Pagans and the Modesty Issue

When I was a child, my parents taught me to respect my body. They explained the changes that my body was going to go through at an appropriate age. They also explained sex and contraception, and told me that they would always be there to help me if I needed them. Most importantly, they told me that if I ever had any questions, no matter how embarrassing, to come to them to ask: they would tell me the truth.

My parents were both teachers and understood the importance of teaching me how to respect my body. Were they trying to encourage me to have sex? Definitely not! In the midst of all of this, they lectured me on the morals and ethics and possible repercussions of a sexual relationship. They gave me a very balanced view of my own body. And while they were at it, my father gave me some good rules for being aware of situations, so that I wouldn’t easily walk into bad ones. This was all wrapped up with a dollop of good common sense.

The term “modest” was never brought into any of it. And remember, I was brought up in a Christian household.

I associate the word “modest” with monotheistic religious values. I know that this is not the only meaning or context of the word, but usually when I hear about women dressing “modestly”, it’s in a religious context rather than anything having to do with age appropriateness or basic common sense. When I hear about women needing to dress “modestly” all my hang-ups about the patriarchal society that we still live in come to the surface. I think of all the Right Wing conservatives who keep hacking away at women’s rights and seem to want to take us back to the Dark Ages.

“Modest” is also not a word that I associate with Paganism.

And yet…this word seems to be cropping up a lot these days in Pagan forums. It started with the issue of women veiling. OK, I may not agree with that, but if your patron/ess is telling you to veil, you veil. It is also the decision that you, as an adult, have made for yourself. I can get behind veiling for religious purposes. There are Pagan groups out there who veil (or robe, or hood)..but not for being “modest”. I see modesty as a way that patriarchal society controls women and tries to control how they regard their bodies. But of course, I’ve already made my thoughts on this subject known. (Read Star Foster’s blog Veiling: A Different Take On Pagan Womanhood for more on Pagan women veiling).

But I’ve also seen the discussion start to branch out elsewhere in the community.

The PaganDad wrote a blog called “Control Yourself”. I go to a lot of festivals, all of which are “family friendly”. And I even think it’s one of the best part of festival to get to see all these little kids running around together and having a good time. The pirates have marshmallow fights with the fairy kids every year. But sex and ecstatic behavior are also a part of a lot of people’s worship/practice in the Pagan community and festivals are places where we Pagans go to let some of these behaviors out. It sounds like, in his situation, that particular festival was probably badly handled, but unfortunately, a lot of Paganism is just not really child friendly. If you take your children to Pagan events, you have to realize that there is the possibility that they are going to be confronted with very adult situations, and I’m not just talking about sex. A lot of what we do in Paganism is very adult subject matter that children just aren’t going to be able to easily understand. There is a reason that most groups won’t accept children.

Another flurry has been going on over the recent blog by Friendly Atheist blogger Amanda on “The Ugly Side of Modesty”. This blog voices her objections to SecretKeeperGirl.com, a Christian website that is trying to teach girls tricks to make sure they’re dressed “modestly” in some really creepy ways. Amanda says: To be clear, this has nothing to do with peer pressure, purity, or an individual’s empowerment: This is about control. There is no sane reason that an eight-year-old should be worrying about whether or not their potential future cleavage is showing when trying on clothing. Advocating this kind of insanity only creates paranoia and concern over the nebulous, constantly changing, unseen forces that dictate “modesty.” And I think this sums the issue up pretty nicely. When you start talking about modesty in these contexts, its all about control and nothing else. So what’s my upset here? The conversation comes to me via the blog Confessions of a Pagan Soccer Mom and her response called “Modesty, a “laughable non-problem” for Pagans?” .

Pagan Soccer Mom makes a very good point that little girls shouldn’t be dressing like adults. We can probably all agree that there is a level of age appropriateness that should occur. I was extremely disturbed by some of the comments that showed up after she posted the blog, like:

We teach our 8 yr old who acts 30 that it is important to show that she deserves respect in how she dresses. We don’t allow belly shirts or shorts that are too short. She hates showing her belly but will walk around the house without any guilt and we have to remind her that daddy doesn’t need to see her body.When she forgets a towel or other piece of clothing.[Sic]”

There’s something about the line that “daddy doesn’t need to see her body” that somehow, just really creeps me out. Is the child’s father a pedophile that she needs to protect her child from? This line is oddly reminiscent of the language in the SecretKeeperGirl ads.

