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The Author's Corner

 

M Macha NightMare

Visit Macha's website

 

Witchcraft and the Web: Weaving Pagan Traditions Online by M Macha NightMare

 

The Pagan Book of Living and Dying by Starhawk and M Macha NightMare

Witchcraft and the Web:
TWPT Talks to M Macha NightMare

2001TWPT


TWPT:    How about we start at the beginning, how was it that you began your journey along this path and what kind of difficulties or resistance did you encounter from those in your life at the time, if any?

MN: Hmm.  Well, I was weaned on Greek and Roman mythology, and fascinated with folk and fairy tales.  My mother read me mythology and the Oz books.  I got Bible stories in Sunday School as well as ritual and especially singing.

I remember a hot sunny day when I was very young.  I was in the back seat of our car; my dad was driving and the windows were open.  This would have been around 1946 or '47 in Philadelphia, right after World War II was over.  We were stuck in traffic.  I felt all headachey.  I thought the air stank.  I could see and smell exhaust fumes.  I kept wondering where they all went.  My parents said they dissipated, but even at so young an age, I thought there must be a limit to how much dissipation could occur before there was no more fresh air to clean it away.  It's funny that I remember it so vividly.  It was my first lesson in ecology.  We didn't have that word  in common parlance back then.

I'd always been intrigued by the occult and the mystical.  I have a strong sense of ritual.  I became involved in Second Wave Feminism, was in a consciousness-raising group and the San Francisco Women's Studies Collective.  I was also a child of my time when it came to sexual freedom, dance and music, psychedelics, anti-war, civil rights, greater environmental awareness, counterculture.  Coming from a repressive and woman-denigrating background, finding these worlds was liberating to me.

I've always had a strong spiritual bent, always wondered what life was all about, the purpose of it all.  I also had a deep and abiding interest in the concepts of deity.  So all these things eventually came together and I began looking for spiritual sustenance.  I found Witchcraft.  I found the goddess movement.  I found a feminine image of the divine, a religion that rejoiced in being alive, one that respected the sacredness of the Great Rite.  My body and my sexual longings were no longer something that was somehow dirty and shameful. 

TWPT:  What kind of resources did you have available to you at that point in time to create the foundation for what was to come?

MN:   I was living in a hip, tolerant, diverse, worldly city, San Francisco. There were metaphysical book stores and such, so you could hang out and see what was happening.  Some had lectures, readings, etc.  There was also a free university, Heliotrope.  I actually found a six-week class (as opposed to books) on Witchcraft at Heliotrope in 1971.  Of course, I didn't know one Witchcraft from another.  I thought if you practiced Witchcraft, you practiced Witchcraft.  I didn't know a thing about trads {traditions} or any of the other distinctions that defined Witchcraft.

These teachers, a male and female couple, were NROOGD -- New Reformed Orthodox Order of the Golden Dawn, a joke name with nothing to do with the Golden Dawn.  It was a made-up tradition by creative theater experimenters that grew into a trad.  There are lots of lovely things about NROOGD, but these folks were not the right people for me to do long-term work with.

A few years later (Sept. '75) a friend and I went to a talk about feminist spirituality or goddess spirituality or women's spirituality or something like that at a local store.  There were only four people -- the teacher, my friend, myself and one other student.  The teacher called herself Starhawk.  It was just a one-evening talk.  We became friends, I got invited to a private Samhain with two covens (Compost - mixed, and Honeysuckle - all women) she was in at the time.  I also went to a Witches' Ball in Berkeley that Starhawk had told us about.  Pagan Standard Time was the order of the day back then, too.  I remember my husband and I standing around literally for hours in a small auditorium, milling about with others waiting for the Witches' Ball to commence. 

At around the same time I was involved in the Institute of Celtic Studies.  They had classes and ceilis and lectures and other events.  That's where I became friends with Sharon Devlin and Anna Korn.  I've done lots of magical work with both of these women (independently of each other) over the years.  In fact, I still consider Sharon to be one of my primary teachers.

Starhawk offered a series of classes at her home that Spring.  I was in an advanced state of pregnancy at the time.  I'd conceived the month I met Starhawk.

TWPT:  Were there any memorable fellow travelers in the beginning that had more than just a little influence on what particular flavor you chose for your path?

