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Sunday, December 29, 2019

Book Review: Outside the Charmed Circle-Exploring Gender & Sexuality in Magical Practice by Misha Magdalene

Outside the Charmed Circle, book review, witch, witchcraft, gender studies, sexuality, pagan

Edit: This post was edited on 1/19/2020 to include a response from the author.

Disclosure: Some of the links below are affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase. I received a copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

I've read a lot of really great books this year on witchcraft, whether it be fiction or nonfiction, choosing to focus less on introductory books and more on specialized fields within magic. This book is no exception, and it is probably one of the most important books I will ever read. Outside the Charmed Circle: Exploring Gender & Sexuality in Magical Practice by Misha Magdalene may not be the book we wanted, but its the book we need, as a community, right now. And honestly, it's not just witches and pagans that need to read this; it's for everyone: witch, Christian, young, old, cis, trans, queer, and straight alike.

Outside the Charmed Circle is an in-depth, academic look at gender and sexuality in the magical community, as the title suggests, but it's so much more than that. Don't let the academic side of the book deter you from picking this one up. Furthermore, stop being afraid of discussing gender and sexuality. It's an uncomfortable subject to be sure, but one that absolutely must be addressed here and now in order for our world to become a safer, more inclusive place. But I digress. Misha, who is a nonbinary witch of 30ish years with a degree in gender studies, speaks with authority, compassion, and even a bit of humor throughout the book. They share their personal stories, some of which are funny and some of which are saddening, but those stories help the reader connect deeply with the subject matter.

The book dives deeply into what gender and sexuality are and what that means within magical practices and society as a whole. Misha covers everything from queer gods and goddesses (I can tell you I learned a lot here!) to sex magic to consent to forming your own magical praxis. I have to say, the chapters discussing consent and the queer gods and goddesses were my two favorite sections. As a victim of sexual assault, I appreciated the thought and consideration that went into the chapters on consent, and that it wasn't just about consent between two humans, but between humans and spirits and deities as well. They were beautifully written, empowering, and so refreshing. There have been a lot of talks lately about consent, sexual assault and homophobic, transphobic, and racist rhetoric and actions by pagan leaders (and those outside our community as well). Many of these "whistleblowers" have been attacked, marginalized, threatened, and forced into hiding because they had the audacity to challenge the idea that maybe some of the things we have been doing need to change. Like many of us, Misha grappled with these issues, even leaving paganism because they couldn't reconcile their beliefs with the atrocities happening within our community. I'm so glad Misha came back and came back with an amazingly brilliant book addressing many of these issues.

But Misha doesn't just tell the reader what is wrong with our community, they ask that we confront our own biases and work through them. There are a dozen or so exercises built into the chapters. Some are as simple as freewriting, while others are more in-depth rituals. I actually worked through every. single. exercise in this book. This is something I have never done before. I usually skip around and say I'll get back to it later, but not with this book. I was in Asheville, sitting alone in the bathroom writing while my SO slept or enjoying an orange in my kitchen in complete silence (apart from my cat Jane who also wanted to partake in said orange). The exercises Misha includes force us to confront our fears, misconceptions, and actions and to really evaluate why we feel the way we feel and why we do the things we do. It was utterly eye-opening to stare at my self naked in front of a mirror for an hour. I didn't want to do it, but I did. I wept a lot during that exercise (and I'm crying again now thinking about it), but I did it and have a newfound respect for what is mine.

The book ends with a call to action, that we have a long way to go and that this book and its exercises are not a one-and-done experience. I have strived to be inclusive, but this book let me know that I still have some changing to do; that I can do even more. So to my fellow queer witches, I'm scooting over on the bench and making some for you at our table.

Before I go, however, I had one issue with the book: the use of the term black magic. Misha probably uses it twice within the book, maybe three times. I found it interesting that a book on being inclusive would use a term rooted in racism. However, I feel this wasn't intended to be disrespectful, but instead, because we do not, as a community, have a word to describe the "darker" side of witchcraft that is universally accepted and understood, especially in reference to past practices and views. Furthermore, it is likely due to his background in the Feri tradition, which uses that term regularly as well as many other Wiccan traditions. But that's for another time. Please see Misha's response to this comment below.

Outside the Charmed Circle: Exploring Gender & Sexuality in Magical Practice by Misha Magdalene is currently available for pre-order and will be available on January 8, 2020. I encourage you to pick up a copy, share it with friends, and widen your spiritual practice and worldview just a little.


Response from the author: "Thank you so much for your incredible review of "Outside the Charmed Circle." I'm utterly delighted and humbled that you found something of value in my work, and the vulnerability and openness in your review brought me to tears multiple times as I read it to my partner.

If I may, I wanted to respond to your comment about my use of the term "black magic." I'm in full agreement with you about the racist implications of the term, and I don't commonly use it. In fact, I was so surprised by what you'd written that I actually went back to the manuscript and searched to see where I'd used the term, because I couldn't remember having done so!

You were absolutely correct, though: I used it twice. The first was a quote from Feri grandmaster Victor Anderson, which I've always interpreted to be him attempting to get away from the racial implications of white/black magic in favor of a "pretty words/practical applications" distinction. (How successful he was is, of course, open to debate!) The second was in reference to magic as practiced in the Renaissance and Enlightenment era, and was meant to convey how the folks of that era saw the sort of grimoiric sorcery under discussion. Regardless, I could've made that point better. My work is intended to be explicitly inclusive and anti-racist, and I will absolutely keep your critique in mind going forward.

Again, thank you."

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