One woman made a very valid point, she said:

I don’t see much of a correlation between modesty and self respect. But that’s just me and those are both dependent on an individuals definition of morality, current social construct, culture, etc. Maybe if humans weren’t consistently being raised to see the human body as a purely sexual object it wouldn’t be an issue? *shrug* my personal opinion is that the modesty=self respect issue just continues to support the “she was asking for it by the way she was dressed” aspect.

Pagan Soccer Mom’s response was:

I don’t think anyone here is saying that an 8 year old girl is “asking for it” when her parents dress her up in something that isn’t age appropriate.

But I think that she’s deliberately missing the point here. When we teach girls to be “modest” in these contexts, we are teaching them that other people can’t control themselves in reaction to their bodies. We are, in effect, creating victims. Why aren’t boys being taught to be “modest” as well? Why are we still encouraging young girls to become victims of society’s double standards? Self respect is acknowledging yourself and all of your own decisions to create a healthy, confident lifestyle. The young Pagan girls that I’ve met, those raised at clothing optional festivals, have had some of the healthiest understanding of and respect for their bodies of any young adults that I’ve encountered. Why are we letting this monotheistic ideal seep into our community?

I think that the Charge of the Goddess sums all of this up pretty succinctly. “And ye shall be free from slavery; and as a sign that ye are truly free, ye shall be naked in your rites; and ye shall dance, sing, feast, make music and love, all in my praise. For mine is the ecstasy of the spirit and mine also is joy on earth; for my Law is Love unto all Beings…Let my worship be within the heart that rejoiceth, for behold: all acts of love and pleasure are my rituals.” I don’t see “modesty” having anything to do with this at all. We need to raise our daughters to be empowered, responsible and self aware, not “modest”.

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Witch Bottles

Moving in with another witch is always an interesting proposition. My significant other and I have slowly been feeling each other out magically and coming up with what works best for us as a couple. He works a lot with the fey, I don’t. He’s staunchly Wiccan, and while I myself have decided to follow a Wiccan path, my eclectic tendencies still tend to creep in. For instance, I like smudging, and he refuses because it isn’t a part of his tradition. (My Pirate philosophy on things like this is, hey, it works, so I’ll keep at it…). But since I was the one that moved in with him, I didn’t want to barge in with the usual sort of magic that I do in a home.

So it surprised me when he was the one to bring up the idea of making a witches’ bottle. I guess it shouldn’t have, but I had been talking about it with a Pirate friend who was down a few weeks ago. Maybe he picked up on the ideas my friend and I shared,or maybe we’ve just started thinking a lot alike…and at the end of the day, a witches’ bottle is a logical response to a lot of things that are going on in our lives and in our neighborhood. (We were robbed New Years Eve by the kids across the street. They’ve gone on to rob everyone else on the block as well, so I generally leave home wondering if I will come home to find more of my things missing). With my S.O. leaving for his summer tour, we both wanted an extra layer of protection on the house.

So like any wholesome Witch couple, we made a witches’ bottle together.

It always surprises me how many people don’t know what a witch bottle is. I find them to be one really effective way to defend your house and yourself without a certain level of constant vigilance or shielding.

Traditional Witch Bottle

Traditional Bellarmine Witch Bottle

Witch bottles historically reach back at least several centuries. They were extremely popular from the fifteenth century into the seventeenth century, due in large part to the persecution of witches. They were often called Bellarmine Bottles after a famous witch hunting Cardinal from the sixteenth century. (You might recognize the name Bellarmine from the Galileo controversy. Yes, that Bellarmine). Originally these bottles were used to protect yourself from the direct attack of witches or malicious spirits. (One thing I wonder, did “witches” of the sixteenth century consider Bellarmine to be the actual witch? Which would especially make sense if the accused weren’t witches at all! Hmmmm…)

I don’t usually look at them as offense, but as defense. My witch bottles are for just generally deflecting ill will and anything bad that might come my way. If something in particular is going on, I will make one specifically to ward against whatever that particular thing is. The witch bottle is supposed to protect you from harm by sending harm back on the sender. Traditionally, if someone sent something at you, the witch bottle would send it back at them and make their lives misery, and only the owner of the witch bottle could consent to break the ill effects that were returned to the sender. There are stories of witches afflicted and in pain from a witch bottle,who would come crawling back to the home of the witch bottle to beg the owner to forgive them and to swear to never cause trouble again.

