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Wicca, World Deities, and Me: One Witch's Questions

by Judy Andreas

"You've got to be all of yourself wherever you are."

As I woke up and lifted my head from the pillow, the words rang through my spirit. I didn't have time to wonder where they came from. They came to me in my sleep and, in this case, that was enough for me.

"You've got to be all of yourself wherever you are."

Well, that was a tall order. A lesbian, an old married woman, a godmother, a lover, a healer, a farm girl, an intellectual, a sensualist, a Witch, a working class activist, a white woman, a part of a multicultural family, a cleaning lady, a Ph.D. candidate, an intuitive, an ally of the disabled, an anti-racist, a co-op member, a thinker, a nature lover... Where was I going to start?

Luckily, in almost no time, I found Reclaiming, where I can be all of myself. Here, I don't need to separate my spiritual from my political self or my queer self. I also discovered that Reclaiming was calling on deities of the world in Wiccan ritual. Having experience with powerful spirits from cultures other than that of my heritage, I looked forward to the opportunity to encounter those contacts again, with my Witchiness being present at the same time and place. Yet, in Wiccan circle, calling on deities from world cultures has raised some surprising reactions in me and left me with questions, questions, questions.

My preparation for my first Reclaiming class began a year before at my mother's funeral. At the funeral home, I talked to Crazy Aunt Mildred again for the first time in 32 years. In the intervening years I'd come to realize that some things I remembered Aunt Mildred doing, when I was a child, fell well within the realm of Witchcraft. She and her mother, my Grandma, would cut a forked stick off a tree and go walking out back into the woods or pasture. When they returned to Grandma's big old farmhouse, they would talk about their adventure. They would exactly describe the places that the forked stick dipped down, while the rest of the family smirked behind their backs. That was where a well could be drilled, Grandma would announce, because the water was close to the surface there. I went along with the smirking, because Grandma and Mildred were clearly outnumbered, with my parents being among the non-believers. In recent years, I have come to think of Grandma and Crazy Aunt Mildred as frustrated Witches, and the rest of my family as conformists who were playing it safe.

My mother's funeral was the first time I'd seen and talked with most of my family and old high school friends since I'd left for college 32 years before. While I stood in the receiving line trying to recognize the people who walked through giving condolences, Aunt Mildred appeared in a far corner. Slowly and deliberately, she walked toward me through the crowd of townspeople and neighboring farm families. Then she said sweetly, "Yes, I know Judy. You're the one with the pretty brown eyes like Hattie." I started crying — it touched me that somebody in my family had noticed something special about me when I was young. And that person was the other surviving Witch in the family. We talked.

About a year after my conversations with Aunt Mildred, I was ready for my formal coming-out as a Witch, so I took Reclaiming's Elements of Magic class. The foundation for this had been laid in years of spiritual searching and learning. I had been privileged to worship in Yoruba and Jewish Renewal services. I had learned European occult practices, and I had developed into what I learned from reading was called a "solo practitioner of the Craft." What a joy to connect with Reclaiming — not only Witches, but Witches with a social action consciousness! I was high as a kite with my new-found connection, but nervous, too. After all, Grandma and Aunt Mildred never dared to connect with others. Nor did they ever label themselves as anything other than good church-going folks.

Just to call myself a Witch in a group of strangers who knew what that meant was a real graduation for me. In the Elements class, I appreciated the carefulness and psychic safety of the Reclaiming ritual style. Yet, working solo, I'd never needed a set ritual routine and was used to greater freedom. So while I grated at any standardized ritual forms, I also recognized the need for a common practice in group. I began to feel close to every student in class. Our teachers were warm, caring, fun and full of knowledge. The group activities led to dynamic, invigorating energy flows. The class was wonderful for my Witchly development.

In the first class, a few things surprised me. The God and Goddess who were invoked were Elegua and Oya, two Orisha. Elegua is called Eshu among the Yoruba in Nigeria. Since I have an ongoing relationship with Eshu from my Yoruba worship, I was glad to make that connection in Wiccan circle. At the close, though, I was careful not to say, "Go if you must, stay if you will. Hail and farewell," because even suggesting a good-bye to Eshu was shocking to me. Elegua/Eshu is the connector to other Orisha and a constant care-taking presence. I, like most worshipers, dedicate myself to maintaining a permanent, continuous relationship with him, and never even want to think of the possibility of separation. But I was too busy learning Reclaiming's ritual style and trying to stay present with the group energy to focus on any of my reactions.

In a later class, Native American ancestors of the place where we circled were invoked. Again I became uncomfortable. This time, it was because of an interaction some years before with some specific Native American ancestors. Due to an emergency involving a mutual friend, I went to them in the spirit realm.

