Working Magic in the Wider World ©1990
Margot Adler has been a priestess of Wicca for 19 years, and is the author of Drawing Down the Moon. She lectures and gives workshops on the Craft and women’s spirituality throughout the country. In her “parallel” life, she is a correspondent for National Public Radio. She is into reclaiming the “juice” and mystery of ecstatic traditions.
FH: How did you first get involved with the Craft?
MA: It was 1971, and I was working in Washington, D.C as a political reporter for Pacifica Radio. It was right after the first Earth Day and it was the first real push in the environmental movement. It was around that time that I started reading a lot of the nature writers, Thoreau, Rene Dubos, Loren Eiseley, Rachel Carson. I found, to my amazement. that I was having ecstatic experiences as I read this literature, and I realized that, at some level, it was not only a political literature, but a religious literature. I tried to figure out what my response to this was and why was I feeling these feelings of ecstasy, which I had only felt when I was 12 years old and reading about Greek myths and pouring libations of water to Artemis and Athena.
Another thing about me, going way back. is that I went to this crazy school. In the 7th grade, we studied Ancient Greece the whole year. Everything we did, all our plays, all the art all the books, all the novels had to do with Ancient Greece. I just entered Ancient Greece as if it were my true home, and decided, way down deep, that I wanted to be Artemis or Athena. Why not? That had clearly been an early Pagan experience, which as I got older I shoved away. Normal people didn’t do this. You were crazy if you did this. I came from a Jewish agnostic-atheist family that got really weirded out at any religious “hock” that I was doing. But I did a kind of religious search in my teenage years. I went to various churches. I remember that I had a powerful attraction to Catholicism. When one of my best friends had her first communion, I was really jealous, and when I asked my parents what religion I was, they said things like, “We believe in the brotherhood of man” which just didn’t cut it for an eight year old. Now I could give you a great critique of that philosophy from a feminist point of view, but at that time it just was dull and boring. Holy Communion had a lot more pizzazz.
In 1971, I couldn’t figure out what my feelings were about until I came across these two essays in this book: one essay by Arnold lbynbee, “The Religious Roots of Our Environmental Crisis” and Lynn White’s essay, “The Historic Roots of our Ecologic Crisis:’ The book was John McPhee’s Encounters with the Archdruid. All of the books I was reading at the time, but particularly these two essays, made the point in different ways that there was a problem within the Judeo-Christian tradition, and certainly within the Bible, with that whole notion of subduing the Earth and multiplying and having dominion over the Earth — this whole idea of human beings being above nature and nature being something that they could manipulate This literature also pointed out that the older Pagan, indigenous, animistic traditions had a very different view of nature. To them, everything was alive and sacred and vital. Everything was equally sacred — humans, animals, nature and so forth — and that kind of a view had a very different implication for the preservation of our environment. I was really taken with that and thought. “My god! That’s what I really want — an ecological religion. And where is it?”
I happened to go to England that summer, visiting a friend and I started looking. I had read Encounters with the Archdruid, and Brower had been described as a Druid because of his attitude toward nature. Most of what I found in England were very scholarly works on the Druids like Stuart Piggot’s huge volume on the Druids, and so forth. But while I was there, I came across a couple of contacts in an occult guide to London. One was the Pagan movement in Ireland and Wales, and the other was the Order of Pagans, Bards and Druids. I wrote them letters and said, ”I’m looking for an ecological religion with a holistic view of the Earth. Are you it?” I ended up subscribing to The Waxing Moon , which had written me back saying “We don’t know if we’re it. But you can subscribe to our magazine for $2 a year.” I started getting this magazine and I didn’t understand it at all. I didn’t understand its language, which, of course, were things like “how to make your own athame” and “our Lughnasad celebration:’ The covers would have elves and fairies and women with baskets of strawberries on them. It was all very lovely, but I hadn’t a clue as to what this all was.
One day, I guess this was in the summer or fall of 1971, I got a letter from this couple who had a Craft coven in Essex, England. They had gotten my name from The Waxing Moon, and they wrote saying “We see you are a member of the Pagan movement.” I went “Wait a minute! I’m not a member of anything!” They wrote, “My wife and I are High Priestess and High Priest of a coven in Essex.” Quite frankly, I dropped the letter on the floor and started laughing. The idea of Witchcraft had never entered my mind. They wrote that I could buy a tape of their rituals for $15.. So I wrote and told them I didn’t have any money, but I did have a radio show, and could they please send me a sample of their tape. They sent me the tape, and for a month, it was a complete joke. I kept telling my friends, ”I’m corresponding with Witches in England. Ha, ha, ha.” Well, I finally found my tape recorder. I put the tape in the tape recorder. I started listening to it, and it was Ed Fitch’s Drawing Down of the Moon ritual. It was beautifully done with English accents, and Brahms in the background, and “Hear ye the words of the Great Mother who was also called … “ …all the names of the Goddesses that I had used as a child. I thought “My god! It’s all right to do this!” Suddenly, here were these people who were adults who were doing this. They were clearly all right, and they were intelligent, and they were even English. I was extremely moved, and I started crying. And then I started writing to these people. Their letters were like the Rosetta stone.
