I finally got around to doing an analysis of the survey on inclusive Wicca that I ran over Yuletide.
A lot of people seem to think that inclusive means “I’ve got some gay people in my coven”. That is certainly welcoming – but is it really inclusive? I think there’s a spectrum of inclusivity – so one coven might score 100% and another might score 80% – but I think we have to accept that different people will have different ideas and priorities. However, it would avoid a lot of heartbreak all round if people stated upfront how inclusive their coven actually is.
An inclusive coven ticks some or all of the following boxes:
- Understands that diversity has a place in celebration, theology and cosmology.
- Understands that gender identity, gender expression, sex/gender assigned at birth, and biological characteristics are distinct (when I say distinct, I mean noticeably different, but interpermeable and with fuzzy boundaries).
- Understands that you can make energy through polarity (tension of opposites), resonance (two similar people), or synergy (joining the energies of the whole group).
- Understands that polarity can be made by two or more people of any gender and sexual orientation, and by two or more people of the same gender, and that polarity exists on a spectrum where Person A may be yang in relation to Person B, but yin in relation to Person C.
- Understands that you can make polarity with any pair of opposite qualities (e.g. morning people and evening people, cat lovers and dog lovers, tea drinkers and coffee drinkers, air signs and earth signs, fire signs and water signs).
- Understands that fertility is not strictly biological and may refer to creativity (and that you don’t need a male body & a female body to produce fertility on a symbolic level – e.g. when blessing crops).
- Allows invocation of any gender deity onto any gender human.
- Allows gender fluidity in ritual roles & doesn’t make people stand boy/girl/boy/girl in circle.
- Does cakes & wine with reference to lover & beloved, or using two cups, or on the understanding that we all contain both ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ energies, or some other inclusive variation, and can be done by two people of any gender.
- Accommodates difference (e.g. neurodivergence, dyslexia, left-handedness, aphantasia) and disability. Bonus points for embracing the social model of disability.
- Is open to other cultures and ethnicities and does not insist on a genetic basis for culture (e.g. anyone can worship gods from any culture). Bonus points for being aware of the concept of systemic racism.
- Tries to avoid cultural appropriation.
- Is accepting of kink, polyamory, and monogamy.
- Promotes consent culture.
- Welcomes members of all ages (over 18) and accommodates older members’ needs.
- Does not automatically exclude people with mental health issues.
- Accommodates different theological perspectives (animism, atheism, pantheism, polytheism, duotheism etc).
- Body-positive: does not allow fat-shaming or body-shaming.
- Is prepared to accommodate coven members who are less well-off (by not organising expensive social activities, or having a massive and expensive reading list, for example).
- Does not insist that its members reach a particular educational level or belong to a particular socio-economic class.
- Listens to the views of all the members.
- Values the contributions and ideas of all the members.
Inclusive Wicca is about being inclusive towards everyone.
There isn’t a competition over who is more oppressed, and there is no queue for liberation. We can work on small issues and large issues at the same time – I am not suggesting that all the categories mentioned in the list receive the same degree of oppression in society – they are included in the list because at some point, they have been excluded from some Wiccan circles for some reason.
Also, please note that inclusive Wicca is not a new or separate tradition; it is a tendency within existing Wiccan traditions. (Though just to confuse matters, in Australia, there actually is a tradition called Inclusive Wicca, which is unconnected to the inclusive tendency – though it may have similar goals.)
Thanks to Alder Lyncurium, Anna Hammarlund, Anya Read, Brian Paisley, Francois Schaut, Lirilin Lee, Susan Harper, for suggestions and comments on the first draft of this.
UPDATE: I have now created an inclusive Wicca website.
Every time I mention polarity and inclusive Wicca, someone at the back is sure to say, with irritating regularity, “But what about the tradition?” There is also a tendency to assume that polarity must always be made by a man and a woman, and that that is the default option for making polarity. It has got to the point where other forms of making magic don’t seem to be considered in some circles.
As I have pointed out on numerous occasions, and as my friend Alder Lyncurium points out in this excellent article on polarity, there is much more to polarity than the interaction of a male body and a female body:
Polarity is, in essence, a constant interaction between more than one force or element. It is the movement, the striving of those forces, and the rhythm in it, that creates the dynamism. As occultists, witches or magicians we observe the underlying patterns of that rhythm, get insights and tap into it, or try to emulate it — either conscious or unconsciously.
