Slate contributor Lee Ann Kinkade was online on Washingtonpost.com to chat with readers about her Wiccan faith and the hassles of trying to organize a coven for Halloween. An unedited transcript of the chat follows.
Lee Ann Kinkade: Good Samhain or Happy Halloween, whichever you prefer. I’m looking forward to our conversation.
Little Rock, Ark.: Merry met! First of all, thank you so much for your wisdom and honesty in your Slate article. Second of all—well, I could use a bit of advice. When I was a graduate student, I began to question and to seek out that path that goes beyond myself, with the help of my roommate, my dear wise pagan sister Maggie. A year later, we both ended up leaving school (we were both horn performance majors, and had performance injuries within six months of each other), and for now are relegated to long talks on the phone, and visits whenever I can afford the plane fare to Seattle.
That “perfect love and perfect trust” makes me think of what I would love to share and celebrate—but I’m not sure how, especially that I’m so far away from my mentor and teacher. I feel adrift, particularly now that my eyes have been opened, and I’m stuck in this … less-than-open-minded part of the country. There’s still so much that I don’t know, and yet, don’t know where to begin. Might you have any advice for a stranded traveler?
Lee Ann Kinkade: Hi Little Rock.
As with any relationship, a magical working relationship is a precious and fragile thing. I appreciate your frustration with a long distance partnership. Many people don’t find anyone they can work with at all. Since you have someone whose guidance has been important to you, I would encourage you to foster that relationship through whatever paths are open to you.
I know that when I was beginning to take my own practice more seriously, I felt that there was so much to learn and so few to teach me that I was going to be relegated to half a practice, at best. I would encourage patience. Uncertainty seems to be a component of most faiths. Ours is no exception.
Quakertown, Pa.: Is your ceremony in a public place or private? Are you ever fearful of protesters or other interlopers? Rule-by-committee seems a fair-minded, but chaos-inviting, way of deciding things. In my community, whichever high priest or priestess is running the sabbat gets to call the shots on their ceremony. The more direct participants (elements, readings, great rite, etc.) are invited/appointed by the high priest(ess). We do have our own share of politics, but that is unavoidable in any community.
Lee Ann Kinkade: I have always been fortunate to have private lands on which to practice. Protesters are less of a problem than badly behaved pets. My working partners’ dog has an ill-timed interest in cakes and ale.
I have visited covens whose organizational structure is more closely aligned with the community you describe. I have always been fairly committed to having as little hierarchy as possible. Although, believe me, I see the appeal of a more structured planning process.
Anonymous: I know this question may come across as naive and insensitive, as no one ever asks if any Catholic also attends Jewish services, although such a thing has been known to happen, yet: are there Wiccans who attend services of other religions, or are most Wiccas purely Wiccan in their devotion? I ask because I wonder if there is any cross-identification among religions among Wiccans, or maybe not. That’s why I ask.
Lee Ann Kinkade: I cringe at the thought of the reaction I would get if I presumed to speak for most Wiccans. But I like your question. One of the fun things about pantheism is that I cross-identity on any given Thursday. The above isn’t true for all witches I know but I really think they are missing some of the fun.
jmbusse: I understand the frustration of bringing a group of people together to agree on—not just an end, also a means to an end—but isn’t it always so, no matter if the group is comprised of witches or Christians? Let’s not sensationalize this aspect unduly. Samhain is a great time to celebrate, but my real concern is how much it has been commercialized. What are Christians actually doing on this day? Why are small girls buying sexy witch costumes? It is not the pagans who are directing this—the market, and yes, parents are making this happen. I would like to reclaim the holiday as a time for remembering ancestors—the veil is thin between the living and dead, but this should not be frightening, it should be uplifting. We need to honor our lost loved ones. Wearing a batman costume or a princess costume does not do this.
Lee Ann Kinkade: Actually, rather than sensationalizing the conflict inherit in ritual planning, what I was hoping to do with this piece was to focus on the ordinariness of Pagan experience.
It seems like there’s a high level of mystification around witchcraft. For many of us, it simply feels like home.
As for what Christians are doing, I think you should ask them.
Anse: A proper religion would make a claim on Truth. I think that’s the turn-off for me when it comes to paganism, really. This whole do-your-own-thing-and-never-judge-anybody-else approach to spirituality is pretty superficial. If you think your own brand of faith is true, wouldn’t you strive to make that claim in a public forum?
This is not about condemning nonbelievers or whatever. Buddhists and Hindus don’t really do that (the whole karma thing carries some punishment aspect, I guess, but reincarnation isn’t exactly the same as hellfire and eternal damnation, is it?), yet a Buddhist probably will tell you the only way to find true peace is to follow the path of the Buddha. That is itself a claim on truth. Modern pagans celebrate this aspect of their “religion,” but this is why it seems so silly to the rest of us, at least for me.
Lee Ann Kinkade: The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.
I don’t want to get all how-many-metaphors-can-dance-on-the-head-of-a-pin but spirituality is concerned, I am a finite being contemplating the infinite. It seems like any claims I make to Truth should be suspected of hubris and bad taste.
Thppt : Forgive my ignorance, but I have a question concerning Wiccan vegans. Wicca, if I understand correctly is supposed to be a nature-based belief system. In nature one animal consumes another animal with regularity; so it would seem that we humans as omnivores by nature would be expected to consume meat as is natural. So I would wonder if there is a vegan Wicca who could explain to an ignorant Christian raised agnostic how being a vegan fits into their beliefs? Just curious.
Lee Ann Kinkade: Ummm … steak.
The debate around food preferences and ethics must rage without my participation.
Anonymous: Is the Samhain ritual viewed as something sacred, i.e., this is a commandment that is shall be performed, or do you see it more as something that is good for bolstering the spirits of the participants? What do you view as the reasons why it is performed?
