Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Colours of Magic, Racism, and Reclaiming Traditional Balance

At the Standing Stone altar...
I believe Wicca has done the world a great disservice in the modern labeling of magic. Not that magic types shouldn't be labeled. It's very helpful to categorize when one is looking for reference material in a library for example, or to indicate who might be a better match to work with. And colours designations themselves are not the problem per se. Colours to describe forms of magic are traditional all over the world. However, the current use of colour terms has some very unpleasant connotations and perpetuate associations that we as spiritual practitioners must acknowledge and be aware of, especially if we decide that we must deal with the issues they present.

"White" magic is by implication almost the only desirable magic nowadays. Many practitioners, especially those who are new, go out of their way to explain that they practice only white magic. One can only assume it is because this colour has implications in English that is consistent with the image Wiccan writers and leaders wished to perpetuate. White is by implication, then, desirable, clear, pure, shining, and filled with light. And practiced by Whites. "Black" magic, on the other hand, is undesirable, dark, sinister, and practiced by the unscrupulous victimizers. And Black. These same implications have also applied to the possessors of the skin colour called "black". But why not "constructive and destructive"? Or "positive and negative"? Or even "yin" and "yang"? By the most powerful suggestions, then, the practice of Wicca has translated into delineations along racial lines. How many 'whites' can imagine a 'black' Wiccan vehemently denying that they practice 'black' magic, and only practice 'white' magic? What exactly is wrong with 'black' magic, then? And doesn't that have implications on the colour of their skin? With current usage, if I say "Black witch" or "White witch", do you know if I'm referring to the type of the practitioner's magic or the colour of their skin? By these associations, does that mean that Red magic is only practiced by North American natives? Or Yellow magic by Asians? What about Brown? Green magic must only be for space aliens...[1]

There is of course a long tradition of associating Black and Night with fear and negativity, in the Western World especially, but it becomes greatly exaggerated with the advance of Xianity and the suppression of paganism, particularity women's traditions. Modern Witchcraft, in it's evolution of thealogy, can draw upon other rich traditions and classic depictions of magic, and does not need to perpetuate the popularized Xian view of magic that associates black with harm, evil, and Satan. I accuse the newcomer Wicca as the primary source of the infection, because much of the rest of the pagan world still goes by an older system, the traditional three "gunas" found for thousands of years in most cultures. They represented the three aspects of the Goddess in her Creatrix/Virgin, Preserver/Mother, and Destroyer/Crone modes, distinguished by White, Red and Black. Being of the Celtic persuasion, when I have used those colour designations, I envision the Creatrix magic as primarily Bardic and Inspirational. Red magic is the Preserver, so I see healing, love, etc. Most cultures place fertility in this colour, although a few reasonably place this in White for birth. I guess it depends what result one hopes for. Black Destroying Crone is for battles, curses, balancing the scales, removal of cancerous circumstances or images, or the destruction of other things that have outgrown their usefulness and need to be replaced.

It is nearly impossible to discuss and manifest balance in the world with the inadequate and limiting nomenclature of the Wiccan White and Black. The White=Good, Black=Bad presents us with a very unsophisticated tool to represent our spirituality. The traditional gunas give much more freedom to our thealogy. Black, White, and Red magics have negative and positive forces in them that must be explored by the seeker. There is positive and negative destruction. Without destruction, there is no creation. The pure blank page must be destroyed to write poetry on it. The crumbling building must be destroyed before a new one can be built to house a family. The remains of last night's dinner must be put on the compost to rot and create new soil. There is negative creation. There are many ideas, constructions, and institutions that have mostly caused harm in the world, and would have been better had they never been created. Red magic negativity can express itself in harmful relationships or love obsessions, or in healing that truly believes interventions on unwilling subjects is 'for their own good'. Such unsophisticated terms also reduce our ability to deal with destruction as good and necessary, and creation as not always the best choice. As women, it reduces our power to deal with destruction in any reasonable manner, leaving us with far less skill or experience to tackle issues under the Destroyer auspices even in our own lives, such as marital arts or abortion. This is what the Goddess in all her aspects is really about: expressing and celebrating our power as women, in all it's dread and magnificent forms.

If we are to use a system of colour classification to broadly describe certain specializations and preferences, and I personally find it can be quite elegant and robust, there are many conventions to draw upon. Brown usually speaks of animals and other nature magic. Blue is most often Water and it's creatures. Purple is considered more on the astral plane: like travel and divination. The Indigo Children or Tribe are often said to be such. I know a Red Witch who absolutely emits sexual karuna energy, and my apprentice is envisioning herself as a Red and Brown witch. She is learning the aspects of healing, for horses and other animals as well as humans. I have heard of Orange, Lavender, Mauve, and other forms of specialization, but I'm not as clear on what their particular areas of interest are. I use Green magic to describe the primary form I focus on, that is, healing, herbs, kitchen witchery, environmental work, etc. By implication, it is seen as primarily positive. Using that to designate myself gives those who don't know me an excellent basis for how I work and what my interests are. It has helpful thealogy aspects to meditate on and I find it inherently more useful than the term "White". As well as not perpetuating any nasty stereotypes.

Green Magic is in fact a great example of the ongoing evolution of the Colour System. Green Witchcraft as a term is far more recognized than it was even ten years ago. It's almost become an agreed upon designation. That didn't come overnight, nor without controversy, and it was not in wide use until very recently. I believe that this helps demonstrate several important points: that the interest in colour designation will not fade away, that we can choose to alter the current uses, and that we can agree upon and transform colour terminology to best reflect our practices of magic and our philosophies. The Colour System does not, will not, and should not go out of use, but we can change those aspects of the modern designations that are non-traditional to witchcraft and offensive to our egalitarian philosophies.

