Watch: Liberation, Social Justice, and Esotericism

Just a quick update: If you enjoy this newsletter, you should check out this great conversation I had with the folks over at Talk Gnosis about Western esotericism, liberation theology, and social justice, and, if you like what you hear, consider getting a copy of my book, which host Jonathan Stewart calls “probably the most important book on esotericism at least in this decade.”

Thanks to Jonathan and Tony Silvia for having me as a guest, and to Jonathan for the exceptional blurb! Click here to watch.

Is witchcraft the spiritual practice of the oppressed?

And are "witchcraft" and "occultism" politically opposed?

I read an interesting piece today in Frieze, an art magazine, on the “The Return of the Witch in Contemporary Culture.” In general, this piece is not too different from the many, many thinkpieces on the revival of interest in either witchcraft or the occult in modern culture, just a bit more concentrated on witchcraft’s recent appearances in the contemporary art scene. One quote in particular stuck out to me for being both provocative, and obviously included by someone who is not really a part of the modern occult scene:

‘The visibility of witchcraft today has its roots in long histories of oppression and instability,’ explains artist Hestia Peppe, currently researching for a practice-based PhD in divination as an expanded practice of reading at Sheffield Hallam. ‘Many are experiencing context collapse caused by war, climate change, massive digital noise, spectacle and algorithmic control. If agency and knowledge are withheld or obscured then you have to look for other ways to get them.’

Peppe makes an important distinction between two approaches to magic: ‘Witches’ magic is the wisdom and practice of oppressed peoples; the occult is the organized keeping of secrets by those in power’. Witches’ magic is embodied knowledge; occult magic is closer to black-box military technology. ‘It is naïve to simplify the politics of magic and overlook its use by fascists and white supremacists,’ says Peppe.

The first paragraph is a pretty common explanation of the political role and potential of witchcraft as a strategy for the oppressed. But I’m guessing most readers who are involved in the occult world would be a little perplexed by the second paragraph (while also maybe understanding the rhetorical move being made). For one thing, it really makes no sense to distinguish modern witchcraft from occultism, considering almost all the traditions of modern witchcraft emerged out of the occult revival of the nineteenth century, and the revival of that revival in the mid-twentieth century.

For example, Wicca could not exist as a tradition without the occult magic of groups like the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and Aleister Crowley’s Ordo Templi Orientis (and even without Freemasonry, for that matter). And many of the currents of “traditional witchcraft” today are even more explicitly aligned with various traditions of contemporary left-hand path or Luciferian occultism, especially when it comes to publishing houses (not to get too materialist in the analysis here…).

By mentioning the “organized keeping of secrets,” Peppe seems to be talking about esoteric initiatory societies; of course, traditional Wicca is one such society, as are many modern witch covens. Or perhaps she’s talking about the complex “technological” systems of magic that originated in the late medieval and early modern grimoires — but then there’s the fact that the grimoire tradition really gained steam after the invention of the printing press, becoming a global phenomenon of widely dispersed magical techniques and practices during the colonial era, including in spiritual traditions of the oppressed such as the Afro-Caribbean traditions that developed in the context of the Atlantic slave trade.

Really, folk magic — what is probably meant here by the term “witches’ magic” — has always intersected and blended with the so-called “high magic” of the occultists. And, as I’ve described in past newsletters, occultism has always included radical leftwing political perspectives.

This is without even getting into the association of occultism, especially branches like chaos magic, with the anarchist left, including by such luminaries as Alan Moore.

And this is without even getting into the fact that many oppressed peoples would seriously balk at their folk practices, even if they’re okay with the term magic, getting lumped in with “witchcraft.”

So the dichotomy quoted here breaks down on further inspection, and wouldn’t really pass muster in any study of Western esotericism.

Still, Peppe is onto something as a rhetorical flourish. It’s true that witchcraft, as a particular current within the modern occult revival, absolutely tends toward leftwing and progressive politics, and the article is right that this is likely because of the gender and sexual politics signified by witchcraft as both a belief system and as shorthand for a particular history of gendered oppression.

The distinction here being made between witchcraft as “embodied knowledge” and occultism as “black-box military technology” breaks down under scrutiny, but it serves a particular rhetorical purpose — witchcraft (as in the Margaret Murray kind) signifying here a mostly female, anti-patriarchal expression of folk knowledge vs. occultism signifying a mostly male, pseudo-scientific pursuit of hidden knowledge for the purposes of gaining and maintaining power (cf. Illuminati Masonic conspiracy theories). And no one can deny that there are many white supremacist, fascist, alt-right folks interested in Western esotericism, especially in the “traditionalist” school. See Dark Star Rising by Gary Lachman.

