Dr. Susan Harper isn't the first woman to be called a "feminist witch." She's just one of the few who don't mind. Why should she? She has traveled far, spiritually and geographically, to earn the title.
Professionally, Harper is the graduate reader at Texas Woman's University, editing and offering guidance to graduate students completing dissertations. Her own, which earned her a doctorate in anthropology from SMU, was about paganism in Texas.
Personally, she is a spiritual guide and a pagan priestess leading women-only worship circles devoted solely to goddesses — a literal feminist witch. Just smile when you say it. She does.
If there is a stereotype of the modern witch, Harper probably doesn't fit it. Gregarious, open and energetic, she doesn't dress all in black or clank with silver bangles. She laughs easily, but with no hint of a cackle. She looks as though she could be teaching English classes at a Midwestern public school, which she might have been doing today had she not left her home in Yankton, South Dakota, on a scholarship to the University of North Texas, where she had planned to study journalism. Instead, she found religion, the opposite of journalism.
"When I got to UNT, I found my people," she says. "I was the weird girl who was on the debate team but was into Metallica and read tarot cards. It was not an easy person to be in a small town in the '90s in the middle of the Satanic panic."
In Yankton, population 13,000, finding a dusty pack of tarot cards in the backroom of the town's only bookstore was hard enough, and the town's library didn't hold any books on Wicca or neo-paganism — and wasn't about to get any even if she asked. So her information about alternative faiths was limited to an article in Seventeen magazine (in the '90s, even Metallica girls read Seventeen) and another in the Sioux Falls newspaper. Her father was an atheist and her mother, who died when Harper was 13, described herself as a "recovered Catholic" who joined the Church of Christ.
Put it all together, and like many heading off to college, young Susan Harper was primed to start a spiritual journey. For some, that spirit is Jägermeister. Harper instead found a classmate who would become a lifelong friend and who gave her her first book on paganism. A change in majors, the founding of a pagan student group at UNT and many, many more books followed. "We joke that paganism is the religion of homework," Harper says.
Today, she blogs about feminist spirituality and activism at witchesandpagans.com, teaches online courses in paganism at mysteryschoolofthegoddess.net, speaks on those topics and others around the country, organizes events for environmental and women's issues and leads a monthly women's worship group in Arlington that's welcoming to trans women, unlike some other goddess circles. (Her circle, she says, is "low woo," lighter on ritual and incantations, as opposed to "high woo" paganism with much more ritual, known as Episcopaganism among pagans.) She blends activism and paganism in various ways: for example, practicing ritual magic to send energy and support to women advocating for abortion rights.
Which leads to the obvious question: Really? Magic?
Christians rolling their eyes at this point might contemplate exactly what they believe about, say, transubstantiation. Or angels. And then maybe go light on the eye-rolling.
Still, it's a legit question. Does she believe in literal, animate, invoke-able goddesses or is she evoking myth and ritual to construct a worldview?
"When I got exposed to the question of goddess, I kind of tried on the sort of angry daddy in the sky from where I was growing up," Harper says. "And I didn't want to swap one angry parent for another," she says.
"My approach ... now is, I think we choose the symbols and the myths and the stories that organize the world in a way that makes sense for us. [Joseph] Campbell said it's all smoke and mirrors, the only difference is what position the mirrors are in and what color the smoke is."
But that view and belief in animate supernatural forces are not antithetical, Harper says. "Whether you believe the wind is personified or not, wind is powerful. Fire is powerful. Water is powerful, and you can experience these things and have a transcendent experience."
For an environmentalist like Harper, paganism's focus on earthbound forces is naturally appealing. For a feminist, moving beyond a patriarchal god is empowering. For an educated, spiritual human, examining one's self and place in the universe is pretty much the point of being, really.
"It's an incredibly powerful political act for anybody, women in particular, to put female images and feminine pronouns on god, because the idea that god is male has been used to justify the oppression of women and queer folks and gender nonconforming folks for a long time.
