Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Floating My Way Through

Few words evoke the kind of visceral and immediate loathing and fear as the word witch. All of Glenda's pink, glittery sweetness aside, most people still see the ugly green version, replete with evil animal companions and maleficent deeds. We only have to look to the countless depictions of witches as icons of ill throughout the creative imagination expressed in our culture to know how pervasive that childhood fear of the cackling hag actually is. With all of the misconception, bad press and hysteria that witches have endured for centuries, is it any wonder that many of us prefer to stay in the broom closet?

Wicca is one of the fastest growing religions in the world. If you've ever browsed the children's section of a book store you will see that fantasy and magic make up the theme of a vast majority of new literature. Almost as if in rebuttal to negative press, large numbers of articles have appeared in the media recently about Wicca and Neo-Paganism that present an honest attempt to discuss our beliefs in an accurate and respectful way. All of this suggests that there is a certain positive interest in Wicca, witchcraft and Pagan forms of spiritual practice that is tempting to view as a budding acceptance of alternative religious beliefs. Nevertheless, there are enough documented cases of people losing their children, being driven out of their homes, and losing their jobs because they were Wiccan that it gives a Wiccan pause, whether she lives in a progressive environment or not, to be completely open about her religious affiliation. Cases like Laura Mallory's charging that Harry Potter books promote Wicca, however false, still sensationalize Wicca and put it into the spotlight, where it becomes an easy target for those who may not be as open-minded and accepting as we might like to believe people have become.

Witches don't proselytize and we don't stand on street corners handing out leaflets printed with the Wiccan Rede, but wearing a pentacle raises eyebrows that crosses don't. Your Christian friend who enjoys wearing the gold cross she received as a first communion gift doesn't have to think twice about wearing it to work; most witches I know do, however, tend to leave the pentacle they received upon their initiation into the craft in the jewelry box before they go into the office.

I have long been aware that I live in a rarified world. Between Boston and San Francisco I've lived in places where people espouse progressive ideals and are culturally both diverse and accepting. Not only has it been easy for me to find practitioners, teachers, resources and like-minded friends as I have pursued my spiritual path, but even those outside the Pagan community have approached my Wiccan-ness with more interest and respect than hostility or derision. When people find out I read tarot, they enthusiastically ask for a reading. People admire the beautiful pentacle ring I had made and ask me about it. Still, I'm not entirely out of the broom closet and I choose very carefully in whom I confide that I am a witch.

About a year ago, I wrote on the subject of coming out of the broom closet. Even after maturing in my faith and my practice, and after coming closer to merging my Wiccan self with my public self, I'm not sure yet how truly open I want to be. My most recent boyfriend made jokes about me turning him into a frog and I know it was because he was a bit uncomfortable with me being a witch, but he seemed to accept it well enough for it not to be a major issue between us even if it never was an open topic for dinner conversation. Would I mention that I'm a witch on a first date? No. Thankfully, most of my friends are not very religious themselves - the subject of religion rarely comes up and I simply choose to be discreet about my practice and the other religious parts of my life. I'm not certain that some of my friends would understand my choice; I worry that as an out witch that makes me too weird for them. At this point though, there aren't many of my close friends who don't know, and I think that speaks to my level of trust in them as much as it does in my confidence in myself as a witch. However, if I were just starting a new job I wouldn't tell anyone I was a witch. How would I know how safe I truly was? Is my environment really that progressive or have I just been lucky?

Religion in this country has become a political pawn as the "Religious Right" loudly proclaims its persecution at the hands of anyone who doesn't share their beliefs in an effort to parlay post-9/11 fear into motivation for people to vote for the Republican party. What do they care if a side effect of their vote mongering whips up a little regressive hate and discrimination? The unfortunate results are examples of how powerfully those childhood beliefs about witches manifest in very devastatingly real and grown-up ways. In the era of the Patriot Act and the Bush administration's destruction of constitutional protections, is it so difficult to imagine what a modern-day witch hunt might look like?

I'm grateful every day that I'm fortunate to live in a place where I don't have to live in fear for my religious beliefs. But for now, I'm still going to err on the side of caution.


Mike said...

Angela-Eloise, this is a great portait of the difficulties we can face. What I find interesting (and quite sad) is the difference between people's responses to a Pagan practitioner and, for example, a Buddhist. I also don't make it public knowledge what religion I practice, but I won't hide it either if asked. And what I've noticed (I live in a progressive area as well, the north side of Chicago) is that I tend to get truly curious questions when I mention I'm a Buddhist; people seem to be very intrigued. In particular, I get that type of response from non-Christian religious followers and non-religious people. From devout Christians I tend to get an, "Oh, that's interesting" verbal response, with a hint of "That's too bad." But I've never been openly harassed because of it. What I referred to as interesting and sad earlier is that I'm not certain if a Pagan would get the same response. I think many people I know would give a similar response to you as they did me. But I'm certain the connotations surrounding Pagan faiths would earn you a less favorable response than I've experienced in a lot of cases.

Thanks for sharing that wonderful essay.

Angela-Eloise said...

Thanks for the nice comment, Mike. I always appreciate hearing from you!

And sadly, you are probably right that a Pagan/Wiccan would not have quite the same reception that a Buddhist might. No one is accusing Buddhists of eating babies or telling them they should die, last time I checked.

Also sadly, no one seems to have picked up on my Monty Python reference. ;)

Jeff Lilly said...

I missed your Python reference?! Holy crow! I think that's the first time it's ever happened to me in my whole life (well, at least since high school). And the shameful thing is, I STILL don't see it. Can you point it out for us dullards? :-)

The direction of the country has been quite spooky. I think that our culture is seeing a serious backlash against the rise of science, technology, and enlightenment values. I guess it was inevitable, but that doesn't make it pleasant.

Angela-Eloise said...

How can you tell if she's a witch?

Does she float?

Jeff Lilly said...

Whoa! Subtle! Very nice.