Gender in Witchcraft, pt. 1

Last year I read a post (which I can’t find anymore) about devotional tips to Frigg. The writer wrote a note at the top of the post stating that they would be referring to Frigg as “They”, since the Gods don’t adhere to our human binary of “male” and “female”. It was such a simple sentence, but it was such an impactful thing for me. I’d never thought of it that way. But to me, it made perfect sense. So I accepted it, and then never looked any deeper into it. Never thought further about what that would mean for me, or my craft.

That changed earlier this year. I was feeling a call to deepen the relation I have with the deities I am devoted to. Which led to me researching and redefining my bond with whom I then still called Horned One. As I wrote in an earlier post, I still very much saw Him as an archetype of the divine masculine. The God to complement the Goddess, which was a paradigm left over from my earlier wiccan-adjacent roots. It didn’t mesh with my earlier found beliefs that Gods are outside of our human gender structures. I couldn’t wrap my hear around it. Which meant one thing: research.

Because why does everything in western witchcraft practices have to adhere to a binary gender system? Why do we have a “divine feminine” and a “divine masculine” when it comes to our inner worlds? And further than that, why does seemingly everything in western witchcraft need to be gendered? Open any book on modern witchcraft and you’ll see gender assigned to everything. To the elements, to the days of the week, to crystals, to herbs, to planets, to runes, everything has a gender or gendered “energy” attached to it. I’ve found, especially in witchcraft and paganism, that when we want to figure out “why?” we need to ask: “where does it come from?”

It seems to start with the Greek philosopher Empedocles. He is the one who gave us the four elements that make up all matter: earth, air, fire and water. The elements are a big part of modern witchcraft, especially the wiccan traditions, or the traditions which have their roots in wicca. We call upon the elements to protect us when we cast a circle. We use the elements to bless and consecrate items. Just to name a few. Empedocles not only posited that all matter was made up out of these four elements, but he also linked them to the Gods Zeus, Hera, Nestis (Persephone) and Aidoneus (Hades). So we have two elements tied to a God, and two to a Goddess. This is where the belief that the elements are either “feminine” or “masculine” probably originates. It’s not a strange thought that this could have easily been stretched: if the elements are “feminine” or “masculine”, and things like crystals or herbs are associated with the elements, then they are also “feminine” or “masculine”.

Of course the influence of monotheistic religions can not be ignored. Our western society gets a lot of its views from Christianity. In the Christian bible God created Adam and Eve, one man and one woman. A strong binary where there is no room for deviation. It is also seen as an ideal to strive towards: a husband and wife, standing in the light of God, who together can create new life. This monotheistic view has been part of our western culture for millennia, which has influenced a lot of scholars, philosophers, artist, etc. Which in turn influences the information that we have access to now. Everything we know about our ancestors is written later, often by Christian scholars or even monks, who wrote from their (gender-binary and patriarchal) worldview.

Then of course we have the beginnings of our contemporary witchcraft: wicca and Gerald Gardner. In the wiccan faith a God and a Goddess are worshipped. Some believe them to be source of all life, others believe they are facets or avatars of a bigger force (Spirit, the All, etc.). The Triple Goddess stands for the phases of a woman’s life: the maiden, the mother and the crone. She also embodies the “feminine energies” such as nurturing, giving, sensual, loving, and wise. The Horned God is the masculine aspects, such as providing, protecting, strengthening, sexual, and also wise.
Covens are led by a High Priest (HP) and a High Priestess (HPs), where in Gardner’s days they took part in a ritual called “the Hieros Gamos” or “the Great Rite”, where the HP and HPs engaged in sexual intercourse to raise power, or as part of an initiation rite. Because, as our tradition’s wiccan inspired ritual states:  “where the masculine and feminine are joined, spirit is born.” Nowadays this is mostly done symbolically with a chalice and an athame, luckily, since Gardner is known to have “asked” High Priestesses to step aside when they were no longer young and beautiful in his eyes, which… ew.
The God and Goddess also complete a life cycle in the Wheel of the Year. The God impregnates the Goddess, after which he travels to the underworld and is born again from Her womb. Because of this, life will begin anew and nature will grow once more. Heterosexual procreation and that bond between man and woman is very important in the wiccan faith. The duality of male and female; and together they create life, is very ingrained into our modern, contemporary paganism because of this.

