Today’s column comes to us from Storm Faerywolf, whose column covers the intersection of Paganism and queer identities. Storm is a professional author, experienced teacher, visionary poet, and practicing warlock, and is author of “Betwixt & Between” and “Forbidden Mysteries of Faery Witchcraft.” He lives with his two loving partners in the San Francisco Bay area and travels internationally teaching the magical arts. For more, visit faerywolf.com.
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Pagans can’t turn on their televisions these days without seeing some kind of witch or warlock staring back at them. Between American Horror Story: Apocalypse and the reboots of Charmed and Sabrina the Teenage Witch – now called The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina – the general public is being treated to an explosion of witchcraft stories drawing from the literary tradition. But although these are works of fiction, the themes they explores can be relevant to our own practices and maybe even help start some work around our collective shadow, if we choose to let them.
(Warning: minor spoilers lie ahead.)
Each program presents its own version of the Craft. In Charmed, it is a force used to bring about justice, never used for personal gain. The word “witch” refers to a practitioner of any gender of good magic, while evil practitioners are called “warlocks.” In AHS and Sabrina, however, any morality expressed for their version of the Craft lies in the direction of individual freedom, and both use warlock in the same way as in English dictionaries: a male practitioner of Witchcraft.
While some practitioners of the Craft have expressed concern or even outrage at how these works have failed to represent an authentic practice of modern Witchcraft, others have argued in favor of them. Those in favor cite valid expressions of the Craft differing from those found in most Neo-Pagan circles, derived from folkloric, literary, Satanic, and even the ostensibly named “Trad Craft” sources, to name a few.
While I am personally more in line with the latter mindset, preferring to see this as an opportunity to provide accurate information to those newly inspired to look for an authentic Craft, I can certainly understand the concerns of the former – especially when it comes to AHS and Sabrina. Both of these stories involve fictional elements reminiscent of the all-too-real “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s, which ruined hundreds of peoples’ lives without a shred of physical evidence.
In both stories, an underground network of people engage in ritual human sacrifice in order to bring about the favors of the Devil. This wonderfully plays upon the fears of the Christian-right, but it makes some real-life occultists uncomfortable in the process.
In the current political climate, in which religiously-fueled bias-crimes and white nationalism are on the rise, despite evidence of such being touted as “fake news,” people of all minorities are sitting on pins and needles, waiting to see if they or their communities are next on the chopping block. In stressful times, one can hardly blame the knee-jerk reactions that these sorts of things inspire. While we should be able to expect that the viewer will be informed and intelligent enough to know the difference between fact and fiction, the reality is that many people will simply believe whatever they see on TV and will act out of their own fears and ignorance.
In Sabrina, the type of Witchcraft presented is drawn from a Christian conception of Satanism, complete with cloven-hoofed Satanic figure, the “Dark Lord,” who stands in opposition to the “false god.” While it was certainly fun to see a form of Satanism being used to explore themes of religious piety and conservatism, I found myself uncomfortable with the abusive patriarchal nature expressed by their Dark Lord. This was illustrated perfectly by a scene with Mrs. Wardwell (Michelle Gomez) groveling before him in agonizing fear, evoking the sense of a battered wife cowering in terrifying submission. It was a masterfully acted scene, full of raw emotion, but also exposed a theme that would be further explored in the series: violence against women.
Another aspect of the recent pageant of pop-culture occultism of interest to me, and perhaps also to other queer viewers, are the warlocks presented in AHS: Apocalypse. After having been introduced to the sisterhood of witches in a previous season, American Horror Story: Coven, viewers are now treated to a brotherhood, as well. It would at least appear, with their dandy clothes and sassy retorts, that they are fabulously queer, if not explicitly in sexuality, then implicitly in how they present. They’re all so extra. (And Cheyenne Jackson is just so yummy, isn’t he?)
The story isn’t without its problems. Sadly, the warlocks are largely antagonistic toward the witches, feeling oppressed by them as they are not as strong with magic as the sisterhood, and are constantly reminded of that fact. “Men are simply not equal when it comes to magical ability,” explains Cordelia Good, the witches’ leader in the series. “Testosterone is a known inhibitor — it impedes access to the ethereal realm.” The warlocks’ resentment leads to a deep misogyny, however, as they soon hatch a plan to exterminate the women and take their place as the rulers in a magical gender war.
This invites us to have a conversation about the real-life misogyny in our communities. While on the surface AHS is using the time-honored trope of inversion to better illustrate a societal ill – in this case, exploring misogyny by depicting a form of misandry – it still cuts close to the bone. I have personally seen plenty of misogyny in the gay male community, whether it be casual insults about a woman’s anatomy or the ridiculous “star system” game that allows gay men to claim status based on how far removed they have been from personal experience with a vagina. (A “gold star gay,” for those interested to know, has never engaged in intercourse with a woman, while the “platinum star” was reserved for those few who were additionally born by cesarean. Yikes!) I first heard about this in my 20’s and at the time I thought it was hilarious. After all, we were using humor to rebel against a society that in very real terms wanted us dead for whom we were attracted. But as I got older, I began to see the misogynistic current running deep within my own community, with games of this nature only hinting at the real problems beneath the surface.
