The Magick of Skyclad Ritual and Witchcraft
Guest Blog by: Liam Cyfrin and Caroline Tully
Read Part One here: A Brief History of Nudity in Wicca and Paganism
Releasing the Magick of the Body
To most Witches, precedent provides a comforting source of continuity, rather than a necessary validation of a custom. Validation, to the ever-pragmatic Witch, proceeds purely from utility. And since skyclad Witchcraft shows no sign of vanishing (despite being something of a PR nightmare at times), clearly many Witches find it a powerful technique for enhancing magick. Let’s try to see why.
One rationale for the practice is based on the idea that the physical body is the origin of much of the energy used in Wiccan ritual. Witches, therefore, work skyclad to maximize the area able to release this radiant energy.
The standard counterargument to this is that, if the energy raised can’t penetrate a layer of fabric, it probably lacks the magickal brio to do anything else. This sounds reasonable initially, but it wobbles a bit under pressure. Consider, for instance, a phenomenon often observed in skyclad Circles – tan lines. If a thin garment can block the sun’s ultraviolet radiation, might it not have a similar effect on energy released from the body?
“Well, then,” our sceptic ripostes, “by that logic, presumably indoor workings are useless, since the energy can’t radiate through the wall.” The skyclad apologist may then shift analogies, likening the magickal energy to sound rather than UV. You can quieten a noisy radio by muffling the speaker with a small cloth. If you attempt to deaden it from a distance of several yards, you haven’t a prayer. The energy has spread (and has probably woken up your flatmate in the bedroom next door).
The problem with both sides of this debate is that everyone gets vague on the nature and function of this energy. Does it directly affect distant physical reality in a vaguely telekinetic manner? Or does it simply charge up the Circle to enhance the subtler energies being manipulated?
In the absence of any hard evidence, personal experience is our only guide. California-based Priestess Valerie Voigt is an advocate of skyclad working but observes that: “a loose, well-fitting robe doesn’t interfere at all with my energy or magick. On the other hand, a tight-fitting cingulum (while robed or skyclad), or having my hair in a tight bun or clasp, definitely interferes with my energy and focus.”
Enhancing the Senses
While the nature of the out-going energy from the skyclad Witch remains a bit hazy, the input of the environment’s energy is obviously enhanced by bare skin. This is noticeable even in indoor rituals (where a term like air-conditioning-clad might at times be more accurate than skyclad). As for the great outdoors, Amargi Wolf’s experience is that: “When I’m naked I feel like I have stripped away the illusion of separateness between humankind and the rest of Nature. I’m closer to that raw energy of the natural forces around me. My body is no longer protected from the Elements, therefore I can more easily unite with them.”
Rowan, the originator of the Australia’s “Magick Happens” fairs, is on the same wavelength: “Both in my mundane and spiritual activities being skyclad is an instant connection with all that is around me. There are no barriers; there is nothing to hide. Being skyclad in nature brings a freedom of mind, body and spirit that is unequalled.”
The sense of release felt in skyclad working – or just plain living – often engenders a deep sense of relaxation and of distancing ourselves from the petty, confining aspects of mundane life, a sensation neatly and cheerfully put by 18th century writer Horace Walpole, who proclaimed: “When I cast off my clothes, I cast off my cares!”
A somewhat later commentator, Wiccan author Fiona Horne, sees this principle in the context of her rituals: “Because my meditative state during ritual is naturally enhanced by being skyclad, my magickal work is enhanced also. Working skyclad heightens my feeling of expressing the divine within me and merging with the divine around me. ‘Pure and perfect, clad by the sky’, I have a renewed appreciation for the infinitely valuable gift in every one of our lives that we take so much for granted – our extraordinary bodies.”
At other times, exposure to the elements can have an opposite but equally magickally empowering effect. Amargi observes that the tingling of the skin can set energy dancing through a skyclad body: “Being naked does make me more susceptible to arousal, even only in a subtle way, and there’s nothing like a bit of arousal to add to magickal oomph!”
