Brandy Williams is the author of many books. The most recent, For the Love of the Gods: The History and Modern Practice of Theurgy, was published last year.1 The text dives into some heavy topics such as racism and sexism. Donyae Coles sat down and chatted with the author to learn more about her history and outlook on these issues in magick spaces.
Donyae Coles: So, I wanted to start a bit with your background. You have an unusual history. You studied various practices, were involved with martial arts, etc. Can you tell us a bit about that? Do you think that helped shaped the sort of “magical historian” you are now?
Brandy Williams: I’ve always been an autodidact — I read through the library when I was a kid. I felt called to witchcraft when I read my first book [on it] at 16. I am also called to ceremonial [magick] because of my love for history and general geekiness. The martial arts are for 1. Self-defense, and 2. Gotta get up from the desk to keep general fitness!
I definitely think martial arts shape my perspective. There’s an artificial east-west division. It’s on my list of polarities to contest right after male-female and black-white.
I know in your current work you challenge many of the division and duality, what drew you into that? Many magick texts now really push the idea of division and duality, do you think that’s an antiquated idea that arises from patriarchy and racism, or do you challenge it for other reasons?
It really started when I was a kid. I contested the idea that I should be put in a box. Today, at 60, there’s finally a term to describe that — I consider myself a non-gender-conforming woman. So, I really pushed against the gender divisions. As a white person, I came to contesting that binary through being challenged by people of colour (POC) in my community and doing remedial self-education. It’s clear that the binaries are lazy thinking, but more than that, they do reinforce privilege, and that is inherently non-spiritual.
As a Neo-Platonist, I strongly believe that the soul is what matters and the physical body does not reflect spiritual state. That is: you’re not sick because you deserve to be, or [because] God is punishing you.
Let’s talk about gender a little. You talk about it in Love of the Gods and of course you also wrote The Woman Magician. How do you feel that gender roles and enforcement change the magical landscape? What do you foresee as the future, in moving away from the binary, while still respecting people who identify with that binary?
I totally see us moving away from the binary. When I talk to millennial audiences they say, “Why do we need gender roles?” There’s a huge challenge in the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO) where roles are heavily gendered. Non-binary people want to be able to do both roles (priest and priestess). This is important on a social justice level but also makes us more honest about what the magic really does. However, there is a lot of resistance from people invested in the roles. OTO is sort of ground zero for the gender discussion.2
I continue to bring up the race discussion as well which has a lot less traction. While about one third of the OTO is white women there are .00001 percent POC. So, I keep raising the issue. “Can we please not talk about the Great White Brotherhood?”
I am not making this up.
That’s why there are so few POC involved — for that very reason.
Race is another issue that the pagan community has to reckon with. You were involved in Bringing Race to the Table, and you also touched on it in For the Love of the Gods.
It totally is. An issue that is.
Witchcraft and the Pagan community tends to be very white. When did you notice this in your own studies?
Well, when I was on a panel of all white people talking about Neo-Platonism and the one black guy in the room stood up and said “Y’all are racist!” That was sort of my wake-up call. Then I read Crystal’s book — ah, I can’t find it, it’s a book of essays — and I started getting my education.
I still don’t meet POC much in the Pagan world outside Pantheacon. I meet them through churches in doing social justice stuff. There, I’m the outsider as a Pagan. I’m the diversity person in the room.
It’s only a new issue because the voices are finally getting through! It’s rather an old issue. Not just this century, [but for] 2000 years in the classical world.3
Yes, and one of the things I wanted to touch on during this interview is how we deal with race issues in the current communities.
In For the Love of the Gods, you present many practices and give steps for incorporating those practices into our own worship. In magical practice, we see a lot appropriation (I’m thinking right now of hoodoo, in particular), how do you feel about that? What do you think needs to be done to continue to share and educate but not erase POC from this history? Especially given that our magical history isn’t as often written down and therefore not seen as, well history.
