Most religious systems are ultimately designed as systems of liberation. They may differ in terms of what they think we are in need of liberation from (Sin, Desire, Ignorance, Maya etc.), but my own reading is that they are seeking to offer some sort of solution to our haunting sense of discomfort. While such answers may begin with the insights of an enlightened individual, they rarely remain as such. Given time to evolve and gaze outwards, many religious traditions develop a Mahayanist dimension where the liberation of the individual demands a response to the “other”. Bodhisattva vows and states of kenosis (self-emptying) are no guarantee of socio-political engagement beyond well-intended paternalism, but they can often provide the basis for developing more empowered notions of interdependence and systemic awareness.
The 1950s and 60s witnessed an important movement within the Roman Catholic Church in South America, when people who were engaged with the coal face of day-to-day hardship, re-envisioned the gospel message in relation to political and economic oppression. The Liberation of the Israelites from Egypt and the Gospel message of Christ were viewed as narratives of freedom whereby “the downtrodden were lifted up” (Luke 1:52). With the birth of Liberation Theology in the works of Boff, Gutierrez et al, past dogmas were no longer sufficient, and the rigors of true discipleship were now to be measured in terms of deeds or praxis. As Desmond Tutu powerfully observed; “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, then you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
In recent discussions with some of my siblings from our coven, I’ve been wondering again about the relationship between liberation and this thing we call ‘Witchcraft’. What does Witchcraft claim to offer liberation from? And is it able to embrace or embody liberation at a collective level?
Much ink has been spilt in attempting to define what Witchcraft may or may not have been, and while we have may have re-appropriated it from accusing lips, its evocative potency often evades concrete categorisation.
In his Europe’s Inner Demons, Norman Cohn masterfully analyses the evidence with regard to the likelihood of the Witches’ Sabbath having any basis in historic fact. Cohn concludes that it was highly unlikely that the fevered imaginings of persecuting clerics had any foundation in relation to some sort of denominational adherence to a set of pan-European ‘night ecstasies’. What seems more evident is that their actions were overwhelmingly directed at other groups of people who still considered themselves Christians. While it is almost inevitable that some of these Christians practiced magic (and by doing so, demonstrated their humanity), the fear projected by these clerics was more often motivated by an ungodly desire to control.
The Church’s ability to control would always be challenged by the heterodoxy of groups such as the Cathars, the Brethren of the Free Spirit and the Beguines, the power of their subjective gnostic experiences being valued above any external authority. Whatever the degree of adherence to such beliefs by the mainstream of society, the ideas that such outsider groups represented embodied a type of cognitive liberty that eroded the hold of any centralised hegemony.
While we may not buy into Michelet’s idealisation of the Witch as Satanic freedom fighter, there is something subversive contained within even the simplest act of folk magic. To express a sense of agency through a magical act that uses means outside or beyond the Church’s recognised sacraments is to commit an act of heteropraxy and defiance.
Within the collective psyche of Europe, the Witch has often acted as an icon of disturbance and freedom. The projected fantasies of clerics and folkloric imaginings often allude to something dark, disturbing and subversive. The Witch often acts as an attractor for the shadow aspects of those cultures within which they are suspected of dwelling. They are the hags and the shape-shifters whose messy bodies both arouse and unsettle us. They seem to be scapegoats onto whose heads the repressed longings of society are spoken.
In bearing the weight of such dangerous passions they often hold a position on the outer edge of social and ethical evolution. In seeking to own their own sense of spiritual and moral agency, it could be argued that magicians have often played a catalysing role in pushing the boundaries of moral acceptability. When we consider a figure like Crowley and his impact on 20th century culture, while his personal chaos may still make him less than attractive as a role model, the bisexuality and entheogenic exploration that then caused such outrage are now far less contentious.
To question orthodoxies and seek new means for personal exploration will inevitably threaten those for whom stability is paramount. Those of us who consciously embrace identities such as ‘Witch’, ‘Magician’ or ‘Gnostic’ are honor bound to aid our cultures’ development, in prodding them to embrace diversity, multiplicity and liberty. When we take on this mantle we must remain awake to the reality that we both represent the freedom that so many seek, and that we still risk being scapegoated by those who would seek to control.