There is also resonance (named by Ed Gutierrez of the Unnamed Path), the ability of two people who have a strong similarity between them to make magic together. It is rather like sympathetic magic.
And then there is synergy, the ability of several people to create magical energy together by bringing their energy together, and making something that is more than the sum of its parts.
But if you want to talk about tradition – which is, in any case, a constantly evolving and developing discourse – then let’s talk about tradition. If you want your Paganism (whether it is Heathenry, or Wicca, or Druidry, or any other Pagan religion) to be really traditional, really connected to ancient pagan religions, then it should not just include LGBTQIA people as some kind of afterthought or bolted-on concession to contemporary “liberal” sensibilities.
On the contrary: truly traditional Pagans should regard LGBTQIA people as an integral part of society. There should be rituals for same-sex partners. Lesbian poets should be celebrated and their songs recorded for posterity. Gay lovers such as Hadrian and Antinous, or Patroclus and Achilles, or Pausanias of Athens and the poet Agathon, should be widely celebrated for their heroic love. Transgender deities such as Loki and Vertumnus should be celebrated for their changes of gender. Humans such as Tiresias should be celebrated for their exploration of the other gender.
The Pagan revival
Many of the Pagan pioneers of the early 20th century, especially Edward Carpenter and Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, were gay, and their enthusiasm for Paganism was partly informed by the knowledge that ancient pagans were gay-friendly. A friend of mine who has studied the period informs me that, similarly, early 20th century bisexual and lesbian women such as Hilda Doolittle (H.D.) were inspired by the example of Sappho. And Sylvia Townsend Warner, author of Lolly Willowes (whose heroine is an unmarried woman who becomes a witch) was both a Nature mystic and bisexual, as explored by Rebecca Beattie in her excellent book Nature Mystics. The first civil rights group for lesbians in the USA was the Daughters of Bilitis, named for a fictional contemporary of Sappho.
It is not clear to me exactly when or how homophobia became such a huge part of Western culture. Many people would like to blame the Bible, but that book is surprisingly ambivalent about same-sex love. The love of David and Jonathan, Naomi and Ruth, and Jesus and the beloved disciple John, are all praised; it is actually fornication (sex without love) that seems to be condemned. Later Christians would of course take a dim view of all pleasures of the flesh, but that seems to have been part of a general turn against the body in Western culture that occurred around 500 CE. Looking at the timeline of LGBT history in Britain, it was not until 1102 that the church took steps to make people aware that homosexuality was sinful; and anal sex was not made illegal until 1533.
Ancient pagan religions’ views of homosexuality
Looking back to ancient pagan religions, most of them were tolerant of gender and sexual diversity, but regarded the passive role in sexual intercourse (whether that role was occupied by a woman or a man) as lesser. Both the ancient Greeks and the Vikings took this view. However, it is not clear whether this view was introduced to Viking society along with Christianity, or whether they felt that way before the introduction of Christianity. Viking Answer Lady has a very comprehensive article on the subject, and it appears that the Vikings were very scathing on the subject of men who were on the receiving end of anal sex; but on the other hand, Oðinn was frequently called ergi, a term which meant a variety of things including effeminate, passive, and irritable. Practitioners of seiðr were regarded as ergi. As many Viking men had female concubines, it was quite likely that some of them had same-sex relationships (as has been found in other cultures with concubinage). There were also male prostitutes, and priests of Frey who danced with bells and were regarded as ‘effeminate’ by the Christians. It is also worth noting that all the sagas and tales were written down 200-300 years after the heyday of pagan Viking society, and were written down by Christians who were hostile to homosexuality. It seems likely that there were ritualised roles for gender-variant and homosexual people (as is the case in many ancient cultures), and whilst the Vikings may have found ergi men uncanny, there was a role for them as priests of Frey and Freyja.
As to the ancient Greeks and Romans, they were much more positive about same-sex love, and extolled its pleasures and virtues in many texts. Again, the active role was regarded as ‘manly’ and the passive role as ‘unmanly’, but same-sex love was not condemned. There were gender-variant deities (Hermaphrodite), deities who engaged in same-sex love (Zeus and Ganymede being the most well-known example). Again, it was complicated. Ancient pagans were not all sweetness and light in their attitudes to same-sex love, but there were many positive examples of it in ancient pagan mythology, and it was not universally condemned.