So how do you make one?

Original witch bottles were made from stoneware or glass. I prefer to use a mason jar (I’m from a Southern redneck family, what can I say?). I usually let the jar sit on my altar through one full moon cycle and focus my intent on it when I’m doing my daily meditation/devotionals. I think about how it will suck in any harm that comes knocking at my door and incorporate it into my home wards. I think how you handle this is totally up to you and your intent and how you usually do your spell work. There really isn’t anything fancy that goes into a witches bottle, your intent and the ingredients are the important part of the spell for a successful witches bottle.

After I’ve done that, I go about collecting odds and ends of sharp nasty things. Usually I like to find things like broken glass from out on the streets around my home, fish hooks, sharp wires, needles, pointy rocks, anything that can pierce and hurt unexpectedly and well and truly get stuck in someone. If you were going to be particularly hard-core about it, I would include some barbed wire in there as well to truly catch and hold whatever nastiness was unlucky enough to stop by. This is the traditional way of starting to put a witch bottle together.

The Eyes are watching you!

For something a little less traditional, think of your intent. I had a problem with gossips at work a few months ago. When I was discussing it with my friend, she suggested using black-eyed peas as a part of a bottle so that when the gossip and its ill effects were reflected back, the people involved would always feel watched. This is just one example of the type of things you can put into a bottle such as this. I also like adding herbs like rosemary and sage into my bottles for that extra layer of protection. You can really incorporate a lot of different things into a witches bottle, as long as they line up with your intent for that particular spell.

The last ingredient/s are the most critical and this is where it gets a little gross. When you get up, the first thing in the morning, take your jar and urinate in it. This binds the jar to you specifically and to your home. The urine essentially becomes the part of you that pulls the curse to the bottle instead of to you. You can also add in some of your hair, fingernail clippings, and even blood if you like. This essentially makes the bottle work for you. (And let me tell ya, if you’ve never handed your lover a jar full of your urine and other oddities, you’re really missing out on a truly romantic experience!)

The last things that you need to do are to seal it (I like to use red or black wax) and place it somewhere inconspicuous in your home. Traditionally, you would bury a witches bottle under your front stoop or under your hearth. Some people even put them in the walls of a new house. It simply needs to be in a place where it’s not going to be noticed and not going to be jostled about. My S.O. likes to say that things hidden in plain sight can often be more effective than those well hidden away.

Some people want you to say rhymes over the jar and other whatnot nonsense, but I’m a pretty practical person. I keep my focus and intent on it throughout the whole process and ask my patron deities for assistance and I generally figure that I’m good to go. Unfortunately, that is one part of Wicca that I don’t think I’m ever going to manage; making up bad poetry is just too painful for me to bring myself to.

Also be prepared for whoever you’re invoking for these sorts of things to find some other form of payment to really get the witch bottle going. The same day that my S.O. and I made ours, we went out to one of the local cemeteries to take some pictures. I was out of contacts and had taken my glasses off to look good in the pictures. I was walking towards one of the stacked graves that we have down here in New Orleans when I heard a buzzing noise…that’s right folks, I nearly walked right into a nest of bees. I realized what it was in time and walked calmly away, but I still got stung several times. I thought it was appropriate to have added my pain into my working from something that was protecting its home. My S.O. managed to burn himself pretty badly when he was sealing the bottle as well. There is always a price to pay for any sort of working such as this.

A lot of occult shops sell ready made witches bottles, where all you do is take the bottle home and urinate in it and then seal and bury it somewhere. While I’m lucky to have several competent occult shops around me (I do live in New Orleans after all), for a witches bottle, homemade is always the best choice. It’s a very intimate spell and will be much more in-tune with you and your home and family when you manage all of the ingredients.

Witch bottles are a pretty straightforward sort of magic and protection, but they are also extremely effective. It’s the sort of crafting that can really get you into a magical mood. But then, I do have a rather dark sense of humor and to me, this sort of thing brings out all of my wicked delight at being an instrument of the threefold law.

