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Dark Mirror – the inner work of witchcraft

And thou who thinkest to seek for me, know that thy seeking and yearning shall avail thee not, unless thou knowest this mystery: that if that which thou seekest, thou findest not within thee, thou wilt never find it without thee.

― Doreen Valiente, The Charge of the Goddess

Inner work is a name commonly given to the inner processes that happen in ritual. However, the best kind of inner work also has an effect outside the individual and outside the circle. When rituals are focused only on self-development, they tend to be a bit too introspective. Ritual is about creating and maintaining relationships and connections – between body, mind, and spirit; with the Earth, Nature, the land, the spirit world, the community, and friends. It is also about creating, maintaining, and restoring balance. It is about making meaning. Telling our stories and reclaiming our history from the oppressors. Weaving a web of symbolism, story, mythology, meaning, community, and love to stand against the ennui and emptiness of relentless consumerism. Creating loosely held but welcoming community, a community that welcomes and celebrates diversity (of body shape, skin colour, physical ability, neurodivergence, sexual orientation, gender expression and identity, biology, cultural background, age, talkativeness or lack of it, and so on). Creating strong and authentic identity to resist the pressures of consumerism and commercialism and capitalism. Weaving relationship with other beings: humans, animals, birds, spirits, deities.

So the inner work of ritual may be intrapersonal, interpersonal, restorative, or community-building. The kinds of relationships that ritual helps to maintain may be of various different kinds – friendships, erotic relationships (including kinky ones), patron/client relationships. Inner work might be meditation, visualisation, prayer, magic, balancing archetypes within the psyche, lucid dreaming, healing, connecting with the body, or attunement to Nature.

Dark pool, Beanley Moss Beanley Moss is an area of poorly drained conifer plantation where natural depressions have accumulated peat and developed bog vegetation. A few, like this, have formed small bodies of open water. This, and a large surrounding area of heather moorland and associated marshes, has recently been notified for SSSI status by English Nature

Dark pool, Beanley Moss. © Copyright Andrew Curtis and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence. [CC-BY-SA 2.0]


 

Table of contents

  • Introduction: the inner work

Coming to the circle

  1. The Pagan worldview
  2. Creating sacred space
  3. Raising energy – synergy, resonance and polarity
  4. Magical names
  5. Archetypes and the inner work
  6. The Mysteries
  7. Evocation and Invocation
  8. Use of symbols in ritual
  9. Spell work
  10. Magical tools

Embodied Spirituality

  1. Relationships and Consent in Wicca
  2. “Ye shall be naked in your rites”
  3. The erotic and spirituality
  4. Inner aspects of the festivals
  5. Grounding and centering
  6. Making an altar
  7. The Hearth
  8. Food in ritual
  9. Labyrinths; Meditative walking; Pilgrimage
  10. Gardening
  11. Spirits of the land
  12. Meditation, Visualisation, Contemplation
  13. Poetry, Storytelling, and Reading
  14. Cultivating the virtues

Between the worlds

  1. Modes and types of ritual
  2. Sound and silence
  3. The Moon
  4. The witch’s journey
  5. Queer Witchcraft
  6. Witchcraft and the land
  7. Witchcraft as resistance
  8. Working with ancestors
  9. The Pact – relational polytheism
  10. Madness, shamanism, witchcraft
  11. The night journey

Bringing it all back home

  1. Inclusive Wicca
  2. Group dynamics
  3. Being a coven leader
  4. Teaching and learning in a coven
  5. Egregore, lineage, upline, downline
  6. Power and authority
  7. Rites of passage
  8. Challenging oppression
  9. Evaluating your Craft
  10. Brimful of Asha

Appendices

  • Model guidelines for group discussion
  • Coming-out ritual
  • Recommended reading
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Fraud, and why it matters

What is a fraud?

In the context of witchcraft, it is someone who deliberately and knowingly seeks to deceive others about the origins and nature of their tradition, or claims that they were initiated by a genuine practitioner of a tradition, but they weren’t. In other words, they lie about their origins to make themselves seem more authentic.

Examples include claims that a tradition calling itself Wicca, or possessing a Gardnerian book of shadows, is older than Gardner, or used the word Wicca before Gardner; these should be treated with extreme caution. (There are witchcraft traditions that are pre-Gardner, but they mostly don’t call themselves Wicca.) Claims that a tradition has an unbroken initiatory lineage back to ancient pagan times are also fraudulent. Claims to an unbroken initiatory lineage stretching back any earlier than 1900 should also be treated with extreme caution.