Numerous LGBT Pagan traditions draw their inspiration from ancient examples: the Minoan Brotherhood, the Modern Gallae, the Temple of Antinous, the Ekklesia Antinoou, and so on. Inclusive Wiccans, whilst not a distinct tradition, and not harking back to any particular ancient example, like to point out that gender-variant and queer magical practitioners have been known in just about every culture, and that “all acts of love and pleasure are Her rituals”, and any pair of opposites can make polarity. Given that Wicca was only developed in the 1950s, and has grown and changed since then, there is no excuse for claiming male/female polarity as some immutable tradition. The idea that only a man and a woman can make polarity is merely a heterocentric assumption rooted in Victorian notions of gender. The Minoan culture of Crete, which inspired both Gerald Gardner and Eddie Buczynski, certainly included same-sex love.
Conclusion: it’s complicated
What all of this shows is that attitudes to homosexuality and gender variance are complicated and varied in all societies, and that how they are viewed by others, and how they are represented symbolically and managed through ritual, has varied over time. It is certainly not the case that we can assume that so-called traditional Christian attitudes to homosexuality and gender variance can just be lifted across into Paganism and assumed to be traditional. How Christians have viewed same-sex love has also varied from one region to another, and from one historical era to another.
So, if you are harking back to some ancient pagan view of the world, and want to adhere to ancient pagan values with regard to LGBTQIA people, it was a mixed picture, and there was no single view (just as there has never been a single view of this or any other issue). The ancient pagan world had rituals and roles for LGBTQIA people, and often regarded them as sacred, and therefore a bit uncanny and weird. Hence the eunuch priests of Cybele, the Galli, and the ergi men devoted to Frey and Freyja. But there is no justification in ancient texts for the kind of virulent homophobia found among some right-wing so-called Pagans.
This leads me to the conclusion that, fascinating though ancient views of sexuality are, we live in our own context and culture, and have to make up our own minds. But perhaps we can recover something of the sacredness of gender-variant and homosexual magic by looking at the myths, legends, and practices of the ancient world.
For anyone who is unfamiliar with the concept, polarity is the idea that magical energy can be created by bringing together two things which are opposite in nature.
A friend of mine described polarity as the most overused word in Wicca. There are, after all, other ways of making magic. There is resonance, which is the energy created when two similar people come together. It was given the name resonance by Ed Gutierrez of the Unnamed Path. Then there is synergy, which is all the energies in the circle coming together. I think I probably experience synergy in my magical practice more often than polarity.Polarity is what happens when you work with a magical partner, to be sure, but often everyone in the circle works together to create energy.
In my experience, magical polarity can be created by any pair of opposites. Inner and outer, up and down, spirit and matter, lover and beloved, dark and light, masculine and feminine, camp and butch, air and earth, water and fire, and so on. And each pair of opposites is unique and cannot be mapped to other pairs of opposites.
Polarity exists on a spectrum, too. (It is not the same as duality, where two absolute qualities are seen as opposites.) A person can be more yang than another person, but can be yin in relation to a different person. People become a different polarity in relation to different people.
We need a more complex view of energy than a simple binary. As Linda Haggerstone writes:
Polarity is a natural world phenomenon, and it would take me a while to explain how I experience the world, as it relates to both my physical senses and my spiritual perceptions. Here we go: Polarity is not the same as magnetism. All aspects of the world lie on a spectrum, for which there are poles or extremes, if you like. However, as nature is circular or cyclical, so are its spectra. There is a continuum involved here as well. The Tao. The whorl or wheel of life. Slowing, speeding up, forever spinning but never yet stopping. It would be a wacky world for many humans if they did not attempt to exert control over Chaos via categorisation and ends to the spectra. I think that perhaps those who find beauty, energy, succor in the Chaos or the pan-ness of things do tend to move toward Shamanism, while those who find these in a more concrete binary world might prefer or be instinctively drawn to polarised or oppositional practices. Neither is wrong. Neither is flawed. And neither is immovable or immutable. Not sure this made sense, but there ya go. (By the way, I am not Wiccan but I am a Shaman.)