MN:  My first coven was dynamite.  We grew out of two classes.  We fell in love with one another, we were overflowing with enthusiasm and creativity. We did some mighty righteous magic, both for ourselves as individuals and towards larger ends.  We called ourselves the Holy Terrors and the name fit. There were nine of us, and among us we had seven young children.  There were four of us I'd call hard-core, in the sense that we wouldn't think of missing a coven meeting (we met every single Tuesday night, plus sabbats) for anything.  Each of us was very different from the others yet we had this great synergy.  We called ourselves a group priestesshood and we didn't have a high priestess; instead, all of us were deep priestesses.  We four hard-core were Cerridwen Fallingstar, Sophia Sparks, Bone Blossom and me.

We've not been together as a coven for many years. We've gone separate ways.  Two of us, Meg and Judith, have crossed over. We remain in loose touch, except that Sophia and I still do magic together whenever we can.  We share a deep sisterhood. 

TWPT:  How would you describe the path that you follow? Not to categorize but more to understand the nuances of what you believe in relation to the many other paths that exist.

MN:  I call myself a Witch and I call the path I walk Witchcraft.  Calling myself Priestess and Witch is a big part of my identity.  It's both personal and political.  I have a longer explanation about why I use that terminology in an article I wrote a few years ago for Reclaiming Quarterly. I also consider myself to be a Pagan in the broader sense.  The kind of Pagan I am is a Witch.  

TWPT:  Was being a writer always with you or was that also an outgrowth of following this new spiritual path?

MN:  Yes and no.  I was not a professional writer before.  In fact, I wasn't a very empowered or realized person for most of my working life.  I studied literature and writing in college; my ultimate major was creative writing but I mainly wrote long letters for pleasure. 

I edited an anthology and I edited newsletters but I never much bothered with writing out my own ideas. The challenge, the mandate even, to write came with my priestesshood.  I've had ideas and opinions and things to say, and people seem interested in hearing them.  I like to try to articulate them as clearly as I can, so I do this by writing. 

TWPT:  Is your path primarily a solitary one or are you group oriented in your practice?

MN:  Neither.  I call myself a floater.  I'm very social and people-oriented. I've worked in lots of groups, from intimate covens to larger, more diverse magical and/or organizational groups.  But I seldom work alone.  I can always find a sabbat, either public or private.  If I have a working I  need to do that requires the efforts and participation of others, I have a wide circle of trusted close friends I can call upon to help me.  That's the way I did my croning ritual back in the '80s.

Currently, I do Kali pujas in the style of Dakshineswar on or near the New Moon, and I meet with my partner and another friend on Full Moons.  We usually don't plan ahead, we just go out into the hills around where we live and do ritual under Her light.  We might build a really minimal altar, no flames ever outdoors in California, but we don't use much in the way of tools or props.

I do public and collaborative rituals with other Pagans around the country when I get the opportunity.  I consider myself a ritualist of some skill.  I think it's one of my strengths as a priestess.

TWPT:  Tell me about your involvement with COG. How did that impact the direction of your path?

MN:  I joined CoG with my then-coven, Holy Terrors, as soon as we were eligible.  The first MerryMeet festival that was held in conjunction with CoG's mandatory annual Grand Council was at Rodeo Beach in Marin County, California.  I helped coordinate the art exhibit and a communal altar.  Our coven presented a performance ritual called the Wheel of the Year as a gift to our sisters and brothers in CoG.  That was when CoG was only based in California and there were no Local Councils anywhere else in the country.

Two Witches from Chicago came and were elected co-First Officers, and that's when CoG began to grow beyond California.

My involvement with CoG has enriched my life and my spirituality immensely.  I have many loved ones I wouldn't have known but for our shared membership in CoG.  I've gone to many MerryMeets around the country, and this has been my main exposure to the Pagan festival culture.  I edited the newsletter around '85 or '86.  I've served on committees, on panels, gone to and given workshops, collaborated on rituals.  The many deep friendships I've made through CoG have opened doors for me.  CoG revealed to me the incredible diversity of our religion.  I rejoice in that and consider it one of our greatest strengths.  We have so much to learn from each other.

TWPT:  For those who may not be familiar with COG, can you give us a brief overview of the organization, what kind of spiritual foundation does it claim and the purposes behind forming it?

MN:  The Covenant of the Goddess was formed in the mid-'70s in California as a covenant of Witches of different traditions, but all Witches and goddess-worshippers.  CoG incorporated with the Secretary of State on October 31, 1975.  It was patterned, in part, on the Congregational Church model of autonomous congregations/covens, adopting consensus process as developed by the Quakers.  CoG was formed to assure that Craft clergy were afforded the same rights and privileges as clergy of other religions.  CoG is specifically an organization of Witches, some of whom may follow other Pagan paths as well.  CoG has always acknowledged solitaries and self-initiations.  

