Gail Wood

Interview with Gail Wood The Shamanic Witch

December, 2008

Gail adroitly spins a guide that presents the reader the ability to shape shift and navigate through time, thought, and space. The basic foundations of Shamanism and witchcraft in Gail’s book, “The Shamanic Witch” go beyond the fundamental concepts we have become accustomed to. Reminding one of their own inherent abilities in the Shamanic tradition and edifies just how to put these abilities into practice in Shamanic Witchcraft. Gail has fashioned a powerful practice that once embraced opens up the path between the worlds which leads to affirmative changes in all who follow it.

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Photo by: Dawn Van Hall
Gail was gracious enough to allow us this wonderful interview probing into her personal journey throughout her life and her work. The past few weeks that I have spent talking with Gail have been not only spiritually educational but very exciting to say the least.

Interview with Gail Woods The Shamanic Witch

Pagan Pages  (PP): Gail could you tell the readers a little bit about yourself?

Gail Wood (Gail): I live in rural Central New York in a house that’s more than 125 years old; we live on nearly two beautiful acres.  Mouse, my partner, is the high priest of our coven and we have two very old dogs.  I’m a college library director at a state school. I love being a librarian.

I went to college and graduate school at the University of Maryland.  We moved around a lot as a kid but where we always ended up was in Maryland where my mother is from; and that is where I will live when I retire.  I love the Atlantic Ocean beaches especially Assateague Island. I love to read and research and I do all sorts of needlework and sewing.  I love things that glitter!

I’ve been a Witch before I knew it was called Wicca and I discovered that over twenty-five years ago.  I love Tarot and all sorts of divination, I love to teach.  I’m a Reiki Master, as well as a shamanic practitioner.

PP: Gail do you consider yourselves to be a Witch or Shaman?

Gail: Interesting question and the short answer are both.  I consider myself a shamanic witch.  It’s really difficult to get shamanic training that integrates witchcraft or Wicca into it.  Most shamanic teachers are not Wiccans or witches.  I wrote the book to demonstrate not only can it be done but also that the practice of witchcraft is very shamanic in nature.  My personal practice and identity is both shamanic and witchy.  I can’t separate them out anymore!

PP: Who, would you say inspired you the most in your own path through the Mysteries?

Gail: There’s not a one-person answer to that question!  My teacher, SunRaven, was one who taught me the basics of shamanic practice and then how to further and deepen the work.  My High Priestess in the RavenMyst tradition, Lady Hawke was the one that made me conscious that my shamanic practice is truly integrated into my Wiccan practice.  Kristin Madden is a great inspiration; she’s fun, funny, and a powerful journeyer.  I’m a great reader and taker of workshops, so there are a lot of writers, teachers, and workshop leaders to whom I owe a lot for inspiration.  I’m a member of an online writing witchy group and those authors give me lots of encouragement, insight, and inspiration.  If I start naming all the writers and teachers, the list would be long—plus I’d be afraid I’d leave someone out.  These days, too, I gather a lot of strength, creativity, and inspiration from my students both inside and outside the Craft, and of course, my partner Mouse and my dogs.

PP: Gail how do you feel your work to date was influenced by Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone?

Gail: Another interesting question.  Not consciously.  I have read every book by Janet and Stewart Farrar, and then the ones co-authored by Gavin Bone.  I liked Progressive Witchcraft a lot and remember thinking that this book will help me deepen my understanding.  Now I will go back and take a look at it again.

PP: What advice would you give to someone newly interested in Paganism or Witchcraft?

Gail: Find the path and the practice that resonates with your authentic self and don’t let others tell you it MUST be this way or that way.  Find what works for you.  I usually tell people to be as smart about their spirituality as they are with the other choices in their lives.  There are many paths and many ways to experience Spirit and what you owe to yourself is to find the one that resonates deeply with your own internal, eternal divine light.

PP: Gail, how do you think that public opinion of Witchcraft and Paganism has changed over the last few decades?

