Reflections on Mysticism, Language, and Shifting Identity

(To anyone who reads this post: Do me a favor and read it through to the end. The tone changes considerably over the course of twenty-nine hundred words.)

Tarot is not Wiccan.

Tarot is not Wiccan.

Say it with me one more time for luck, kids. Tarot. Is not. Wiccan.

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This is something I’ve been thinking about for a very long time. In my previous post, I mentioned briefly that I think of occultism as a language, and I think that analogy is quite apt.* Esoteric systems (and religious philosophies more generally) consist of sets of symbols that correspond to phenomena in our actual world. We use these symbols to interpret the world around us and to communicate our interpretations to each other. These symbols can also be used performatively, to try to get other people (or more generally, the external world) to do the things we want.

Each language, and each occult system, has a different flavor to it, a different feel. French is extremely nasal; German is extremely guttural. Tarot is grounded in a Western archetypal framework structured largely around the four classical elements, Western astrology and alchemy, and symbols associated with late medieval court life in southern Europe; feng shui (does that need to be capitalized?) is grounded in an Eastern philosophy that differs from the roots of Tarot in almost every respect.

And like languages, different types of esoterica branch into each other, influence each other, share similarities and can be grouped into families. English is a child of Latin.** And although speaking English can help with some simple cognates to Latin (any enlightened human can tell you what terra firma is), speaking English is not the same thing as speaking Latin. Nor is the language of the Caesars an all-access pass to being able to read Milton. The two are different.

The same is true of Tarot and Wicca. Tarot is an esoteric language–in my opinion, it’s the esoteric language, the one that transcends and encompasses all others–and so is Wicca. Wicca is the English to Tarot’s Latin, a metaphysical language that was largely the product of the symbols used by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and a variety of other ceremonial magicians that came before good ol’ Mathers. But like English, it also contains traits of other “languages” that are generally considered less high-brow, forms of English folklore and low magic as the brutish German complement to the fancy Latin high magic of the Golden Dawn. The two have quite a bit in common: most notably, they share a boatload of elemental symbolism, and the main elemental tools of Wicca correspond roughly to the suits of the Minor Arcana in Tarot.

But as with English and Latin, there are as many differences as there are similarities. The elemental correspondences of Wands and Swords are swapped in Wicca, and Wiccan theology is heavily focused on a gendered form of dualism that’s largely absent in Tarot symbology. Esoteric Tarot, because it’s constructed in a system of Western Hermeticism, incorporates an almost exclusively Christian theology and a hierarchy of angels, demons, and spirits that is nowhere to be found in a Wiccan circle.

In other words, Tarot is not Wiccan.

Why do I go on such a prolonged rant? Two reasons. The first is that a lot of Wiccans use Tarot, seemingly without realizing that it’s a tool that predates*** and exists separately from their religion.

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Supernatural is a dumb TV show, but I love it.

It doesn’t surprise me at all that Wiccans use Tarot. Like I said, I think Tarot is pretty much the end-all and be-all of Western occultism, and certainly of divinatory practices. Wiccans practice divination. It’s an essential part of the way their religion is structured. And if they’re going to divine, they’d damned well better be using the best tool available. (I was deeply upset once when I met a Wiccan High Priest who told me he’s “just not all that into Tarot”.) But I think it’s important to acknowledge where things come from. Wicca (and I acknowledge that in this instance, I’m speaking about Wicca as if it were some unified, centralized hegemon, which obviously it’s not; there are, of course, glaring exceptions to my generalization) has a bit of a tendency to rewrite history.

Wicca gets a lot of hate for this, and I think that hate is overplayed. I’ve seen and heard a lot of people complaining about Wiccans who claim that their religion is an unbroken survival of The Old Religion, but to be fair, I’ve never actually met a Wiccan who made that claim. Nevertheless, there is a bit of an atavistic tendency to blur the edges around Wiccan history, and Tarot gets caught up in this blurring. Almost all of the Wiccans I’ve ever met have spoken as if Tarot was an offshoot of Wicca, and as if Tarot symbolism was derived from Wiccan ideas rather than (in the sense of the Golden Dawn’s influence on early Wicca) the other way around. I think that attitude is a mistake, and it blocks people off from exploring the history of Tarot and the variety of influences that shaped the creation of this wicked pack of cards.

