Homophobia has become a prominent issue for witchcraft as it moves into the 21st century. I spoke to some purveyors of the dark arts to find out what’s going on…
Mention witches and you imagine hairy, robed women in pointed hats, smelling of incense and chanting around a slaughtered lamb at full moon. I’m lying, of course; my mind flicked to Buffy, Sabrina and everyone at Hogwarts.
In the not-too-distant realm of the Netherlands, Morgana Sythove, 61, a small, raven-haired Wiccan High Priestess has just returned home from a Portuguese pagan conference. As Skype stutters into action, her pale, pixelated face peers at me through a forest of books. There’s no black cat. No cauldron. And, fingers crossed, she hasn’t hexed me – yet.
For the Lancashire-born author of Beyond the Broomstick, Wicca is the ultimate form of self-expression – warts and all. There’s no hiding in the naked Skyclad ritual. “All the bulges, all the scars. It’s acceptance,” she explains.
It’s approaching All Hallows eve – Samhain – the major pagan festival when the veil between life and death is at its weakest. But for Sythove, who serves as the international co-ordinator for the Pagan Federation, the celebrations are muted. “I’m becoming disillusioned with my older friends – traditional Wiccans that marginalise the gay community,” she declares, exasperated yet resolute. “It’s embarrassing. How can I defend these people?”
For many outside the faith, it has become routine to look beyond the image of the broomstick-flying hag and instead consider the dark history of witch trials, persecution and torture. But perhaps, there is a greater skeleton to let out the closet: pagans are not that different from you or me. When religious and political spheres were fractured by the proposals for same-sex marriage, paganism is susceptible to the same ruptures. “We’re just a cross-section of the normal population – we’re tackling the same problems as the rest of society: eating healthy, smoking, sleeping around… prejudice,” Morgana says.
Paganism is one of the UK’s fastest growing belief systems. It has its own councils, shops, magazines and dating sites. 56,620 people across England and Wales were identified as pagans in the 2011 census. Every August boasts the Pagan Pride Festival. Yet according to Professor Ronald Hutton, the UK’s leading Crafts expert, these numbers are merely the tip of the witch’s hat. He estimated the number of UK pagans to be around a quarter of a million – likely the highest number since Roman times and roughly equivalent to the national Hindu community.
Though ‘Wicca’ and ‘paganism’ are often used interchangeably, paganism encompasses a diverse community including Druids, Shamans, Odinists and Heathens. Wicca itself, has many sub-sections: Gardnerian, Alexandrian, Faery, Pictish and Kitchen Wicca are among the many. Though no single set of beliefs, tests or practices are shared by them all, they can be roughly characterised by: polytheism, the belief in multiple deities; pantheism, the belief that the spiritual and material universes are connected; belief in the afterlife; and an emphasis on ritual. And, like any widespread belief, paganism is not immune to infighting and disagreements.
As a religion of self-acceptance, Sythove explains, when Wicca emerged in the early 60s and 70s, it went went hand in hand with homosexuality.
“Much like the stigma against homosexuality, many people, despite the fact that witchcraft has been against the law since 1735, saw paganism as diabolical. Wicca provided the community and acceptance for gay people that was lacking in greater society.”
Single gender covens (small groups of around 13 people that worship together) now provide a haven for homosexuals – Dianic for women and Mithraic for men – though these are not exclusively gay groups. The Gay Wiccan Coven, an online group for gay, lesbian and bisexual witches and wizards in the UK, currently has over 700 members. Indeed, The Charge of the Goddess, a set of instructions given by a High Priestess – typically a High Priest and High Priestess lead each coven – to her worshippers, includes the phrase: “all acts of love and pleasure are my rituals.” And yet this same message may drive a stake through the heart of paganism.
Central to Wiccan ideas, and the sticking point for conservatives, is the worship of the god and goddess. The Great Rite is a symbol of sexual intercourse between two deities, a practice that appears to be near-exclusively heterosexual.
I met with Kevin Carlyon, affectionately known as Kev the Witch, to ask for his perspective on the matter. He cuts a Merlin-esque figure with long, silver hair flowing down his back. Disappointingly, he reveals that his billowing robes are only brought out for special occasions – and that’s not today. For all his eccentricities, he speaks with confidence and authority, clearly eager for his opinion to be heard. Homosexuality, he contends, does not belong in a natural, fertility based religion. “Energy can’t really be raised by a man sticking his willy up someone else’s bum,” deadpans the white witch, psychic, tarot card reader and founder of the Covenant of Earth Magic. “Like terminals on a battery,” he explains, “if two of the same polarity are touched together the power supply is short-circuited rather than energised.”
For Sythove, however, a gender-based Wicca that necessitates a male and female, a High Priest and a High Priestess, such as herself, for ritual is “such stuck-in-the-mud dogmatism”. “That’s crazy, crazy,” she barks. Her flailing arms relay her anger. “God and Godesses are not human! They exist within the realm of Spirit, they are archetypes, personifications of the great abstract universal forces. The law of polarity should mean anything that is a polarity: hot and cold, up and down.”
Not all men are dominant and not all women were passive. Anyone can have projective or receptive personalities and, if paired accordingly, the sexual tension will create spiritual energy regardless of gender. “If you’re looking for balance and harmony in nature, trying to understand nature then you need to understand the divine in yourself,” Sythove adds.
When Daniel Romero, who is gay, was 16, the openness of paganism helped him to accept his sexuality at the same time the Catholic Church seemed to shut him out. Now 24, and having been initiated into Wicca at the start of this year, he has found that for a belief system that encourages one to know themselves, some Wiccans are far less accepting than he expected. “I felt discouraged,” Romero says. “It was OK for me to be gay, as long as I didn’t bring that to the circle – and never even dare to suggest modifying something to make it less straight-looking. You’re very welcome, so long as you pretend you’re someone you’re not… We cannot argue that we should stick to tradition because things have changed – many things have already been modified.”
He quotes 19th century Austrian composer Gustav Mahler:
“Tradition is not preserving the ashes, it is about passing on the fire – that, for me, sums up what the Craft is about.”
And it is this ability to adapt that Sythove believes will stop Wicca from becoming outdated. She recalls how, when one gay initiate expressed discomfort with honouring of the horned god, she suggested that he write his own invocations. “He made amazing ones, much more homeoerotic,” she gushes with near-maternal pride. “They spoke to everybody, male or female, everyone that could understand their first love, their first sexual attraction.”
“If the old guard are not willing to change with the younger generation of Wiccans, who are experimenting with new forms of the craft like this,” she adds, “we will be failing.”
There’s no spell, no waving of a wand, that will instantly fix ruptures between traditional and progressive Wiccans. Next month, Sythove is set to present a paper at a pagan conference in Poland that explores the difficulties of gay adherents. “I’m not sure what will happen,” she chuckles, “but one thing’s for sure, there will be a lot of people who won’t like what I have to say.”
This article was originally published by Planet Ivy.