph of the Moon (if only I could find my notes somewhere!) that, although modern witches have a variety of opinions about the term, facts suggest that it originated as a derogatory description of countrydwellers who used folk magic and superstitious remedies for all sorts of maladies, medical and otherwise. The understanding of this use of magic was based not in some highly-developed spiritual insight, but in ignorance of the body and of natural scientific laws. Modern Witches--whose magic, by the way, is not mere superstition or "misguided science"--might insist that, despite their scholarly or intellectual ignorance, these countryfolk were intuitively in touch with nature and its energies in ways that we find much more difficult these days. This may be the case, but I'm not entirely convinced. The fact remains that, in many cultures (including those beyond European Christian culture), the term "witchcraft" or its equivalent has consistently been used to describe a less-than-thoughtful, sometimes downright manipulative or even malicious attempt to gain control over a chaotic world. With all due respect to modern Witches, who quite rightly try to reclaim (or, perhaps claim for the first time) these labels in the name of restoring to nature and intuition the respect and attention they deserve, I cannot bring myself to ignore the historic roots of the terms.

  • Respect for Modern Witchcraft : It may surprise you to learn that one of the reasons I hesitate to adopt "witchcraft" as a term is because I want very much to show respect and admiration for modern witches. "Craft" may be a practiced skill or technique in any area--from cooking to woodwork to magic to mechanics. Witchcraft is something very specific; it is that craft which belongs to the modern Witch, Wiccan or Neopagan. Many of the people who identify with the modern witchcraft/neopagan movement do so out of a conscious effort to reject mainstream Judeo-Christian culture (or at least those aspects which they find damaging, alienating or ignorant). By redefining "witchcraft," they are attempting to carve out a new cultural space, a new way of thinking about questions of religion, philosophy and even science. I applaud that attempt and support it whole-heartedly. I do not want to invade that new space and claim it in the name of Catholicism, or Christianity in general. We need new ways of thinking! I would be the first one to admit that mainstream, popular Catholicism just does not acknowledge many of the founding ideas of magic and "witchcraft" (and that this is a problem). To pretend that Christianity does and always has embraced these things would be like pretending that Native American spirituality is part of a European heritage. Often times I find that, in order to respect other ideas and cultures, we must allow them to remain distinct from our own cultural traditions, rather than trying to enforce an unhealthy homogeneous blanket across all space and time.

  • Hope for Christianity : Along the same lines as what I discussed above, I also do not use the term "witchcraft" because doing so automatically puts one outside of Christian tradition, or at the very least in some bizarre counterculture sub-group. I acknowledge that Catholicism has its flaws. But I also believe strongly in the idea of living Tradition--that is, I believe that the role of Tradition in the Church is as an ongoing process of growth and evolution, to keep the Catholic faith relevant to the many different cultures in which it is found, both across the world and throughout history. I hope to be part of my faith's tradition in order to be part of its growth and change for the better. I want to be a living example of how a person can embrace the interconnection and energies of magic and relate intimately with the Divine in nature, worshipping in personal ritual and bringing a creative awareness to aspects of everyday life--all while being a completely ordinary Christian. I am Catholic, and many of my "witchy" ideas I developed out of my Catholic faith and not by borrowing from other religious traditions. I do not call myself a Catholic "witch" because I reject the need for qualification. I echo the thoughts of Ambrose Hawk, who once wrote that the Catholic Church has the potential to incorporate all of these aspects of religious life. The difference between us is that he grew up with a family who thought the "magical" was a normal part of faith, while I did not. I hope that when I someday have children, I can raise them with an appreciation for the magic of religion without needing to qualify that such an appreciation makes them somehow abnormal or cut-off from the rest of the Catholic community.

  • My Path to the Craft : Finally, although I do not use the term "witchcraft," I do still use the label "Craft" to describe the practical aspects of my religious life. This might seem odd, considering everything I've said above. The reason is twofold. Firstly, without the immediate negative connotation and subsequent rejection that comes with the term "witchcraft," using the label "Craft" still reaches out to those who, not knowing what better way of speaking about it, might be searching the web or bookstores for the subject. I've tested this out on my father, a very ordinary Irish Catholic, who balked at the term "witch" but thought that calling my particular playful/arts&crafts approach to religion a kind of "Catholic Craft" was perfectly acceptable. Second of all, I developed much of the techniques and theory that I apply to my developing Catholic Craft through my experience writing poetry. To me, creative writing is not simply an art, but also a "craft"--I do not write poetry simply for the sake of making poems, but because the act of writing poetry is a means by which I explore, expand and challenge my spiritual, creative side. For me, "art" implies something which is done for its own sake, while "craft" implies a skill which has a goal other than itself (whether that goal is making something practical like a good, solid cabinet, or something more ineffable, liking "walking the gray paths" of the unconscious). Poetry has always been both to me--it has been a way of creating beauty, and a way to understand myself, the world, and the Divine. I think ideally all art is both art and craft. More to the point, I have found that my experiences with writing poetry serve as a powerful metaphor for my experiences in exploring the practical (active) side of my religious faith. It was through "crafting" poetry that I began to explore "crafting" other parts of my life. Thus, I feel that to call my particular style of practice my "Craft" is appropriate.

I hope that this has been a bit informative for you. I mean no disrespect to either Christians or modern Witches, and as I said when I began, I find the process of self-identity and group-identity a tricky thing to navigate. I hope by writing about it, I have shown some of the complexities I have attempted to consider (and, really, that I am still considering even now).


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