Mess with me and mine? Well, I’m going to send it right back at’cha! Even if I’m not aware that anything has come at me at all…

‘Nothing for them except subjection and plaiting their hair’.

“One doesn’t become a witch to run around being helpful either…. It’s to escape all that – to have a life of one’s own, not an existence doled out to you by others, charitable refuse of their thoughts, so many ounces of stale bread of life a day.”

~Lolly Willowes, or The Loving Huntsman, Sylvia Townsend Warner

Sylvia Townsend Warner

Sylvia Townsend Warner

If you’ve never read Lolly Willows, or The Loving Huntsman by Sylvia Townsend Warner, you should run out and find yourself a copy immediately. This book isn’t (necessarily) a Pagan book. It is an early twentieth century novel looking at the role of women in English society. Laura, or Lolly, the main character, is a spinster who casts off society’s expectations and eventually makes a pact with the devil. “If women, Townsend Warner implies, are denied access to power through legitimate means, they will turn instead to illegitimate methods – in this case to Satan himself, who pays them the compliment of pursuing them and then, having bagged them, performs the even more valuable service of leaving them alone.” (Sylvia Townsend Warner: the neglected writer) While modern witches have nothing to do with Satan, this book has always struck a chord within me and when I reread it, which I do every year or so, I’m reminded again and again about why I became a witch.

“If she had been called upon to decide in cold blood between being an aunt and being a witch, she might have been overawed by habit and the cowardice of compunction. But in the moment of election, under the stress and turmoil of the hunted Lolly as under a covering of darkness, the true Laura had settled it all unerringly. She had known where to turn…. She was a witch by vocation. Even in the old days of Lady Place the impulse had stirred in her. What else had set her upon her long solitary walks, her quests for powerful and forgotten herbs, her brews and distillations?”

I never felt I belonged in our church. My parents had to bribe me with coloring books and trips to MacDonald’s to get me to go. And according to my father, they just quit going to church after the bribes quit working and I started throwing screaming tantrums. Keep in mind that I had parents who didn’t let me get away with tantrums. I still have a healthy dose of fear for what my parents might say to me if I screw something up too badly. I don’t remember these tantrums, but they must have been pretty spectacular for my school-teacher parents to give in to me. I can’t think of any other instance in my entire life where I have done anything similar. I’m not a tantrum sort of person. I’m the “so-quiet-you-forget-they-can-actually-speak” sort of person.

I never found anything in a church that called to me; I never felt the divine in the church. But I knew no alternatives. When I left being Christian, I thought that there was really nothing else to pursue. I knew that the divine was real, I knew it existed; I had felt it when I walked in the woods of my childhood. Presences of things that I couldn’t explain had always been there. And, as I’ve mentioned before, my family is chock full of witches in denial. I didn’t know enough to call it Paganism at the time, but I started thinking about the divine as the Other. It was something that I could sense, call on,try to somehow explore. This helped bring me back into a spiritual balance.

Just a usual gathering of pirates…

It wasn’t until later, when I started living with a Pixie, that I was confronted with Paganism. The Pixie was an eclectic who was willing to put names to things and remind me to do the polite thing, like leave offerings of rum out to appease certain deities at the right moment. I found a great deal of peace around her altar, and a sense of comfort in thinking that she knew what was going on. Her knowledge of Paganism was slowly able to bring my sense of the Other into a concept that I could express. At this time I also found the Pirates, which was just as enlightening. The Pirates are a very eclectic Pagan bunch whose thirst for knowledge is unparalleled. It was through this group of wonderful people that I was finally beginning to learn the names of things; to know that the thoughts and feelings that I had had as long as I could remember where not as crazy as I had always thought. And while Pixie and I have not spoken in a long time, and I don’t know if we will again or not, I will always be grateful for the many wonderful things she brought into my life.