So polarity is a spectrum, and is not immutable; it can shift and change depending on your mood, on the situation, an on who or what you are interacting with. If you are heterosexual or bisexual, it is a lot easier to make polarity with somebody of the opposite biological sex. That is not to say that it’s impossible for a gay or lesbian person to make polarity with a person of the opposite sex, but it is much easier for them to make polarity with someone of the same sex. Why? Because creating polarity has many components: the erotic, romantic, respect, friendship. So it can be done without any erotic attraction, but the more of these elements are present the easier it is to make a connection.
However, Steve Dee writes,
basing polarity on erotic attraction doesn’t work so well for those of us on some part of the Asexual spectrum. Personally I find myself moved by the mystery and otherness of anyone or thing I work with (plants and animals as well). My own journey away from Wicca and towards other, Queerer forms of magical practice was in part due to my discomfort about what my perceived maleness would mean about who I was and what I would be within the circle.
So why would we restrict people to making polarity with only one of these possibilities (male body + female body) when there are so many other possibilities available, and when so many people just don’t fit into the categories provided?
What if your partner (magical and/or sexual partner) doesn’t feel like an “opposite” for you at all? Camilla Kutzner says,
For me – femme-loving femme (and increasingly feeling “femme” as my gender identity more than “woman”) – erotic attraction is not based on gender polarity at all. It took me a while to figure out that my notion of generating power and magic works without polarity.
Clearly in this instance, some other magical connection is at work, or perhaps just the simple and beautiful polarity of lover and beloved, constantly interchangeable between the two partners.
Why would people hamstring LGBTQIA participants in ritual by preventing us from using the whole spectrum of polarities, energies, and connections available? And why privilege heterosexual polarity over all other forms of polarity? Why make magic and ritual much easier for heterosexual participants and place a barrier in the way of LGBTQIA participants?
Every time someone says that we must stand boy-girl-boy-girl in the circle, I feel that my bisexual and genderqueer identity is being erased and denied. It must feel even more erasing if you are gay or lesbian. Naomi Jacobs describes her feelings about being asked to stand boy-girl-boy-girl in a circle:
My partner is non-binary gender (that’s sometimes called ‘genderqueer’). Their pronoun is ‘they’ rather than she or he. I feel uncomfortable any time there’s a boy/girl type division in a ritual, thinking of how it would exclude their (extremely sexy!) energies and identity. As someone who is primarily attracted to women, the polarity stuff doesn’t work for me either. I wonder if there are many people it DOES work for.
No one is saying that straight people have to learn new ways of making polarity if they don’t want to, but LGBTQIA people want to be able to make polarity in all the ways available to us. And we would like for our sexuality not to confer second-class citizen status in the circle.
In many spiritual traditions, the goal is to transcend the gender binary and create a new synthesis of energies in the psyche. Kumar Devadasan writes:
The polarity issue in previous pagan and Wiccan paths [is] due to a fertility-based approach and centred around reproduction as generally seen in nature; therefore a male-female polarity. However, if one progresses, one transcends or one follows a path that leads to a transcending stage then the issue of polarity becomes irrelevant. However, I suspect that it will no longer be a magickal path as we know it if at that stage. I am not saying that there will be no magick; but that it will be knowledge and ability as we know the mundane now and so become second nature and no longer sought.
As Lynna Landstreet so brilliantly put it, for her the ultimate polarity is not male and female, but the lightning striking the primordial waters and creating life. For me personally, the ultimate polarity is spirit and matter, which is a similar idea. And the most inclusive way to express the concept of polarity is to talk about the lover and the beloved.
I am a Wiccan and a polytheist, and I do not believe that the gods are merely archetypes. I believe the gods are real and have agency. I am not sure if the gods are made of energy or consciousness or both, but I am sure that they are distinct identities. I do not see any conflict between my polytheism and my Wicca.
In the UK and Europe, Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wicca do not have a standard theology. I have Wiccan friends who are polytheist, animist, henotheist, archetypalist, duotheist (an increasingly rare view in the UK and European Wiccan community), atheist, non-theist, and unclassifiable. I cannot speak for the USA, but I think the same is true there. American Wicca may be largely duotheist (I have insufficient data) but in the UK and Europe, I would say it is probably majority polytheist – though as I don’t often ask for people’s theology, I am not sure. But you can often tell by what people do in rituals. I am happy to do ritual with people with varying theological viewpoints, as long as they are respectful towards the deities and each other.