I started looking around and I noticed there was this word “Craft” and a lecture series called “Friends of the Craft” every Friday at a Unitarian church and so I went to that. I finally came across Brooklyn Pagan Way and the New York Coven of Welsh Traditional Witches, and ended up in their study group and training coven, and very skeptical. I kept thinking, “I don’t believe I’m really doing this.” On the other hand, I found that the rituals were really powerful, that the basic values were incredibly wonderful, that it was a place that resonated with all of the feelings I had had as a child and all I had wanted and felt in both the books I had been reading and the fantasies I had created.
I was in this Welsh group for a very short time It turned out that the people who were running my group figured out that the tradition had been lying to them, and had been creating, as people were wont to do in those days, long pedigrees that did not exist. This particular group I was in daimed that they were a 12,000 year old unbroken tradition and the people who were running my training group figured out that this was not true. So they decided to become Gardnerians, because the Gardnerians were saying the Craft went back to 1939, but weren’t claiming much more than that. The people running my group figured they could deal with 1939, but they weren’t sure they could deal with 12,000 years. Suddenly, we were all asked, before we were even initiates, if we wanted to go with them or stay with the Welsh group. After I decided to go with them, I have this remarkable memory of sitting in this room where we went for our first degree Welsh initiation (because it had been promised to us and we were just about ready for it), and the minute after the initiation happened, our priestess, a wonderful woman named Claudia, threw off her clothes and said, ‘Well, we’re Gardnerians now!” So that’s how I became a Gardnerian Witch.
FH: What led you to write Drawing Down the Moon?
MA: I am not someone who generally has a lot of occult experiences, but the book contact was one of those few experiences that had psychic resonances, in the sense that I never asked for it. I never thought about it. It never occurred to me. It literally dropped into my lap. It was 1975. I was maybe a second degree Gardnerian and I had a lot of questions about the tradition I was in. I was reading a lot of Pagan magazines. I had already gone out to California and was part of Nemeton, and was having a much more interesting time with the Craft outside of New York than in New York. In the middle of all that, my boyfriend at the time introduced me to his literary agent. He walked me into this bar and said, “Meet Jane Rotrosen. She’s my literary agent.” We were drinking beer and so forth in this pub and she said to me, ”What do you do?” One of those typical opening things. And I said “I work in radio for Pacifica. Blah, blah, blah:’ She then asked the question, “What are you most interested in?” And I literally had this flash…”You are standing on a nexus point in the universe and you can move and go in any way.” I said, “Well, I’ve been involved with Witches and Wicca and Witchcraft.” And her eyes got wider and she started asking me to talk about it. So I talked and talked and talked, and she finally said, “Have you ever thought of writing a book about it?” and I said, “Quite frankly, no.” She said, ”I’ve just left this agency and I’m starting out on my own.” This was one of those moments when an agent is actually looking for people instead of the other way around, and she said “Think about it and call me in a couple of weeks. I’ll show you how to write a proposal.” I never called her. I was too scared. She finally called me. She showed me how to write a proposal and it got sent around. People rejected it and then I wrote another proposal. Six months later, I had a book contract for $7500, which isn’t a lot but I thought it was great.
My first thought, of course, was “Oh my god! How do I write this book?” I locked myself in the New York Public Library for six months and read I guess twenty or thirty books that I felt you had to have read before you would have the right to write a book like this. They included things like Robert Graves’ The White Goddess, which I somehow got through, and Jean Markale’s Women of the Celts. There were a whole bunch of those very standard, big books about Wicca and Celtic stuff.
Meanwhile, I was getting The Green Egg. It was just amazing how many people, with their names and addresses were in The Green Egg. All you had to do was read the letters column for about six months and you knew every big dispute that was happening and every big argument and who was where and so forth. So I sent out letters to all these people. I was already corresponding with Alison Harlow, who was then involved with Nemeton. Alison had gone to the same grammar school as I had, so we had this big bond. Then I created this ridiculously long questionnaire. It had 75 questions in it and some of them had 12 parts. I published this questionnaire in The Green Egg and got probably 30 or 40 responses from people filled out all the way.
Then I went on this six month trip. I wasn’t traveling constantly, but I went to all kinds of places and asked essentially the same kinds of questions that were on the questionnaire. I went to Texas. I went to Lander, Wyoming. I went to Los Angeles. I went to San Francisco. I went to Chicago. I went to Philadelphia. I think I was good about representing almost everywhere, but by the time I came back to the East, I was so tired out that the East got really short shrift in my book. New York and Massachusetts don’t exist. But boy, Texas is really in there.
FH: What problems or weaknesses do you see developing in the Pagan movement? What direction do you feel we need to grow in?