Either eventuality provides a strong case for skyclad ritual. And for those unconvinced, here’s a simple test to try at home. First, shower naked. Then, shower robed. Any questions?
The Assumption of Innocence
Naturists frequently counter the question of why they spend so much time naked by asking why their questioners don’t. The usual response is a series of wuffling noises while the questioners search for an answer that had previously seemed obvious and commonsensical but is now either vague or discomfiting.
Most answers indicate: (a) an unquestioning acceptance of social convention (which raises the issue of how many more of their deep-seated beliefs are mere constructs of conditioning); (b) dissatisfaction with his or own body (as discussed below); or (c) good old-fashioned, Eden-after-the-apple shame – an insidious, irrational and puritanical mistrust of the body, the senses, sexuality, Nature, Life, the Universe and Everything.
The primary Wiccan alternative to skyclad working is (or was until fairly recently) the robed ritual. The tradition of the robe was inherited from Ceremonial Magick, which in turn assumed the costume from the ecclesiastical world. And this, some Witches consider, makes these often amorphous garments a peculiar choice for a spiritual path directly opposed to the world-denying theology of earlier eras.
The Wiccan community’s widespread use of both ritual and casual nudity, on the other hand, celebrates liberation from the oppressive shadows of history with all the innocent exuberance of a skyclad four-year-old playing under the sprinkler.
Wiccans in Uniform
Another reason sometimes offered for ritual nudity is that it symbolizes equality and prevents any sense of competition in costume. Much the same argument is often offered by advocates of school uniforms, but Witches don’t need to do so much ironing to stay egalitarian.
Again, there is precedent for this. A well-known 1497 engraving by Albrecht Dürer shows four women undressing for a Witchcraft ritual. By their headdresses, which they’ve not yet removed, we can see that the women all represent different classes of society. There is a noble woman with an elaborate coif of delicate material on her head, a courtesan with long, flowing hair bound in a garland of leaves, a respectable business woman with a rather plain headdress, and a peasant woman with a scarf or shawl over her head.
Dürer is saying here that these four women from different classes are sisters when it comes to the religious observances of their Craft and that Witches come from all classes of society. When we are naked, we meet as equals and social distinctions are forgotten. Today, a Circle can consist of such apparently incompatible people as a judge, a punk, a hillbilly grandmother, an airline pilot, an ice skating champion, a wildlife officer and an Indian prince. Once skyclad, it is difficult to tell who has what career out in the mundane world.
As to the idea that nakedness prevents costume-envy – well, it’s true that clothed Wiccan and Pagan gatherings do sometimes veer off towards alternative fashion parades, but it’s almost unheard of for this to engender any real rivalry for the title of Best-Dressed Witch. Furthermore, robes, costumes, masks and so on can certainly be used effectively in ritual to identify with and draw out specific aspects of the Witch’s personality.
Often though, dressing up in Middle-Earthish finery has the less desirable potential of overshadowing, rather than enhancing, a ritual’s purpose. While enjoying fancy-dress parties as much as the next person, many Witches find that working skyclad keeps things real. As Janet and Stewart Farrar put it: “Wicca aims at personal development through discovery and integration of one’s true Self, the shedding of comforting masks and images; and there is nothing so image-creating as clothes.” (The Life and Times of a Modern Witch [Piaktus, 1987]).
A potential weakness in the “school uniform” case for skyclad working is that anyone inclined to envy another Witch’s prettier robe is just as likely to be jealous of their (conventionally) prettier body. This, however, also seems rarely to occur.
Some Witches, though, shy away from skyclad working for a related reason. Conditioned by a culture that encourages us all to judge our physiques by the standards of those of professional actors, athletes, models and dancers, not all Witches are immune to the compulsion to hide their little (or large) bumps and wrinkles and bulges away in manner that would have felt familiar to the Elephant Man. Many judge their bodies infinitely more harshly than they would those of anyone with whom they shared a Circle, while fearing the same degree of faultfinding from those very people.
