Listen to the Godless Heathens! – Podcast Ep here!
Today’s topic is dedicated to Shawna, who sent me an awesome bit of mail through my Facebook page asking about Secular Witchcraft.
“I am super interested in hearing about how you practice witchcraft while being secular. I consider myself a Humanist, but I have always been very drawn to paganism and have studied a lot about modern witchcraft. I did some solitary practice when I was younger for a couple of years, but I found it hard to reconcile my atheism with it. I would love to hear more about how you do that in your own life and practice. I have never fully given up hope that I would find a way someday!”
Shawna, girl, you are speaking my LANGUAGE.
As I’ve mentioned before, I came to witchcraft by way of WICCA when I was just a silly young thing in the 90s. I was really into everything and I thought I was very excited about the idea of worshiping ancient gods and goddesses. Being as it was the 90s and XENA was all over TV (Thank YOU, Lucy Lawless!)
I was really interested in Greek Mythology. I had read every book my school library had on it, which I can assure you made me super popular with the other kids, and knew all of the main Olympians and some of the fringe deities. I was set! I can’t say with any absolute certainty that I really believed they were real, though. I don’t know that I was actually talking to Artemis or Persephone. How could I be? Like Shawna, this gnawing feeling in the back of my head that I was just doing it wrong eventually scared me off. Plus… high school kids aren’t super nice to teen witches. I wasn’t so interested in being one of the Bitches of Eastwick. For years I didn’t practice, I lied about it, I stopped wearing pentacles and I just didn’t actively do anything witchy. I still watched the moon, though, I still loved herbs, and I was still obsessed with fictional witches. Every now and then I’d break out my old books or even write in an old book of shadows, but the subject of gods would come up and I’d back out.
Then I met a group of other pagans. This group was made up of all different pagans, and we mostly studied together but at sabbats and on full moons we would do a ritual outside. The girls who wrote the ritual were wiccan, most of the people participating were not, one guy had his own magical tradition that her practiced outside of our circle and acted as a guardian and since I didn’t know where I fit in I asked for non-speaking parts in the ritual. I have never felt magic like that in my life. Despite the fact that we all came from different places, believed different things, worshiped different gods (or none) or even stood in different places, we connected and I FELT something. That’s when it clicked. I didn’t need to believe any damn thing I didn’t want to. Magic, or energy, are there no matter what. It’s something you do, not necessarily something that is done to you.
It’s understandable why this was news to me; most books on witchcraft are written from a religious standpoint. Some books or authors will even use the words WICCA and WITCHCRAFT interchangeably, and say that all witches believe the same things. This is wrong.
So let’s set the record straight.
Let’s start with Pagan, the word I used above. Pagan is an umbrella term; it encompasses all religions that are not Abrahamic in origin. That means that the only religions that are not under the pagan umbrella are Christianity, Judaism and Islam – everything else is. Buddhism, Hinduism, voodoo, Santeria, these are technically Pagan religions. Though the word is most commonly used to describe earth-based religions with some sort of energetic or magical practice, and may even be written as neo-pagan. This usually means wiccans, druids, heathens, etc.
Wicca is a religion. Think of it as a denomination, like what Catholicism is the Christianity. It’s the largest and most ritualistic pagan faith in the world haha. I’ve heard it described as having “more smells and bells” and I like that.Though there are different Wiccan belief systems, but they all stem from the same place. Wicca has a particular set of rules and ethics you must follow, and often includes initiation and dedication to deities.
Witchcraft is a practice. Witchcraft is the act of manipulating energy or the unseen to try and manipulate the physical world. It can be incorporated into a religious belief, or it can even be practiced outside of an opposing religious belief. If you don’t believe witchcraft and religion can be separate, remember that we consider witchcraft now, wasn’t always. Herbalism and astronomy/astrology were just medicine once upon a time. Midwives have been accused of witchcraft for centuries. Alchemy and magic potions is just chemistry now. Likewise, meditation and yoga are thousands of years old religious practices in India, but here they’re practiced secularly as exercise and self-care.