MA: Oddly enough, the biggest weakness that I see is a tendency for the Craft to be everything unto itself, and not to understand that there’s a wide world out there. The Craft has given me a rock-bottom set of values that I think are incredibly important. Those values have to do with diversity and multiplicity and freedom. They have to do with your view of yourself — your view of your body, your mind, your sexuality, and the idea that, ultimately, you are good; that there is an enormous potential in all of us that can be worked with and shaped, and this very subversive idea that we potentially are as gods, and so we’d better get good at it. What tends to happen among people that I see in the Craft is that we get so involved in all this stuff that we forget the larger world we’re living in. I spend my first five minutes of the day buried in the newspaper, because the world is changing so fast and all these incredible things are happening, and half the people I know in the Craft don’t even know or care. It’s just totally irrelevant to them that, right now, the entire parameters of the world are changing and that this may have incredible implications for everything. God knows that they are for the Craft. We are witnessing great events right now, and I don’t see most of my friends in the Craft talking about them, interested in them, thinking about them, wondering how these changes relate to their own lives, wondering whether this will change even our relationship with the Earth and the environmental movement and the way we are going to think about protecting the Earth. I may be particularly obsessed right now because I’m reading a book called Parting with Illusions, subtitled “The Extraordinary Life and Controversial Views of the Soviet Union’s Leading Commentator” by Vladimir Posner. (Actually, he went to my grammar school too. He was in Alison’s class, and Alison claims he stole her art books.) But as I’m reading this, I’m thinking, this part of my life has so little to do with the stuff I do when I’m with women in workshops or in the Craft. People talk about healing the Earth. They talk about obvious sorts of political things that they want to do, and they talk about women’s issues, and they talk about free choice. I guess the bottom line is that I think the intellectual level of stuff in the Craft is really poor, that people are not making themselves wide and large enough to receive the world, that they become so interested in their little publications, their study of tarot, their study of this, their study of that, that they haven’t really enlarged themselves. I’m not saying that I have either, but I’m just in awe of what’s going on in the world, and I’m confused. I have no idea what it means, but it makes me start to think about whether it has any relevance to what I’ve been doing, and whether the Craft has a role to play in all this. I’m struggling with the fact that we are a very small, alternative religion that has a lot of incredibly important values, and we are outside all this. None of us are having any impact on these events that are happening around us. And what does that mean?
FH: Do you have ideas about ways to help that bridge to form?
MA: There are really good signs of attempts by people in the Craft to bridge gaps with other religions, with other movements. I think we are all struggling with how to merge the insights that we have through the Craft with the larger society. For example, in the work that I’m doing in the Craft, I’m mostly giving lectures to mixed groups and workshops to women. I’m doing workshops in women’s spirituality, basic empowerment, which I think is a therapeutic need at the moment. It’s very important to get women all over the United States to feel good about their bodies, to feel strong about themselves and to feel set in these kinds of values. The first couple of years I did this, I was doing the same thing all the time — contacting the Goddess within, celebration, etcetera. This year is Earth Day, and suddenly I find that what I’m being asked to do, not necessarily by people in the Craft, but by others, is to merge the values of the Pagan spirituality movement with the environment. And I’m being asked to do this by all kinds of people I would never have believed. So far this year, I am going to do this with the obvious Craft-oriented groups, with lay Catholic organizations. I’ve been invited to Iowa to a conference on environmental ethics by forest rangers and people who give ecology lectures at nature centers. They called me up and said, “We really want a talk on nature spirituality and Pagan spirituality because we’ve been focusing on nature but always from a Judeo-Christian perspective:’ So then I teamed up with Ynesta King, who is an eco-feminist We’re doing a workshop at Rowe called “Eco-feminism, Ecstasy and the Earth:’ She’s theoretical and a scholar, and my workshops tend to be experiential. And we haven’t really figured out what we’re going to do, but the idea is to merge theory and practice. We’re trying to merge the philosophical insights of eco-feminism and this whole ecology-oriented movement with some of the ritual techniques that we’ve come to do, and see what happens.
FH: What about the workshops that you offer for women only? A lot of the things that you do are exclusively for women. Could you talk about how you feel about that?
MA: I feel ambivalent about it, but I’ll tell you why I’ve done it. And I don’t do them all that way. I give workshops that are mixed. Interestingly enough, the mixed workshops usually have fewer people in them. You usually get a few of the men, and then you get fewer women, because a lot of the women want some kind of a space. Also, in a few places where I’ve given mixed workshops, I’ve unfortunately gotten a few male assholes, whereas when I give all-women workshops, I almost never get any assholes. I realize that, at some level, I’ve taken the easy road, that it’s easier to work in this kind of situation with women. There are exceptions to this, but in general, I have found that it’s been easier to get further faster if you have an all-women group. I’m ambivalent about that because ideally, and ultimately, I believe that we have to have mixed stuff going on. There’s a place for all-women rituals. There’s a place for all-men rituals. But our society is a mixed society, and we have to live in the mixed society. That means we have to develop ways of living and ways of doing ritual that include both men and women. A lot of the work I have been doing is a therapeutic stage. It’s a way of getting a lot of women to feel strong and good about themselves, about their bodies, about their lives and about their potential. This is a period that is necessary, but it’s not going to last forever.
