Pagan Theology

Getting out of the stores

I am no historian of religions but I have to think that ours is the first that is mainly built up around stores.   It is somehow humorously incongruous, a religion, something that is traditionally divorced from the material world, that meets in, organizes around, and has the main part of its public identity bound up in stores.  I suspect that this is also a uniquely American way of managing our religion.  An easy analysis would say that its our pervasive materialism simply expressing itself in religious terms.  If megachurches can have Starbucks and gift shops then we may indeed be at the cutting edge of religion in America.  We don’t just have shops in our churches, our churches are shops.

But that is too easy.  First, we simply don’t have many other places to go, particularly in large cities.  Second, they are more than just a meeting space.

They are an affirmation, one of the few, to the rest of the world that we exist.  They occupy a place on the street where everyone can see that Pagans and Witches exist.  If we didn’t then who else would frequent these shops?

We also have a unique problem, as the only alternative is to welcome people into our houses and other personal spaces.  This can be challenging for a variety of reasons.  We all know that crazy Pagan or the strange individual who has other motives.  Shops are a place that the picky, or perhaps sensible, amongst us can use to screen out at least some of the crazies.  They are a buffer between our intimate inner circles and the rest of the world, a “third place” that is neither festival nor personal.  Unlike Churches or rented halls the authority against trespass in shops is clear and readily backed up by law enforcement.  Most likely the owner will be there at the same time we are meeting, ready to police any behavior that goes too far outside of the (rather wide and relatively unmarked) lanes of Paganism.

Stores also allow leaders within our religion a place to both work and practice our religion.  With no paid clergy everything we do is volunteer and unpaid.  Books, shops, spells, or other items that can be sold are virtually the only way someone who is dedicated to the Craft and Paganism can work full time on their calling. Buying things and books at shops are the way we support the community.  The way we provide space and a place to worship.  They are a way to support some of the elders and Priests and Priestesses who serve us.

All this occurs to me because Lauri Cabot has just announced that she will be closing down her Salem shop at the end of January [http://www.theofficialwitchshoppe.com/].  It ends a 42 year run for Cabot in Salem where she has owned a variety of shops.  Regardless of what you think about her style and flamboyance, she has done a lot to mainstream modern American Paganism.  She grew Salem into a place where Witchcraft and Paganism are not just accepted inside of a few houses and stores, but on the street and within the government (Gov. Dukakis proclaimed her the “official Witch of Salem”).   And she did it through the stores.

Beginning in 1971 with Crow Haven Corner she has run four different stores in Salem, working the publicity and her reputation to bring in business not just for herself, but for the whole community.   Her goal was “to care for my children, support myself and family financially and educate the world about Witchcraft while living my life as a Witch.”

So what will Cabot be doing now that the shop is closing?  Focus on building a temple of Witchcraft in Salem.   What she probably would rather have done from the beginning.  She just couldn’t afford to do it because the depth and breadth of the congregation just wasn’t there 42 years ago to back her up.  Now it is.

This is an interesting evolution in our faith.   First, it is worth noting that Cabot was a real pioneer.  There weren’t a lot of public expressions of Paganism back in the 1970’s and she was a real visionary when she opened her store.   As a pioneer she could be said to have established the tradition in the US of having a “place” in which witches could gather and practice.  She was prophetic in opening a store, as stores have now become one of the de-facto public meeting places for Pagans and Witches.  The only other public place where Pagans and Witches gather is in Unitarian Universalist Churches through the Covenant of UU Pagans.   But UU Churches, for all the benefits they provide and their welcoming tradition, put a particular color on the rituals they sponsor (they are a Church after all, with specific beliefs and traditions unrelated to Paganism).

Now I think the question is whether Cabot is being prophetic in her opening the temple.  As she grows older (she’s in her 70’s now) I can guess that there is a desire to leave something behind that will continue on when she is gone.  I suspect that is the desire of many of us in the Pagan community, but what that might be has been elusive.  A temple, a self-sustaining community with clergy and infrastructure is one thing that just might endure past our lifetimes.  Stores, while they can provide infrastructure, don’t have the process and organization required for training and supporting priests and priestesses.  Temples do.

So Cabot’s move from being a business woman to a full time Priestess begs the question:  are we going to move from a store based public front to a temple based image?  I don’t know, but I suspect that if we don’t, it will be difficult to sustain an organized Pagan religion that has impact in the community.  While it is always possible to practice magic and witchcraft, Paganism and Witchcraft are not just magic: they are religions.  And religions require people, process, and infrastructure in order to sustain themselves over long periods of time.  Currently we have a lot of enthusiastic people, but how do we sustain those people over time?  We have a multitude of processes, but those processes (initiation, training, etc.) are not anchored in both a body of people or a place to go.  Instead they are dispersed amongst any number of covens, groups, and traditions.

Now that Cabot is moving on from store to temple, I believe other places, whether they are a temple or some “third place” where we can meet will follow suit.  Even in my own town a group has established a Pagan community center.  Just as there was a long and complicated path that led from store to temple in Salem, there will be a long path as others move from small meetings and coven groups to something more organized, more established.  We will always have our covens, but the potential exists to have something more.  And our prophet has once again shown us the way.