All Wiccans are witches, but not all witches are Wiccan. All Wiccans are pagan, but not all pagans are Wiccan. Some witches are pagans, and some pagans practice witchcraft.
I hope you’re still with me.
You absolutely can be a witch and not believe in deities, though your practice will be very customized and it will be a bit more work. It will require a bit of soul searching figuring out what it is you DO believe. Do you believe in deities? Do you believe you are divine? Do you believe in mythical creatures and stories? Do you believe in energy? That’s up to you. Either way, there’s no harm in starting with something like Wicca that is already established and easy to research. Religion serves as a fantastic organization system for types of magic. Wicca has great basics; druids are the ones to go to learn about herbs, etc.
Since the idea of secular witchcraft is personal and even a bit new, there’s no definitive guide out there, but I can absolutely offer up some tips and ideas to build your own secular practice.
After you’ve figured out what it is you do and don’t believe in, you might still want to follow the advice of magic books out there and get tools and set up an altar. For wiccans, the altar always includes nods to deities. Not only will they put something representing a patron deity in the centre of the altar but they‘ll usually have a gold candle to represent the god, and a silver candle to represent the goddess. The idea of opposing energy that has to work together and form a balance in the world is not exclusive to Wicca, and it’s one that I’ve always liked. Rather than thinking of those energies as “god” and “goddess” I like to think of them as Sun and Moon energy, or even Hot and Cool energy. Sun or Hot energy is all about action and intent and passion. Moon or Cool energy, is much more low key, intuitive, magical, mysterious and encompasses your inner self. This is also a great way to take the icky gender stuff out of magical practice, which I find totally archaic.
There are other times when you might be prompted to include the energy of a deity into your practice, and with a little research it’s easy to incorporate that energy without honouring a personified representation. An easy example is Venus or Aphrodite. She’s the goddess of love and sensuality and so many spells and rituals about love bring her up. Do a little research on what she’s about and just think of that kind of energy. If you need to use symbols or images get things that represent love or sex to you. Instead of carving a symbol of her or her name into a candle, carve hearts. Use herbs or incense that symbolize love.
The elements are very non-religious and often can stand in for gods and goddesses. Many people already do this when calling the quarters or casting a circle or decorating their altar. Possibly my favourite thing about the elements is that they are different all over the world, so if the western notion of Earth, Air, Fire, Water and Spirit doesn’t work for you can do a little research and find a list of elements that does. In Chinese practices such as Feng Shui the elements are Earth, Wood, Fire, Water and Metal, for example.
If your beliefs center more around a power that is within you, making your altar very personal with pictures of you and things that represent who you are and who you hope to be is awesome. Rather than talking to gods or goddesses maybe you’re talking to personal spirit guides, or your own subconscious, your inner truth, your inner power, or different parts of yourself that work harmoniously. In this case your practice will be extra personal and you may want to look into to crafting your own rituals and spells. Create your own unique sigils and symbols to use in your magic. Look into automatic or stream of consciousness writing and try and tap into your higher self.
If you’re a very scientifically minded person who’s practical and grounded on this planet and think you can’t also believe in magic or unseen energy, you absolutely can. Not only is there science proving that there is a connection between all beings, but that unseen energy of the planet is something you can see with science. There are scientific explanations for a lot of the magic I do in my practice. I love tarot cards, but I don’t really believe I’m talking to somebody outside of myself. As a visual person, I feel like I am organizing my thoughts and feelings in a way that I can see. My subconscious mind and intuition is finding an outlet to get me a message. With pendulums, some people believe that what makes the pendulum move are tiny micro-movements of your hand muscles activated by a subconscious or intuitive reaction in your brain to a question. When I worked at a metaphysical store people would ask me all the time how stones “work”. I would tell them that some people believe that stones have unique energy that enacts change. I believe that stones are representations or types of energy and when I carry a stone around or look at a stone it keeps me focused on that energy and lets me call it up in myself. I feel an amethyst in my hand or pocket and I remember to calm down and breathe. One of my favourite types of magic or divination is star scrying, which I learned from Scott Cunningham. You focus on the stars and allow yourself to decipher messages in the patterns of the stars in response to questions. Much like cloud watching, what you see is pretty unique to you. The stars probably aren’t physically moving the sky and sending you messages, your brain is making you see what you need to know.