My trips were amazing. I went to LA, where I knew one person remotely. That was Lady Athena who was a friend of Alison’s. I went to her house and I stayed with them, and they personally ferried me to seven different groups in the Los Angeles area. One group would take me to another, and that group would take me to another. And so after nine or ten days, I had met seven or eight groups and had spent a day with each of them. And it happened that way in Chicago. It allowed me to see a real breadth of the Craft that I would never have seen. It also made me have some real questions about my own tradition. The group that I was in in New York. at the time that I was writing my book, was not as interesting as the groups I was seeing in Texas and Berkeley. I came back wanting to be in NROOGD or Morgan McFarland’s group. It was very humbling to realize the incredible format and creativity in the Craft that, in fact, I (and most of my friends who were in covens in the East) had previously been exposed to very little of it.
I have to say that I never thought anything negative. I didn’t experience one negative group. I’m not saying they don’t exist. What I am saying is that wherever they are, they don’t have relationships with the groups we know. If you took me to ten groups in Massachusetts, we would probably never find one. When I talked about the book. particularly to people who were not in the Craft, they would say things like, “Weren’t you afraid you’d end up with groups that were negative?” It just never happened. There were things that were negative in the sense that I had experiences I didn’t like. I came across groups that were sexist and groups that were racist and groups that were authoritarian in ways that I didn’t like and groups that didn’t have my values. There was a lot of that. That was one of the big shocks. I had this fantasy about the Craft that everyone was militantly involved in environmental issues and all that stuff, and of course it wasn’t true. As a friend of mine said, there are RV Pagans, and that was a really good lesson to learn. There are people who have said as a criticism, but also as sort of a wise-ass remark that may have some truth to it. that Starhawk and I both ended up writing books about the Pagan movement, not as it was, but as we wanted it to be and twenty years later, it’s the Pagan movement that exists.
FH: What changes have you seen in the past 10 years between the two editions of your book?
MA: One change is obviously the festival phenomenon and what that has ended up doing to the movement. The hardest thing about entering this movement has always been finding a group. I get maybe four letters a week from people who have read my book, who are desperately looking for a group. Some of them are wonderful people. I get letters from people like psychiatrists at the University of Arkansas who are looking for a group. These are top flight people, and they don’t know how to find a group. Sometimes there’s group in their area, or if there is a group, that group is dosed or isn’t particularly interested in them for their own reasons. Some groups are looking for people who are congenial with them, which is based on 200 factors that don’t necessarily have anything to do with whether this person is wonderful or not. I write back, telling them what’s in their area, or that they should start their own group. And the festival phenomenon has suddenly allowed thousands of people to enter the Craft without going this route.
The biggest criticism of this has been from a number of coven leaders who have said to me that the coven has lost its magic, that the coven has lost its power, that the “leaders” of the movement have changed from being the leaders of covens to the writers of books, the leaders of festivals, and those kinds of celebrities. On the other hand, what it has meant, and I think this has been, by and large, an unbelievably positive phenomenon, is that there is a national Pagan culture. The same songs, the same techniques, the same rituals get passed from group to group, from festival to festival. One can walk into a festival. and in three days they can meet people from all kinds of different traditions. They can understand how ritual works. They can attend an enormous number of workshops.
In the old system, there were a lot of people on power trips and authoritarian trips, and they did not want their people to have other information. My first Gardnerian group had very rigid rules for contacting other Pagans, and you were certainly not supposed to go to rituals of other groups. Your sources of information were pretty limited. I remember walking into The Magickal Childe when I was a neophyte but had already been around for maybe three quarters of a year, and being told by Herman Slater, whom I’ve known for many years, that The Green Egg was a secret, inner core document — like I wasn’t quite ready for it, you know? This kind of stuff was much more prevalent in the old days when people could get away with it. I don’t think they can get away with it now. The downside is that, to a certain extent, the purity of some traditions is gone. Some of that purity was bullshit. But there is something to be said for a system that is, in itself, rigorous. There is something to be said for having different traditions that are somewhat isolated. There is something to be said for the covens being the basic framework or the basic authority in the Craft. I think what’s happened is a mixed blessing, but by and large, I think it’s good.
FH: Do you think that the negative experiences you’ve had with men in your workshops is because you’re a woman? Do you think those men would relate differently to a man offering the same kind of workshop?
MA: I don’t know. Part of the problem was that two of these workshops were at Esalen, which has its own series of problems. It gets a much wealthier, more psychologically problematical grouping of people compared to, let’s say, the Boston places like Interface and Rowe, which get less advantaged, more politically aware people. The mixed workshop I gave at Interface was very positive.
FH: Paganism and Women’s spirituality seem closely aligned. Is Paganism and its values and belief system reaching as many men as it is Women? If not. why not. and how do you think that could happen?