TWPT:  When was it that you first became involved with the Reclaiming Collective? 

MN:    I became involved when we first formed, around 1979 or '80.  

TWPT:  Tell me about the formation of Reclaiming and what were some of the guiding principles of the Collective?

MN:  We initially gathered to meet a need to teach other seekers.  We were a Witchy bunch of folks, mostly women, with lots of enthusiasm, talent, creativity.  We began to put out a small newsletter listing a few classes, and then began doing occasional public sabbats.  The first big public sabbat that many of us worked on actually took place before Reclaiming, per se, was formed.  That was the Samhain ritual done as a book-launching for Starhawk's The Spiral Dance in 1979.

I think the first sabbat we did was a ritual honoring Brigit in February of 1980 at Antioch College West in San Francisco. 

There was a lot of overlap in those days between covens that had formed as an outgrowth of classes and the collective.  The collective was comprised of several people who were in several covens, maybe three from one coven, four from another, plus people who didn't work in any ongoing group.  What we might call solitaries, but not exactly.

We wrote a mission statement, as follows:

"Reclaiming is a community of women and men working to unify spirit and politics. Our vision is rooted in the religion and magic of the Goddess, the Immanent Life Force. We see our work as teaching and making magic, the art of empowering ourselves and each other. In our classes,  workshops, and public rituals, we train our voices, bodies, energy, intuition, and minds. We use the skills we learn to deepen our strength, both as individuals and as community, to voice our concerns about the world in which we live, and to bring to birth a vision of a new culture."  

TWPT:  Is Reclaiming a political organization as well as a spiritual one?

MN:  Yes, in the sense that we see a connection between spirituality and politics and we see our magic as having political implications.  But calling Reclaiming an organization is stretching the point.  Technically it is (it's incorporated in the State of California as a nonprofit religious corporation and has 501(c)(3) tax status with the IRS.  However, Reclaiming has written unusual Bylaws required by the Secretary of State, unusual in the sense that they are not written on a corporate model using hierarchy, votes and quorums.  They are written to conform with consensus process as we have learned and practiced it.  (They can be found on Reclaiming's website.)  

TWPT:  With initiatives like GW Bush's Faith based office underway are there any responses that he should be getting from our community as a whole?  What are the consequences of doing nothing and just riding out the storm?

MN:  In my opinion, I think the Pagan movement has reached a state of maturity that allows us to trust and cooperate with one another far more than ever before.  I think this was demonstrated in the remarkable incident following the Fort Hood matter.  Several Pagan groups and individuals drafted a press release which was then sent to Pres. Clinton, every Senator and Congressperson, major wire services, TV and radio networks, and major metropolitan newspapers.  It was released on July 4, 1999 and it re-affirmed our reliance on the U.S. Constitution to guarantee all our rights.  This was the first time such a diversity of Pagans came together to address a common concern.  We all chipped in, in a very grass-roots way, to collect the $700 needed to hire the service that circulated the press release.

I think the responses to Bush's proposed faith-based charities has been able to build on the solidarity previously achieved on some of these earlier collaborations.  I'm proud to be a signatory on the letter sent to the President reminding him of the guarantees of our Constitution and Bill of Rights and the separation of church and state.  I invite others to sign.

Once there is a chink in that wall separating church and state, the dike can be breached.  We must not allow that to happen.  We must remain active and vigilant.  Those who retreat from efforts to assure our rights risk losing them.  We are of the world.  It is our world we need to keep safe and clean.  

TWPT:  Tell me about the first of your writings to find their way into print.

MN:  I self-published a small private anthology of writings from my colleagues in Goddard College's Adult Degree Program around 1979.  Two friends and I later formed a small publishing company and published an anthology called Womanblood:  Portraits of Women in Poetry and Prose in 1981.  I helped put out (which included a bit of writing) the Reclaiming Newsletter and the CoG Newsletter in the 1980s.  Since then I've written small pieces -- reviews and such -- for Pagan publications.

TWPT:  How was it that you became involved with the writing of The Pagan Book of Living and Dying?

MN:  I've had a long interest in both literature and publishing.  I'm a pretty good editor.  I've always heard the call of the Dark Mother and always been intrigued by death.  We were getting older.  We were losing loved ones to death more and more, and we didn't have anything -- any liturgy, techniques, skills, prayers -- to rely upon in times of crisis around dying and death.  My former husband died.  Starhawk's mother died.