That meeting was direct, strong and clear. I'll never forget what they told me: "We care for [our mutual friend], but do not presume you can approach us."

I promised to honor their wishes. I thanked them, and I quickly left. When spirits make such a strong statement, I know I should remember. What remained with me was an awareness that there may be other indigenous spirits on this land who might also not want me to approach them. Naturally, the spirits' message flooded through me again with that invoking, then we were on to other invocations and activities in class.

As an old solo practitioner, one of the most wonderful gifts I was getting from each circle was the experience of giving to and receiving from a group — even a group of strangers. I felt cared for by the teachers and increasingly open to group connection. Most activities just flowed. It was obvious that our teachers' experience and hard work moved us along a lively stream of ritual. I was doing my best to float along with good will and good intention. After devoking our circle the evening that the indigenous ancestors were invoked, we ate together and discussed the ritual. I brought up invoking Native American spirits and suggested adding, "...if you want to come." Somehow, by openly acknowledging that this was not a Native American ritual, and suggesting we honor these ancestors' choice whether to come or not, calmed the still-resonating spirit voices in me.

I went away wondering, what are our reasons for invoking and devoking in our Witches' circles? Perhaps some of the differences between Wicca and other indigenous spiritual practices of the world arise from centuries of the harshest oppression against pre-Christian European spirituality. To me, circling, invoking and devoking create not only a sacred and spiritually safe space, but a secret place that can separate my worship from the rest of my life. When a circle is opened, an ancient sensation reminds me that no one can see where we've circled. Nothing remains in the forest, meadow, sand or room that can give away the existence of the just finished ceremony. The circle leaves no building or artifacts that can be found. It allows for movement to any location indoors or out with no clues left behind. The circle is a mental demarcation, too, minimizing the possibility of a slip of the tongue. I know I can even forget that I was there, so there is no possibility of me unintentionally revealing my involvement in a forbidden rite. These sensations in me feel like they come from centuries of habit and fear. I'm still working to integrate my Witch identity into as much of my life as possible. I believe there is a safety now in my progressive San Francisco Bay Area community that I haven't experienced anywhere for many centuries.

My questions about Wiccan invoking and devoking then led me to questions about the differences between Wicca and other ancient traditions. It is fortunate, I theorized, that most other traditions of the world haven't had to hide any trace of their spiritual practices for centuries — at least not so completely from others of their own societies. There is often the possibility of living continuously with their deities, openly honoring them as an ordinary part of everyday life. This is not to suggest that many traditions don't circle to worship in certain ways — for example, to allow spirit or ancestor possession. But worship is not exclusively within circle with deities devoked at the end, as has been Wiccan tradition since our oppression began. In other words, many traditions circle, invoke and devoke for particular reasons. But they also have ongoing relationships with spirits that do not have to be hidden from all others and do not always require invoking and devoking with every contact.

Many ancient traditions seem more intact than Wicca, with specifics of spiritual practice and belief being historically unbroken and generally agreed upon by trained practitioners. Currently, Reclaiming wisely uses a very safe form of ritual to allow for spirit possession and return, should it occur with some of us. We haven't yet recovered the knowledge and social structure to identify when this will likely happen, who will experience it, and for what purpose it occurs. It makes sense to me that Witches use this safer approach now, yet this may give rise to a major difference in style of worship with other world spiritual systems.

Over the months since I finished my joyous introduction to Reclaiming in the Elements of Magic class, my thoughts have often revolved around these questions. When I called on deities I knew little about, from cultures with different traditions than Wicca, did I insult or in some way upset the spirits? Was I being responsible invoking spirits who are never invoked in the Wiccan way in their own cultures?... or in devoking spirits who are never devoked? Are some spiritual traditions, while deeply similar in intent, incompatible in practice? Is it like Traditional Chinese Medicine and homeopathy? Both systems use the same deep concepts of health through balance but use very different methods of achieving it. So in practice, Chinese herbs sometimes antidote homeopathic remedies and often, both cannot be used at the same time.

And what about me being all of myself wherever I am? Must I accept that some of my spiritual experiences cannot happen at the same time and place? And finally, the question I am struggling with the most — what do I do the next time I'm circling with my fellow Witches and a world deity is invoked? Driving these questions is my firm conviction that I must be true to the spirits who guide me. As difficult as these questions are, grappling with them is a small sacrifice for me to make when I think of all that the spirits have given to me and to the worlds. In ritual and in life, I promise them that I will do my best to honor them.

Judy Andreas lives in the shadow of the Chevron refinery in Richmond, CA, and loves, loves, loves her girlfriend of 26 years.