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No time for witch wars: How I learned to stop worrying and get on with the magick

Michelle Gruben opinion pagan

Turned into a toad

There’s a widespread assumption that being involved in a Pagan community means signing up for a whole lot of drama. And unfortunately, there’s often some ugly reality underlying the belief that Pagan groups are ruled by discord. Disputes over leadership, differences of belief, and just plain old nasty gossip are some of the unwelcome distractions that lead to the all-out conflicts known as witch wars.

The term “witch wars” brings to mind dramatic, wizardly battles with wands clashing and sparks flying. Yes, hexes and psychic attacks are sometimes a component of witches’ feuds. But it doesn’t take black magick to damage a community or cause lasting harm to someone’s happiness. Quite ordinary bad behavior is enough. And because Pagans are a religious minority, our failings to get along will always be sensationalized and scrutinized more harshly than other religious groups. (Remember the high-profile dispute between two Salem, Massachusetts shop owners that made the news for years?)

Why are Pagan communities particularly vulnerable to infighting? Well, as a rule, we’re opinionated folks who don’t care much for authority. Also, our communities tend to be small and close-knit, so it’s harder to get away from someone you don’t like. Where Pagans gather, the Gods of chaos often invite themselves.

In my formal and informal involvement with Pagan groups, I’ve been on the sidelines of a few witch wars. I’ve seen the personal quarrels of one or two individuals drag a few dozen people through the muck. I’ve seen covens implode and friendships end. I’ve seen small transgressions exaggerated and serious crimes excused, all in the interest of group politics. When a newcomer tells me, “I don’t want to be involved in the community, there’s too much drama,” it saddens me. But I understand.

I don’t believe it has to be that way. I believe it’s possible to opt out of the bullshit and focus on what we say we believe matters: Making friends and making magick, building communities, working in harmony with each other and with the Gods.

What do witches fight about? The coven’s High Priest and High Priestess split up and want everyone to take sides. A new Pagan shop opened in town, and now the old shop’s owner is spreading ugly rumors about the competition. The festival organizers chose a friend to perform the main ritual, and some attendees didn’t agree with the ritual’s content. Sound familiar? These are just examples of the everyday squabbles that can cause the cauldron to boil over.

Witches fight about basically the same things that all humans fight about: Power, money, sex, and pride. As long as these sources of conflict exist, there’s no way that everyone’s going to get along all the time. But we can make a conscious decision to work towards an ideal: A Pagan community where differences are honored, where each person’s spiritual journey is supported.

I’m definitely no saint or Zen master, and I don’t have a 100% perfect track record at avoiding Pagan drama. Still, I’ve benefited from the following three affirmations designed to de-escalate the conflict. The next time you sense a schism that’s threatening to expand into a full-blown witch war, try out the following:

I don’t share in harmful gossip.

As Witches, we should know better than anyone that words have power. Like in the suit of swords in the Tarot, so much conflict, pain, and betrayal is borne through the element of Air. Refuse to pass it along, and you’ll dull the sting of others’ hurtful words.

Avoiding trash talk doesn’t mean you can’t speak up for yourself, or call out negative actions when you see them. Communication is vital to our communities, too. The three questions, “Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?” are a useful filter through which to screen your words. When you do need to raise your voice, try to speak directly to the person who needs to hear it. It’s just not classy to blast a private beef on social media or other public platforms.

I support other Witches’ creative and spiritual work.

This is a biggie. So many witch wars come out of real or imagined competition for resources: Money, attention, acclaim. Things can get especially catty among Pagan vendors, who feel that they are vying for a small number of not terribly well-heeled customers.

It’s hard to remember sometimes that other Witches are our kin. Our work is intertwined with theirs. They are also charged with helping to create a magickal world, and we do that world no favors by trying to dim someone else’s star.

Gratitude practice has been very helpful to me in getting past petty resentment. We can get so stressed out by what other people are doing, it’s easy to forget to be grateful for the opportunities we’ve been given. If someone’s talent or achievements exceed mine, instead of being jealous, I try to thank the Gods for the diversity of human abilities. On the other hand, even if I think someone’s book/ritual/artwork is utter crap, I can still appreciate the effort and courage it took for them to bring it forth. The community and the marketplace will eventually judge their work—I don’t have to do that.

Supporting someone else is tougher when their work is so similar to mine that I feel I’m in competition with them (and also when it’s so different from mine that I can’t relate to it). Making a pledge to see the good in others’ work—even if we feel threatened by it—is one of the hardest (and best) ways to strengthen bonds of trust.

I am secure in my knowledge, beliefs, and experiences.

When all else fails, it helps me to remember that I don’t need to “win” a witchly dispute. It wastes my energy and probably won’t teach anyone a lesson. I also don’t need respect or cooperation from anyone in order to continue along my path.

Likewise, your dreams, your true friendships, your initiation, the love you’ve shared, the wisdom you’ve acquired—all these things are yours to keep. No one can take them away from you. When you realize that the stakes of the witch war are actually pretty low, it’s easier to choose not to get involved.

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