MA: Clearly it’s reaching the Gay community, Gay men in the Faerie movement and Gay women who are Lesbian feminists. I went to the Michigan Women’s Music Festival, which was a mindblowing experience, and I went there and I had two incredible contradictory experiences. There were six thousand women on private land in Michigan. It felt like it was 95% Lesbian, although it was probably more like 80 to 85%. As a woman who, at least in the last 15 years, has lived out a very straight heterosexual relationship, although I’m probably philosophically bisexual, I was invisible. Everybody assumed I was Gay because I didn’t say anything, but I was invisible just like Gay people are mostly invisible in our society. But at the same time, I had walked into a world where Wicca was the state religion. Everything was very Pagan and Wiccan oriented — the songs, the religious ceremonies were very much Goddess oriented. There were a few Jewish and Christian ceremonies going on in the background, but the main trip was Paganism and Goddess spirituality. I’d never been in a big place, like a little city, where I was affirmed as being in the mainstream. On the one hand, I was invisible as a straight person, but I was in the religious mainstream for the first time in my life. It was a very powerful feeling.
I think one of the reasons I have trouble at places like Esalen is that most of the men who are not specifically in the Craft and who are attracted to “New Age’ ideas are attracted to very different things than the Pagan movement They’re attracted to Eastern religions or other kinds of New Agey things, or things like Robert Bly’s workshops. On the other hand, the mainstream Craft is pretty co-equal. Lots of the groups I know have a lot of men in them. But there are so many people in the Pagan movement now who are part of the women’s spirituality movement that it’s really affected what our movement looks like.
FH: I’m not thinking so much in terms of recruiting as in terms of reaching and communicating, getting through.
MA: For women, there’s a corpus of literature. There is a corpus of art. There is a whole movement that in some ways is not even a very Pagan movement There’s all this talk about how this Goddess period existed. Marija Gimbutas. The Once and Future Goddess. I read these books and I say to myself, “This is all very nice, but I’m not so sure that it was this easy or quite this clear.” But as a religious literature, it really works and clearly gives enormous feelings of personal power and of being part of a philosophy in a larger group. There isn’t anything like that for men except for Gay men. The workshops I give for women are based on women’s spirituality, and I give a lecture before the workshop. I always have to put in the Goddess somewhere, because I realize that I never mention it. It’s always an afterthought. The basic principles that I want to tell people about Pagan spirituality don’t have much to do with the Goddess. They have to do with the insights that Pagan religions bring to bear — the sense of immanence, the sense of tribalism, the sense of the sacredness being attached to a place instead of a universal. The sense of the polytheistic ideal, both philosophically and spiritually, the sense of multiplicity and diversity. The idea of multiple Goddesses is part of it, and in part of my lecture, I talk about Goddess monotheism and that it’s really important to understand the Goddess idea as multiple Goddesses in many different cultures with many different values rather than this idea of “The Great Mother,” which I think is a real problematic concept. In some sense, this concept is in opposition to the ideas of Pagan polytheism. Pagan polytheism and with the Earth and its connection with indigenous peoples has universal application to both men and women. Whenever people see it, they say, “Oh yeah! I always knew that.” But getting it in front of people is hard.
FH: How did you move into doing the kind of Pagan outreach that you’re doing? Could you talk about your experience with the World Council of Churches?
MA: I’ve always been public. I became a public figure, even though it was on a very minor scale, in 1972, right at the time I was getting involved in the Craft, because I started doing a live radio show on WBAI in New York. That live radio show was very much a “personality show.” I talked about my life and my views, and so all the stuff I was getting involved in, including the occult and psychic stuff ended up being talked about. It was a reasonable place to do that because Marion Weinstein also had a show on that station, and so I wasn’t even the first public Witch. There were even steps to follow, so to speak. It was very natural to be public, and since I was working for alternative radio, I didn’t have to face the fear of a straight life versus a Craft life. I had always considered myself part of the alternative world, a radical revolutionary. I had been in Mississippi. I had been in Cuba. I had been in Chicago in ’68. I had been in Berkeley in the Free Speech movement. If I was not a political revolutionary, then I was becoming more of a spiritual revolutionary, and it was perfectly reasonable for me to live a totally alternative public life.
Around 1978, I suddenly got a job in a much more “straight” place, National Public Radio, but at that point it was too late. My book was right about to come out. So I never made the choice. It was just there. I’ve had a lot of problems over the years with being public and being on National Public Radio, in the sense that people in National Public Radio don’t really like the fact. I do little things to keep them as unaware of it as possible. I rarely will do a speech or be in a paper that’s Washington-based because I figure tha way they won’t see it. In the beginning when I first got involved in the Craft, I went on Phil Donahue and The Today Show and this kind of thing. I probably would do that again, but for the last six or seven years I haven’t. While I’ve lectured and given workshops and occasionally been quoted, I have managed to do it in a way that the people at NPR are not quite as aware of it as they might be otherwise. I’ve been a little more low key than I was when I first got involved. You know, when people first get into the Craft, they wear all the jewelry and all that stuff, and then ten years later, they look like normal people again. We all know that pattern.
One of the reasons I agreed to be on the CUUPS Board, even though I’m not a Unitarian, was that I found that I had spoken at a lot of Unitarian churches over the years. I’ve given the Sunday sermon in at least three different ones. I have done a lot of lecturing through the years at Unitarian churches, and my book also happened to be published by the Unitarians. So I was sort of half there, even though I wasn’t there.