(Speaking of which, A Wicked Pack of Cards and any other book by Michael Dummett are excellent resources on Tarot history. Not only on the Golden Dawn, but also on everything that came before.)

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A small space I set up on my windowsill for the recent summer solstice. You can see my athame on the left, my ritual cup, the pentacle I currently wear, and the wand lifted from my Tarot altar (because no self-respecting altar is wandless). Man-and-woman candles picked up from the Santeria shop around the corner from my apartment. An offering of flowers, a sprinkling of dill and chamomile, and you’ve got yourself a fancy-looking window dressing.

My second reason for this post is more personal. It has to do with my own fricking religious outlook.

Any of you who are familiar with this blog (likely most of you) know that I have a sticky relationship with religion. I was raised in an aggressively areligious household, and I myself am a pretty hardcore atheist. But I also desperately need religion, myth, what-have-you in my life. That’s why I have a Tarot altar and something resembling a devotional polytheistic religious practice with my Tarot cards. I use Tarot, which I find deeply meaningful, to fuel that part of myself that needs religious/metaphysical/mystical discourse.

I think I’ve also mentioned before that I have a million and one issues with Wicca. There are some things about the religion that confuse and frustrate me (not least of which is that stupid fricking Wand/Sword elemental switch). But for everything that puts me off about Wicca, there’s something else that pulls me in. Slowly–very slowly–I have been coming to realize that some deep, deep, Freudian-tell-me-about-your-mother part of me is attracted to Wicca in a primal sort of way that I just can’t explain. (We’re talking limbic brain function, here.)

Since about the beginning of the year, I’ve been studying with a group of Gardnerian Wiccans near to me, and I absolutely love it. It inspires me. It fills me with wonder and joy. It feels right. And I am finally coming to admit to myself, no holds barred, that I really want to be Wiccan. (Moreover, I really want to be a Gardnerian Wiccan specifically. But we’ll not get too much into Wicca politics here.)

And that is an unpleasant and uncomfortable thing for an atheist to realize about himself. Especially as rabid an atheist as I am. (Was? I’ll get to that in a moment. We’re going to coin a phrase together.)

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A more elaborate altar setup. I had the apartment to myself that night and could actually clear out the space for a full Wiccan circle, with quarter candles and all.

It’s also unpleasant because, in a way, I already have a religion. Or a spirituality, or whatever the hell we want to call it. I have the devotions I do with my Tarot cards. (For anyone who remembers my post on the work I’m doing with Temperance, it’s still going, and dear gods, is it frustrating. The shape of that work has changed enormously over the past couple of months, and now has to do with me learning how to be empathetic and care about other people’s suffering–which has never been one of my strong suits.)

And because, as we’ve discussed, Tarot is not Wiccan, I wasn’t really sure if I could blend those two religious practices. I wasn’t sure if bringing a Tarot pack into a Wiccan circle would somehow devalue the work I do with Tarot independently, or whether I would be able to rip my mind out of all the Kabbalistic structures I’ve gotten used to and habituate myself to a less intellectualized hoobedy-hoobedy. To revert to our linguistic metaphor, I wasn’t sure if learning English would require me to give up Latin.

As it turns out, it has not.

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I’m not sure if I’ve spoken in great detail about some of the more personal work I do with the Tarot. I’m inclined to think I haven’t. So here’s a bit of a shakedown. In addition to making small offerings and twice-daily invocations and prayers, I also do pathworking. This is not a terribly uncommon practice in the Tarot world; essentially, it involves a practitioner mentally stepping into a Tarot card and conversing with the figures therein. You go have a conversation with the young lady in the Strength card and ask her how she tamed a lion–and if you’re doing it right, she’ll talk back to you and give you answers that surprise you. It will feel like your conscious mind is not responsible for the things that other figures in a Tarot pathworking say and do.

