Talking about ritual and symbols can be challenging for me. As a secular humanist, there are few established ritual practices (if any) with which I genuinely connect. Every spiritual practice comes with a significant energy expenditure toward justification. Even the term spiritual, which I personally dislike, is difficult to avoid if only because there is no word with which to label my experience easily. Not a spiritual act, but an act of connecting to an underlying shared culture of humanness? Not divine, but acknowledging that human evolution and social evolution dictates that there is some measure of comfort to be had in abandoning turning inward (the self) constantly and instead supplanting that impulse (anxiety, obsession) with something outside of ourselves?
I am reminded of the book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. In Sapiens, he discusses how Homo sapiens perhaps avoided conflict by a shared experience and belief-system, animism and nature worship (shown in pictographs and petroglyphs) which then evolved into more complex religions. I am not going to spend too much time on this book, as this is not a review, but I do very much recommend reading it.
I believe that we haven’t truly moved far beyond that point. Watching interactions unfold online in an increasingly polarized political/belief climate, it is becoming apparent to me that our shared beliefs become a touchstone for our foundational well-being, especially when confronting ideologies that violently disrupt our own (for some of us that literally means violence e.g., police brutality against people of color, violence against trans-individuals, neo-nazis running people over with their cars, the list goes sickeningly on and on). Shared beliefs equate to trust. If you are not a part of that structure, you are to be treated as an enemy.
I think we like to feel that we are so much more enlightened than our ancient counterparts, and indeed it is something perhaps for which we are worthy of striving. But the more I look around me, the more I feel that it is not really true. Humans exist in larger numbers than have ever been present with more access to each other than ever before—we are subject to the same superstitions and yearning for familiarity and ritual but also a newly cultivated disdain for feeling a need for those things in an environment that perhaps makes us feel more alienated than ever.
So it comes down to this, how I understand my need for ritual, my yearning for something outside of myself. As a person who was raised a Christian of the Southern Baptist variety, rituals were a part of my daily life: prayer, study, baptism (literal dunk-you-in-the-water-and-shout-hallelujah baptism), music (no dancing because for us that particular stereotype was true), the Eucharist, even potlucks. When I was 16 and truly realized I had no faith, that I had been lying to myself for a long time, I lost something very dear to me—ritual. A lot of those activities kept me grounded even though they also filled me with so much guilt—guilt for striving so hard to believe and never being able to, guilt for having to pretend, and then guilt for ultimately not feeling guilty. I lost my refuge away from an unhappy home, the one instance my controlling father allowed me to see my friends, but I gained myself. The absence of God does not make me feel lost, I rejoice in what was, for me, a liberation. But the comfort of a routine in a time of need sometimes does.
So, I, like many before me, came to witchcraft. Witchcraft has been a haven for the disenfranchised, for the QUILTBAG+ community, for the disabled, for people of color. It has been a way for us to find community, to find a channel for our intentions, to connect with our ancestry and lost belief systems, a way to organize, a way to heal. There are a lot of people that are very confused by the concept of a secular witch, for similar reasons to what I detailed in the first paragraph. I am often told that my practice is illegitimate because I am a secular humanist. There are no books that describe what non-spiritual magical practice looks like or gives me a set of defined terms to more accurately describe it. One of my hopes with this blog is to have perhaps a comprehensive resource for people who find themselves in a similar position.
This lengthy preamble is really here to say that it is the New Moon and one of the many things I incorporate into my practice is moon ritual. Coming from a background where a regularly scheduled weekly congregational gathering was a part of the clockwork of my life, I really was looking for something outside of Wiccan sabbaths (not Wiccan, too spread out) that I could track easily that would also allow for frequent practice. I have always been in love with the moon—mystery, darkness, expression, doing secret things in secret places, a time of power and wakefulness, a time to successfully plot and take action against oppositional forces. You know, nighttime stuff. I am also drawn to the moon because it has a cycle that is more present and continually relevant on a day to day basis exhibiting its changes each night as a constant visual reminder of time passing. The sun obviously doesn’t serve this function beyond the shift from day to night, which is an odd juxtaposition considering the solar cycle is one year, and yet its visual transition is limited to 24 hours, repeated day after day.
Like the Wheel of Fortune, the Fool’s Journey, our lives, the earth, the solar system, and the universe, we are governed by systems and cycles. As humans, we are prone to ritual to commemorate and feed the desire to cater to this innate sense of being. And even if we are forever spinning ever outward toward the slow destruction of our universe, the human lifespan is yet but a blip and so the moon remains unchanged, the cycle a seemingly permanent fixture in our psyche.
The sacredness of the moon has been connected with the basic rhythms of life and the universe. A widespread phenomenon, appearing in various eras and cultures, moon worship has engendered a rich symbolism and mythology. It is viewed in terms of the rhythmic life of the cosmos and is believed to govern all vital change—recognizing that the moon impacts something as great as the tides contributes to this. The cyclical process of disappearance and appearance of the moon is the basis of the widespread association of the moon with the land of the dead, the place to which souls ascend after death, and the power of rebirth. The lunar governance of this cycle likewise leads to the association of the moon and fate.
And while I don’t believe in fate, or the underworld, or even a soul I do like the imagery and I do identify with elements of it and feel that it is useful enough—like a wonderful story that influences our lives in profoundly deep and important ways. So here I am, facing another New Moon and greeting another cycle of my life. I have not had the spoons to be engaged in anything but small acts and little markers. For instance, this is a time for renewal and setting of intentions, so for this new moon I cleaned and trimmed my cuticles and gave myself a manicure. Seemingly irrelevant, but it was an act of self-care that makes me feel more in control and confident. I have also been struggling with my mental illness lately, and that prevents me from doing the things that I want to be doing with my daily life, so while I painted my nails I thought about my hands—they are strong, they are capable, the things that I do with these hands will be good and exactly the way they need to be. It is a simple thing, a glamor, but now every time I look at my hands I remember my own strengths.
**image source Rachel Bennett**