Still, I think even with the current witchcraft revival among many people who might self-identify as progressive — for example the Trump binders and the Kavanaugh hexers of The Resistance, who might see witchcraft as a shorthand for #MeToo or as an anti-authoritarian spiritual tradition, or, in a previous generation, the feminist Goddess movement of the 1970s or Starhawk’s Reclaiming tradition — the more common trend in all branches of the occult has been toward subculture and depoliticization rather than toward radicalization and organizing. This might be less true in the witchcraft community than in the non-witch occult community, but not enough to make any serious mark on social justice organizing in this country. Not yet.

Take one historical example of the tendency toward depoliticization that’s always been particularly frustrating to me. In Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches, by Charles Godrey Leland, one of the founding texts of the twentieth-century witchcraft revival (and here we will bracket any debates about the lack of authenticity of this text as actual evidence of a surviving European witch cult), Aradia is born from the union of the witch goddess Diana and the fallen angel Lucifer (!) in the context of the deep economic inequality and political oppression of feudal Catholic Europe:

In those days there were on earth many rich and many poor.

The rich made slaves of all the poor.

In those days were many slaves who were cruelly treated; in every palace tortures, in every castle prisoners.

Many slaves escaped. They fled to the country; thus they became thieves and evil folk. Instead of sleeping by night, they plotted escape and robbed their masters, and then slew them. So they dwelt in the mountains and forests as robbers and assassins, all to avoid slavery.

It is in this political and economic context that Diana gives her charge to Aradia:

And thou shalt be the first of witches known;
And thou shalt be the first of all i' the world;
And thou shalt teach the art of poisoning,
Of poisoning those who are great lords of all;
Yea, thou shalt make them die in their palaces;
And thou shalt bind the oppressor's soul (with power);
And when ye find a peasant who is rich,
Then ye shall teach the witch, your pupil, how
To ruin all his crops with tempests dire,
With lightning and with thunder (terrible),
And the hall and wind....

And when a priest shall do you injury
By his benedictions, ye shall do to him
Double the harm, and do it in the name
Of me, Diana, Queen of witches all!

Later, Aradia teaches a similar doctrine of political and economic resistance to her witch pupils, including the meaning of the witches’ sabbat:

Now when Aradia had been taught, taught to work all witchcraft, how to destroy the evil race (of oppressors) she (imparted it to her pupils) and said unto them:

When I shall have departed from this world,
Whenever ye have need of anything,
Once in the month, and when the moon is full,
Ye shall assemble in some desert place,
Or in a forest all together join
To adore the potent spirit of your queen,
My mother, great Diana. She who fain
Would learn all sorcery yet has not won
Its deepest secrets, them my mother will
Teach her, in truth all things as yet unknown.
And ye shall all be freed from slavery,
And so ye shall be free in everything;
And as the sign that ye are truly free,
Ye shall be naked in your rites, both men
And women also: this shall last until
The last of your oppressors shall be dead

This is an explicitly liberative tradition of (often violent) protest against the political and economic authorities of the day, taught specifically to the poor and dispossessed as a method of resistance, including a cultural strategy for organizing a kind of mass meeting (the monthly sabbat, which the text goes into more detail about in the following chapter).

Aradia was taken up by the mid-twentieth century witchcraft revival within the earliest texts and liturgies of Gardnerian Wicca, especially the Charge of the Goddess still used by many Wiccans and Wicca-influenced witch traditions. The most well-known version of the Charge is the Doreen Valiente prose Charge. Here are some of the passages directly inspired by Aradia:

Whenever ye have need of anything, once in a month, and better it be when the Moon be full, then ye shall assemble in some secret place and adore the spirit of me, who am Queen of all Witcheries.

There shall ye assemble, ye who are fain to learn all sorcery, yet have not yet won its deepest secrets: to these will I teach things that are yet unknown.

And ye shall be free from slavery; and as a sign that ye are really free, ye shall be naked in your rites; and ye shall dance, sing, feast, make music and love, all in my praise…

Valiente’s Charge is an evolution of Gerald Gardner’s version — itself equally inspired by Aradia and Aleister Crowley’s Gnostic Mass. The reference to being liberated from slavery remains, but in the context of the later passages — “if that which thou seekest thou findest not within thee, thou wilt never find it without thee,” for example — it becomes more of a reference to self-liberation or consciousness-raising than the class struggle of Aradia. There is no mention of any external class of political oppressors who should be destroyed by witchcraft (indeed, this would go against Wiccan ethics, the “Threefold Law”), and no mention of economic inequality at all.

