Pagan Blog Project: Commentary on the Charge of the Goddess

The Charge of the Goddess, originally by Doreen Valiente,* as adapted by Starhawk:

Listen to the words of the Great Mother, Who of old was called Artemis, Astarte, Dione, Melusine, Aphrodite, Cerridwen, Diana, Arionrhod, Brigid, and by many other names:

Whenever you have need of anything, once a month, and better it be when the moon is full, you shall assemble in some secret place and adore the spirit of Me Who is Queen of all the Wise.

You shall be free from slavery, and as a sign that you be free you shall be naked in your rites.

Sing, feast, dance, make music and love, all in My Presence, for Mine is the ecstasy of the spirit and Mine also is joy on earth.

For My law is love is unto all beings. Mine is the secret that opens the door of youth, and Mine is the cup of wine of life that is the cauldron of Cerridwen, that is the holy grail of immortality.

I give the knowledge of the spirit eternal, and beyond death I give peace and freedom and reunion with those that have gone before.

Nor do I demand aught of sacrifice, for behold, I am the Mother of all things and My love is poured out upon the earth.

Hear the words of the Star Goddess, the dust of Whose feet are the hosts of Heaven, whose body encircles the universe:

I Who am the beauty of the green earth and the white moon among the stars and the mysteries of the waters,

I call upon your soul to arise and come unto me.

For I am the soul of nature that gives life to the universe.

From Me all things proceed and unto Me they must return.

Let My worship be in the heart that rejoices, for behold, all acts of love and pleasure are My rituals.

Let there be beauty and strength, power and compassion, honor and humility, mirth and reverence within you.

And you who seek to know Me, know that the seeking and yearning will avail you not, unless you know the Mystery: for if that which you seek, you find not within yourself, you will never find it without.

For behold, I have been with you from the beginning, and I am That which is attained at the end of desire.

Mmm. That’s some big magic.

For this fortnight’s Pagan Blog Project prompt, I’ve decided to write down some commentary on the Charge that I’ve had rattling around for awhile. Commentary on sacred texts is, I think, one of the practices that makes religious practice pop. Unpacking myths, debating laws–I love it. It’s the English major in me.

A quick word on the Jewish influence in my textual practice. What I’m doing here might be loosely classified as Pilpul, or the practice of closely examining a text in order to understand apparent contradictions. (That itself is a very loose definition of Pilpul.) I’m really excited about putting this technique and others, especially Midrash, to use in a Pagan context. I ask that readers refrain from accusing me of “over-thinking” or “over-analyzing” Pagan texts–for one thing,  text study is fun and you are in no way obligated to read it; and for another, thinking and analyzing are two incredible tools that we human-people have at our disposal, and stuffing them in a mental drawer is a loss, not a gain. Text study can and certainly has been used to suck the life out of spiritual practice, but as long as one approaches it lightly, in a playful spirit, with the knowledge that the mysteries of religious experience will never be explained through text, then it can enrich one’s relationship to Deity.

The two pieces of the Charge that I want to focus on in particular are line 2:

You shall be free from slavery, and as a sign that you be free you shall be naked in your rites.

And line 13:

Let My worship be in the heart that rejoices, for behold, all acts of love and pleasure are My rituals.

The most common interpretation of line 2 is that witches are to work skyclad, or literally nude. It’s a completely valid interpretation, and indeed, it’s what Valiente meant when she wrote it. But we commentators don’t care about authorial intent! We care about the text itself! So I propose alternate meanings of the word “naked.”

The word begs some questions: what if it’s cold out? Snowing? Raining? What if people feel more comfortable in ritual garb? What if people just don’t like being naked? The answer I see most frequently to these questions is, “Well, the Charge is more of a set of guidelines than hard and fast rules. If you don’t want to be naked, you don’t have to be.”

But that reading potentially sets up a hierarchy within Witchcraft: the hardcore witches who follow the Charge to the letter, and the dilettante witches who’d rather ignore the parts they don’t like.

The way I like to read the line, though–and I’m sure I’m not the first one to read it this way–is to see the word “naked” as figurative. Slavery, physical or mental, necessitates a guarding of one’s emotions and worldview. How many witches feel like they have the luxury to be mentally naked in the pews of a fundamentalist church? Or to address a form of real slavery (because I don’t like equating the broom closet with atrocities throughout history), how many victims of human trafficking feel they have the power to express what they really feel?

