[Today we welcome guest writer Michelle Belanger. Belanger is the author of the Psychic Vampire Codex and founder of House Kheperu.This year, House Kheperu’s Gather is being held in Oberlin, Ohio June 22-24. More information on the event, as well as House Kheperu, can be found at Kheperu.org]
Toni Morrison said, “If there’s a book you want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” Over on Twitter, 5000 Spells author Judika Illes reposted this the other week, along with the observation, “This is exactly how I started writing.”
What followed was a series of “me, too!” posts from accounts that read like a Who’s Who in Witches & Paganism. Christopher Penzcak was there, as was Deborah Blake and Devin Hunter. I chimed in as well. Couldn’t help it. Nearly all of the books I’m known for, from The Psychic Energy Codex to Walking the Twilight Path, exist because a younger me once scoured shops and libraries and came up empty on the topics I desperately needed – and having reliable sources at that crucial stage would have saved a lot of stumbling and tears.
And then I realized – at least in the Pagan community – Morrison’s statement holds true for far more than books. From the Temple of Witchcraft to Circle Sanctuary to The Wild Hunt itself, how many of our organizations and resources exist because someone hoped to find them in the world only to realize that they had to create them first? Again, I know it holds true for myself.
Outsider in the Circle
As a practitioner coming of age in the late 80s and early 90s, I struggled to find an established tradition that fit my experience of the metaphysical world. I’d grown up in a family of psychics. Energy work came naturally, as did a home-grown brand of non-theistic magick that I’d labeled will-work. When I stumbled across Wicca, it held some appeal, but it was so incredibly binary in its vision of the God and the Goddess that it was an immediate turn-off. Other systems weren’t much better, each for different reasons. In all the books I explored (like every solitary practitioner, my first teachers were books), I found pieces that echoed my own experiences, but only scattered and in fragments.Scott Cunningham, Dion Fortune, Michael Harner, Anodea Judith, Shakti Gawain – from each I took something useful, but no single writer’s teachings were a perfect fit.
Once I went to college and had the opportunity to seek out local groups, the difficulties only deepened. I remember meeting my first Wiccan who, upon hearing my experiences with energy work, flat-out told me I was evil and barred me from ever participating in her circles. The New Agers I found objected to the fact that I wore black and didn’t think it was a “negative” color. The psychics thought I was too skeptical. The parapsychologists told me I wasn’t scientific enough – and that was without even mentioning my practice of magick! Over and over again, I was told one piece or another of my personal belief system was wrong, destructive, or inconvenient, and it left me pretty embittered on trying to belong to anything.
More functional than the embitterment was a nagging confusion. You see, I was a religious studies major for most of this, and although I attended a Jesuit Catholic college, my focus was on NRMs (New Religious Movements) and the universality of mystical experience. And one thing that stood out to me as I explored all of these diverse groups was how similar they were once you stripped away their labels and their jargon.
Each of them, from my perspective, was seeking a deeper understanding of the relationship between mind, body, and spirit. Nearly all of them were striving toward unmediated metaphysical experience with some universal source, whether they called it “God,” “Goddess,” “Christ-Consciousness,” or simply, “The Universe.” They accepted that people could perceive things beyond their five physical senses, and nearly all of them had some cognate for energy – whether they approached it through loan-words like prana or chi or knew it by a more home-grown term like “orgone.” In fact, as someone forced to be an outsider in each of their groups, my very otherness gave me just enough distance to see that they had more in common than they had differences. But their labels divided them.
Those divisions ultimately drove me to establish my own system, one where we could play with labels but also peek out from behind them, wink, and acknowledge the label as a convenient mask. I stripped away all the things I felt other groups kept getting lost in – robes, tools, symbols of Gods or Goddesses – so no one could mistake the prop for the power. I deconstructed ritual to its most basic components, placing the focus on the group itself and the simple fact that we felt connected when we chose to stand in sacred space together. What was left was a profound awareness of energy and how it flowed through us and between us, especially when we worked with common purpose.
Two years after its founding, I named the group House Kheperu after a passage from a creation myth quoted by Lucie Lamy in Egyptian Mysteries. Up until that point, I’d resisted anything more formal than just “the Family.” There was one label we stuck to, however, and it was the word that had cast me repeatedly as the outsider in all the other groups I’d explored. The word was vampire.
By Any Other Name
Before you scoff and quit reading, consider that both the vampire and the witch have deep and incredibly rich folkloric roots. Through their appearance in folklore, both have served as the inspiration for vibrant literary figures, and their literary characterizations have served to inspire portrayals across a wide variety of media in pop culture. The vampire and the witch both are mythic archetypes evolving through multiple retellings and, through those retellings, they serve as conceptual mirrors reflecting back to us integral, powerful, and sometimes rejected parts of ourselves.
Over the course of the 20th century, the witch was consciously reclaimed as a personal archetype, until the witch as a magickal identity stood separate and distinct from the wizened hag of folklore. These witches – as well you know – are real, living people with a vital tie to elemental powers, an affinity for magick, and a profound resonance with the cycles of the natural world.
