As a soul crafter and shaper, I have a tendency toward planning, visioning the future. I like having guidelines for the qualities I am trying to embody, so the idea of a set of Virtues appeals to me. I don’t need a roadmap, necessarily, but cultivating specific virtues gives me a light in the wilderness, a star to follow.
Virtues are aspirational. We are humans, living in a complex world. When we approach a virtue, it’s not meant to be a delineation of flaws – a word or concept that shows where we are lacking. It’s meant to be the tinder from which we strike light. Little pieces of brightness that help a human soul shine through all the muck and dross of day-to-day living. Virtues, at their best, are incremental. One of the most common virtues we hear discussed in western culture is Honor, so I’ll use that an example. An action can be honorable. When a person cultivates many honorable actions, the adjective is applied to them as a trait – ‘xe is an honorable person.’ Honor is also aspirational – we strive to live with honor, keeping our word, participating in commerce justly, dealing with folks even-handedly. This is what I mean by incremental – we can cultivate the actions, which lead to the trait, which reflect the aspirational virtue.
When I was just a wee little witchlet, I learned that the Virtues of Witchcraft were contained within the Charge of the Goddess by Doreen Valiente. Specifically, they were drawn from this line: “And therefore let there be beauty and strength, power and compassion, honour and humility, mirth and reverence within you.” Eight virtues, all told. To this day, I can rattle them off from memory. I like lists of things, charts, organized structure – it’s where my left-brain dominance really shows itself. And these are all solid virtues – I’ve spent the last 20ish years cultivating them. My understanding of them all has transformed over time, which is exactly as it should be. I think these virtues have ultimately made me a better witch.
But right now, witchcraft as a whole is going through a process of rebirth. Our roots are being more closely examined, particularly where those roots intertwine with unhealthy power dynamics, misogyny, patriarchy, toxic hierarchy and institutional racism. (For a great blog post about some of that examination, please click here) As with all births, this process has a good deal of challenge to it – we have to pull those shadowy spaces into the light so we can see them. We are looking into the mirror of history and culture, and the reflection is not all good. There is deep Work to be done here to make the future of witchcraft and paganism bright.
I am teaching a new Mystery School right now with my crow-brother Jake – we call it Blackfeather. The first level – Magpie – is in beta-testing at the moment. A group of around 50 students are trying on the training for the first time. I’ve gone back and forth about sharing the Valiente list of virtues with my Magpies. All eight of those virtues are good qualities to cultivate, but as I turn the idea of ‘Virtues of Witchcraft’ over and over in my head, I think that it’s time for revision. Our world has changed – Valiente’s poem was written in the 1950’s, and it reflects some of the Boomer mentality I find most problematic: user behavior. Most of the virtues in the Charge are entirely centered on the individual. I won’t get on my soap box right now, but I consider the Boomer (yes, yes, I know, #notallboomers) neglect of community and social contracts to be at the heart of most of our current troubles. A culture is more than people who share a set of geographical boundaries, but adamant refusal to humanely address ALL of a culture is a one-way ticket to that culture’s collapse.
Okay, I’m stepping off that train before it picks up any more steam. Back to the virtues.
So if I don’t share the Valiente virtues, what virtues do I share? If I were designing my particular flavor of witchcraft from the absolute beginning, what would my virtues be? What virtues do I want my students to aspire to? Which ones do I cultivate myself? Which ones will help my students become the bomb-ass witches, magicians, shamans, seers and sorcerers I dream they will be?
These are my ideas, as of this moment. Perhaps some of these virtues speak to you. Perhaps they trigger resistance. Perhaps they make you consider your own aspirations, and what specific words for them might be.
As wielders of magick, ritual practitioners, guardians and advocates of the Gods, voices of the Green World we all share, responsibility is of vital importance. We should aspire to be responsible to:
Our sacred selves. Of all people, Will Smith has a great video about the difference between blame and responsibility. To be responsible is to take ownership of our current situation and work to make that situation as healthy as possible. For example, my anxiety disorder is not my fault – I am not to blame for it, I did not bring it upon myself. But, it is my responsibility to manage my mind to the best of my ability. This includes seeking out help when needed, practicing techniques that enable me to function at a better level, and being open to new ideas that could support further healing.
Our Gods – the Powers we serve. One of the conceits of much of modern Paganism that I dislike is that our Gods are some sort of wish-granting Genii. There is a good deal of user behavior when it comes to how we approach the Divine – we petition Them for things without offering anything in return. To my complete lack of surprise, those who treat the Gods as some sort of Divine ATM tend to have disappointing experiences with Them.
We should aspire to be responsible to our Gods. I serve Freyja primarily and the Norse pantheon in general. What that means for me personally is that I am responsible to Her. I evaluate my work in the community by how it reflects on Her. Am I demonstrating the qualities She would have her dottir show? Are my works in keeping with Her own values and plans? I am also responsible for holding up my end of the relationship. Heathens have gifting relationships with their Gods. We make offerings, create art in Their honor, do Works in their name. We actively cultivate friendship by reaching out our hands first.
Aspiring to responsibility to the Powers is not limited to witches with devotional practices. Perhaps you do not have a relationship with the Gods, but you absolutely have one with your Ancestors, or with the Plant Spirits as part of a hedge witchery practice. What does that friendship look like? Are you actively working to further the interests of those Powers? Are you telling the stories of your Ancestors and keeping them alive, preserving their folk traditions? Are you assisting with measures that protect and foster your Plant Allies in the wild? How do you demonstrate friendship with and responsibility to the Powers in your life?