Nakedness can also mean resisting against the pull of groupthink among other Pagans. Once, at a ritual, someone plopped a football-sized crystal in my hand and said, “Feel how warm it is! Feel all that energy!” I felt neither warmth nor energy. But I cloaked myself in a quietly deadening lie: “Yeah, I feel it! Wow, man, yeah!” And my Paganism withered for years afterward. If I’d followed the Charge, I might have been able to hand the crystal back and say, “Nope, just feels like a rock to me. And I think that’s okay.”

So, if we were to read an adaptation of the line, using this understanding of the word:

You shall be free from slavery both physical and mental, and as a sign that you are free, you shall abandon your defenses, your lies, your boasts, and your self-deceptions in your rites. You shall appear as you truly are, no more and no less.

On to line 13.

What I want to focus on in this line is the phrase “all acts of love and pleasure.” Now, I’m going to get really nitpicky here–again, in a spirit of playful curiosity–so if you’re starting to suspect that you don’t like Pagan Pilpul, you’re really not going to like the rest of this post.

My concern is this: do love and pleasure have to go together in order to be a ritual, or do they count if they’re separate? In order words, does the line mean “all acts that are infused with both love and pleasure,” or does it mean “all acts of love, and also all acts of pleasure?”

Whoa!

Let’s consider the implications of the first reading. If I do an act of love, but not pleasure–changing my baby’s diarrhea-filled diaper, let’s say–does that not count as sacred? This reading of the line, with its two criteria for a ritual, implies a mindful carving out of sacred space and time. It also embeds self-care into worship. If I know my practice discourages martyrdom, then I’ll take turns changing that poopy diaper instead of saddling myself with it because I think it’s holy.

But what about acts of love that aren’t pleasurable, but are divinely mandated? If I get arrested blockading the destruction of a community garden and spend a horrible night in jail, is that extremely unpleasant act not a sacred act? Perhaps the charge is instructing me to change my reality within the act to find some pleasure in it. I’m thinking, here, of Starhawk’s stories of singing and chanting with other women while jailed.

Let’s take the second reading. Let’s say I do two acts: I give my mother a gift, and I eat a bag of Cheetos. The first act is an act of love; the second is an act of pleasure. Is eating Cheetos a ritual of the Goddess? Junk food kills people.

Are acts of pleasure that derive from hatred and estrangement–getting the last word in a fight, slicing someone to ribbons with the perfect comeback–rituals of the Goddess? I think we’d all say no to that. I think we’d argue about the meaning of the word “pleasure.” Is something honestly pleasurable when it gives you the subtle bad feels inside? Well…if we define pleasure simply as “a good feeling,” I’d argue that yes, it often is. Many people are so caught up in misguided habits that they can no longer tell the difference.

Truth be told, I would have rather Valiente simply wrote “acts of love.” But she wrote “and pleasure” for a reason, and it’s much more interesting to honor that and see where it leads us. Notice I haven’t even gotten into the question of what the Charge means by the word “ritual,” or the word “rejoice.” I could write about this all night!

So which is the “correct” reading? I think it depends on how honest you are with yourself. If you can recognize the difference between wholesome pleasure and unwholesome pleasure–true, nourishing, love-based pleasure and false, enervating, hate-based pleasure–then all acts of love, even if unpleasant, and all acts of genuine pleasure are your rituals.

If you feel like you’re not there yet–and that’s okay!–then perhaps the first reading provides you with a way to gauge the sacredness of your pleasure. “This feels good! But is it an act of love, for myself or for others? No. It’s not a ritual, then.”

I hope this exercise was fun! Let me reiterate by saying that there’s a time and place for text study as a playful experiment, and a time and place for ecstatic worship. Please, let your Younger Self forget everything I wrote here while you’re engaged in ritual. Your Talking Self can come back to it later.

May you have the freedom to be naked! May you have the freedom to perform deep acts of love and pleasure!

_____

*ETA: Witch’s Cat at Vještičji ormar/The Broom Closet has written a fantastic history and analysis of the Charge, filled with lots of things I maybe read once and forgot, and lots more that I didn’t know at all. I’m eternally a beginner.

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3 thoughts on “Pagan Blog Project: Commentary on the Charge of the Goddess

  1. thalassa says:

    Reblogged this on Pagan Devotionals and commented:
    I just had to share…not only is this a great practice (that reminds me to get back to my Delphic maxim blogging), but the author brings a great perspective. We need more of this introspective self-examination!!

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