(For any of you who practice astral projection, the process is pretty much exactly the same.)

A couple of weeks ago, the Fool showed up unannounced. I hadn’t been planning to do a pathworking, but he was just… There. And he gave me a bit of a verbal beatdown. I’ll spare you all the details, but the general run of it was, “What the hell are you thinking? Of course you can put Tarot and Wicca together!” I was told in no uncertain terms not only that it was all fine and good to bring my two hoobedy-hoobedy practices together, but also that I was a complete idiot for having ever thought there was a conflict.

Go figure.

So, well… I’m Wiccan now. I mean, I’m Pagan, and I’m pursuing Wicca. I’m not a Gardnerian initiate, but I’m studying under a Gardnerian High Priestess and am hoping to be initiated somewhere down the line. I wear a pentacle under my shirt now (which you can see in the altar setups depicted above). And I’m even at a point where, if someone were to ask me point-blank what my religious affiliation is, I might actually say “I’m Pagan” instead of my usual “I’m not religious” party line. In short, I think Wicca is just the bee’s knees.

And that is so weird.

Because of course, being religious–and especially being Wiccan–is not super compatible with being an atheist. It’s possible, but it ain’t easy. I have sat in Wiccan circles and felt something that, subjectively, could only be described as the presence of the Wiccan gods (even though objectively, I could easily explain it away as the influence of alcohol, group excitement, and all that damned incense). I have experienced things that subjectively felt like magic (even though rationally, I can chalk them up to confirmation bias).

And while the hyperanalytical part of me wants to rationalize and categorize and explain everything away to nothingness, the religious limbic monkey-brain part of me just wants to have the experience. Especially because those experiences are proving more and more deeply meaningful to me. Monkey-brain Jack wants to tell Doctor Jekyll to just shut up and enjoy the crazed witch dancing. I can go through the experiences, and get spiritual value out of them, but when I keep halting myself and saying, “I felt that, too, but remember that I’m an atheist,” I lose the immediacy of those experiences. I lose the holy-crap-overwhelming-sense-of-the-immanent-divine that’s the reason I’m chasing Wicca in the first place.

So I’m sort of tabling my atheism for now. It’s not gone, and I don’t know that it ever will be. But for the purposes of all the Wiccan crap I’m doing now, and probably also for a lot of my Tarot stuff, too, I’m going to let the atheist snooze in the back of the lecture hall without really paying attention to what’s going on. I’m going to stop dissecting my mystical experiences (which means the atheist will definitely fail the lab component of whatever lecture course he’s taking) and just… Go for it.

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Sorry for the F-bomb. Normally, I try to avoid that on the blog, but I couldn’t resist.

For now, if I’m really hard-pressed by someone about whether I actually, literally, physically believe in the Wiccan gods I’m working with (and, because this is Wicca we’re talking about, whether I believe in magic), my answer will still be “no”. But unless the Spanish Inquisition comes looking for me, I’m going to tentatively call myself an “experiential theist”. (See? I told you we’d coin a phrase.) In other words, I’m allowing myself to have experiences with deity and magic and all that other crazy goop that Wiccans do (and that I seem to love), and I’m not questioning it to death. If I have an experience, I’ll acknowledge it as valid, work with it, and move on, but I won’t bother trying to explain it away. I’m going to stop with the obsessive, hand-wringing “yes-but” attitude that I had previously brought to all things occult.

After all, as the magnificent Gardnerians blog so eloquently put it in their most recent post, “How much logical sense does your witchcraft cosmology have to make in order for it to feel right for you? (The correct answer is none.)” I’m trying something new and branching out of the world of logical sense-making, into the world of feeling right. (Damn, but that’s scary.)

