Talking about ritual and symbols can be a big challenge for me. As an atheist, there are few ritual practices (if any) in which I truly believe. Every “spiritual” practice comes with a large 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 easily label my experience. Not spiritual, but 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 constantly turning inward (the self) 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 is not really true. We are groups of people 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. This is how I justify 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 that was 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, the having to pretend, and the not feeling guilty for the things for which I was told to feel guilt. I lost my refuge away from an unhappy home, the one instance my controlling father allowed me to see my friends. The absence of God does not make me feel lost, I rejoice. But the comfort of a thoughtless ritual in a time of need sometimes does.
So I, like so many before me, came to witchcraft. Witchcraft has been a refuge for the disenfranchised, for the LGBTQIA* 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, a way to organize, a way to heal. There are a lot of people that are very confused by the concept of an atheist witch, for similar reasons to what I detailed in the first paragraph. I am often told that my practice is illegitimate because I am an atheist. There are no books that detail what non-spiritual magical practice looks like. One of my hopes with this blog is to perhaps have a comprehensive resource for people who find themselves in a similar position, or heck! Right inside my boat.
This preamble is really here to say that it is the New Moon and one of the many things that I incorporate into my practice is moon ritual. Coming from a background where a regularly scheduled weekly ritual was a part of the clockwork of my life, I really was looking for something outside of sabbaths (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 constantly relevant on a day to day basis exhibiting its changes each night as a constant visual reminder of time passing. I do not get this from the sun beyond the shift from day to night, which is an odd juxtaposition considering the solar cycle is one year, and yet its visual cycle is limited to 24 hours, repeated day after day—longest cycle with the shortest presence.
Like the Wheel of Fortune, the journey of The Fool as a whole, 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 constantly spinning ever outward to a very 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 contribute 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 really 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 by 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 really 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**