The key aspects of Wicca for me are that we practice in a circle – a symbol of the equality of all the participants (like King Arthur’s Round Table); that the circle becomes a microcosm to mirror the macrocosm (because we call the quarters); and that Wicca is both a religion and a magical practice. In other words, its purpose is to connect us with the numinous (religio, meaning to reconnect), and to transform us and the world for the better (that’s the purpose of the magic). Working skyclad is also really important to me, as a symbol of freedom and equality.Wiccan liturgy and openness to mystery
There are a few things in Wiccan liturgy (notably the opening words of The Charge of the Goddess) that make polytheist Wiccans feel awkward, so we either do not use them or keep our fingers crossed whilst saying them, or while others are saying them. In my own rituals, at home, I just don’t use the bits of liturgy that I don’t like. There are many different traditional words for casting the circle, calling the quarters, and so on, so there is plenty of choice, and many people have adapted them or written their own to suit their particular perspective. It is only when guesting with other covens that use those particular bits of liturgy that the issue occurs.
If you look at Wiccan liturgy, there are some bits that refer to multiple deities, and some that refer to two deities. However, Wiccan liturgy does not define or prescribe Wiccan theology; for one thing, the materials written by Gardner, Valiente, et al are not strictly duotheist; and for another, we have a lot of other material, written by many Wiccans. Thing is, most Wiccans in the UK, Europe, and Australia, write our own rituals, drawing on the body of existing material and on broader Pagan themes and ancient pagan source texts, so we can please ourselves as to the theology thereof.
I am aware that many 101 books on Wicca talk about “the Goddess” and “the God”. That is one of several reasons I wrote my book on inclusive Wicca – to empower polytheist Wiccans.
It would be really helpful if people did not deny the existence of polytheism in Wicca. It makes it hard to be polytheist and Wiccan when our existence is denied and erased. It doesn’t matter if you are a duotheist Wiccan who thinks every Wiccan should be a duotheist, or a Polytheist who thinks that all Wiccans are duotheist – the diversity of Wiccan theological perspectives says you are wrong.
The gods with whom I have a relationship are from several different pantheons, so Wicca provides a setting where I can honour them. As an English person, I have both Celtic and Saxon heritage – so why should I be forced to choose between those heritages?
The things that I love about Wicca are the combination of magical practice and entering into relationship with gods and spirits. I am a relational polytheist (a term coined by Niki Whiting and Aine Llewellyn) – I enter into relationships and alliances with the gods.
Niki Whiting writes of her approach to relational polytheism:
“I mean that we are in relationship with the gods and spirits – sometimes that means serving! Just as I serve my husband and children and friends from time to time. Building a shrine or altar is a form of hospitality wherein one is host and also serves, but as Anomalous Thracian says, we then become the guest to the entity that we host.
I am heavily influenced by feminist and process theologies, as well as Feri witchcraft, which all stress that we are co-creators of our world.
It’s a very simple idea, but has profound meaning for how we interact with our deities and this world. And for me ties into a way of being in the world that I am starting to shape my life around: that of radical hospitality.”
I love the idea that we are in a guest/host relationship with the gods, and the fact that the words for guest and host are derived from the same Indo-European root word. Hospitality is a sacred relationship.
Critiques of Wicca
I am critical of some aspects of Wicca, and would like to see Wiccans expand our understanding of polarity and fertility. Polarity can be created by any pair of opposites, not only a biologically male body paired with a biologically female body. Fertility does not have to involve making babies – it can be about creativity.
I believe that focussing exclusively on a goddess and a god (whether as a henotheistic practice within a broader polytheism, or as a duotheistic worldview) inherently excludes LGBT people. I also believe that it is disrespectful to the deities, and to the cultures that named them, to merge them together in a duotheist way. And most importantly, in my experience, deities are distinct identities with agency, in a similar way to humans, and therefore we can form alliances and relationships with them.
I would also like to see more engagement with the experience of resonance (a term coined by Ed Gutiérrez to describe the coming-together of several people’s energy).
However, just because I am critical of some aspects of my tradition, does not mean that I am not engaging with the tradition. Tradition evolves and develops in response to the needs of its practitioners. It is not fixed and unchanging. It is great to have a tradition to wrestle with, because this prevents one from merely doing whatever would most pander to one’s ego – but that does not mean that every critique of tradition is pandering to someone’s ego; it just means that we must exercise judgment.