I had some questions about this relationship, in the sense that I’m not sure whether the Craft should be a church. I have real questions about what we want to be as a religion. How institutionalized or non-institutionalized do we want to be? These are questions that I have not resolved for myself. Every time I see someone making their whole livelihood from the Craft, there are always little problems. They fuck up in some way. Not everybody, but I see it a lot. I have to admit that I’ve always been on the side of the non-institutionalized trip. So here I am on the Board of Directors of these people who are becoming ministers in the Unitarian Church and doing Pagan ceremonies!
The Coven of Unitarian Universalist Pagans is a great resource because it’s one of those places where Pagan ideas can have a large currency. Even before CUUPS arrived, this curriculum called Cakes to the Queen of Heaven was running rampant through the Unitarian Church, and all the women were already studying things like Starhawk’s book, so there was a fertile ground already there. There was also a bunch of Unitarian ministers-to-be or people at Harvard Divinity School and various other places who had the idea that once they got credentials, they’d do it in a Pagan way. Now there are twenty or thirty chapters of Unitarian Pagans around the country. Since the Unitarian Church has UU Buddhists and UU Jews and UU Christians, why not UU Pagans? I don’t think it’s the wave of the future, but it is a place where people can come into contact with Pagan ideas. That’s been, I think, extremely positive.
The World Council of Churches was an amazing experience. Diana Eck, who is a feminist at Harvard and has been involved in Indian and Buddhist studies, suddenly became the organizer of this gathering of religious women. They actually had this category for us, which was tradition, Native American, and Goddess religions. Selena Fox and I, along with three Native American women, got to be in this ninth category, and attend along with the Hindus, Buddhists, Christians. Sikhs and so forth. About 40 or 45 women came to this thing for five days and shared their experiences and their insights. It was, I think, somewhat traumatic. I gave a speech that got people a little upset because it was very pro-Pagan and pro-polytheism, and a lot of people in that room saw the idea of polytheism as an anathema, particularly the Islamic women. For example, we went on a trip to various religious places. We went to a mosque, a synagogue. We went to this incredible TIbetan Buddhist temple, all of these in Toronto. The Tibetan Buddhist temple was filled with statues and incense and beautiful flowers. You could see that the Hindus, the Buddhists, and the Pagans were having a great time, and the Jews and the Muslims were freaked. They just could not deal with it. You go into a mosque and there are only words on the stained glass. There aren’t even any pictures. These women were very freaked out by the whole idea of images and they had visceral reactions to it. For the first time, they were beginning to realize that perhaps a Tibetan Buddhist was having a deep religious experience when confronting Kwan Yin, which the Islamic women would, I think, never have conceived of before having come to this conference. In that sense, it was a real breakthrough for many people. In terms of the Craft, it was the first time that many of these women religious leaders had ever thought of the Craft in a positive way, rather than as just a bunch of idiots or satanists or crazies. That was really important
FH: Because for all that we’re aware of the Pagan movement, most people in the world aren’t .
MA: That’s right. Most people don’t know who we are. There’s much more awareness of the general Goddess idea because there have been artides on it, like the artide in the New York
Times on Marija Gimbutas. But there’s still almost nothing on Wicca. That, of course, brings up the question, “Can we reclaim our name? How do we go about promoting our values and our
beliefs, or are we putting our foot in our mouth from the very beginning?” I don’t know what the answers to that are. I’ve now worked for NPR for eleven years, and I can count on the fingers of
one hand the number of people who have actually asked me to tell them what this stuff is I’m involved in. People just don’t want to know. Aidan Kelly once said that there are some ways in which all religions are much more alike than they’re different. I think that most people don’t want to deal with religion.
FH: Especially in our culture, which is so rational and so intellectually based.
MA: That’s absolutely right. What’s interesting about this whole Unitarian phenomenon is that it’s getting into the ritualistic stuff that a lot of Unitarians are afraid of. Most Unitarians in the United States are rationalists. When Starhawk addressed the New Haven General Assembly of the Unitarian Church last summer, she gave this brilliant speech. If I had to put it into one sentence, it was something like “Here’s how Paganism and Goddess spirituality really works and here’s how it’s totally rational.” What she did was play entirely to that rationalist intellectual stream.
FH: Do you think that denies who we are?
MA: I don’t think it denies who we are. I think that we have a gift to give the Unitarian Church, and that gift is ritual. And that they have a gift to give us too, and that gift is a certain kind of intellectual rigor. The gift we have to give is also to understand ecstatic traditions. We don’t really understand them, but we’re beginning to. We’re struggling to. We’re allowing ourselves to get out of our heads to understand sacred connections, and that’s something the Unitarians have been frightened of, have completely resisted, and have been yearning for secretly. That’s why the Pagan Unitarian connection is so powerful.
FH: What is it like working with people who don’t identify themselves as Pagans?
MA: When I give lectures, they’re mostly to people who are somewhat Pagan. The ones at Esalen have been a little weird because they are mostly people who are more New Agey, and that’s always difficult. Everybody on the outside thinks that the New Age is like Paganism, but are they wrong! They are so wrong! You end up speaking two different languages and they don’t really cross.