A type of magic that proves rather difficult without the idea of deities is protection. If there’s no god, who’s watching over you? Who’s protecting you? Who do I ask for protection? And while that is ultimately up to you and no god, apparently, the short answer is: no one. That doesn’t mean that protection magic can’t be secular, you just have to let go of that idea of a big comfy mother protector. My favourite type of protection magic is centered around your auric field. Now the science of the auric field is complex and something you can research until your eyeballs fall out, but using your auric field for protection is very simple. It helps if you get “confirmation” that you have an aura, or know the colour. (Mine’s blue!) But you can absolutely just visualize a protective field around you. Think of Glinda from the wizard of Oz and her bubbles – no, seriously. Imagine that bubble is something very strong and impenetrable or even made of mirrors so anyone who tries to project ugliness on you gets their own ugly truth reflected back. If you want a good resource for auric protection and energy that is simple for everyone I like Tess Whitehurst’s (I know! I’m a fangirl) Holistic Energy Magic, which changed how I approach visualization a lot.
You can also infuse items with your own protective energy and place them around the home. There are herbs and stones and mixtures that have protective energy that you can carry with you or put around the home. You can do spells to make yourself strong and confident. Carry that stone to remind yourself to stand up for what you believe, and hey, if things get really hairy now you have a magical weapon haha. (Omg don’t hit anyone with a rock, please) (Unless they deserve it)
So there you have it. It’s not a definitive guide, it doesn’t cover everything, but it’s a great place to start. You can look through this lens when reading books or blogs or joining groups of religious witches and adapt that knowledge to your beliefs. Don’t give up on books or authors just because they are religious, some of my favourite are! Some of them even drive me crazy by using WICCA and WITCHCRAFT interchangeably, but I know I don’t have to believe what they do to be a real witch.
If you want other secular witches to connect with I found a Facebook ground called Secular Witchcraft full of really nice people who post discussions and games and spells and photos. I joined up when I found it and I really like the people in it.
Upthewitchypunx.tumblr.com is an amazing blog about DIY witchcraft run by this rad anarchist punk rock feminist who writes a zine and has the best garden ever. I highly recommend check her blog, and she’s super nice about answering questions and explaining how she practices what she calls “agnostic witchcraft”. Highly Recommend.
Humanistic Paganismis especially for you, Shawna! If you consider yourself a humanist and already connect with that path and those people, I found this great community and website that posts fantastic articles about beliefs and different types of humanism and naturalism and why do ritual if you don’t believe in gods. It’s an awesome resource and the website is very modern and polished.
During my research for this topic I found an e-book called It’s Witchcraft! A Beginner’s Guide to Secular and Non-Secular Witchcraft by Jamie Weaver and I really liked it. It’s packed full of great information, talks about ethics and responsibility, and is totally non-judgemental.
Read the review Book Review of Shadows: It’s Witchcraft! by Jamie Weaver
If you’re just ready to get to the damn magic already, Judika Illes’s Element Encyclopaedias are great and chock full of all kinds of spells. There’s the EE of 5000 Spells that’s a gigantic tome, and the more realistic EE of 1000 Spells that’s a soft cover. There are spells in there that you will NEVER use, but there are some you’ll love. Either way it’s an awesome resource and the big one is a great conversation piece. There’s also The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft which covers the whole history and folklore associated with witchcraft, religious or otherwise.
Are you a secular witch? Do you have tips or guides for other witches looking to keep the gods out of it?
I’d love to hear about it! You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or send me a message on Facebook.