Wicca Men (Gay Times Nov 2003)
By Bryony Weaver
(As appeared in the Gay Times [Millivres, London], November 2003; Photographs by "James and James")
Pulled quote:"As a gay man, I'm closer to my feminine side - so I can create a balance more easily between my masculine and feminine side
The Season of ghoulies and ghosties is upon us, and we'll soon be trick or treating (or both). But what do real Wizards and witches get up to at Hallowe'en? Bryony Weaver met up with some gay men into Wicca Work...
When I was little, I desperately wanted to be able to twitch my nose and make my sister disappear. I never missed a single episode of Bewitched.As far as TV lineage goes, Samantha Stevens has passed the broomstick to the charming Halliwell sisters and Tara and Willow, but what about the guys? There's always Harry Potter, I suppose.
But aside from Sapphic spelling and schoolboys waving wands, I was curious to know what real wizards go in for at Hallowe'en. Trolling the internet, the search engine conjured up gay practitioners, David and Geoff, who run a small coven ("we're just three at the moment" - erm, don't witches come in threes?) down near Cheltenham.
* * *
Geoff, with a pentacle (the five-pointed star symbol) around his neck, but dressed in nothing more esoteric than a taupe shirt and black jeans, greets James the photographer and me at the door, helps us in with the equipment (by hand; no levitation spell), and ushers me through the hallway into the kitchen to meet David. Over a coffee, David chats about being out as both a gay man and witch at work (male or female, they're witches - wizards are another breed entirely...). He works as a Librarian at the Arts Campus of a local University, although he doesn't use the "w" word too much for fear of scarring the natives: "I expect others to respect me. If they want to talk to me about my sexuality and religion, then I'll talk to them, but if someone pushes their Christianity down my throat, I get offended by it, so I don't do it in reverse."
David and Geoff's religion is Wicca (the modern word for witchcraft). It's one of many which come under the umbrella term "paganism". Wicca as it's practised now is thought to be an amalgamation of what's called the Old Religion (native, nature-based rituals to mark the changing seasons and herbal medicine), and the practical findings and writings of witches who resuscitated witchcraft practices during the upsurge in the Occult and spiritualism just prior to and post-First World War.
And it's all about pointing wands at people you don't like and turning them into toads, right? Geoff laughs: "No, Wicca is definitely not at all like Harry Potter. It's a nature-based religion that works around the eight festivals (or sabbats) of the year and 13 full moons (esbats). There are two sides to magic, high and practical. High magic is where we work with the energies of the god and goddess and the cycle of the seasons through ritual. We connect with them, and attempt to understand ourselves, others, and the world about us better. Practical magic - spell craft - is what most people think witchcraft's all about. Occasionally we do spells, but never use them to solve practical problems. If you're unemployed, don't do a spell to get a job, go to the Job Centre! Then, maybe dedicate a ritual to asking the gods to help you find the right job that'll help you become the best person you can be. The Craft encourages you to take the long view. You're evolving over many lifetimes, so don't just go for the quick-fix solution."
* * *
David (37), from a liberal, Catholic family, was always into hugging trees and talking to the moon ("I'm a born-again hippie"). He became disenchanted with Catholicism's idea of homosexuality as a mortal sin: "I knew my god was okay with my sexuality; the god they were talking about couldn't be my god, so I figured I couldn't be a Catholic."
He then read The Mists of Avalonby Marion Zimmer Bradley, which completely bowled him over. He was out there, getting incredible feelings about the universe, nature, finding a deep spiritual connection he hadn't through Christianity, and there was this woman in the book, "who does all this, and it has a name, it's not just something I'd made up. She's called a witch".
They both believe the Goddess - the feminine force in nature and life - deliberately got them together. One evening, David was at the bar of the "Three B's" pub in Reading. He felt someone run their hand down his hair - it was long then, long enough to sit on - and turned to see Geoff behind him, who also had hair then ("long and red"). Geoff continues: "I felt someone rubbing their hand down myback - as though they were running their knuckle down my spine. I turned around and went, 'Did you do that?', and at the same time, he went, 'Did you do that?' There was nobody else behind us - the rest is history... We have a saying: the Goddess always gives us our magical partner, the person we've loved through other lifetimes and will meet and know again."
There are also many gods in Wicca - the sun god and the corn god are two who feature in some of David and Geoff's rituals, and the Green Man, I find out, represents the masculine energy in nature. David, also heavily into tattoos, happily strips off his shirt to show us his amazing Green Man tat, which covers the whole of his back and stretches down to his bum, though it's "still a work in progress", he grins, with a twinkle in his eye. It represents growth and decay - life, death and rebirth, the whole of the cycle of life. It's awesome.
Geoff, 41, currently working as a chef for a Department Store in Cheltenham, is more measured when he talks than David, 36, whose eyes sparkle often behind his glasses. Both are passionate, and talk animatedly about their particular branch on the pagan tree, Alexandrian witchcraft.
It was founded by Alex Saunders - himself a bisexual - who was working in the Craft back in the 60s. "The tradition of the Craft he's passed on has a flavour of his personality, I suppose," says David. "He had homosexual relations in his early youth, so it's there already. Alexandrians are more influenced by ritual and ceremonial magic, which doesn't have a big thing about gender and fertility."
"Also," says Geoff, "After Saunders' death, a tape circulated amongst Covens in his Line that had been made of him talking as he died. One of the statements he made was 'The cup-bearers of Ganymede are coming, and they are important'. When I first heard that, I thought, yes, gay people are important. We have something to give to this religion. As a gay man, I feel I'm closer to my feminine side - so I can create a balance more easily between my masculine and feminine energies, and therefore work with another gay person who also has that balanced polarity."
