In retrospect, I was lucky that the high priest of my first coven (mid-1970s) was something of a scoundrel. He was always tapping people for money and favors (“Could you fix my truck’s clutch? Oh, you’re a welder? I have some projects . . .”) — all for the good of the Craft, of course.
He was convinced of his own sexual magnetism and was always coming-on to women, in addition to the fact that he and his wife (the coven HPS) were off-and-on “swingers,” as the term was then. I discovered this when I dropped by the covenstead one afternoon and found them having a slightly awkward getting-to-know you conversation with a couple they had met somehow for that purpose. Needless to say, offers were extended to my partner and me, which we did not accept.
He could play members of the coven against each other, but treated us better than “cowans,” against whom any lie or stunt was permissible. Once when an old friend of mine, a professional calligrapher, did a large piece for him in exchange for a promised piece of silver jewelry (he was also a middling silversmith), and said piece of jewelry kept receding into the future, he brushed off my questions with “He’s a cowan, he can wait.” (The guy is still waiting.)
Most of what he said about his past, training, etc. was probably 90 percent bullshit.
And there was other stuff. But — I cannot over-emphasize this — over the three years I was part of that group (before M. and I finally left over something or other), some doors to the Mysteries were opened.
Both he and she could be effective ritualists and magicians. I can recall some intensely spiritually erotic ritual, for instance, that did not involve any swapping of bodily fluids. I was introduced to the entire Craft subculture as it then existed — including some early small hotel-based “cons”— and found a psychic space that only two years before I had not dreamt existed.
So I learned something. I learned the the Craft is a mystery religion, parts of which are not for kids or public view, and that the Mysteries are not about conventional morality. From that I learnt that one can be a good high priestess, let’s say, without being “moral.”
Later, a professor of Eastern religion would explain to me that Asian religious renunciates wore red, orange, or saffron robes to warn people that they were “hot” in a spiritual sense, but also with an echo of the slang term for sexy.
Yeah, religion — the “juice,” not the social organizations — can be sexy. Hindu gurus are notorious for sexual scandals, as are some Zen teachers, Protestant ministers, Catholic priests . . . you could go on.
Morality ought to be filed under Philosophy, not Religion.
An issue that affects both new religions (like various new Paganisms) and scholars of religion is the enormous, often unrecognized, cultural meme that “religion” equals not just a type of monotheism with a Holy Book, but Protestant Christianity in particular.
When I read about a Wiccan “church” that “followed a Christian format, complete with sermons and congregants sitting in rows, and its High Priestess wore a clerical collar similar to what Christian priests and ministers wear,” I thought, there it is again, the dead hand of Protestantism on the back of your neck.
When a prominent Pagan writer publicized how she had flounced out of a forty-year-old Wiccan organization because it would not issue a statement on her favorite political issue, I thought of religion scholar Russ McCutcheon’s writing about the naive presumption that “religion equals morality [with] a responsibility for securing the fate of the nation-state or cooking up some therapeutic recipe for attaining self-knowledge or happiness’ (from Critics not Caretakers).
Whatever it is that makes the Craft special, I cannot think of a better way to kill it. Is there a little bit of a split here between those who lean, for instance, toward the approach of Apocalyptic Witchcraft and those who apparently would rather be social workers with pentagrams?
Those who seek the Mysteries, be they in the name of Dionysus, Nyx, Odin, Hecate, or whomever, have to understand that the Mysteries come without an official Book of Instructions.
I know, everything is connected and the personal is political. But does turning your position as, let us say, high priestess into a podium for pronouncing ex officio on this political issue or that one lead to a hollowing out of the magical self?
Or if religion is not about morality, then what does your religious position matter?