That is the question I see us wrestling with. Cultural appropriation has just blipped onto the map. White people generally react with dismay, “I’m not appropriating!” or they find some POC to validate, “She doesn’t mind that I wear dreads, he invited me to the sweat lodge!” or they just straight up say “Well, I get to appropriate this, you can’t stop me.”
It is a pivotal question. Ceremonial, in particular, [has been appropriated] for several centuries. Christian kabbalists appropriated Jewish qabbalism. Aleister Crowley appropriated Islamic ritual and imagery.
So, how do you deal with that? I took a baby step in just pointing to it, “Hey everyone, did you know this comes from Africa?” also, “Did you know the people who started this all were black?” I’m chipping away at this.
In order to avoid many pitfalls regarding race and gender, we recommend a lot of background knowledge. Are we being classist, or do you think there’s a more accessible way? Your books are very accessible, I think. Is part of your goal with your work to bridge these gaps and make the sort of surrounding information more accessible to folks?
I’ve always tried to be readable. I spent a couple of years as a newspaper reporter where we wrote to an eighth grade reading level. My current work is more like college level, but I try to steer away from jargon. That said, the first draft of Love of the Gods was in the academic voice and unreadable, I spent two years reworking it! I am such a history geek. I do worry about the classist thing. I read a lot and recommend reading a lot.
I should note I have a high school diploma and a degree in library card. I’m an academic outsider.
These days in social justice work I recommend meeting with people. This is important too. So, my Showing Up for Radical Justice (SURJ) group has bi-monthly meetings where we watch films, and talk to each other. We go out into the community to support direct actions. That makes the work more accessible, and levels class to some extent. Also, it’s grounding to face real people and test your ideas in live action.
That’s really important and it’s honestly really amazing that you’re doing that.
I found your work to almost be taking a note from an oral tradition of storytelling. Like, this is the information but I’m going to give you a story instead of just the facts. It was very engaging but at the same time, as a magick book, it’s not what many people are looking for. Do you worry that being a more nontraditional sort of writer, in regards to your content, will put readers off?
Even when looking at Practical Magic, it’s not a book of spells so much as it is a way to do the work.
Since I’m an academic outsider, I haven’t worried about being nontraditional. I worry about getting a fact wrong, and when I do, I put a correction up on my Web page. It’s more important to me that people read — too many students ask for films instead of books.
The story thing was because Elysia Gallo, my editor, kicked back the first version of the manuscript. I made a presentation to a group and tried a lot of ideas to make the work more accessible and they responded to stories. People love stories, we’re hard-wired for them.
That’s an interesting observation about Practical Magic. I am trying to articulate that my work is all in the same story arc — that was the first book, then Woman Magician — and now I’m working on pagan magician ideas. I am passionate about giving people knowledge of how things work so we can make our own spells, systems.
But I’m working on making more videos. It’s how people are learning these days.
Your work points to building a very personal practice, how does that work with the idea of ceremonial practice? It seems like they would be at odds, but perhaps you have a different perspective?
It’s true, ceremonial people are very traditional and can be somewhat rigid in ritual approach. But every magician has to make their own practice. The Western Magical Tradition includes both witchcraft and ceremonial [magick], group work and individual work. I have a personal practice, a family-sized coven, and I’m active in OTO which is a large and somewhat impersonal entity, and I need all those levels in my practice to be fully engaged.
You don’t often hear of people practicing at all these levels. It’s either have the coven, or it is a solitary practice, and that’s it — no blurring of lines.
I know, and it’s funny because my whole coven is like that. We all have many different groups we are involved in, but most of the people I know are witches or magicians, and never the twain shall meet. They never discover that their founders all know each other.
Although, when I [point that out] the English witches say, “We know!” This happened on my Facebook page just this week. Caroline Tully said it’s more in America that we tend to make these sharp distinctions.
Oh wow, yes, that’s very true. What a great insight. Thank you so much for talking to me today.
Williams: My pleasure.