Gail: It’s been a very interesting transition.  When I started, there was very little information about Paganism.  You had to work very hard to find out how to practice and how to make it knowable to yourself.  I’m very grateful to the work of Scott Cunningham, Starhawk, Raymond Buckland, and the fictional work of Katherine Kurtz from those early days, and then later, Dorothy Morrison, Marion Green, and Caitlin and John Matthews.  Then, it seemed, that the information exploded and spilled out into the mainstream and lots of wonderful writers came into the foreground.  I think the controversies surrounding Silver Ravenwolf’s Teen Witch created awareness, both good and bad, outside the rather private pagan community.  Around that time, academics started publishing works and analyses on the pagan community.  Then good and dumb portrayals of Wicca and Witches started showing up in the media including episodes of sitcoms;  the long running show, Charmed, brought even more awareness, both correct and incorrect.  All sorts of things, factual and fictional, inspire us to move into more spiritual questing, so in some ways having a more real portrayal of Witches show up in the media is part of human nature.

I think more and more people are looking at the values of pagan life and resonating with them.  They don’t necessarily want to be priests or priestesses, but they want to live as if all life is sacred and in harmony with nature.  Others want to live in the counter-culture and be iconoclastic and the pagan community offers that lifestyle as well.  I do see a growth in the Wiccan and pagan laity, to borrow a phrase from the mainstream religions.

It’s rare nowadays that I have to explain that Wicca and witchcraft is not Satanism.  Most people seem to have a smattering of knowledge.  This is not to imply that people do not have a lot of wrong assumptions but there is usually awareness, though that awareness isn’t really deep or very factual.  Lately, I’ve been treated in some odd ways – as if I am weird-in-a-good-way, a curiosity, or as part of a chic, cool thing.  I don’t usually get treated as evil anymore and that is a blessing!

PP: If you could go back in time and change one thing you did, what would it be?

Gail:
Personally and frankly, I would not spend so much time worrying, and specifically not spend so much time agonizing over how fat I was or was not; am or am not.  I would have danced more!  So I dance now…

PP: What do you consider the highlights of your own writing careers to be?

Gail: The Shamanic Witch has me very, very excited.  I reconnected with SunRaven and I think my writing has improved a great deal.  All the writing that I’ve had published has always made me very pleased and proud.  The writing I do is a result of the things I teach, so it’s wonderful to see my teaching take a different and new life in print.  It has also connected me with a lot of people I would not have known otherwise.

PP: What are your views on sex, and sexual symbolism in the Craft? Does it, in your opinion, play an important role?

Gail: Where to start?   I’m going to separate out the sexual symbolism of the beliefs of the Craft, such as creation stories and the Great Rite, from the sexual behavior of members of the Craft and the pagan community.

The latter, sexual behavior, in all its permutations, orientations, encounters, coupling, poly-loving and more, is an important part of our counter-culture community.  As long as I have a choice and can choose in harmony with my own heart, then so should everyone else.  We all live in a long complex gender continuum and there aren’t many safe places for people to go outside the male-female polarity and discover who we are and what gives us joy.  I always hope everyone can find a space of safety and an absence of judgment.  With luck all of us can find not only tolerance but also acceptance and love.  I’ll admit I was shocked at my first festival years ago, but then I got over myself; and as long as I have choices of how far I will or will not go, then it’s all good.

So then we get into the sexual symbolism in the practice of the Craft and the stories of the Great Rite.  It can make the Craft seem lurid and sensational.  The symbolism itself is beautiful and powerful because it helps us understand the fluid, flowing energy of the Universe.  That energy of ebb and flow, in and out, receiving and giving is made understandable in the performance of the Great Rite.  The challenge in ritual for the symbolic Great Rite in ritual is to be inclusive to all sexual orientations and gender identities.  The Great Rite becomes lurid when people think it’s only about the human male-female sex act.

PP: How do you deal with people who criticize you for your views and practices?