Other friends died.  Starhawk had been experimenting with adapting the Jewish prayers for the dead to something more meaningful to Pagans.  People would phone and we'd fax some of these Pagan prayers to them.

So Starhawk had the idea of Reclaiming putting together a book of rituals, prayers, meditations and such dealing with dying and death.  She asked me to take it on as a collective project, meaning that we did the work and the Collective paid the expenses of printing and binding.

At Samhain 1996 we self-published a book called  Crossing Over:  A Pagan Manual on Death and Dying.   Starhawk's publisher, HarperSanFrancisco, saw it and wanted to publish an expanded version.  By Samhain 1997 HarperSanFrancisco published  The Pagan Book of Living and Dying, an anthology containing 36 different Pagan voices.

TWPT:  Tell me about your involvement with the Biodiversity Project Spirituality Working Group.

MN:  In 1999 I was invited by The Biodiversity Project to be a voice for Pagan paths in their Spirituality Working Group.  The Biodiversity Project is an NGO (non-governmental organization) established to educate about conservation and protection of the grand diversity of life and all of Nature's interconnections upon which we, and all life on Earth, rely for health and quality of life.  The Spirituality Working Group is comprised of individuals from many faith traditions as well as environmental organizations such as The Wilderness Society, publications such as Sierra Magazine, government lobbyists, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.  We 15 people met for several days retreat at a monastery is Wisconsin -- where, coincidentally, active prairie habitat restoration is taking place.  One of the results of the retreat is a resource book for religious groups to use to encourage environmental, and particularly biodiversity, awareness and activism among spiritually committed persons in their congregations.  A more detailed report of my involvement appears in Reclaiming Quarterly No. 75, Summer 1999. 

TWPT:  How important is it that we find common ground with other religions of the world?

MN:  I think it's of critical importance to our very survival as a species that we come together around environmental issues that affect every living thing on the planet.  Regardless of how we experience the divine or what our spirituality or religion is, we all breathe the same air, drink the same water, are nourished by the same crops; and when air, water and food become contaminated, our health, vitality and very survival is threatened. 

TWPT:  The Sacred Dying Foundation, what is it and what are the goals that you have set for yourself in educating others about Pagan beliefs concerning death?

MN:  The Sacred Dying Foundation was established by Megory Anderson "to transforming the dying experience by reintegrating spiritual practices."  It is:

". . . a not-for-profit educational organization that provides information, training, resources, counsel, and an international network for those engaged in end of life issues. We work with professionals in hospices, hospitals, nursing homes, medical facilities and the funeral industry to address multi-religious and multi-cultural practices and beliefs, as well as topical ethical issues. We also work with religious and cultural communities as they examine end of life concerns.

"The Sacred Dying Foundation is unique in its direct services to individuals and families facing the death of a loved one. We draw on both traditional and innovative, personalized rituals. Our highest priority is helping you reclaim death and dying with respect, honor and sacredness."

I first encountered Megory when she was researching for her forthcoming book, Sacred Dying:  Creating Rituals For Embracing the End of Life, Roseville, CA:  Prima Publishing, Spring 2001.  She contacted me for information about Pagan practices regarding dying and beliefs and practices surrounding death because of my co-creation of The Pagan Book of Living and Dying.  I also put her in touch with other Witches and Pagans who were working in the field, most particularly The Cauldron Foundation in Albuquerque, NM.

Megory is dedicated to "improving the final moments of life by creating sacred surroundings; letting go of past hurts, anger, guilt, and fear; enabling reconciliation; and allowing death to happen with acceptance and peace."  In that capacity, she has presented talks to hospice workers and funeral professionals, and teaches a class in death and dying at U.C. Berkeley, and has invited me to speak about Pagan perspectives in these fora. 

TWPT:  The word community is used quite often in reference to Pagans these days, what does that term mean to you in relation to Pagans around the U.S. and around the world? Is it the natural evolution of a group of people with similar beliefs?

MN:  I tend to think of as a Pagan movement rather than a community.  We are many, many diverse communities.