The society we belong to. I’ve written about the human need for community before. Along with helping to create and hold space for community that supports our specific interests, philosophies or needs, we are responsible to the greater society we live in. Yes, that includes people we do not know. Yes, that includes people we do not like or share values with. Societies function under the basic premise of the Golden Rule, present in human culture since Ur and probably before: if we treat all of us well, all of us live more easily. Moreover, the time of the Witch is on the rise. The traditional, patriarchal, Christian imperialist (yes, yes, I know, #notallchristians) structures are breaking down in the face of problems they are simply unable to wrap their limited worldviews around the existence of, much less help solve. As walkers within liminal spaces, as those who bend with the changes in wyrd and weaving, we have a unique stance from which to approach our respective cultures. What does responsibility to society look like? Choosing to interact with our neighbors, even when it makes us uncomfortable. Participating in the civic process and helping to change it to meet the new needs of our world where we can, up to and including actively protesting unjust and inhumane policies. Living the Golden Rule, and perhaps taking it one step further. Being the one smiling face in a sea of frowns, the one open hand in a sea of fists.
The planet we share. Most witches already have a deep-seated love of natural spaces, wild creatures and untamed land. By aspiring to be responsible to the natural world, we must take that love one step further. What can we do to reduce our impact on the environment? How can we act as advocates for beings that cannot speak using human language? On a more local level, how well do we know the land and creatures around us? What are we doing to help our immediate fauna, flora and spirit neighbors?
The core practices at the heart of Blackfeather are all about empowerment. Witchcraft, wielding magick, choosing to explore the space outside linear, rational worlds, is a fierce act of agency. If we couple that choice of action over submission with deep self-love and self-respect, the possibilities become limitless. We are not meant to be eternal victims, constantly licking our wounds open. We are meant to respond to our world centered in our authenticity, thoughtful and powerful shapers of fate. We are meant to be resilient.
Out of the Valiente virtues, this one I am keeping. The quality that keeps humans from becoming tyrannical, self-centered monsters is compassion. We should aspire to cultivate and increase our ability to empathize with others – other humans, other beings, other expressions of the Divine. There is a growing body of evidence that points to a fascinating aspect of human thought: the more resources and power we have, the less compassion we feel.
One study found that in kids from privileged families, the empathy circuits in the brain don’t even engage when presented with a situation that would normally trigger compassion. I won’t get into what that means in terms of the great disparity between the Haves and Have-nots in Western culture – you can connect those dots yourself.
So what does that mean for witches? It means we should choose contemplation practices that deliberately cultivate compassion. As a virtue, we should seek to increase the compassion in our characters. It’s useful for purely practical reasons as well – designing a spell or ritual for another person or entity requires the ability to place oneself in that being’s shoes.
By my own thinking, wisdom is the ability to correctly apply knowledge for the best outcome and least harm against a constantly shifting tapestry of needs, emotions, and obstacles. Witches are keepers of uncommon knowledge – methods of solving problems, myths that contain seeds of truth, and perspectives that can come across as peculiar to others. Our ability to take that unusual body of knowledge and use it to constructively impact our world is absolutely vital. However, cultivating wisdom takes a lot of trial and error. It involves making mistakes, and then introspection and learning from those mistakes (rather than just shoving them under the psychological carpet). It involves a capacity to learn, and to have our perspectives and techniques altered by what we learn. And cultivating wisdom takes time. There’s a reason we associate wisdom with age – making enough mistakes to then correctly apply what we have learned is the process of a lifetime. Aspiring to wisdom means that we actively cultivate making better, more constructive, more empathetic choices.
This is an amazing time to be alive. For all the darkness we get bombarded with, there is so much light out there. As a species, we are healing sickness, deepening our understanding of the universe, looking more clearly into the past, working on the underpinnings of intergenerational trauma and developing technology that will continue to revolutionize the way we live. Sometimes the changes come so quickly and are so dramatic that it’s easy to get a sort of cultural whiplash. This is the space in which to aspire to flexibility. What we take as unquestionable truth can change with the scrape of an archeologist’s trowel, or the running of a super-collider. Some changes come more gradually as scholarship improves, but all of us end up faced with having to update our ideas about Truth on a pretty regular basis anymore. One of the downfalls of most mainstream religions is their rigidity. When a new truth is revealed, too often it is met with hostility and denial. The path of the Witch is winding – we bend and transform to meet that changing way. Cultivating flexibility not just in our spirituality, but in our worldview as well is absolutely vital.
Hope, or Hopefulness
This is perhaps the most fragile of all the virtues I suggest, the most delicate flame we can light. By aspiring to hope, we work to imagine a future that’s brighter than the now we inhabit. By aspiring to hope, we choose to cultivate that tender flame by coming together with other dreamers, reading words of wisdom and inspiration, and allowing just a touch of Pollyanna syndrome. And why do it? Because all of the best ideas, impulses and organizations spring from hope’s well. Because as witches, we understand more clearly than most how our thoughts can shape our reality. Apathy is easier. Hope takes work. Although dark depression may be more realistic, hope is where the magick really lies.
So, here we have Irene’s Charge of the Coffee Pot: “Therefore, let there be responsibility and empowerment, compassion and wisdom, flexibility and hope.” Six virtues I aspire to that I think would be good qualities to cultivate as a witch, or even just as a human. These are mine – what are yours? Where do they spring from? Hit me up in the comments.