Relational polytheism and Wicca
In his ode, Nemea, the classical poet Pindar wrote:
There is one race of men, one race of gods;
both have breath of life from a single mother. But sundered power
holds us divided, so that the one is nothing, while for the other
the brazen sky is established their sure citadel forever.
Yet we have some likeness in great intelligence, or strength, to the immortals,
though we know not what the day will bring, what course after nightfall
destiny has written that we must run to the end.
So, according to Pindar, humans and gods are related, and we have the “breath of life from a single mother”. This passage is part of the basis of my (relational) polytheism. The gods have different powers, being immortal – they are non-local and do not have a physical form. So they need our temporally-focussed and physically-located consciousness in order to be able to affect events in the physical world; and we need their eternal and non-local perspective in order to access the divine realms.
One of the many things I appreciate about Wicca is that the theology is fuzzy, and there is a greater focus on experience than on theology. If people and deities have a mutually satisfying encounter in a ritual, then I would regard that as a successful ritual. There is plenty of room for mystery in Wicca. We don’t know what the nature of the gods is, so all our theorising is probably inadequate, and most Wiccans acknowledge that. There is room for apophatic theology in Wicca: an acknowledgement that we don’t know everything about the gods, and that we only see the faces they choose to show us; that sometimes it may be more illuminating to say what the gods are not than to attempt to say what they are.
For me, Wicca is the religio-magical framework in which I engage with the gods and Nature. Wiccans are my tribe and I love them – even the ones who annoy me and/or who find me annoying. Polytheism is my theological perspective; and connecting and forming relationships and community is my ethos.
Wicca is both a religion and a magical practice. Wiccans interact with the world on many levels – physical, spiritual, magical and emotional. Witchcraft is the craft of magic.
Wicca and Witchcraft overlap – all Wiccans are also witches, but not all witches are Wiccans. But the practice of witchcraft (in the sense of doing spells and so on) is only part of the practice of Wicca.
Initiatory Wicca (known in the USA as “British Traditional Wicca”) is essentially an esoteric mystery religion in which every practitioner is a priestess or priest.
A mystery religion is one in which the dramas of the psyche are enacted by and for the benefit of its initiates, but because these mysteries often involve non-verbal concepts, they cannot be communicated. Also, some material is oathbound (initiates are forbidden to disclose it to non-initiates). This is not because we want to keep these mysteries to ourselves, but because you need the ceremony of initiation to prepare you to encounter the mysteries.
There are three degrees of initiation in Wicca. After the first degree initiation, the initiate is responsible for their own spiritual development; in some groups, the period between first and second is where the new initiate is helped to develop their spirituality by their Coven and High Priestess and High Priest; after the second, they may take on responsibility for assisting others’ development; after the third, their psyche is fully integrated with itself. (The third degree is generally regarded as a personal step in British Gardnerian Wicca, not something that is required in order to be able to run a coven.)
Initiatory Wicca has many variants (Gardnerian, Alexandrian, and offshoots of these) but all share an adherence to a similar ritual structure and the practice of initiation.
Early modern Wicca was inspired by the general interest in the early 20th century in ancient paganisms, esoteric orders of the 19th century, and a strong interest in nature and magical realms. It appears that the basic structure of modern Wicca was devised by two women in the Bournemouth area in the mid-1920s. They passed this on to Gerald Gardner via Dafo. Gardner genuinely believed that he had found an ancient practice which could be traced back centuries, possibly even millennia. There were, however, other covens practising in other parts of Britain, but little is known about these other than that they existed, and most claims that traditional and hereditary Craft existed before Gardner have not been proven – but nor have they been disproved.
Gardner eventually published a novel, High Magic’s Aid (a fictional account of medieval witchcraft) and Witchcraft Today, an account of the witches that he had encountered.
Many people joined Gardner’s early covens, including Doreen Valiente, who added quite a lot of new material into Gardner’s Book of Shadows. Each new person added more material.
The modern Craft both draws upon its roots in the Western Mystery Tradition, and looks to traditional forms of folk magic, folklore, and the pagan traditions of the British Isles for inspiration. The structure of rituals remains reasonably constant, but the content varies quite a lot according to the inclinations and tastes of individual covens. Only initiations remain fairly standard, in order to ensure that they will be recognised across the whole Craft.