In this – though deliciously exaggerated – the warlocks of AHS: Apocalypse are not entirely dissimilar from ourselves. We both enjoy a mixed status: privileged as men in a patriarchal society (with even more of said privilege if we happen to be white) while also being the victims of a gender-based oppression. As a white, cisgendered male, I am aware, at least to a degree, of the privileges I have when compared to a person of color, but because I am gay, I am also at times painfully reminded just how far that privilege does not extend.
Consider the simple act of holding your loved one’s hand in a public place, a small thing that many straight people take for granted, but for the queer person brings about very real concerns of personal safety. Who might see? Who might be offended? Might someone physically assault us? If so, how might we escape?
Even growing up in the liberal bubble of the San Francisco Bay Area, I have personally encountered threats, insults, and even violence for being perceived as homosexual, making these concerns quite real. Living with consistent feelings of fear, hatred, and animosity takes its toll on the mind and spirit, and when one is effectively bullied – not just by individuals but by society as a whole – the impulse toward lashing out can be strong.
Another detail in which I found a similar resonance between the fiction of AHS and the real-life experience of living as a gay man in the modern Witchcraft community lies in a strange and almost hidden form of misandric homophobia. Taken perhaps from the political idea that the proverbial pendulum must “swing the other way” in order to counterbalance a previous wrong, in some forms of traditional modern Craft, a special emphasis is placed on the female, sometimes to the exclusion of the male altogether. Though generally considered to be on the “fringe”, some groups espouse straight-up misandry in the guise of radical feminism, looking for gender “purity”, militantly defending the boundaries of their belief. These groups take justification, in part, from an obscure piece of Wiccan lore concerning gender roles in the circle, popularized by the Gardnerian tradition: when no male is present, a High Priestess may wear a sword and fulfill the role of the High Priest in the magic circle, but if no woman is available there is no special exception for the High Priest to do similar. In this case there can simply be no circle.
Far from being an obscure point without significance, this idea of unequal gender roles has led to an imbalance in some forms of the modern Craft in which men are treated as somewhat “less than” their sisters, and no one blinks an eye. Many do not even notice. I know of male priests who, by the laws of their covens, are barred from performing certain actions on their own (such as initiations) because they are not female.
I am not saying that somehow a slow current of misandry in the Craft is just as bad as the obvious tsunami of misogyny that exists outside of it; far from it. But I do think it’s important to look at these issues wherever they arise and explore how we might change to better suit the needs of an increasingly diverse future. I’m certainly not trying to condemn a tradition because I disagree with their structure on gender roles, but I personally couldn’t work with a system that would dishonor me, even if just in part, and so it spurs my queer spirit to help create more colorful alternatives.
Going against the grain is a quality that is inherent in Witchcraft, as well as in what might be called a queer identity. Perhaps it is through the resonance of both of these identities that has further led me to join the growing ranks of men who practice witchcraft and who have decided to claim the word ‘Warlock’ as a term of personal power. It will be no surprise to those who have followed my writings over the years that I proudly use the term to describe myself in defiance of the assertion (only found in Neo-Paganism) that the words’ etymological origins mean it is forever irredeemable. Furthermore, I make it a point to repeat my stance whenever the word comes up – so, in this case, you can blame it on television.
While the root word, the Old English waerloga, definitely meant “oath breaker” (with connotations of devil worship – so spooky!), it was also a firmly Christian-era word, meaning that whatever oaths were being broken were likely those administered to the Church-empowered authorities. I make it a point of personal pride to stand against the values as enacted by such a Church and so my identification with the word remains.
If I am breaking any oaths, let them be the ones that insist that men need to be unfeeling dominators, always in competition with women or each other. Let me shatter the chains of social expectation that would insist I act a certain way or wear certain colors, to “fit in” and “be a man.” Let broken be the wicked vow that states some types of people are better than others, which shapes a world full of lack, and greed, and violence, and oppression. I can be both strong and sensitive in my masculinity. In the patriarchal world I was denied masculinity because of my gayness. In the magical world I claim my masculinity back from the false god without apology. Just as my sisters have adopted the word ‘Witch’ and redeemed it from its past negative connotations, I use the term Warlock in a similar way, and as a point of magical focus in order to help serve as a means to detoxify masculinity in the Craft.
It’s not about setting one up above another. We are not in competition with each other. This need not be about “us vs. them” – there is no “them.” Though we are all different, there is only, ultimately, “us.” We need all of our differences, and we need them together. We can’t afford to keep following the old ways of the past that have brought us to the quagmire that is our current environmental/social/political situation.
Perhaps even here we can take inspiration from another theme explored in our beloved pop-culture stories, characterized simply as finding another way. Sabrina rebels against an authority that would demand she give up her freedom and instead blazes a trail that honors both her human and her witch identities. Is it really that easy? The Witches of AHS work to undo the very apocalypse that serves as the season’s premise, and in so doing confront their own assumptions about magic.
In both stories, as in life, there is always a cost; for a quest to be fulfilled a price must be paid. We are reminded that these are the ways of magic: in order to create great change, we must make an appropriate sacrifice. My hope is that it is our own fears, offered upon the altars of our freedom.
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