For about four years now, I've been working with an ad hoc group of various Pagans, not just Witches, on a few projects.  There are maybe 25 or 30 of us.  The group originally collaborated on a dictionary project coordinated by PEN (Pagan Educational Network), and later come together in a more formalized sense as a listserve called OurFreedom.  OurFreedom arose in response to the attacks on Craft by Georgia Congressman Bob Barr in the wake of the Fort Hood Spring Equinox ritual in 1999.  At that time, we wrote a press release emphasizing our First Amendment rights and the freedom of religion guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.  We collected enough money from ourselves informally to raise the $700 necessary to hire a distribution company that sent the press release to President Clinton, all Senators, Congresspeople, wire services, TV and radio networks, and several major metropolitan newspapers.  Participants in this project, i.e. signatories representing various Pagan groups, were in turn encouraged to distribute the press release to their local and state legislators and press, and to provide contacts for the press if they wanted more information.  In my opinion, this was a truly historical document -- it was signed by people from groups who in the past had, for whatever reasons, mistrusted one another.  Even five years earlier, you would not have found some of these groups represented on the same document with some of the others.  To everyone's credit, they were wise and prudent enough to set aside less significant differences in order to address a common concern.  This, to me, is an unmistakable indication of maturity of the movement.

The woman who convened OurFreedom, Cairril Adair, recently produced an event called a "Pagan Summit" in Indiana.  (I dislike the connotations of the word "summit.")  I attended.  This gathering of 38 people, which took place in early March of this year, included many older, more or less well-known Pagans as well as some younger people who have been active in Pagan rights activities.  It was primarily a chance to meet face to face after having worked together for some time, and also a chance to strategize some ways in which the Pagan movement might go in the future.  It was by no means an attempt to standardize.  

TWPT:  For readers who might be reading this and wondering what it is that they can do to help foster the growth of community in their own locales, what advice do you have for them?

MN:  Talk to each other.  Hang out socially at a coffee house or pub. Consider inviting one or two people you meet this way to join your circle for a ritual.  Hopefully, they'll reciprocate.  In this way you can be exposed to one another's ritual styles and practices.  Then when you're ready, you might consider collaborating in a ritual such as a sabbat.

Before you do this, it's a good idea to know each other's magical styles and practices enough that you don't trip over each other ritually. 

If sharing sacred space together is more than you're ready for until you build more mutual trust, you might consider taking on a community project together.  To do this you need to feel you know each other well enough to be confident that you -- all of you -- can pull it off.  Something like a food drive or a habitat restoration.  The possibilities for joint projects, particularly in terms of service to the community, are endless, and I know Pagans are creative so they're able to come up with lots more ideas than just the two I've mentioned here. 

TWPT:  Do you have another book that you are currently working on? If so, can you give us an idea of what we can look forward to and when it will be available?

MN:  Yes.  It's titled Witchcraft and The Web:  Weaving Pagan Traditions Online, due out in November 2001 from ECW Press in Montreal.  It's not a book about cybermagic or doing ritual online, although it will deal with these phenomena, and it's not a resource book about Pagan online presence.

It's a cultural look, from the perspective of a long-time practitioner trained in more conventional settings, i.e., in person, in a physical place together, in real time, at the effects the Internet has had on our ancient/future spirituality.  In it, I discuss sacred technologies: accessing "between the worlds" in cyberspace and in terraspace; manipulating energy in magic and via electronic communications; polytheism and the Internet; online teaching, ways of learning, covens and spellwork; and networking, building community, organizing and mobilizing for safety and change.

TWPT:  As you look to your future what do you see yourself doing a few years from now, same as now or are there other goals that you would like to see manifested in your life?

MN:  I really haven't looked that far ahead.  I'd like to visit more Witches in different areas of the country, see their sacred landscapes, meet their local landspirits.  I'd like to share ritual, collaborate on new rituals, trade skills and lore, sing, dance and laugh together.  We are potentially a powerful force for positive change in the world, if we can learn to trust one another and rejoice in our diversity.  Fostering the development of that trust, and learning and teaching about our diversity, give me pleasure and a sense of contributing something of value to my world.

TWPT:  As we close out this interview are there any thoughts that you would like to leave our readers with to help them with living life in a society that isn't always very kind to those of us along this path?

MN:  Question authority.  All authority.  Beware of falling into the trap of patterning yourself on mainstream institutions and roles.  Just because they're what we've been exposed to doesn't mean they're the only way to go.

We're vibrant and creative and we can create new ways of being in the world. 

Our diversity is our strength.  Let's honor our diversity, rejoice in it, at the same time as we join together to address common concerns and to achieve goals for the good of the movement.

Thanks for this opportunity to meet your readers.  You ask deeper questions, ones which are more difficult to answer, than most interviewers. That helps all of us to clarify our thoughts and feelings about these matters as we grow and evolve.

TWPT:  Thank you so much for your time and effort in regards to this interview and we wish you the best of luck with your upcoming book this winter and your involvement with the Pagan community at large.