The status of Aradia within the modern witchcraft community continues to be controversial, in part because of the historical authenticity issues (though I doubt there are more authenticity issues with Aradia than there are in any area of contemporary Paganism or occultism), but perhaps even more so due to its militant tone and heavy emphasis on cursing and poisoning one’s enemies.

Put more accurately, one is encouraged to curse and poison one’s class enemies — and this, I suspect, knowing the constant fear and confusion about class struggle in Anglo-American culture, is the real reason why the Aradia Charge of the Goddess has been passed up for its modern iterations. Modern witchcraft might still be largely politically progressive or heavily aligned with the anti-Trump Resistance (and, in these post-Wicca days, much more willing to cast binding spells on him and other right-wingers), but many middle class liberal-progressive Americans tend to be just as uncomfortable with class struggle as conservatives, and this includes witches.

We should change that. If any covens use Aradia as a basis for their working, let me know. I’d join.

Edit (12/7/18): Since writing this, a friend pointed me to the #WeAreAradia movement, which now has a book. This seems really cool and powerful, though I’d still like a coven that studies and uses the original Aradia material!

Are occultists winning the middle class?

Tonight I helped to co-teach a class at The People’s Forum in NYC on liberation theology and today’s movement to end poverty. I thought it was a very successful course, the second of three weekly sessions. Unlike the historically oriented ways liberation theology is taught at, say, Union Theological Seminary (my alma mater), we decided early on to teach liberation theology as an ongoing, living practice for us today — as something emerging through the struggles of the poor and dispossessed that are breaking out all over our country, including through the Poor People’s Campaign.

One question that came up toward the end of the class was how we could engage those on the other side, as in the reactionary conservative or Christian extremist side, with the radical, liberative interpretations of theology that we were going over in the class. I think the question was asked with some (understandable) skepticism that those folks would ever entertain the theological propositions that we had just presented.

One of our co-teachers responded in a really insightful way that, while we might never win over those people who are already on the far side of the spectrum toward conservative Christian nationalism, there is a great swath of the American public that is actually less clear and certain in their positions on these issues. These people have almost never been approached by so-called progressives with a moral narrative rooted in the Bible and theology that might actually appeal to them — these things having been ceded long ago to the Christian right.

In other words, the great middle strata of the American public is who we really need to reach, and they are potentially persuadable by our theology because their position in American society is currently very fluid. In a different, but related sphere, I think you can see a similar phenomenon at work in electoral districts that voted for Obama and then voted for Trump in the 2016 election (and might now be switching back to Democratic during and after the midterms). These people are not necessarily partisan or ideological. They’re just hurting, and looking for a place to turn. Reaching people like them is one of our tasks both in theological argument and movement-building.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of the middle class in our movement-building lately because it was a major theme in a recent publication by the Kairos Center — “A New and Unsettling Force”: The Leadership of the Poor by Willie Baptist and Dan Jones. I was part of a roundtable discussion about the essay and my responses are included at the bottom of the post. In this piece, Willie and Dan describe the role of the middle class in our movement-building in a really clear and insightful way:

Politicians in both major parties fight over who’s really representing the interests of the “middle class” and whose policies are going to “rebuild” it. Both parties, along with other religious and ideological leaders, work on behalf of the rich and powerful to keep the critical mass of the middle from going over to the poor and dispossessed.

On the other side, the poor — through their unity and organization — can win large sections of the middle. This is because most of them are as dispossessed as the poor. They too have no ownership or control over the economy or any security over their livelihood and life. Many in families with middle incomes have once in their lifetime experienced poverty and likely will again in the future. Many are just one paycheck or healthcare crisis away from the plight of the poor and homeless. They’re feeling increasingly insecure about their children’s future.

This is the major strategic significance we see in Rev. Dr. King’s idea for the Poor People’s Campaign. He saw that the poor could lead the rest of the nation through a much-needed “revolution of values,” but only if they could unite across color lines and all other lines of division . . .

Their class position means that the poor have the least stake, objectively, in the status quo. And their current poverty anticipates the impoverishment that is engulfing and threatening increasing sections of the masses of people, especially those in the so-called middle class who are dispossessed of any ownership and control of the economy. Because of this, the poor can and must lead the middle class and others into a clearer understanding of the causes of and solutions to their problems.

I summarize the points made here in my response to the essay by saying that “the middle class is really up for grabs. It can move in a direction where they continue to reinforce the Powers That Be or move towards the struggles of the poor. Where they go depends on whether the poor as a leading force is able to help that mass of people see their future and interests.”