One of the other significant benefits to the Colour System is one not widely practiced currently, but again gaining in popularity. Since many witches dedicated to a particular type of magic will often find they are most comfortable with that colour around them, they will occationally find that an aspect of their religious practice is to wear only those hues. Rather than finding it limiting, it is a vibrant expression of their spiritual practice and dedication that they can take with them in their day-to-day living, as well as provide a meditative concept. It has the same discipline as religious dietary regimes and other spiritual practices. If during the training as pagan nuns, they dedicate themselves to a Colour of Magic, I encourage them to explore the rather radical discipline of dressing in only those colours as part of their spiritual practice; in effect being garbed as a nun all the time, even if those around you never know. Some will even begin to dream that they need to have those colours enfold them. Most who take on this discipline usually choose one particular shade of their colour, and almost always mix it with Black, often seen as the traditional colour of witchcraft itself. Some use a few more colours, to indicate their different preferences. A symbolic metal will often also be selected for jewellry and accents. Gold and gold-like metals such as brass is usually for the sun and masculine energy. Silver is for the moon, of course, and copper is traditionally associated with Venus, Love, and Red Magic. White Gold would be a combination of Silver and Gold aspects, Red Gold with Copper and Gold, Bronze is often used by warriors, etc...

I personally have taken on this practice for decades. I have only worn the Colours of Dark Green, Black, and Silver since the mid-90's when I dedicated myself to living my Craft every moment of the day. With this discipline, I am constantly a Green Witch, and I am always displaying that concept to myself and those around me. For those of you who would worry about being seen as even more of a weirdo in dedicating yourself to your Craft in that way, the rest of the world, including some who have known me for years, don't usually notice the perpetual colour choices of a wardrobe. Unless it's only one colour, for some reason... I've also saved an incredible amount of money on clothes, since everything I purchase goes with everything else, and I always look put together, for the same reason. Imagine going into your closet blindfolded and coming out matching! It's really a dream...

I am obviously a huge fan of the Colour System, and find it wonderfully helpful in my own practices and assisting my students find where their own interests might lie. It is a traditional, valuable, and vibrant part of our heritage. When considering the negative, positive, and possibly neutral aspects of each colour, the Colour System gives rise to a very robust and intricate system of designations that can help us accurately define our theaologies with beauty. However, there are some serious flaws in how the Colour System is currently being used in modern Paganism. As it is in the process of evolving, it can be deliberately altered to more suit our needs as a spiritual tool, yet without continuing to perpetuate the stereotypes of the English language or our practices, to ourselves and the general public. To do this, it is vital that we insist upon purging the racism and self-loathing in the current use of the terms "White Magic" and "Black Magic", and instead begin to explore the more traditional aspects of those colours, and how they might better serve our modern sophisticated ideas of magic, it's practitioners, and our philosophies. I, for one, look forward to the day when our designations evolve to a more sophisticated level; when I can speak of magic without someone fearfully interjecting, "But you only practice White Magic, right?"

No. No, I don't. 

Footnotes and further reading:

"Red, white, and black are the main sacred colors in Zulu symbolism. In combination, as particularly in the clothing of diviners, who also code medicines as white, black, or red (Ngubane 1977), these colors suggest an understanding of the universe and the cycle of life within it. White is associated with the ancestors, concepts of purity, calm, and good intentions, and light and divine enlightenment. In some contexts, black represents darkness, evil, death, and defilement. In other contexts, black is linked to the ancestors and carries positive connotations-it evokes the dark rain clouds necessary for the sustenance of life, for example, and Zulu pots, some sculptural objects, and the leather skirt of marriage are blackened to please the ancestors. Red is the color of blood, menstruation, and fertility, and red ochre is strongly associated with the earth and women and their fertility; white clay is associated with the ancestors (Berglund 1989)."

"Ornamentation of everyday use items seemed to be an obligatory component of their creation. Earthenware, ceramics, pottery, tools, vessels, dishes, pottery moulds, internal walls of houses (as shown by clay models) all exhibit a compulsory ornamentation: painted in varying earth-colours, such as white, red, ochre and black, and sometimes carved with incisions or encrusted. The decoration of items or spaces are geometrical incorporating symbols of nature (sun, moon, stars, rain, birds, trees, branches, seeds, flowers, water) and with magical symbols of the supernatural world (the eternal circle, teeth, rhombus, crosses, endless meanders, snake-patterns, lines) are so universal and repeated, that it is unlikely that the decorations were random or coincidental. Umansky believes that these ornament-symbols are of two types: “those aiding to find food and to grow crops, and those protecting people and the results of their labour”. He notes that “some items carried both the symbols of fertility and of protection, intertwined in an integral picture of the cosmos”. Videiko also supports the idea of using ornamentation as a form of protection: “the floor and the walls were painted with red and white colours and decorated with geometrical ornamental patterns to protect the inhabitants from evil spirits” (The Trypillian Culture: Introduction)."

"Graves gives the colours white, red, and black as the colours symbolic of the moon goddess. These are moon colours because the full moon is white; the moon appears red in certain atmospheric conditions and solar eclipses, and black just before the new moon. In occult tradition, white symbolises the goddess as Spring; red is Aphrodite, and black the death aspect of the goddess, say Atropos (the third of the Fates)." 4