If you haven’t heard, the 1940 US Census has been released to the public. This has me climbing my family tree again. Not because I don’t know my roots prior to 1940 (heck, my folks are on the ’40 Census), just because I like to see it in writing. Handwritten. Like a grimore of American heredity.

There are a lot of witches out there who place a lot of store in “heredity.” I’m not sure where I fall here. Some people believe that being part of a genetic line makes them predisposed to certain abilities: “Witches are born, not made.”[1] Some seem to believe that having learned a “craft” from an elder is what constitutes heredity.

Usually, when we think of hereditary witchcraft, we think of non-Wiccan traditionalists. I know I do. But, as a bit of a disclaimer for the rest of what I’m about to say, we have to think – Wicca has been around long enough for the first of Gardner’s supporters to have grand-children and great-grand-children.[2] But what of the smallest minority of us who can trace our lineage back to the early-middle-ages and have our roots in undeniably Pagan lands?

As for The Bad Witch, I can boast of direct (documented) evidence that my ancestors from the (eventual Palatinate) in Bavaria remained outside the papal struggle for religious power during the 100 Years War (i.e. my kin were Alps-y-Krampus-y- Bercht-y non-Christians and, therefore, persecuted). After the Lutheran Reformation, they became a sort of political proto-Quaker among the Rhineland Mennonites; eventually they fled to the safety of Jamesian England and were shipped off to Maryland. After a generation, they settled in Alabama among the Cherokee Nation by the early 18thC. This is all documented. The suggestion (that has no documentation but has a strong probability) is that we stretch back to Bavaria at the time of the Merovingian rule. But this is based solely on the correlation of place names and family names.[3]

I can also boast of Native ancestry on my mother’s side. I have traced her father (a biological Scotsman) back to Argyll just after the War of Independence – no small task with that potato blight which caused most Scot and Irish families to lose track of their heritage.

But I have a few loose ends. Of eight great-grandparents, I have five nailed down and all of those go back to a relatively un-Romanized locales.[4] The other three can’t get out of Alabama. Know the feeling?

But does that make me Pecti since I know I have relatives from pre-Roman Scotland? Does that make me Nativist since I know I have relatives whose roots are all over the Southeast of the US? Does that make me hereditary Dagu or Odinist? Or – what? A Dutch Elegaster? Nope. I am none of those things.

Because, guess what? I was born on the Southside of Chicago during the Nixon administration.

I am fortunate to have been taught some folk “ways” that have been in my family as long as we’ve needed them. I do have a great collection of “recipes” from generations of elder-women. I also have the great mythologies handed to me by the male members of my family – as well as a strong tie to the Freemasons. Most importantly, I have a sense of cosmology that stretches beyond the simplistic Christian dogma I would have been handed if my mother hadn’t been so sagacious about the paradox inherent in the multiplicity of a unified God. So is that what makes me a hereditary Witch?

What I learned about Witchcraft, I learned from a woman who is not my genetic relative, yet we are kin. Bertie and I share a bond that transcends DNA. I know this is true of all teachers and mentors of all religious studies – Pagans don’t have a corner on it. Bertie is from a hereditary tradition. She learned what she knew from her mother who learned it from her mother.[5] She taught me mostly about ethics and sacred laws, histories and mythologies. What I learned about Magic, I learned from a woman who was not my genetic relative, yet we are kin. Siobhan leaned from her mother who learned from her mother. She taught me how to draw power out of a flame and how to use water alone to heal a wound, how to purposefully dance in a way that could make things change[6], how to put the laws Bertie taught me into practical use. She taught me how to reign in all of the energy that swooped and leapt around me so that I would not continue to be an embodied tornado of dynamism. So is that what makes me a hereditary Witch?

Being a sensitive and having prophetic inclinations is, I think, genetic. I think anyone can learn to use them – as I think we all have these abilities to some degree. But like musical ability, I think “magical” inclinations and sensitivities are genetic. But they don’t make us “Witches.” Do they? (If so, my momma’d be very upset to hear it.)