"When you tell half humanity or more they don't look like god, that's just so alienating. So I quickly went from the more straightforward Wiccan view to this feminist-informed view."
Rituals in all faiths guide practitioners to focus on spiritual and personal questions and help build a "sacred space," where worshipers feel encouraged to open up, to question, seek healing and be assured of their own sanctity.
That can be a powerful place for women, Harper says. In her circle, they craft rituals about recovering from trauma. "I want to make people feel they have the resources to make it better," she says.
If it works, in a way it is magic.
Interested in exploring spirituality outside the bounds of major organized religions? Check out these sites for information on taking alternative looks at the meaning of life, the universe and everything.
Born in 1875, Englishman Aleister Crowley was a painter, poet, author, mountaineer, magician, occultist and possible secret agent. His critics called him a Satanist and the beast of the apocalypse, but then it was hard to be a free-thinker in the Gilded Age. He was glad to call himself the beast, anyway. His view of the apocalypse was a positive change in human culture, away from dogma. Crowley lives on as the prophet and founder of Thelema, a religion/philosophy devoted to individual liberty. “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law. Love is the law, love under one will,” is Thelema’s chief tenet, which helps explain his popularity in the counterculture movement of the ’60s. Dallas is home to Bubastis Oasis, a body of the Ordo Templi Orientis, the international organization devoted to Thelema. Bubastis Oasis provides a temple, website and informational events and celebrates Gnostic mass to “facilitate the growth of the individual and assist him or her in the acquisition of Light, Wisdom, Understanding, Knowledge, and Power,” according to the group’s website. The goal is to create a world where personal liberty is paramount, but don’t be misled by Crowley’s being called in his lifetime “the most wicked man in the world.” Thelema has a firm set of ethics and values devoted to liberty of the individual; it’s not a libertine free-for-all.
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12800 Abrams Road
No, not a maze cut in a cornfield, a labyrinth is an ancient tool for meditation, a single winding path, most often circular. There are no walls; the challenge isn’t to avoid getting lost but to create a space for reflection. They’re ecumenical, too. Christian and other churches use labyrinths as tools for spiritual reflection, but nonbelievers can find inner peace walking the twisting spaces too. Richland College’s Teaching-Learning-Community Building (TLC) Labyrinth, east of the campus lake, is open to all during campus hours. Not enough to satisfy your inner Theseus? The national Labyrinth Society maintains a searchable database of labyrinths, including several at Dallas churches, Children’s Medical Center and Baylor Hospital. Find it at labyrinthlocator.com.
Fellowship of Freethought
Even those who don’t believe in a ghost in the machine still grapple with big existential questions and enjoy gathering with like-minded thinkers for fellowship, discussion, learning and chili-mac suppers. (Actually, the chili-mac is more a Baptist tradition, but we suspect atheists also enjoy a tasty homemade casserole.) One of FoF’s upcoming listed events is a potluck dinner with prominent atheist speaker Matt Dillahunty, host of The Atheist Experience, an Austin-based webcast and cable-access TV show on July 17 at Churchill Recreation Center, 6906 Churchill Way. They also host pub nights to discuss philosophy, current events and, we’re guessing again here, drink beer. Secular meditation classes, feminist meet-ups, stargazing parties and roadway-cleanups are all part of FoF’s busy schedule devoted to promoting community values and service minus metaphysical dogma.
Texas Local Council Covenant of the Goddess
The Covenant of the Goddess is a 40-year-old national umbrella group providing information and mutual support to Wiccan congregations and clergy — aka witches. The website of the local chapter is a clearinghouse of information about practitioners, events, classes and the religion in general. The nonprofit aims to “secure for Witches and covens the legal protection enjoyed by members of other religions." CoG is not limited to women-only covens but provides general info about Wicca, the largest neo-pagan religion.
(Be sure to read the rest of our counterculture guide to Dallas.)