For the more theistically inclined among you, this probably seems like nothing at all, but I think the odd atheist in my readership will get just what a big deal this is to me. For a very long time, atheism has been a defining aspect of who I am, and although I’m not in any way ready to let go of it entirely, I’m getting serious enough about Wicca that that I’m willing to relax my chokehold on the atheist identity. I’m not sure where that’s going to end up taking me, but I can guarantee it will be somewhere new.

This has been a long, weird, rambly post. Sorry about that. I had a lot of swirling thoughts, and as is often the case, they didn’t form themselves into a linear narrative without a hell of a fight. I’m going to try to keep Wiccan crap off this blog for the most part; Jack of Wands is a Tarot blog, not a Wicca blog, and I want to keep it that way. Nevertheless, the work I’ve been doing in Wicca has been shifting my perceptions somewhat, and that has affected my work with Tarot, so I thought it merited at least this one post.

That’s always the way it is, isn’t it? In learning a second language, you gain new insight into your mother tongue, especially when the two languages are related. And by the time you get to language four or five, well, your mind is just about as open as it can be. Hopefully, one day, I’ll get to that stage of crazy metaphysical-linguistic openness, but for now, we’re doing things gradually.

For those of you who braved all 3,000-odd words, I applaud and thank you. For those of you who didn’t, well, you’re not reading this, so I guess it’s safe for me to say “up yours”. (I jest.) Next week, look for a return to more conventional Taroty stuff. I have another deck review in the works, and after that I think I’d like to spit out a spread or two. I’ll keep you posted. For now, I think that’s all she wrote.


*Moreover, just as I have an overwhelming desire to learn all human languages, I’m possessed by a fascination with all shiny metaphysical systems the universe has to offer. I taught myself the basics of geomancy a couple of weeks ago. And I spent almost the entirety of one of my days off work this week reading about Enochian and Goetic magic. Neither of those systems particularly grips me–Enochian magic has all the ugliness of a blatantly made-up system (screw you, John Dee) plus the added ick-factor of feeling like one is working with an abacus, and Goetia is too overtly demonic for my taste–but it was fun to read about them nonetheless. I was desperately tempted to buy half a dozen books on each subject, just for the intrigue of learning about something new.

**After Latin slept around with just about every other language on the European continent. We don’t really know who our linguistic daddy is, but we do know that our Special Uncle Germany was around quite a bit when we were growing up, and always sent a card on our birthday. But I’m slipping into a metaphor that, while entertaining, does not serve the point I’m trying to make. So I return you to the initial stream of consciousness.

***Someone will give me hell for this claim, I’m sure.

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23 thoughts on “Reflections on Mysticism, Language, and Shifting Identity

  1. As an atheist with a guilty love for dabbling in the esoteric (I blame the beautiful ritual of my Roman Catholic upbringing), the second half of this post really rings true for me! I ended up embracing the “yes-but” side of things, as I enjoy examining all the underlying workings of the brain and psychology and cognitive biases, and making them work for me. I’m currently exploring a rather different direction with chaos magick influences; the explicit condonation of adopting and abandoning paradigms as you need them is so freeing.

    Experiential theist is a great phrase.

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    1. Glad you enjoyed the post! Chaos magick doesn’t do it for me, largely because it focuses primarily on magic without the religious (i.e. theistic and communal) components that I crave. Personally (lover of structure that I am), I find a better fit in the more hierarchical, structured religious community I’ve found among Gardnerian Wiccans.

      Right now, I’m moving away from the “yes-but” and allowing myself to experience a tentative but straightforward “yes”. It’s something new and experimental, and (needless to say) extremely uncomfortable. But we’ll see how it goes!

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  2. Fun essay. Reading about your experience balancing the love for drama and mystery against skepticism and atheism made me think a lot about myself and what drew me to Satanism, an atheist religion which embraces the use of greater magic for the purpose of enacting a personal psychodrama but which also rejects belief in deity. I’ve found that it’s a great balancing point for me where I can still get, as you described it, the “limbic brain” satisfaction of ritual, mystery, and drama while still satisfying my intellectual brain.