Then, we need to talk about Jung. In the first big wiccan revival in the ‘70s many prominent witches, like Janet and Steward Farrar, stepped back a bit from the ideas that the Gods were indeed outside of us, but instead incorporated Jungian philosophy into their faith. The Gods are then archetypes living deep in our subconsciousness, which we contact through prayer, spells and ritual. In that first revival this was a pretty common view of the world, which in turn, influenced a lot of books that were written in that time.
One of Jung’s theories is about the Anima and the Animus. Jung stated that, much like the yin-yang symbol, every woman had a bit of masculinity in her unconscious, called the Animus. And that the man had a bit of femininity in his unconscious, called the Anima. If the Animus or Anima was not recognized properly, it could have negative repercussions for the person in question. That part of the subconscious would then dictate the way the person would react in certain situations. For example, a woman acting in a way we would normally “expect” (back then) from a man, so through means of violence and aggression. So an integration, a joining from both the feminine and the masculine inside us is needed to become whole and to become a complete, spiritual being (sounds familiar, no?)

Last but not least, we have feminism. Contemporary witchcraft and paganism gained a lot of popularity in those same ‘70s, as well as the ‘60s, by being more Goddess oriented. Many of us, even now, come from the monotheistic religions which heavily centre on the divine masculine, without giving a female counterpart in that. Many of those religions are also often oppressive and discriminatory when it comes to the treatment of women. For many women witchcraft and paganism gives therefore a sense of freedom and equality not experienced before.
Witchcraft is also the craft of the marginalized, protects those who aren’t in a position to protect themselves and are an enormous source of empowerment for many.
With the arrival of Dianic wicca, a branch of wicca focussed solely on the Goddess, the Goddess movement within wicca and later witchcraft grew. Many were drawn to a path that celebrated women, and all that this entailed. This meant that the “divine feminine” became more and more important. The womb being the source of all creative power in the universe. The yoni being something not to be ashamed of, but instead something to be proud of and to take pride in. (I will talk about my views on all of this in a later post) An emphasis on sisterhood and the sacred bond we all share through the ancient mothers.

I believe all of this influenced and shaped the way we see gender when it comes to witchcraft and paganism. This all contributed in gender having the heavy influence that we see now. So now we know where it comes from… now what? Well, join me next time as I try to figure that out.

Offering bowl restoration

Many years ago, at a fantasy fair, I picked up a small black offering bowl with a small silver pentacle in it. I used it for a while, then put it away, then burned a candle in it which I couldn’t get out of it anymore, and so on. This bowl I have both loved and felt completely indifferent over in the years that I’ve had it. However, I wanted to make an offering bowl for Baduhenna, since I had none on my altar. So, time for some restoring and re-loving this small bowl!

Before! No longer black, stained and faded. I picked up my matte black and metallic silver paint and went to work.

Back to what it was when I bought it! Gorgeous matte black. I wasn’t done however, now it was time to link it to Baduhenna.

Baduhenna had a sacred forest somewhere in ancient Frisia. Because of that I wanted to add some greenery to Her bowl in the form of ferns. I have no idea why, but I associate ferns with Her. I also added the bindrune I made for Her a few years ago in silver paint. The bowl now sits proudly on my altar, filled with labradorite, garnet, moss, fern and a metal raven skull charm. I love it! And I actually feel much more connected to it than even when I first got it.

Ode to Nehalennia

Nehalennia statue, Nehalennia festival 2019

A poem or prayer that I’ve written to my Goddess, Nehalennia. She is the Goddess of the North Sea, of seafaring, commerce, the harvest and the dead. I’ve originally written it in Dutch, but I’ve translated it in English as well. Find both versions below.

In de kolkende golven hoor ik Haar stem.
Nehalennia.
Haar wind speelt door mijn lokken,
Haar zilte zegening raakt mijn lippen.

Deae Nehalennia.
Zij die de storm trotseert, en sterker er uit voortvloeit
Zij die de weg laat zien en onze reis bewaakt
Zij wiens woede schepen ten onder doet gaan
Zij wiens tedere omhelzing rust en vreugde brengt

Vrouwe Nehalennia,
Kracht van de Noordzee
Hoor mij aan!
Want ik ben Uw dochter,
Uw gezouten water stroomt door mijn aderen
Uw storm raast door mijn lijf
Uw kracht en diepte heb ik geërfd

Moeder Nehalennia
Hart van de Noordzee
Wees met mij!

Noordzee by Marjolijn Ashara

English version

In the churning waves I hear Her voice.
Nehalennia.
Her wind plays with my locks,
Her silten blessing touches my lips.