Gods and other beings
Wicca encompasses a variety of beliefs:
- A belief in many gods and goddesses, spirits of place, nature and elemental spirits (polytheism)
- A belief that “all the gods are one God and all the Goddesses are one Goddess” (duotheism)
- A belief that there is no duality of good versus evil (monism)
- Devotion to a specific deity (henotheism)
- Belief that there is only one deity, usually the Goddess or the Great Spirit (monotheism)
- A belief that everything has a soul, including trees, rocks, animals, birds, places (animism)
- A belief that the divine is immanent or manifest in the physical world (pantheism)
- A combination of one or more of the above
Fortunately it is possible to accommodate all these different views within Wicca because of the autonomy of covens and the diversity in unity of Wiccan practice.
Most Wiccans gather in covens. Most covens have a High Priestess and High Priest, but the extent to which these are leaders in the generally-accepted sense of the word varies from one coven to another. Their role is more like that of a facilitator or mentor; their aim is to empower their coveners to develop as priestesses and priests in their own right, passing on their experience and knowledge to their coveners, and usually learning from them in the process. Covens are autonomous, but as their founders will have been trained in another coven, they usually maintain contact with their previous High Priestess and sometimes seek guidance from her. The maximum size of a coven is usually limited by the size of the room where they meet.
Most coven members will also practice on their own (either a full ritual or meditation and visualisation), and sometimes will become solitary for a time if they move to another part of the country and cannot find a compatible coven or simply because that is what they wish to do at the time.
Solitary Wicca is also practised by non-initiates, either because they do not want to join a coven or cannot find a compatible one. Solitaries sometimes perform a self-dedication or self-initiation ritual.
The structure of a ritual
The basic structure of a ritual is similar to that of a story. It has a beginning (the opening of the circle), a middle (the purpose for which the ritual is being conducted be it celebratory or magical) and an end (the closing of the circle).
Wicca is practised in a sacred circle, and most rituals have a structure broadly based upon the Western Mystery Tradition. This involves consecrating the space, orienting it to sacred geometry, raising some power, performing the ritual, sharing consecrated food and drink, and then closing the circle and bidding farewell to the beings and powers that have been called upon. Coveners usually bring a contribution to the feast.
Wiccans celebrate eight festivals and the thirteen Full Moons of the year. They will sometimes meet on other festivals and other phases of the Moon.
The eight festivals are Samhain or Hallowe’en (31st October); Yule (21st December); Imbolc (2nd February); Spring Equinox (21st March); Beltane (1st May); Midsummer or Litha (21st June); Lammas or Lughnasadh (1st August); and Autumn Equinox (21st September). The dates, practice and meaning of these vary according to where the coven is located, when particular plants actually come out, and the local traditions where the coven members live. Some covens celebrate on the nearest weekend to the actual festival. Some writers have tried to fit the festivals to the story of the interaction between “The God” and “The Goddess”.
It is now generally recognised that the eight festivals were not all celebrated by the same culture (in spite of wild claims made on some web sites), and some of them are retro-engineered Christian festivals, but this is in keeping with the nature of Wiccan practice. Whatever the origins of the festivals, they have now taken on a life of their own, and could be considered a valid development of pagan tradition, provided that we do not make spurious claims for their antiquity.
While the Solstices and Equinoxes are fixed points governed by the movements of specific movements of the Sun and Moon, the other four, Imbolc, Beltane, Lammas and Samhain are moveable and relate to the passing of the seasons as they display themselves wherever the practitioner happens to be geographically.
In the Southern Hemisphere, the equinoxes and solstices are reversed, so the winter solstice is in June, and so on.
Most Wiccans practice magic for healing and other ethical results. The intention behind the working of magic is not to impose our will on the universe, but to bend the currents of possibility somewhat to bring about a desired outcome. Magic is generally practised at Full Moons rather than major festivals.
The Wiccan attitude to ethics is mainly based on the Wiccan Rede, “An it harm none, do what thou wilt”. However, it is significant that this injunction occurs as part of the first degree initiation, and was probably originally meant to show the new initiate that it is impossible to do anything without causing some harm, so it is necessary to consider carefully the consequences of one’s actions. The other famous (and often misquoted) injunction occurs at the second degree, and is generally known as the Law of Threefold Return. The actual text enjoins the initiate to return good threefold wherever s/he receives it. To my mind, the most important aspect of Wiccan ethics is the list of the eight virtues which occurs in The Charge of the Goddess. These are beauty and strength, power and compassion, mirth and reverence, honour and humility. Each of these pairs of virtues points to the need for balance.