FH: With your work in National Public Radio and your lectures and workshops, it seems that you lead two separate lives. How do you feel about that, and have you been able to integrate the two?
MA: I’m not totally comfortable. There are things about both lives that I have real objections to. There are parts of my life as a journalist that I feel uncomfortable with, particularly being employed by an organization that has needs that are not my needs, and can assign me things that I don’t want to do. That’s what we all feel about working in the straight world. Suddenly you’re forced to be a little bit not who you are and do things you don’t want to do.
What’s scary is that I find that I can go through weeks where the whole Pagan/Craft world doesn’t even exist in my life. I just go about my other world, my other business. And then I spend four days only dealing with Pagans, and that other thing kicks in. I suddenly realize I’m doing exactly what I always believed I should never do, which is living two lives that are totally non-integrated. In my book, I talk about Lady Athena-how she was living these two lives and she was working for an oil company and how could she do that? I put it that way, and here I am doing exactly the same thing. I’m living this divided life, but recently I’ve come to the conclusion that maybe that’s what I’m supposed to be doing. Maybe integration isn’t always the answer, that maybe it’s okay to live two lives. I recently had a weird experience. A woman named Kathy Colby has developed a test that she gives to employees of big corporations. It’s called the Colby Commitive Index, and instead of testing people for IQ or preference or feelings, she tests people about the way they do things — their style of “doing.” Is it more probing and researching? Is it more quick start, original, innovative? Is it more implementive, demonstrating? etcetera. I took her test because I was interviewing her, and she rated me. At the end of the interview, I said, “Here’s my dilemma. I live two lives, and right now they’re too much together. On the one hand, I like being on the radio and some of the journalism stuff, but I don’t always want to do the stuff they assign me. On the other hand, I love doing lectures and workshops, but I’m not sure I want to make my whole living from the ‘magic business’ or the Craft. But it’s beginning to be so busy with both of them that I’m beginning not to have any personal life.” She looked at my profile and she said, “You’re the kind of person who needs to be juggling a lot of balls at the same time, and you probably would not be very happy if you were only doing one.” But I do feel a little stressed out by it. I do feel that it’s very complex and I don’t quite know what to do about it.
FH: Sort of like bopping in and out of realities.
MA: Well, yeah. I’m starting to tell myself it’s shamanism (laughs), that I’m living in different realms, wandering in from one and up to another like Don Juan. But it doesn’t always feel that way. The bad part of it is that it feels like my personal reflective, spiritual life is not getting what it needs. One of the great things about doing these workshops is that there is a lot of ritual involved and even though I’m facilitating the rituals, I get a chance to get back in touch with ecstatic stuff. I’m not in a group and I don’t have a place to do serious reflective, spiritual work right now, and that’s really unfortunate. On the good side, I am seeing a lot of the world, not only in traveling for the Craft, but in my journalism work. I am being constantly refurbished with knowledge. I’m constantly learning new stuff. I was in the South Bronx watching extremely poor Black people rebuild their neighborhood. I was just in Virginia, dealing with the whole question of how suspects get identified before being charged and their lives ruined. I’m going to go to Imelda Marcos’s trial. I am actually getting to see the world through all this, and even though I see it superficially to a certain extent. I have this feeling that it’s important for us to be grounded in what’s happening in the larger reality.
I think both parts of my life are extremely important to be a full individual. Both of these worlds give me enormous sustenance. What’s sad to me is that I haven’t yet figured out a way to integrate the two so that the insights of one can go to the other. I have not figured out how to make them really one, what their interconnections are and how to make one feed the other.
I’m also angry with both of them for various reasons. I’m angry with the journalism world because a lot of the people I work with don’t think about the greater reality. They don’t understand that some events are eternal, and that there are eternal realities that are larger than who’s going to be the next congressperson. They don’t think about the next generation. They don’t think about psychic reality. They don’t think about death and life and rebirth. And so, on some level, they’re very wanting. On the other hand, their sense of the “real world” is real clear. Very often, the people I work with either psychically or ritually are very naive about how the world works and how politics work and what can be done and what we should believe. They’re wonderful to be with in terms of their understanding the ultimate issues in the world, but they’re not really together when it comes to concrete reality.
The other problem is that, even though it’s perfectly reasonable for a Catholic to cover the Pope as a journalist, it is still considered, oddly enough, a conflict of interest should I do too many psychic or occult-type stories. Also, people don’t want me to do those stories because that stereotypes me even more. I’m suddenly put in the position where I’m the person who could do a lot of those stories really well, and I don’t do them. So I’m not very good at integrating those lives even in the places where I could integrate them.
FH: How does your home life fit? Is it a third reality? One of the things that often is a problem for people involved in Paganism and the Occult is the whole idea of “mixed” marriages or relationships.