Over the years, numerous Wiccan and Pagan authors, artists and speakers have challenged this type of thinking not only through their words but through their willingness to appear skyclad in print, on film or online. Collectively, these spokespeople – among them, Alex and Maxine Sanders, Patricia Crowther, Rosaleen Norton, Janet and Stewart Farrar, Oberon and Morning Glory Zell-Ravenheart, Vali Myers, Margot Adler and Fiona Horne – present a pretty representative sample of human body types, diverse in age and build, and clearly emphasize that if Pagans acknowledge the Body to be sacred, each body is sacred, whether or not it resembles that of the current media-approved permutation.
When working skyclad in a shared Circle, Witches are continually putting the Wiccan principle of Perfect Trust to the test. Australian Witch Aconite stresses that working with “no masks, no pretense, nothing physically or psychologically to hide behind” leads to “a bond of honesty, of trust, of acceptance … that is reaffirmed with every skyclad Circle.”
This is daunting to many people, he acknowledges, finding it “no coincidence that ritual nudity is one of the first elements dropped” by many groups. Furthermore, the genuine trust and commitment it demands may not be necessary in every sort of working. An uncomplicated Sabbat celebration by an open Circle, for example, may not need to challenge each individual’s trust and dedication. Heavier duty magick, however, frequently will, and unsurprisingly skyclad working is commonest among groups which delve most deeply into the mysteries of the Craft.
The Wiccan ideal of Perfect Trust can be undermined by numerous unhelpful attitudes. Witchcraft’s emphasis upon nudity can sometimes mistakenly encourage sight-seers – those who are more interested in “getting a gawk” than experiencing Mother Nature in a mystical sense. Witchcraft is emphatically pro-sex, but not at the cost of spirituality. Wiccans believe that Spirit and Matter are entwined and do not emphasize one over the other. Anyone hoping merely for eye-candy or a bit of “slap ’n’ tickle” is advised to look elsewhere. Wicca is a participatory religion. No one just stands by and watches. They join in – otherwise, there is no point in being present.
Taking the initial plunge can, of course, be a shock to the system. Sydney Witch Minxi recalls her first shared skyclad Circle:
“I felt terrified, even though everyone else would be naked as well. Body issues bubbled to the surface. ‘My thighs are going to wobble as I dance! My breasts will bounce all over the place!’ The Priestess assured me that if I didn’t want to continue with getting naked no one would mind, just to do what I felt comfortable with. In the end, I chose to do what I felt was uncomfortable and pushed through the boundary that was stopping me.
And I danced my heart out around that Circle! I felt proud of myself, glad I made the right choice, and liberated. I felt more mature for being able to do it and now really enjoy it as part of my practice. I’m more comfortable than ever to just be me, even when I pursue nakedness in a social situation, like skinny-dipping with friends. I’ve become more confident about my body – and it didn’t involve losing weight, which is what I previously thought it would take!”
All this suggests that the Craft would lose more than a glamorous all-over moon tan by allowing the skyclad tradition to fade away. Should you, then, toddle off and package your robes away in mothballs? Probably not. There are obviously many times when skyclad working is impractical. There’s this thing we call “cold,” for instance. There’s also this thing we call “the law,” and although there’s something morbidly Mediæval about laws that insist that those they govern are inherently indecent, they can cause problems when ignored.
It should also be remembered that there’s more than just everyday demureness preventing some people from feeling comfortable in skyclad Circles. While many Wiccans can adapt to skyclad working as easily as undressing for bath, those who bear the psychological scars of sexual abuse or even excessive childhood teasing will often find it an insurmountable challenge. It would be a dim bulb indeed who’d assume that they were somehow second-class Witches on that basis.
Ultimately, skyclad working is no more an essential ingredient in Witchcraft than are candles, incense, moonlight and a good Sabbat feast once in a while. But if you suggested abstaining from any of these to many a Witch, you’d doubtless hear the same bemused reply very, very often: “Why would you want to?” Witchcraft ritual is a mysterious, magickal technique for uniting mankind with the oldest Gods – the Gods of Nature. The freedom and exhilaration of reclaiming our physical selves, of honoring these stardust forms we inhabit, or of simply dancing nude under a full Moon inevitably draw us closer to those Gods.