- Wicca: an introduction – John Macintyre
- Inclusive Wicca – Yvonne Aburrow
- Aspects of Initiation – Yvonne Aburrow
- Mystery Religions: the what and why – Sarah Howe
- Witches in history – Yvonne Aburrow
This post is part of a series, Paganism for Beginners. All the posts in this series will appear in the category ‘A Beginner’s Guide‘. You can find them by clicking on the ‘FILED UNDER’ link at the foot of the blogpost.
This is the video of my talk at Witchfest in Croydon, November 2014. The talk discusses expanding and deepening our understanding of the concepts of polarity and fertility, what tradition is and how it works, what we bring into circle (our whole self, or do we bring only our essence, and what does our essence include?) and how to make Wicca more LGBTQI-inclusive, with examples from rituals and from history.
In my talk, and in my book, I advocate a more nuanced understanding of gender, sexuality, and biological sex, and using these understandings to inform our understanding of magical concepts like polarity and fertility.
In the middle of my talk, we did a practical demonstration of another form of polarity, asking all the people who were born under Air and Fire signs to create energy together, and all the people who were born under Earth and Water signs to make energy together. We then merged the two energies together. Polarity happened. And the room became warmer and everybody became more animated. The energy changed. (We didn’t video that part of the event because of issues of consent.)
There are many different forms of polarity, and whilst it is great that a man and a woman can make polarity, many other pairings can also make polarity – and even if you are focussing on male/female polarity in your rituals, you may be sure that other types of polarity are also occurring at the same time. The bottom line is: if one person can generate polarity with another person, regardless of gender, sexuality, or biological sex, let them do so. If a same-sex couple, or a man and a woman who are not a couple, or a person born under an Air sign and a person born under an Earth sign, or any other combination where oppositeness can be generated, want to make magic together, then let them do so. And no-one is saying you can’t have male-female polarity and heterosexual symbolism. We are just saying, why does it have to be that 100% of the time?
At a previous discussion of this, back in the summer, a couple of people said they felt that you don’t bring your personal stuff into circle (of course you don’t bring petty concerns about the shopping and the car etc into circle, but you do bring your core identity, which includes sexual orientation). But I bring my whole self, including my politics, gender identity, and sexual orientation, before the deities. I don’t leave behind my concerns about the struggle for justice for Black communities, or First Nations, or women, or LGBTQI people, when I am in circle – I do magic to support those struggles.
Others have commented that we should not adapt religious traditions to suit ourselves, but should allow the tradition to transform us. Yes, up to a point, but when the tradition excludes a whole group of people because of who they are, then it is time to dig deeper. If we look at the concepts of polarity, fertility, and gender as they are expressed in traditional magical texts (which are the source material for Wiccan ritual, as demonstrated in the excellent book Wicca: Magickal Beginnings, by Sorita d’Este and David Rankine), we can see that they are separate and distinct concepts, which are not reducible to a simple and restrictive gender binary. If we look at ancient pagan traditions (which Wicca also claims to draw upon) then we can see that they were also inclusive of people with diverse gender and sexual identities.
For me, Wicca is neither solely a path of self-development, not is it only a path of service to the deities. I was taught that we work in partnership with the deities. The deities are more powerful in their realm, but they need our physical embodied presence and co-operation to get stuff done in the physical world. I discuss this in some depth in chapter 14 of my book, All Acts of Love and Pleasure: Inclusive Wicca, and I also touched on it in chapter 16. I wrote a whole chapter on it in Priestesses, Pythonesses, and Sibyls, edited by Sorita d’Este.
Traditions evolve, and Wicca is evolving. They evolve because they are living and moving discourses, not fossils set in stone. Wicca is received differently by the different cultures in which it is practised, because of history and culture and context. Tradition is not a fixed and unchanging thing. Of course we should be mindful of accuracy in transmitting what has been handed down to us, because history and oral transmission of lore are important – but that does not mean we cannot change and adapt things, provided we transmit the original versions of the rituals that we received.
A happy New Year to all the readers of Sermons from the Mound, and may 2015 bring you happiness, health, and peace.