“She was changed, and knew it. She was humbler, and more simple. She ceased to triumph mentally over her tyrants, and rallied herself no longer with the consciousness that she had outraged them by coming to live at Great Mop. The amusement she had drawn from their disapproval was a slavish remnant, a derisive dance on the north bank of the Ohio. There was no question of forgiving them. She had not, in any case, a forgiving nature; and the injury they had done her was not done by them. If she were to start forgiving she must needs forgive Society, the Law, the Church, the History of Europe, the Old Testament, great-great-aunt Salome and her prayer-book, the Bank of England, Prostitution, the Architect of Apsley Terrace, and half a dozen other useful props of civilization. All she had to do was go on forgetting them. But now she was able to forget them without flouting them by her forgetfulness”

I was very happy as an Eclectic. In fact, having had some very bad run-ins with Wiccans throughout the years, I was fine with keeping to my solitary nature and doing my own piratical thing.

The S.O. and I in Salt Lake City. Religulous anybody?

And then I made the mistake of falling in love with not just a Wiccan, but an extremely staunch Wiccan. I have just written a column for the Pagan Household about this, but I’ve never really explained it here.

My S.O. and I do not live a conventional life. There’s a thirty year age difference between us. If you had told me five years ago that the love of my life was going to be an itinerant musician who was thirty years older than I am, I would have laughed you right out of town.While he and I don’t usually notice our age difference, the society that we live in certainly does. Even in New Orleans, it generally makes eyebrows raise and prompts some very inappropriate questions. And of course there’s always the old stereotype of the older man taking advantage of the younger woman. If anything, I take blatant advantage of him (which I openly admit to).

In my daily life, I run the acquisitions department of the library of a major Southern University. I work the usual sort of eight-to-five hours and bring in a steady paycheck with benefits. However, I refuse to give up being myself. I know a lot of people that cover up who they are when they are in the “real world”. I always live in the “real world”. My real world simply happens to include the fact that I am also a witch. My fantasy life is my actual life.

“’They say: ‘Dear Lolly! What shall we give her for her birthday this year? Perhaps a hot-water bottle. Or what about a nice black lace scarf? Or a new workbox? Her old one is nearly worn out.’ But you say: ‘Come here, my bird! I will give you the dangerous black night to stretch your wings in, and poisonous berries to feed on, and a nest of bones and thorns, perched high up in danger where no one can climb to it.’ That’s why we become witches: to show our scorn of pretending life’s a safe business, to satisfy our passion for adventure.”

If you had then told me five years ago that I would start my path towards initiation in a Wiccan tradition this year, I would have laughed at you even harder. Until my S.O. came along, I had not had a lot of good run-ins with Wiccans. And as I said in my column, watching my mother exist in a religion that she didn’t really seem to believe in had always made me angry. I swore that I would never be the girl who converted for my partner’s sake. And I also know that age old argument about who can and cannot claim to be a witch. For this, I will continue to claim my old eclectic view. Anyone can be a witch. Being a witch really has nothing to do with what tradition you follow or your level of initiation. That whole year and a day thing is just sort of ridiculous to me. I see its purpose for those who are new to the whole idea and need to see a whole year as a witch, but are you a witch or aren’t you? It really is that simple. I’m not saying that you should claim knowledge that you haven’t gained or claim initiations that you haven’t earned, but the title Witch itself is just so much more encompassing than a tradition. This is one thing that the S.O. and I will have to continue to agree to disagree on. For me being a witch isn’t tied to being Wiccan. It is a state of mind and of being that I will never leave behind me, no matter how Wicca works out for me in the long run. But being a Witch means facing ones’ thoughts and fears, and perhaps Wicca is a step in this direction for me.

Laura cries ‘Nothing for them except subjection and plaiting their hair’. The dullness of everyday life for women ‘settles down on one like a fine dust, and by and by the dust is age, settling down […] there is a dreadful kind of dreary immortality about being settled down on by one day after another’.

At the end of the novel Lolly Willowes Laura agrees to sell her soul to the devil in exchange for ridding her of nuisances and letting her live a peaceful existence. I have not sold my sold my soul to Satan (or even believe in such a figure), but by becoming a witch, I have found peace in my own life. My life would never be complete ever again if I had to give up this feeling. I hate the end of the movie Bell, Book, and Candle. I can’t imagine falling in love in a world where the love of my life could not accept this side of me or that even by being a witch, I wasn’t able to love. I’ve had to compromise my religious beliefs a little for my S.O , but he has had to compromise a little for me as well. Together, we are an excellent pair. And together, we are both witches of an excellent sort.