    I especially enjoyed the way you talk about different religions and practices as languages. I’ve often talked with others about the very thing you described (“One of these things is not like the others”). An interesting follow-up post you might make – not that you have to do it! – could be an exploration of the way the authors of different Tarot decks communicate different things in said Tarot decks. RWS has become the standard, but there are authors making rather radical divergences from the known pattern. RWS vs Marseille vs Thoth comes to mind, but Motherpeace might also be included. And so on.

    At any rate, thanks for the fun essay – I loved it.

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    1. Satanism is fascinating. Obviously, it gets a bad rap in mainstream culture, which I suppose is to be expected when you choose to redefine as a positive symbol of individual autonomy the Satan-figure that (for most of the West) has historically been considered the embodiment of malice and evil. Nevertheless, it’s a really interesting non-theistic religious framework, and I wish there was more dialogue around it.

      Glad you enjoyed the discussion of religion as language. It’s an analogy I’ve had spinning around in my head for a while.

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      1. At the risk of self promotion, I blog from the intersection of Satanism and Tarot, and if you’ve got any spare time that can’t be filled with videos of funny cats or watching the UK implode, you’re welcome to check out my blog at lefthandtarot.blogspot.com. I love to swap readings with other readers, so if you’re ever in the mood you know where to find me. Your blogging’s great, looking forward to more of the same.

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  3. First off, congrats on your opening up to faith and spirituality. I firmly believe that a spiritual path, regardless of which it is, is a good path, and I find faith in any form to be very admirable. All the more so when a self-proclaimed atheist finds it. I know it’s not easy. So I applaud you.
    I also considered myself an atheist, once. But upon thinking about it, I realized that it takes as much faith to be confident that there is no “higher power” as it does to fully believe in one. I figured if I was going to have faith, I would be better off putting it into a positive rather than a negative, if that makes any sense.
    Of course, I still have many, many questions and concerns about faith, which I’ve written about in a post on your patron, the Hierophant. I wonder, how is your relationship with this card affected by this spiritual development, if at all?
    Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts. Great post.
    Oh, one more thing: English is a Germanic language at its roots, heavily influenced by Romantic language after the language itself was already in existence, albeit in a form we would scarce recognize as our own. To use a similar metaphor that you did, German (old German, that is) is the estranged birth father of English, and Latin is more akin to an adoptive uncle. But you know. Splitting hairs.

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    1. I’ve heard the “It takes as much faith to deny deity as to believe in it” argument before. Personally, I find it silly. Belief requires an active rejection of rationally consistent explanations of phenomena in order to facilitate a specific emotional experience. I’m at a point right now where I’m willing to do that dance (and I even feel it’s necessary for where I am in my life), but in no way does it require less faith than understanding the world without recourse to supernatural entities.

      (As you can see, I’m not willing to let go of the atheism just yet. Tabling it but not abandoning it.)

      Truth be told, my relationship to the Hierophant hasn’t been affected by my work in Wicca. In part, I think, because I relate to him in a way that really has very little to do with religion. I like the Hierophant because he represents order, knowledge, and tradition, and those concepts are far from exclusive to religious dogma. There’s certainly also an element of transcendence, of reaching for the eternal, but that has always been important to me. It’s not like I was completely uninterested in the Big Themes of human existence and then suddenly fell into the lap of religion when I started studying Wicca. My experiences are the same as they have been in the past; I’m just choosing to interpret those experiences through a different lens.

      You are, of course, right about the origins of the English language. I chose Latin primarily because it’s high-brow, and made a better analogy to the ceremonial magic of the GD.

      As always, thanks for reading, and for a thought-provoking comment. It’s always a pleasure.