Lee Ann Kinkade: We’re not big on commandments where I’m from.
I see bolstering the spirits of the participants as a sacred act. It seems to be one that crosses a lot of cultural barriers and is one of the functions of most holidays, including Samhain.
I practice ritual because doing so allows me to move through the world in a way that’s meaningful—something I suspect in common with those participante in other religious ceremonies.
For jmbusse: Okay, I am a Christian. Today isn’t really the day slated for Christians to commemorate their departed loved ones. That’s All Souls’ Day, Nov. 2, also called the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed. On years like this one, when Nov. 2 falls on a Sunday, All Souls’ Day sometimes is celebrated on the next day so that All Saints’ Day (November 1) can be celebrated on Sunday. So what I am doing today is getting home early to be able to greet any neighborhood kids who come by trick-or-treating. I will be focusing on the departed this coming Monday evening, at the All Souls mass at my Episcopal church.
Lee Ann Kinkade: There’s nothing I love better than a thoughtful answer to a rhetorical question.
It seems like your plans for this time of the year—creating carnival for children and honoring your dead—are very similar to mine. With you in spirit.
Milwaukee: I think your article was interesting, and certainly gave an “insiders” view of planning and participating in an eclectic Wiccan context, but I worry that it gives the impression that there can be no structure or order to Wicca. Within the more formal traditions (Gardnerian, etc) there certainly is quite a bit more in the way of a unifying set of practices and beliefs. I wish you could have touched on this fact. Also, why the variant spelling on Samhain?
Lee Ann Kinkade: Other Pagan traditions do have more structure. I have never felt any visceral connection to them. I did not intentionally neglect them, little experience yields little copy.
tbunni331: I really enjoyed this article. I and my fellow local pagans (Salem, Ore., area) always have referred to any organizing duty as “herding cats.” How much more apt is the phrasiology here! Very few of my pagan friends belong to covens—we are all basically “solitary”—even though we celebrate and mourn together as friends. So, no hierachy, no “leaders”—a great recipe for disaster, except that somehow, some way, it always works out. To all my non-pagan friends, Happy Halloween. To all my fellow pagans—good luck—it’s Samhain! Blessed Be!
Lee Ann Kinkade: I love our large, disorganized Pagan family.
New York: There are obvious elements of paganism in Christianity (Christmas Tree, Easter Eggs, etc.), and this irks some religious people. Are there elements of Christianity that have seeped into paganism, and does this irk any of the orthodox pagans?
Lee Ann Kinkade: Actually, I noticed that fundamentalists of both brands, Pagan and Christian, wish to segregate their symbols: you get the Cross, we get the Easter Eggs. The fact that attempts to do so have failed abysmally strikes me as a sign of a healthy multi-culturism.
Everybody’s gotta be irked by something.
Boston: How protected from “witchcraft” did the ceremony at Sarah Palin’s church leave her?
Lee Ann Kinkade: Well I haven’t successfully turned her into a Newt.
Nick_Danger : Nice to know the same kind of bull goes on backstage for the Wiccans as it does for the other religions.
Lee Ann Kinkade: Always happy to air the (tie-dyed) dirty laundry.
iscandara: You had me in stitches. I especially cracked up with the part when it rained and then a crack, hiss of beer. I’ve been there, and I’ve seen the awkward moments, people who barely know each other holding hands, the wind kicking over an altar (that wasn’t properly set to the ground) and the giggles when calling a deity into a person’s body. It’s embarassing how little I knew until I began practicing with others, but then it’s all a matter of perspective. I’ve felt such a strong connection since I’ve renewed my contact with others that it is moving. Blessed be!
Lee Ann Kinkade: Love it or hate it, witchcraft is a warts and all religion.
Philadelphia: Since there is no real doctrine, how were even the basics of the rituals, like casting a circle, established?
Lee Ann Kinkade: It depends how you define real doctrine. Most Pagans I know follow a fairly similar ritual schematic for calling the directions, casting a circle, and invoking deities. It was popularized by the neo-pagan movement in the 1960s. I would love to be able to tell you more about the origins of these traditions, but one of the problems of being raised Pagan is how little I question these things. I wasn’t aware I had as many assumptions as I do until I started working on this article.
Personally, intuition and inspiration have as a large a role as tradition in my practice. Doctrine is a largely interior affair prone to all the attenant errors, I’m afraid.
BoneDaddy: FamTrad is bull. No, really. I’ve yet to run into anyone with a plausible FamTrad story, and all of them eventually devolve into fabulism about burning times and Cotton Mather and the gods only know who else, and it’s all puffery. I’ve known a second generation witch—whoop-ti-do! It’s a Trad in her little Fam, but it’s hardly a reason to get one’s nose in the air.
In short, unless your last name is Leland or Waite or Levi or Fortune or even Blavatsky, I probably won’t believe your claim to be a sixth-generation witch, and deep down neither will you. And it isn’t important. No one cares who your great grandmother was, we care about who you are and what you have done and how you live and the faith you practice yourself. This should be obvious to any vaguely spiritually healthy person. Vaguely spiritually healthy people don’t usually need to resort to their family tree as a form of back up for their religious credentials. And finally, only a twit spells magic with a k on the end.
Lee Ann Kinkade: I don’t know, it’s hard to prove a negative. In order to declare Fam-Trad invalid, I’d have to meet every Pagan in the world and inspect their family tree.
I absolutely adore the term puffery.
Lee Ann Kinkade: Thanks, everybody. Your questions were wonderful. I hope you enjoyed this as much as I did. Happy Halloween, Samhain (however you want to spell it) and All Soul’s Eve!