Several years ago, I was sitting in a friend’s living room, having a chat about the various members of the tradition we share. We were only gossiping a little, in the negative sense of the term: she isn’t really given to gossip, and while I’ve been known to loudly roll my eyes at the foolishness that I see around me (I do live in the San Francisco Bay Area, after all), I’m much more interested in the way people are living their lives using the various magical, spiritual, and religious traditions that they engage.
But we did start discussing the idiosyncrasies of our kinfolk, with as little judgement as I could manage. It was just the two of us, so there also wasn’t much of an attempt to be political. Still, I was quite surprised when she fixed me with a look from across the room and asked, “Why aren’t you a freak like the rest of us?”
It sounded a little like a challenge. Hell, in a tradition like the one we were discussing, it bordered on an insult. But she had a point. I look better suited to being in an Episcopal church on Sunday than I do making offerings to my Ancestors or chanting in a dead language to a Goddess of war and sovereignty. And at the time, I said something about having my pointy teeth hidden in a friendly face.
That may have been true then, and it may still be true today. Sharp teeth, after all, are in the flesh of the bitten. But my answer to the same question today would be more about placing myself in the hands of the Gods that speak to me, and following where they lead.
Religion and Magic
Over the last couple of years, as my engagement with my local spiritual community has shifted toward Polytheism, I have come to realize that the difference between religion and magic is significant, important, and relevant in my life.
I think that this is an important distinction, but I want to be clear that I am not trying to make any comment about the fundamental rights or freedoms enjoyed by any group. In the United States, there has been some relatively recent progress made in extending legal religious recognition to many traditions. This is an important step to ensure that all traditions have a place in the future of the world. I am neither qualified to nor interested in drawing legal distinctions, nor am I commenting on anyone’s right to practice as they will in a protected and recognized way, whether their tradition is spiritual, magical, or philosophical. I am a fervent believer in and practitioner of both religion and magic. Instead, I’m saying that it’s more useful to understand the direction from which you’re approaching the subject, in terms of the results you get from all the beings involved. I’d also like to point out that it may be difficult to draw a bright line between these; the edges blur and run together like watercolors on a rainy day.
I started out in the Bay Area Pagan Community not really understanding what I was getting into, in many different respects. I’d grown up as an aforementioned Episcopalian, come to find that wasn’t working for me all that well, and discovered “Paganism” as an identity. I began looking around, and before long I found myself in a tradition that focused largely on Ancestor contacts, Land and Faery allies, and the development of spiritual and psychic skills to manage these relations. There are Gods in that tradition, but they aren’t tied to a particular historic pantheon. And along the way, I was exposed to what were then the usual suspects in the Pagan world: so-called Eclectic Wicca, the group of related traditions commonly referred to as “British Traditional Witchcraft,” and Ceremonial Magical traditions. The path that I was learning, that felt like (and still feels like) home to me, had something different that I couldn’t define, so I didn’t get too involved with the other folks.
My first teacher was also, separately, a student of Santeria, so we would occasionally talk about some of the things that he was learning in that tradition. These conversations struck an interesting chord for me. There was something different, and frightening, and strangely attractive in what he was expressing, and I didn’t really understand the reasons why.
The reasons boiled down largely to a question of religion versus magic.
To clarify, by “religion” I mean a set of beliefs concerning the nature of the universe, which (in the Polytheist context) includes the acknowledgement of deific beings who have their own agency, and includes devotional and ritual practices concerning those beings. Magic, on the other hand, is in its simplest form the exertion of Will within and upon the universe, generally to achieve a specific end that the magician (ideally) desires.
Can one be performing religion and ask one’s Gods for help with a specific situation? Sure. That’s called “prayer.” Can one be practicing magic and exert one’s Will with regard to a God, spirit, or other superhuman being? Of course they can, it’s a fundamental basis of magic in the Western tradition. But let me turn those questions on their heads.
Can one practice religion and not believe in deific beings? Well, certainly not as a Polytheist. In fact, if you’re doing “religion” and don’t believe in these deities and spirits, you’re doing something else. (Which is okay.) If you’re engaging with archetypes, or metaphors, or leveraging your psyche with cultural tales that aren’t any more real than Star Wars is real? You’re actually practicing a form of magic, whether you believe in a Higher Self or not. And magic is cool, so that’s okay, too.
Which brings me back to my own path, and how I accidentally stumbled into Polytheism, where I might otherwise have been a happy henotheist in the Episcopal Church, or an Eclectic Pagan worshipping the Many Facets of One Mother Goddess, or perhaps a chaos magician trying to coin-flip my way to work. (And there’s nothing wrong with those, they’re just not my path, and not germane to the conversation here.) When I was in those early rituals, just learning my skills and all the things that are in “mainstream” Paganism? When I was hiking alone in the forest, or on the beach? When I was walking around in circles chanting songs of sovereignty? I was listening. I was keeping my spiritual ears open. And I heard Gods call to me, into the silence.
I heard Them speak to my heart and my soul as They spoke to my mind and my ears in the rituals. There was recognition there, for me, of something powerful and beautiful and ultimately satisfying that I didn’t find elsewhere. I realized that that first tradition, the one I’d found my way into in the first place, was full of poets and seers and priests who genuinely loved and believed in their Gods; they expected them to be real and have agency and make a difference in the world, if one would only listen for Them. So I responded, and They responded, and I knew that my relationships with Them would involve partnership, service, and worship.
I’m still here, listening, even though the clutter of life sometimes makes it hard to hear clearly. Perhaps, Dear Reader, you are too, and your path isn’t so dissimilar to mine. I look forward to sharing my thoughts with you.