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  4. Hmm. I don’t know about all that you said about belief. I don’t mean to imply that any -theism requires LESS belief than atheism. I don’t believe that. I just think that being an atheist requires AS MUCH belief.
    Think about it: science can neither prove or disprove the existence of a higher power (however you may wish to define that). Therefore, discussion about it does not belong in scientific circles. But there are things outside of science that science has no right to try to explain, as you are well aware. Art, music, mythology, and what-have-you (and I know there is a science of sound, and music is numbers applied to that, but there’s a soul to it that you can’t rationalize).
    So, if you grant all that, it stands to reason that to use science as grounds for absolutely not believing in something that cannot actually be disproven through science would require a certain amount of faith. A faith in science, perhaps, as the final word on everything. And faith placed in science is actually more fallible than faith placed elsewhere, because science can, and has, been proven wrong (and I hope you understand that I’m using the word “science” in the broadest possible way for simplicity here). The possibility of being proven wrong is integral to science. To have faith is to believe in that which can’t be proven wrong. From a scientific perspective, believing in something that can’t be proven wrong should more disconcerting than having faith in what can’t be proven “right”. The latter is just simple denial.
    Science has its place. But so do those mythic and archetypal yearnings that you’ve been talking about, and I think they can co-exist in this world without too much trouble if they’d both agree to stop stepping on each others’ toes. And I think you think that as well, otherwise what sense would you find in using a Tarot deck?
    And I understand that you’re just “tabling” atheism for the time being. From my perspective, though, it’s the simple act of accepting that there even just might be more out there that makes the difference. It’s the Leap of Faith, if you will. You’ve already done it. And that small thing was all I was congratulating you for, because it’s really not small at all in it implications.

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    1. There are unicorns in the South Pacific. Real, physical horses with goat hooves and big old spikes coming out through their skulls. They live on an island made of gumdrops and candy canes. The reason no one has ever encountered these unicorns is that their island is under a great blue dome that makes it invisible from space and shields it from radar detection. Any time a ship comes near the island, it (the island, that is) magically teleports away to another part of the ocean before anyone can notice it.

      I know these unicorns are real, because they communicate with me telepathically. I have a direct, personal experience of them, and that is sufficient proof that they exist in objective reality–especially because no one else can disprove my claim.

      Not being falsifiable does not in any way excuse an existential claim from the burden of proof. To claim that something exists, you have to provide a reason to believe in its existence. “You can’t prove otherwise” is not enough. Just as my non-falsifiable claim about the unicorns southeast of Fiji is absurd (unless I can actually demonstrate their existence), no claim about deity can reasonably extend beyond subjective experience and into a claim of external reality.

      Do the subjective experiences exist, and are they impactful? Of course. But they are limited to the individual and his or her personal encounters. That is why I’m choosing to call myself an experiential theist. I’m more than willing to have those experiences (and in truth, the unicorns do speak to me), but I think it’s a mistake to leap from “I had this experience and I’m going to roll with it” to “I had this experience so there is Something Else Out There”.

      Your analogy to music is an interesting one but not, I think, entirely appropriate. Claims about deity are, by nature, existential. No one has to posit the existence of music, though–its existence is demonstrable. I agree with you that the subjectivity of listening to music parallels religious experience, but in the former case, it’s a subjective response to something that is shown to exist. Existence precedes experience. In the latter case, the inverse is true. People claim, “I am having a subjective experience, and therefore I am going to posit the existence of this specific entity, which cannot be disproved, as the objective cause of that experience.” That jump is fallacious.

      I agree with you that mythic experience is vital. And as you can see, I embrace that experience. But I cannot agree with the broader worldview you present, nor with the idea that atheism requires as much belief as theism. In a question of whether or not something exists (i.e. whether we should believe in its existence), the burden of proof is always on the party claiming existence. Otherwise, our universe is full of unicorns and five-armed gnomes (they live in a cave system in Norway) and all other sorts of oddities that can never be disproven. The argument collapses into absurdity.