Gail: I work in academe and in our community, research, argument, skepticism, and discussion are part of life and I’m well trained in discussion and mental argument.  I am also very good at “agreeing to disagree.” When the criticism gets personal and mean-spirited, then I get my feelings hurt just like everyone else.  I have safe places to kvetch, vent, and process.   I have a good sense of humor, so I can often deflect some remarks that way.  I’d love to tell you that I’m always wise, erudite, articulate, and meet every criticism with the perfect words, but I’m human and I get tired, cranky, and vulnerable too.  I try to keep it all in balance and try not to return nasty for nasty.

I had a funny experience when I found a Dark Moon community on the internet.  I was really excited.  And they were discussing my book, Rituals of the Dark Moon.  I thought this would really enrich my ongoing work with the Dark Moon.  The first thing I read was that someone really did not care for the book at all because the guided meditations didn’t have much detail.  As I make a stabbed in the heart motion, I also had to laugh remembering my grandmother’s expression of an eavesdropper never hearing any good about herself.  And to answer that criticism, I deliberately kept the meditation sparse so their own journeys could fill in the details.  Talk about your good intentions going awry!

PP: What are the differences and similarities between Shamanic Witch craft and the Wiccan Tradition?

Gail: It’s hard to put into words because it is so experiential.  The greatest example of difference in practice is that in my tradition and in my personal practice is that we open Center ritual.  When we open center, we call in the energies of above and below and open the gates to the Upper and Lower Worlds.  The connection between these worlds is ourselves, the Witch, who is rooted in the Lower world through the roots of the World Tree, and we spread our branches up into the Upper World.  The connection between those worlds is here, in the Middle World, with our bodies as the trunk and the tree.  I think in shamanic witchcraft we work deliberately with the totems, power animals, and spirit guides in the cosmology (Upper World, Middle World, and Lower World) of the shamanic practitioner.

The traditional difference stated in some writing is that the shamanic practitioner sends his/her soul out of the body and journeys between the worlds while the Wiccan calls the spirits into the circle and works with them there.  I find this statement arguable.  One of my sister High Priestesses said once about a ritual that calls in the directions of North, East, South and West but does not open Center, that it was more witchy than shamanic.  I guess it was the nuance and texture of the experience in circle, rather than anything that I can articulate well.

I find the Wiccan practices of aspecting, Drawing Down the Moon, and possession-like meditations, to be very shamanic in nature.  By inviting Deity into your body, you are journeying to gain wisdom and power and in service to the community, the essence of the definition and purpose of shamanism.

PP:
You hold the titles of Teacher, High Priestess, and clergy on your website.   You said that you are the High Priestess of the Coven of the Heron of RavenMyst Circle. Can you tell us more about this?

Gail:
I will start with RavenMyst Circle; we are a tradition, a group of several covens.  We are a degree-granting tradition, which is not a rank but rather a measure of progress in our studies and our service to our tradition and the larger community.  I was honored to enter RavenMyst as a Dedicant and progressed through my studies and challenges until I became a third degree High Priestess.  The wonderful thing about RavenMyst was that they honored the work I had done before I entered the tradition.  As a matter of fact, this book is an expansion of a challenge my High Priestess gave me to write a shamanic lesson for our tradition.  In our tradition, the mark of a third degree High Priestess is that she sees with the eyes of Spirit, and the union of my inner divine with that of the transcendent Divine, what we know of as Goddess and God, is kept clear and alive through consistent practice, service to community, and thorough an honest understanding of myself.  It is not a static title but more of a statement of ongoing practice.  At least that’s my experience of the High Priestess gig.

Our tradition also offers ordination as legal clergy, as an option, and I went through the process to become ordained.  I can perform legal weddings and help facilitate other life passage ceremonies, as well as offer an open heart and listening ear.