* * *
We saunter out into the back garden, to take piccies of David's wonderful tat. As they strip, the question comes up as to whether witches work naked.
"It depends on the ritual and the time of year." Geoff grins at me. "On hot nights, there's nothing to do but practise sky-clad. Some people look at it and say 'nudity'. Witches say, 'We're not naked, we're clothed in the sky'. But if you're working outdoors in the dead of winter, you want robes, your thermals, the lot."
Between 1450 and 1792, witches were severely persecuted throughout Europe because of their assumed association with Satan. Though no accurate records were kept, during the Burning Times, as they're called, it's believed that between 100,000 and a couple of million witches (nearly all female, but some male) were either burned at the stake, hung or drowned. Consequently, real practitioners went underground, and even today, many witches still keep their practices hidden and secret. David and Geoff, though fairly open about what they do, don't conduct rituals in the back garden.
"We've only moved in fairly recently, so we haven't said anything to the neighbours," David says. "In other places we've lived, they've known, because ritual can get noisy - drumming, chanting, invocation. They were always OK, I guess because we kept it relitively discrete; it's that same thing of 'respect others if you want them to respect you...'."
Every sabbat, they also hold public rituals on one of the local hills. "We help run simple open rituals through an organisation called the Pagan Federation. They're less complex than our private ones. The hill's common land, and people don't seem to mind."
"Yes, the English do love their eccentrics," adds Geoff, who's originally from Cape Town.
We trot upstairs, past the Green Men plaques on the walls, which smile in a feral, warm kinda way as we pass, and into the temple room. It's unassuming; a small, square, spare-bedroom-type space. No skulls or black candles. There's an altar (a small table with a black cloth over it), chalice (a lovely, cream goblet), pot of flowers, and a little, dark goddess figurine. There's a sword in a scabbard on the floor (the symbol of fire, they tell me), a broomstick beside it (the Goddess likes a nice, tidy room…), and an Irish drum in the corner. Not a sacrificial virgin in sight, and where's the Hammer House of Horror chic?
I also want to know about sex magic; do they use it? A lot of people ask them this question: "they think that witchcraft's all about orgies, devil worship - that kind of thing. We politely tell them, if that's all that you're after, you'd be better off to go join your local swingers club".
"There is a ritual called the Great Rite - sex that sometimes takes place at the end of a ritual - but it's always in private between two consenting adults, married couples or partners, as a fertility rite. It's a place where a closeness like no other, deeply spiritual, can develop," David says "As a fertility rite, it can't be performed in actuality between same-sex partners, but in symbolic form it's possible, and becomes a 'fertility of the mind and spirit'."
* * *
Of all the witch festivals, Hallowe'en is one of their favourites. "Ahh." Geoff's eyes light up. "Samhain (pronounced "sowain"), as we call it. It's lovely. It's about the dead of the year, when the harvest's in. In tribal days, it was a time of worry and darkness - do we have enough to eat over the winter, will granny see the frosts out? - but it's also a time of hope. At this time of year, the veil between the worlds thins. Those who've passed over are remembered, and can come back and visit. We open a gateway within our circle, and they're all invited in, as long as they come in in the name of perfect love and trust. We recognise that within death, there's rebirth. Life goes on and it'll return, so Samhain's also a celebration; we have a party after the ritual, dance, eat, bob for apples, jump over broomsticks and candlesticks." Best to do that bit before you have too much to drink, eh.
Although they don't work exclusively with gay people - "the Goddess is there for us all"- they do feel that gay practitioners have a lot to add to the future development of the Craft. "We suffered a lot from the Victorian rewriting of mythology and their ideas and attitudes towards homosexuality," Geoff concludes. "The hidden gay archetypes - Zeus and his lover, Ganymede; Cybele, a figure who starts out as a man and changes into a woman; the fluid sexuality of Hermes - are all there for us to find, and as gay people, we should be looking for them."
As we leave, James mentions he's seen The Wicker Man, one of Geoff's favourite films. "Don't worry." Geoff smiles at him. "We only sacrifice virgins after dark."
I wonder if James would've been a suitable candidate, but I don't like to ask...
The Pagan Federation will be holding a public Samhain ritual at the Rollright Stones in Oxfordshire. For more details, visit www.rollrightstones.co.uk.
Queer Pagan Camp welcomes queer people from many pagan paths. They organise two camps and many activities though-out the year: PO Box 1181, Hertford SG14 2ZQ
© Gay Times / Bryony Weaver / James & James 2003
The Eight Wiccan Sabbats
Imbolg (2nd February)
Spring Equinox (21st March)
Beltane (30th April/1st May)
Midsummer (22nd June)
Lughnasadh (31st July/1st August)
Autumn Equinox (21st September)
Samhain (Hallowe'en) (31st October)
Yule (Candlemas) (22nd December)
Suggested reading list
Principals of Wicca- Vivienne Crowley (HarperCollins)
The Truth About Witchcraft Today- Scott Cunningham (Llewellyn)
The Witches' Wayand Eight Sabbats for Witches- Janet and Stewart Farrar (Phoenix Publishing)
Sea Priestessand Moon Magic -Dion Fortune (Red Wheel/Weiser)
Witchcraft Today- Gerald B Gardner (dated, but good for history) (Citadel)
Gay Witchcraft- Christopher Penczak (Weiser), just published
Witchcraft and the gay counterculture- Arhtur Evans (bookpeople) A classic work from 1978