This all leads me back to the grimore of America: 1940.

Not long ago, I was expressing my frustration at the inability of Teutonic, Near Eastern, Far Eastern, and Native North and South American Shamanic traditions; (staunchly-patriarchal) Hebrew, Egyptian, Greek, and Roman magical systems; British and Northern European Reconstructions of ancient religions and folk-ways; and African-diasporic ritual to meet the needs of a (mostly-white) American Witch. I was told, “So, make your own tradition.” I thought she was joking. We had, after all, made a jab or two at those we knew who took the title “eclectic” as a license to create slap-dash “traditions” with little at stake aside from aesthetics and egoism. But then she clarified: “Not for ego, but to fill the gap.” I brushed it off as something someone like me doesn’t “do.”[7]

Then I started taking Runic meditation lessons from this dude. We’ll call him Bellow Sage (it’s close enough to his magical name). I’ve not really met him in person (unless Skype counts) but I’ve known of him for a while.[8] Online friends are very useful when one lives in a small town in the Deep South. Amen? The lessons themselves are super groovy and I’ve gotten a lot out of them so far. But the real benefit has been his pancultural expertise. I started seeing all of the parallels that I knew were between systems but never paid much attention to. Now I am starting to think, “Hmm. We really don’t have a uniquely American system, do we?” Is that because America isn’t “good” enough to spawn her own version of Witchcraft. Hell no.[9]

Those of us with hereditary “gifts” and those of us with hereditary lineages and those of us with both – what tradition do we lean to? Sure, we pick and choose from “I lean toward Celtic traditions but am more Nativist,” and “I’m heavily influenced by Germanic-Celt traditions but prefer the structure of High Magic,” or “I’m a sorcerer, but without a penis, I feel a little left out sometimes.” (See my post on the Vesica.) But is that just mixing and matching in the separates section in lieu of investing in a good suit that really fits from head to toe? I’m not saying this is not OK. As a matter of fact, you can see that I have applauded eclectic practice in the past.

But I, personally, long for more.

And Momma always said, “If you don’t like my casserole, cook one yourself.”

“Arright, Momma. Lemme get my recipe books.” Le’see what I’ve inherited after all.

B, Q, 93 – TBW

[1] A sentiment my deBeauvoirian heart can’t wholly embrace.

[2] Pointedly on the non-Wiccan side of the argument, I often feel defensive when I say my piece about Gardner. Given the prolific Wiccan-majority, I often feel like I’m a near-Socialist in Alabama . . . wait, I am a near-Socialist in Alabama.

[3] And some other guy made a connection between my documented 13thC relative and Charlemagne. He was working forward from Charlemagne while I was working backward from my dad – whose parents are Appalachian kin, so this applies to two out of four great-grandparents. I haven’t verified it yet. But hell, everybody white was somehow related to Charlemagne, right? My bet is that everybody else died in the plague.

[4] A few folks I can’t get beyond the twentieth-century. One of these, as I reckon it, family lore has incorrectly called the mother the wife. I’m chasing that one down this week. It helps that the 1940 Census has just been made public. I spent about an hour this morning looking at 46 pages of handwritten Census reports from Sheffield. Knowing these names – there was magic in it.

[5] How Bertie ended up in a convent is another post for another day.

[6] “Purposefully” being key; I had been doing it accidentally all my life.

[7] I toyed with the idea once when working alongside a dear and trusted friend. The articulation of this goal has since been derided and belittled and the intention has been perverted in open forum. Needless to say, TBW is now a little gun-shy.

[8] You can follow my progress with him at The Wyrd Sister if you are so inclined. Yes, yes. Another blog. I was going to make it a page here, but – thing is, I don’t think TBW’s readership wants in on the personal-growth-Black-Work-mumbo-jumbo. If you do, you are welcome to it – if you are not, I won’t force it on you. My bartender and my hairdresser are tipped well.

[9] TBW is teaching Early American Lit. The focus will be on non-Christian traditions in the US. Hell, we’ve got that whole Salem thing going for us.