On my website, I said I was a teacher, too.  I believe that the call we hear to walk this path means that we work in harmony with our best talents and our burning passions.  Mine is to guide people to find the spiritual path that suits them in their soul.  That is what a Teacher is to me and as a result, not every one of my students has followed “my” path, but end up following the path of their calling.  I characterize it as, “I know stuff and I like to share.” I love what I teach.  I teach Tarot, shamanic practice, Wicca, and other fun things like tea-leaf reading, pendulums, and different ways of looking at the Goddesses and Gods (think chocolate!).  I recently retired from teaching Reiki because I felt that Spirit was telling me to leave that path for others to teach.  What I teach is strong, fluid, fun, and interests me, heart and soul.

PP: Could you tell us more about the Basic journeys of the Shamanic Student?

Gail: When you get down to it, the basic skills are what keep a practice going and going.  There are three overlapping worlds, the Upper World, the Middle World, and the Lower World.  We journey to these worlds to gather information, wisdom, and power; and we use those things to change ourselves and to help our community change and grow.  The Lower World is the home of our totems, power guides, and creatures who work with us in our journeywork purpose.  The Upper World is where our teachers reside and appear to us in human form as Gods, Goddesses, and revered heroes and humans.  The Middle World is this world of the material and includes the hidden realms of magic.

The first journeys that form the basis of our shamanic practice are:  journey to the lower world to find your power animal; and journey to the upper world to find your teacher.  Another basic journey is to dance your power animal here in the Middle World.

PP: In chapter three of your book Shamanic Witchcraft “Walking between the Worlds: Developing a Shamanic Practice” you talk about ‘Guided Visualization’ and Finding your Inner Shaman’ could you please elaborate on this further?

Gail: The people I encounter come to meditation and trance work with expectations and fears gathered from the media and other sources but with little personal experience, or so they think.  In the media, they see images of monks, priests, and other holy people who are very disciplined in some methods of meditation and seekers think they have to emulate those behaviors to “be good at meditation.” What people don’t always realize is that we instinctually use guided visualization and trance work in our daily lives.  Since it’s instinctual, we aren’t doing it consciously or with discipline.  I use guided visualization to demonstrate that those of us who were raised in a media-enriched world can find a personal meditation practice that works for us.

The “Finding Your Inner Shaman” guided visualization rocks!  One of my friends, Lady Phoenix Medusa in Rochester, NY introduced me to this meditation.  Because some form of shamanism was practiced in all the cultures of the world, I believe it is part of our heritage, part of our blood, bone, and sinew.  Modern folk, such as us, have to consciously reawaken our inner shamanic instinct.  The guided meditation in the book is one way to do that.  Once your inner shaman is discovered or reawakened, he or she becomes part of your active inner divine nature.  Once again!

PP: Could you explain to the readers the differences between ‘Creatures and Spirits of the other realms?

Gail: Nice catch!  I always wonder if someone is going to question that.  It’s a phrase I use in ritual to call in the ‘creatures and spirits’ of the directions, above and below.  I believe that that we humans see the world of spirit within our own human limitations.  The Animals and others appear to us in ways that we can understand them, so they might be a cartoon character, an animal we like, or a creature we encounter in our daily lives.  In circle, I want to allow the possibility of limitlessness so I tried to pick a phrase that would allow me to call in more than I could imagine into our circle – in perfect love and perfect trust, of course!

PP: What system of initiation is used in your coven and in Shamanic Witch Craft?

Gail: Much of the initiatory work in my coven and tradition is oathbound, meaning that I have taken oaths not to reveal parts of our practices including initiation.  We do that to continue our practices in safety and also to make each threshold ritual the best possible experience for the Witch.  Keeping parts of the practice secret is not to exclude people but to intensify the experience.  Truly, initiation comes from Spirit and we Witches are witnesses and facilitators of the experience.  Understanding comes from the experience of the initiation and not in the reading or telling of it!

PP: How do you see Witchcraft being passed on in the future? Will there be more worship circles led by priests and priestesses or will there always be covens? Will there always be the goal of a universal priesthood within Witchcraft, or will people content to be congregants?