Although we’re behind the witches by several decades, the same holds true for modern vampires. The vampire archetype, reclaimed from its folkloric roots, offers a potent magickal identity. That identity is focused on ties to the supernatural rather than the natural world. Vampiric magick is powered not from the elements or the land but from other living people (only with consent!), and vampires tend to resonate with night and shadow and all the mysteries lurking in the dark.
And before you ask – we didn’t think we were Lestat or Dracula any more than your High Priestess believes herself to be the Wicked Witch of the West. That’s the thing about archetypes: you can resonate with parts of them without believing that you are them. Like any other label, they’re tools that help us shape and channel qualities that might otherwise remain too abstract for proper use.
I and the several thousand people active in the modern vampire community didn’t arrive at the vampire as a magickal identity casually or easily, and the very process of adapting the word engendered a keen awareness of how we all shape ourmagickal language. Words have power – but that power is something that we choose.
House Kheperu’s choice of the word “vampire” with all its layered baggage is integral to understanding some of our most valuable work. That work is absolutely informed by my early group experiences, and it comes down largely to peoples’ relationship with labels – how they help us, but also when they hurt.
Internally, House Kheperu’s work with labels involves unpacking all the names and roles and titles we’ve picked up along our journey – through this life and all the others we recall. Father, mother, doctor, priest: every word we choose for ourselves can be a fence or a framework, holding us back or giving support. The onus is on the individual to seek, to assess, and ultimately to decide what’s useful, what isn’t, and what might have use again but should be set aside for now.
Externally, our work with labels leads us to facilitate dialogue between groups and individuals whose difference in language might otherwise obscure their common ground. For over two decades now, through books, events, and websites, we have been bridge builders, reaching out first within the vampire community, then extending that dialogue of inclusion in ever-widening circles. Those circles have come to encompass psychics and light workers, witches, Pagans, paranormal investigators, otherkin – pretty much any group on the Venn Diagram that overlaps on the subjects of spirit and energy work.
Since 1998, House Kheperu has maintained a strong presence on the Internet, but we’ve always functioned best face-to-face. In October of 2000, we started an annual event we call simply “The Gather,” and it’s become our main vehicle for promoting tolerance and dialogue among diverse groups.
There’s no denying the usefulness of Digital Age communication, but there’s a certain organic quality that gets lost in exchanges on social media, emails, and even in texts. Some of that again comes down to the limitations of language and how words can hold different meanings for everyone who encounters them. And this is why we find it so important to create inclusive spaces in real-time. There is a measure of freedom obtained through the anonymity of a web handle, but people really shine as their most authentic selves when they find themselves in a space that feels safe and free of judgment. The best real-time events foster a sense of communitas that allows even the most introverted among us to feel at ease among their tribe.
When I first started building such spaces, it was at the tail-end of the Satanic Panic when there was a very real threat of violence and wrongful imprisonment against anyone practicing a tradition seen as “occult” or “un-Christian.”Those spaces were our havens, and, at least in the Midwest, it very much felt like we were part of a magickal underground hiding from the oppression of our dominant culture.
Then, for a time, that changed. Our dominant culture felt like it was growing beyond its narrow-mindedness and its prejudice, at least for certain things. Alternative practices like yoga, Reiki, and mediumship became acceptable if not credible to a broad portion of mainstream culture, and thanks in part to media portrayals, even witchcraft didn’t hold the same “Satanic” stigma.
But lately, it’s been changing again, and those changes are disconcerting to say the least. On one hand, we’re alive in this amazingly connected time where many of the divisions between magickal groups seem to be melting away. I see witches writing about energy work and psychic phenomenon. I see New Agers and even some open-minded Christians feeling more comfortable exploring magick and ritual. I’ve had lovely conversations with Druids about vampires. So much of the dialogue that I yearned for when first starting out is happening and it’s glorious.
And then there’s this backlash, mainly from our dominant culture, but exclusionary elements driven by radicalism and hate have wormed their way even into fringe communities that previously felt safe. TERFs and incels and white supremacists – we can find them among gamers; they’re entrenched in geeky fandoms, and they’re here in our magickal communities as well. They may be a minority, but they are a loud and vicious minority, and they show no sign of going away.
In such an uncertain environment, it is more important than ever to foster spaces that are inclusive and safe. If we are beings of energy or spirit, then all the physical things society tells us to equate with our identity – skin color, gender, height, weight, age, orientation, abledness – are ephemeral anyway. They are things we wear for a time, but they are not the ultimate expression of who we are. Identity is something deeper and, while there is value in exploring how we appear as we dance in the masks of this moment, we must always keep in mind that they are masks. If we mistake the soul for its costume, we see the Other. If we look beneath it, we will see ourselves.
When we see that, how can we not create spaces for everyone? How can building bridges between multiple viewpoints be anything other than a radical act of magick?