MA: While I live in a mixed marriage, I don’t consider it a mixed marriage. My home is the one place where practically nothing ever goes wrong. It’s the one escape, the one place that I never have to freak out. It’s a safe harbor, and it’s been a safe harbor for 14 years, through a lot of this stuff. I probably would do more Craft stuff if my husband was involved in the Craft. I might have another coven, or be more involved in some way on a day-to-day basis. But the reason I say that I don’t really consider this a mixed marriage is that my husband’s religion is really the stars. He is basically an astronomer. He’s a quantum physics freak who’s writing a book on it. It’s not like I’m married to a Christian or a religious Jew or someone like that. The only real conflict in our philosophies is that he’s much more pro-current science and technology as the savior of humankind, and he’s more human-centered than I am. We both tend to be big brain chauvinists, I have to admit. But he has a stronger belief that the scientific revolution and enlightenment were the greatest gifts of humankind, whereas I tend to see their downside, as many Pagans do. Except for that, our understanding and love of ecstasy, our love of the stars, our love of the larger questions of the universe are very similar. We’re both science fiction freaks and our one weekly ritual is Star Trek-The Next Generation. Should I admit that? Our heads are both in the clouds and we’re both into the weirdest kind of science fiction alternative realities.
Also, speaking very personally, this is not a relationship I’ve really had to work at. I’ve never really felt that there’s been friction in our relationship. Conflict is very difficult for me. Coming from a divorced home, I’ve never been able to deal with conflict very well, and so I have made sure not to have relationships in my life in which there’s a lot of conflict.
I also live in this wonderful apartment that I’ve lived in since I was 9 years old. On the one hand, I’m running around the country as a journalist. On the other hand, I’ve lived in the same place since I was 9 years old. I’ve been in the same relationship for 14 years, in the same profession for 21 years and in the same job for 11, which means that I have managed, despite all the craziness that goes on around me, to have an enormous amount of continuity in my life. That continuity has been incredibly important, so that my home, both in terms of relationship and in terms of the place, is where the storms don’t hit.
FH: Where do you see Paganism going? What are your hopes for it?
MA: My hopes are that some of the insights of Paganism will become sort of common assumptions of future human beings’ insights about the Earth being sacred, of human beings being sacred, the body being sacred and the mind being sacred; that what you put out is what you get back, so therefore put out good; that diversity is good; that multiple religions and multiple deities can mean a richer way of looking at the world; that all life is sacred and interrelated; that the Earth should be honored and protected. These sorts of basic ideas I’m hoping will become the common heritage of humankind, even though the people holding them might not call themselves Pagans or Witches.
My best hope is that. in fact, there would be multiple religions all over the world, many different kinds of spiritual realities, but that there would also be an unwritten assumption about this kind of honoring of sacred reality, both in ourselves and in the Earth. I also hope that the specific traditions that we have will flourish. I don’t think we’ll ever be the majority religion. I’m not sure we should be, and I don’t think we have to be. As a matter of fact, it might be terrible for us if we were. But it would be really great if the insights that make us important became common assumptions.
I have many different fears for us as well. My fear is that millennialism is going to bring in a more antagonistic attitude toward the Craft by the Fundamentalist community. I also fear that Paganism is just something that people do for 15 years while they’re growing up, and then go back to mainstream religions because they’re adults now. I’m afraid that we won’t end up having any continuity for generations, that we’re just this minor religious movement. As Reggie Jackson said, “Let’s be the straw that stirs the drink.” (laughs) Minorities have played major roles in all kinds of movements, and I think we have this incredible role to play as a minority religion. The fear is that we’ll be forgotten in the big winds of change.
I remember a very brilliant acting teacher who heard this young man recite Shakespeare (it was a terrible rendition). She said, “Don’t bring Shakespeare down to you. Bring yourself up to Shakespeare.” We live in a world that’s filled with incredible art, incredible literature, incredible numbers of ideas, incredible philosophical movements. There’s just all kinds of stuff for us to be enriched by. I think it’s real important for people involved with the Pagan spirituality movement and Wicca to let themselves be enriched by the currents of our own and other cultures, and not only by the somewhat banal books that are published in the New Age press. I could spend years just reading science fiction and Wicca stuff, and then suddenly I say, “What the hell am I doing?” The world is larger, richer, more exciting, more interesting. I think many of us have this tendency to read every single thing that is written on Witchcraft and Paganism and then run out and get the next book, when we really should be spending at least two-thirds of that time reading someone like Dostoevsky. That doesn’t mean I think we should be a primarily intellectual or rationalist movement, but we really should think more about combining the insights of the Goddess spirituality movement, Paganism and Wicca with some of our great cultural roots.
I had a really shocking experience a number of years ago. I went to a big conference on psychology in which R.D. Laing was appearing. I sat down at this press conference and R.D. Laing was sitting before me, and I asked him, “What, in your view, has really changed in psychology in the last fifty years, and what are the new insights of the last fifty years?” He said, “There is nothing that I know that wasn’t known by Aeschylus.”’ I was floored! But the more I thought about it, I began to realize, on some level what he was saying. The ancient authors have written so much that we should know about what is really important about us and human nature and the spirit and religion, and we shouldn’t be just diddling around in the waves of the New Age.