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      1. I think you misunderstand what it really is I’m trying to say, or perhaps I’m doing an inadequate job of communicating my thoughts.
        Concerning the subjectivity of religious experience, I agree with you. In fact, what I was trying to say was that, because of its inherent subjectivity, these things should not be discussed in scientific circles. It’s apples and oranges; but in my personal experience (which is something you may or may not identify with), it is through attempted scientific argument that people have tried to prove the superiority of their atheism. The irony of this is the blind faith they put in science as the be-all-end-all, believing that what their senses can perceive or what their minds can calculate is all there is to the world.
        Am I wrong to say that the possibility of being proven wrong is integral to science? Isn’t a hypothesis worthless if there is no way to disprove it, at least in theory? The very nature of religious faith, precisely because it cannot be proven or disproven, is contrary to scientific thought, and therefore science is no reason to be an atheist. You are an atheist because of what you choose to believe, even if what you believe is a void. Science and logic have nothing to do with it.

        In other words, to say god exists because it can’t be disproven is wrong, and there I agree with you, but it’s no more wrong than to say that god doesn’t exist because it can’t be proven. Proof has nothing to do with any of this, and yet it is proof that is always called upon by the atheists.

        Nor was I trying to say that there is a specific entity “out there” making us have these experiences. I don’t believe in any anthropomorphized deity, and I wasn’t trying to tell you that you should. I was only saying that, based on your own post, it seemed to me that you’d opened up for the POSSIBILITY of the existence of Something Else Out There, and considering your tabled atheism, I admired the fresh open-mindedness.

        You can prove the objective existence of music, but not explain in scientific terms the subjective experience. Well, I say that you can prove the existence of religious experience, as well. You said it yourself, it’s real. Whether or not a god is making us feel this way is irrelevant. Religion and spirituality do exist, and it can be demonstrated. Our experiences of them are subjective, just like those of music. You think I’m saying God, when I’m actually saying Religious Experience. I wasn’t very clear, but I don’t think I was completely in the wrong to make that analogy.

        Am I making any sense? If not, I apologize, because from where I’m sitting, it appears that we really are trying to say the same thing, but one of us just can’t convey. (yes, it’s me)

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  5. Fascinating post and thanks for sharing your spiritual journey. (And for weaving in linguistics, which makes a language nerd like me very happy!) Your altar is lovely! I’ll admit that I wasn’t quite sure of the relationship between Wicca and the Tarot and this essay definitely clarified a lot for me. Funnily enough, I’m sort of drawn to Wicca and then Druidism because I have a fascination with the modern and ancient Celtic influences. I have a strong desire to learn Gaelic (despite it probably not becoming useful for my career) and I keep a Celtic prayer book. Though recently I’ve been reading analyses of the Bible that have me rethinking polytheism and monotheism entirely. My brother, who’s sometimes atheistic, has a fascination with Egyptian mythology, especially Sun worship. Makes me glad that there’s so much freedom to explore diverse spiritual interests and have discussions about it, at least through the Internet.

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    1. Ah, the Irish language. Truly, ’tis beautiful, and if I had the time, I would love to learn it (even though it’s absolutely no use to me in this part of the world).

      If you’re interested in Druidism, there are two main organizations I’d recommend. The first (and the one I’m more familiar with) is the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids. They’re UK-based and they run (admittedly expensive) correspondence courses dealing with Celtic myth and Druidic cosmology. They also have groves all over the world for people who want to meet up with each other.

      The second is the ADF (which stands alternately for “A Druid Fellowship” and “Ar nDraiocht Fein”), which is US-based and was started by the highly influential Pagan Isaac Bonewits.

      Alternately, if you just want to read up on the mythology and aren’t really interested in joining a group, the Mabinogion is always lovely. I really want to go out drinking with Arawn.