Gail: I think there already is a pagan laity.  There are people who want to live in harmony with the sacred world and to live as a pagan but don’t want to write, facilitate or actively create their own worship.   I’ve heard people identify themselves as pagan agnostics and pagan atheists, saying they question or disbelieve in the existence of many gods, rather than just one.  What they really want to do is live life according to the values of sacred life and in harmony with nature and maybe a lot of the counter-culture activities as well, but they are not religious.

How will Witchcraft be facilitated in the future?  I think the variety and diversity already exists and that will not only continue but flourish in keeping with individual need and desire.  I believe there will always be covens just as there will be open circles, public circles, groups that meet together in large and small numbers.  It’s up to the individuals how they want to meet together and the human imagination is enormously creative.  I think there will be more diversity in how people identify themselves both individually and as groups.

PP: What are the biggest changes in the Wiccan or Pagan community that you have seen over the past twenty years? What are the challenges we face in the years to come?

Gail: There is much more awareness in the general population about Wicca and by extension, paganism.  I don’t believe there’s much depth to that awareness but most people are generally aware that Wicca is a growing religion.  People make their own judgments about Wicca and often without a lot of information.  Seekers will come at all levels of dedication from curiosity and thrill-seekers, to people wanting to criticize and harm, to the dedicated and earnest.

Some of the challenges we currently deal with are similar social issues everyone in society has to deal with, is how to function within a dominant culture with little sympathy or understanding of our lack of structure, money, and organization.  As examples, I think various pagan groups are facing decisions about non-profit status, money, insurance, and meeting places all the time.  As we grow larger than our living rooms and groves, where do we go, how do we worship, and how do we make it happen in consistent and effective ways.

As we grow as a community, we need to think about children’s education and growth and organizations such as Spiral Scouts are great ways to help.  At the other end of the spectrum, how are we going to deal with our aged ones?  Nursing homes, hospitals, funeral homes, and all the services concerned with aging and illness do not usually encompass an ecumenical understanding of pagan religions.

And, as the population in prisons continues to grow there are many incarcerated pagans un-served by the free world pagans.  I had a pagan prison ministry for more than five years.  My correspondence courses grew exponentially and the need for my services left me emotionally burnt out; it consumed so much of my time and resources, I finally had to stop.  In my experience, most free world pagans do not want anything to do with incarcerated pagans.  It is hard work and the few people who do the work are dedicated and honored folk, but they do toil alone often without support or understanding.

And the bigger question about all these social issues seems to be, how do we address them and still maintain the free-wheeling, iconoclastic, counter-culture attitude that brought most of us to paganism in the first place.

PP: Are you currently working on any new exciting projects that you would like to share with the readers of Pagan Pages?

Gail: I have an idea percolating to do a book on the shamanic visions of the 21st century goddess called The Rowdy Goddess.  To take the understanding of various Goddesses, well-known and obscure, and approach her shamanically and see what happens!  I’ve done bits and pieces of that and would like to put that together.  I’ve been working on a Tarot book for pagans; it’s designed as a year-and-a-day study course and incorporates the holidays and other interesting tid-bits.  I’ve also wanted to write an advanced book on shamanic witchcraft called The Well-prepared Witch.  How to be a magical worker, a journeyer, and a spell-caster…..

Bountiful Blessings and thank you Gail, for your mesmerizing insights into Shamanic Witchcrafts past, present and future

Works of Gail Wood Include:

Shamanic Witchcraft

The Wild God: Rituals And Meditations on the Sacred Masculine

Rituals of the Dark Moon: 13 Lunar Rites for a Magical Path

Short Essays and

    • Poetry

  • “Sweet Dreams” in Cakes and Ale for the Pagan Soul.

    The Llewellyn Witches Calendar, various years including 2007-010

    Llewellyn’s Tarot Annual 2007 and 2008

    The Magical Almanac 2006 – 2010

    We’Moon Datebook and We’Moon on the Wall 2007