There are 140 million poor or low-income people living in this country. That is nearly half of the population already living in poverty, or living one layoff, one healthcare crisis, or one hurricane away from poverty. We must win those people who previously thought of themselves as destined for the middle class, but who are now living paycheck-to-paycheck, away from acting as enforcers of the 1% and toward the struggles of the poor and dispossessed. Similarly (and I think it’s likely that there is a lot of overlap between these two groups, since both of them are huge), we must win that middle strata that is not fully invested in extremist Christian nationalism away from that reactionary religious expression toward more liberative interpretations of religion and theology.

How does all of this relate to occulture and the American mental terrain? As I said in the introductory post to this newsletter, there has been a contemporary revival of interest in occult and alternative religious ideasespecially among young people. I believe there is ample evidence to suggest that this revival is taking place especially among those in the middle class or formerly in the middle class. One Christian podcast gathered some statistics about this last year (in pursuit of converting this same middle strata of the population to traditional Christianity, rather than to a movement to end poverty). They summarized:

One in five people claim no religious affiliation (the highest since Gallup started polling over 80 years ago).  However, among those polled the same number of people who claim no religious affiliation believe in communication with the dead, witches and reincarnation. More than one in four believe in astrology and clairvoyance.  Approximately one in three believe in ghosts, haunted houses and telepathy. Some of this might smack of counter cultural preening, over-the-top shock movements. Yet this isn’t happening primarily amongst devotees of Tim Burton, Cure cover bands, or backwoods snake oil salesmen. The largest jump has occurred in the belief in witches, an increase of 12% primarily amongst college educated middle class caucasians.  

Though their purposes in writing their piece are very different from mine, I think their conclusions are accurate. They suggest that witchcraft and the occult are a “significant spiritual trend” and that while we have been told that “this is the least religious generation in American history . . . the rise in Occultism might suggest that we are turning a corner from crass materialism and reductionism to a belief that something is out there.”

The major difference in analysis I have to these folks is that they lack any sort of economic analysis. They think the rise in occult religious beliefs is simply because the godless, disenchanted modern world is spiritually deadening and unfulfilling for young people, which leads them to seek alternatives in the realm of occultism. This might be true. But I believe that it is the intense rise in economic inequality and economic anxieties, and the lack of any serious response to these realities on the part of the organized churches, that has caused so many middle class people to seek alternative religious beliefs.

These are the people who, due to their privilege (frequently white privilege) and education, would have expected to easily enter the middle class and upward mobility after graduating from college. For many people (and disproportionally for people of color, though by the numbers there are many more poor white people in this country than poor people of color) this is no longer the reality — insecure employment, debt, a lack of healthcare, and living one emergency away from poverty are more realistic. Many people I know who went to my little radical liberal arts college in Manhattan are facing this reality now.

These are also the same kids who are most likely to be drawn to occult and alternative religious beliefs as an expression of their search for meaning in a world that seems increasingly hostile and meaningless. Occultism and alternative religions have always particularly appealed to the spiritual anomie of the American middle class. The occult industry has always found ways to capitalize on this fact. As this extensive critique of the contemporary neopagan scene points out (and there are many things to talk about regarding this piece, but I’m just focusing on one of them right now), “Neopagans are largely consumers to a capitalist industry they are unaware they’re a part of.” In fact, the “metaphysical/new age industry is worth well over 10 billion a year right now,” including publishing giants like Llewellyn, whose books are available in any suburban Barnes & Noble.

I’m venturing a guess here that the spiritually adventurous millennials who are suffering from massive debt, a lack of healthcare, and underemployment today might have been some of the same middle class kids who maybe enjoyed going to Barnes & Noble more than anything else in high school, and might have already read a few popular occult books or books on Wicca during their Buffy the Vampire Slayer phases (if you can’t tell, I’m talking about myself here).

This is just one segment of the middle strata of the American population, but it a growing one and one I can’t deny makes up a disproportionate number of young people who I went college with and hung out with in Brooklyn bars during my twenties. If these people are being targeted for conversion by that Christian dudebro podcast I cited earlier, and by a multi-billion dollar mainstream publishing industry, we might also want to pay some attention to them as a potential population that could either move toward their traditional role of being enforcers for the economic and political status quo, or for being potential members of a broad movement of the poor and dispossessed. After all, many of them are already members of what we mean when those of us in the Poor People’s Campaign talk about the poor — people who are living in poverty or one emergency away from living in poverty.