      The relationship between Wicca and Tarot is certainly a matter of debate, and what I have in this post is just my opinion. What is certain is that, at the very least, Tarot predates the modern incarnations of Wicca. Some people may claim that Wicca has older roots, and that’s not a claim I can disprove, but Gerald Gardner (the man who publicized and arguably founded modern Wicca around the mid-twentieth century) admitted to having “reconstructed” a lot of witchcraft rituals based on the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and Aleister Crowley’s OTO. The magic of both organizations was heavily structured around Qabalistic symbolism and Tarot, although they also drew on other sources. Regardless, I think it is fair to claim that through them, Tarot was a significant influence on the shape of modern Wicca (even if some earlier version of Wicca had predated Tarot). But that’s my take.

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  6. (Tried this once, but it wouldn’t post, so trying again.) Coming in late here but just wanted to chime in. I, too, have traveled down the path from atheism to pretty serious adherent of a religion. The transition from atheist to Wiccan must even be weirder than atheist to Buddhist, but a lot of what you said in your post resonated with me. I still don’t believe in a god or gods, but I am quite devoted to a bodhisattva who I would consider my patron.

    There are many people in Asian traditions who pray to and worship this bodhisattva as if he were an entity that existed outside of themselves, and that’s cool. My experience, however, is the question of whether this bodhisattva exists in me as a symbol of qualities I would like to embody (the rationalist explanation) or whether he exists outside of me as some sort of demi-god, is actually irrelevant. To my rational mind, he will NEVER be real, but my reason is only one of my faculties and it coexists with other parts of me, like emotions and intuition, which say he is. And it’s really OK to abide fully in that paradox. That’s why my eyes tend to glaze over when people get into discussions about the real existence or provability of gods–to me, it just kind of misses the point and just shows the extent to which much Western religious discourse has devolved.

    My experience as a Buddhist has changed my relationship with atheism, though, as well as with Christianity (the religion I was raised with.) I have a lot more empathy with Christians now, as well as a lot more curiosity about mystical Christianity. I’ve also gained quite a few reservations about atheism. I mean, technically, I’m still an atheist, but I’ve grown quite tired of atheist dogma and tend to identify as a “non-theist” (literally means the same thing, but just doesn’t carry quite the same connotation.)

    Anyway, thank you for opening up to us about your experiences. I hope your journey into Wicca is very fruitful, healing, and enlightening. I suspect that over time you’ll discover the deeper reasons why Wicca feels right for you.

    Best,
    Emily

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  7. Hi! Loved the article. Loved the link. Screamed at the idea of English being presented as a Romance language, but then I read the German notation at the end and all is right with the world again 🙂 If you haven’t yet read Vivanne Crowley’s book “Wicca: The Old Religion in the New Millenium” you really should. She’s a professor of psychology at the University of London (or something like that) and it gives a great and detailed explanation about how someone can be atheist and a practicing Wiccan at the same time. I highly recommend it.

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    1. Ermergerd! Internet Pagan royalty read and commented favorably on something I wrote. I think I might tinkle with excitement.

      Thank you so much for the book recommendation. I’m aware of Crowley, but have never actually gotten around to reading her work. My HPS has a fairly extensive required reading list, so I’ll be sure to add this on.

      And I extend my sincerest apologies for the inaccurate linguistic grouping. Another reader commented on that as well. All I can say in my defense is that I know English is a Germanic language, but I was trying to orchestrate the analogy with Wicca and it seemed more appropriate to connect the GD’s high magic to the source of English’s more formal words. Analogies have a habit of getting away from me and obstructing inconvenient minutiae like factual consistency.

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    1. Despite her spurious historical claims, I actually think Starhawk is an excellent author. Moreover, she’s been incredibly influential on American Wicca. The thing about her writing is that it’s better read as a poetic expression than as a factual historical account.

      I’m not quite sure what you mean by “better”, though. Are you looking for historical information on Neopaganism? If so, Ronald Hutton and Phillip Hesselton are top-notch. Are you looking for a Wiccan how-to? Those come in more flavors than can be found at a Baskin Robbins scoop shop, and recommending one or another is not a question of what’s “better” so much as what’s your taste.

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