Daea Nehalennia.
She who faces the storm and flows from it, stronger
She who shows us the way and guards our journey
She whose rage causes ships to perish
She whose tender embrace brings us peace and joy

Lady Nehalennia,
Power of the North Sea
Hear me!
For I am your daughter
Your salted water flows through my veins
Your storm rages through my body
Your strength and dept I inherited

Mother Nehalennia
Heart of the North Sea
Be with me!

(First published on my witchy Tumblr)

By any other name…

Or: my journey to Cernunnos.

Horned One by Marjolijn Ashara. A fallen tree looking like a cloaked, horned figure in the distance.

I discovered witchcraft and paganism in the late ’90s, early ’00s. Our household didn’t have internet yet (gasp! I know!) so all I had available to me were books and the computer in the school library. Back then the only books we could get, especially here in the Netherlands, were wiccan. Wheel of the Year, God and Goddess, circle of protection, wiccan rede, the whole shebang.

The Lord and Lady. I found the idea of that duality fascinating. (Not so much anymore, but that is for a different post) I didn’t come from a Christian background and the times that I’d been to church had been overall a pleasant experience, though not for me. So I didn’t have a problem with a male deity in my path. And, on the other hand, while I found the idea of a female deity empowering and logical, I didn’t have the feminist revelation that most other Goddess-worshippers seemed to have. (That has also changed quite a bit) So for me it was logical. A man and woman, mother and father, who together create all life. Sure, their progression through the wheel of the year seems a bit wonkey, but that’s minor hiccup, right? (Oh how times have changed)

I named my God Cernunnos, the Horned One, Lord of the Wild. And the antlered figure was something that I was very drawn to. The untamed, the wildness of nature, all things that called to me. The Goddess changed for me, many times, but Cernunnos stayed.

the Horned One on my altar

Then, I started learning. I learned that the Lord and Lady were actually supposed to be named Gods, but probably not Cernunnos, but Pan. I learned that we didn’t know anything about Cernunnos, except for the pillar where his name appeared on once, and that’s it. I learned that the aspects that wicca had placed on him: masculinity, virility, sexuality, the forest and woodlands, were not per se for Cernunnos at all. Instead they were for this Horned One, who might be Pan, but who had become this melting pot of all antlered and horned deities who were tied to nature.

But then who had I been calling upon? Who had I been talking to and who had I seen in meditation after meditation? I stepped away from the name Cernunnos, found it not fitting. I didn’t read further into His lore either. My mistake. It also bothered me that everyone seemed to have this Horned One as their male deity. Did I then really have a bond with this deity, or was it just because it was what’s done? Did I even want a bond with a God that allll the other pagans and witches worshipped? (I had a bit of a problem with “popular things”) I started doubting the experiences that I’d had. My second mistake.

My path changed and changed again. I became an atheist secular witch, not believing in the Gods at all. Later I began to see them as Jungian Archetypes, as aspects of myself that I drew to the front when I called upon the Gods. But neither felt right. I realized that even though my logic was saying that they couldn’t be real, that they couldn’t have influence on this reality, our reality, that my heart didn’t care. I believed again. I found two Goddesses whom I am both devoted to; Nehalennia and Baduhenna. I reconnected with whom I had called Horned One for years and restated my devotion to Him as well.

The fact that the Horned One remained nameless started to grate. I had names and titles for my Goddesses, but not for Him. I also had finally truly disconnected Him from the wiccan version of the Lord. This after doing quite a bit of shadow work on, amongst other things my wiccan roots, and gender and deity. The realisation that masculine- and feminine energy meant nothing when talking about deity. That even though the Horned One was a sexual creature, sexuality and masculinity were not the things that I, personally, associated Him with. (Again, this is for a different post) So I started looking into antlered deities again.

Cernunnos by Iren Horrors

I came upon Cernunnos, of course, but this time I stayed. I read and listened. I learned about who He might have been, what the scholars and historians think based upon His imagery. What other pagans, those not so influenced by the dogma of duality thought of Him. And I read. And I read it again and again until finally that one thing registered in my brain.

Cernunnos, meaning “Horned One”.

I reached out to Him, my antlered Lord of the wildness and hunt. “I’ve been calling you by this name the whole time, haven’t I?”
“Yes. It doesn’t matter in what language you say it, I’ve always heard you.”

And so He is named once again. Cernunnos. But not after the masculine half of the wiccan duality. Instead after the ancient, antlered God that has been worshipped by many, many names all over the continent, if not the world. The Gaulish Cernunnos with the horned serpent and torc. God of the forest and the hunt, Dweller in the liminal, Lord of animals and the chthonic roots. And so He is named…