And that brings me full circle to how this relates to the theme of this newsletter — providing a vision of occultism that actually moves people toward the struggles of the dispossessed rather than toward the Powers That Be. If occult and alternative religious beliefs are a major part of the mental terrain of a large portion of the middle strata of the American public, especially its younger members (and I think the evidence points to this being the case), then this is another ideological battleground that those of us who are dedicated to winning these people over to the movement must enter, just like we must in engage in the battle for the Bible. Using the same mainline Protestant Christian religious language we usually use will probably not work for these people. We must broaden our theological and spiritual arsenals. Rather than a battle for the Bible, this is a magical battle.

Occulture, politics, and the American mental terrain

Join us, children of the sabbatic goat...

Hi all. My name is Nic Laccetti. I’m a practicing occultist, an esotericist, and a theologian. I’m the author of The Inner Church is the Hope of the World: Western Esotericism as a Theology of Liberation (Resource Publications, 2018). You might know my writings on occultism from publications such as Patheos, my personal blog The Light Invisible, or at the Rosicrucian Tradition group blog (and its very active Facebook group). Alternatively, you might also know me through the Kairos Center or from us organizing with the Poor People’s Campaign together. If the latter, this newsletter might require some additional explanation.

What is “The Baphometic Left”?

To be honest, I don’t have a strong identification with the word “left,” even though I’m on it. But I thought a strongly-worded title that might terrify reactionary conservatives by confirming their wildest conspiracy theories, while parodying some of the constant think pieces revisioning left politics would be a good title. Other title options included “The People’s Baphomet,” the “The Baphometic Turn,” or “The Baphomet Option.” I should still publish something called that last one.

Really, this newsletter, along with my recent book, draws together my work in movement building with my interests in popular religion and the occult. It aims to answer a number of questions: From the perspective of building a broad social movement, what is the meaning of the contemporary interest in occult and alternative religious ideas, especially among young people and those who would formerly be destined to be a part of the middle class? How can this occult revival, its narratives and its imagery, be moved toward the struggles of the dispossessed, rather than toward neo-fascist movements on the so-called alt-right? Why is there an abiding interest in the occult and in esoteric beliefs even or especially among the young organizers of our social justice movements today? (And do you know any organizers who don’t check their horoscopes?)

My perspective here is not disinterested, but dedicated to the idea that building a broad and powerful movement led by the poor and dispossessed as a social force is the only way we will be able to transform the unjust economic and political structures of our society, to end poverty, racism, militarism, and ecological destruction forever. In the Poor People’s Campaign, we constantly reiterate that we are rooted in a moral analysis based on our deepest religious values that demand justice for all. We just don’t usually talk about the weirder iterations of those deep religious values, even though they have always been a part of American culture and even though they are gaining more and more popularity today as opposed to traditional Christianity and organized religion.

Why the Baphomet?

The Baphomet has been in the news a lot over the past few years, in large part due to the antics of the Temple of Satan. Just this past week, the Temple announced it was suing Netflix over the streaming video company’s use of the ToS’ version of the Baphomet statue (notably not androgynous, like Lévi’s original image, and including the depiction of two little children). Netflix prominently displayed the statue in the witches’ school of its recent TV show, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, which unfortunately did not include a talking cat but was, I thought, a fun horror dramedy that included a lot of allusions to the recent popularity of Luciferian traditional witchcraft. Of course, the Temple of Satan is not Luciferian, nor does it actually believe in Satan. (As an aside, most traditional witches I know really liked the show, and spent more time cataloguing its Latin spells than worrying about its use of the Baphomet image.)

The Baphomet, as most occultists know, is not actually a symbol of Satan or even of Lucifer. Eliphas Lévi, the founder of what we today know as popular “occultism,” designed the Baphomet image as a representation of his doctrine of the Astral Light.

More importantly, Lévi scholar Julian Strube has explained how the Baphomet, for Lévi, actually acted as “the embodiment of a politically connoted tradition of ‘true religion’ which would realize a synthesis of religion, science, and politics” — an emblem of “a long tradition of revolutionary heretics” in religion and politics stretching from the ancient Gnostics, to the Knights Templar, to the sabbats of early modern witches, to Lévi’s own nineteenth-century tradition of French radical socialism. The Baphomet is not Satan. But it might be a communist.

This newsletter is written in the hopes of reviving that long, semi-legendary, but also vibrant and clearly still-resonant “tradition of revolutionary heretics” that Lévi originally meant to signify with the Baphomet image, committed to an explicit program of radical social transformation.

What will be in this newsletter?

Semi-regular, informal updates on occultism & politics in American culture, reflections on the meaning of the occult revival from the perspective of working daily in contemporary movements for social change, and liberative interpretations of weird religious beliefs and American occulture. Plus links to longer-form writing on all of these things, to important pieces on occultism and esotericism from others in the community, and to writings on social movements, especially the #PoorPeoplesCampaign.

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