Why does this matter?

If you are going to trust someone enough to engage in transformative and powerful ritual with them, you want to be able to take them at their word. You want to be sure that they know what they are doing, that they have been taught a tried and trusted set of techniques, and that you are not going to be asked to do something that is massively outside your comfort zone.

If someone lies about something as simple as where they got their initiation from, or the origins of their tradition, how can you trust their word about anything else?

It has been observed that fraudulent claims about origins, and fraudulent claims of initiation, are often accompanied by abusive behaviour. I don’t think an implausible origin story should automatically be seen as a sign of potential abuse, unless it is accompanied by other warning signs of abusive behaviour.

It is advisable to seek external confirmation that someone’s story (either about their initiation, or about the origins of their tradition) is true. Get a vouch from other Wiccans.

In a previous article, I mentioned that the Frosts were never part of Gardnerian or Alexandrian Wicca. Indeed, they never claimed to be. However, Gavin Frost did claim to have invented the word Wicca before Gardner did, and the Frosts claimed to be running “the oldest Wiccan school in the universe” (if you don’t believe me, look at their blog, it is right there in the header).

What is not fraudulent?

Any tradition or group that does not lie about its origins is not fraudulent.

A tradition that cannot trace its initiatory lineage to Gardner or Sanders, but doesn’t claim to, is not fraudulent. There are many Wiccan and witchcraft traditions, particularly in North America, that do not claim lineage back to Gardner or Sanders, but do call themselves Wicca. That is definitely not fraudulent. Wicca is a useful term for ‘softening’ the word witchcraft in areas where fundamentalism is rife. It is not fraudulent to call yourself a Wiccan if you don’t have a Gardnerian or Alexandrian lineage – as long as you don’t lie about your origins, lineage, or initiations.

Some Gardnerians and Alexandrians object to anything outside their traditions being known as Wicca. That is a different argument, and should not be confused with fraudulent origin stories.

A person who has been lied to by their initiators, but believed the story, and repeats in in good faith, believing it to be true, is not fraudulent. A bit gullible perhaps, but not deliberately lying about their origins.

A tradition that possesses a Gardnerian book of shadows, and thereby believes itself to be Gardnerian, but doesn’t have a lineage back to Gardner, and doesn’t claim to – not fraudulent; not actually Gardnerian by the standard definition of the term Gardnerian, either; but not actually fraudulent, because it is not lying about its origins.

Witchcraft traditions that are not fraudulent include (but are not limited to) Reclaiming witchcraft, Feri witchcraft, Bread and Roses, 1734 witchcraft, Clan of Tubal Cain witchcraft, Central Valley Wicca, Georgian Wicca, Wiccan Church of Canada, Blue Star Wicca, Mohsian Wicca, Kingstone Wicca, Algard Wicca, to cite some well-known examples. None of these traditions claim to be much older than Gardnerian Wicca; they have clearly traceable origin stories, and don’t claim a lineage that doesn’t exist.

There are clearly some traditions of folk witchcraft that do pre-date Gerald Gardner, but not by more than fifty years, as far as I am aware. Claims of origins back in the mists of time should be treated with extreme caution.

Some groups are not entirely sure of their early history. In these cases, an honest answer to a question about origins would be, “We don’t really know for certain, but to the best of our knowledge and belief, what happened was this…” If new evidence comes to light which refutes the origin story, the members of the tradition accept the new historical information. For example, if contemporary Alexandrians and Gardnerians discover that Sanders or Gardner made something up, we admit it, and don’t seek to cover it up.

Once Ronald Hutton had traced the historical origins of Wicca (in The Triumph of the Moon: a history of modern Pagan witchcraft), the vast majority of Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wiccans accepted the new information and stopped claiming older origins for Wicca. Subsequent research by Philip Heselton has shown that Gardner’s story that he was initiated into an existing coven was true (and they sincerely believed themselves to be reincarnations of nineteenth century witches). I believe that Gardner sincerely believed he had stumbled upon something really old, whose fragmentary nature he sought to supplement based on his reading of Margaret Murray’s work and The Key of Solomon.

Conclusion

A fraud is someone who deliberately and knowingly seeks to deceive others. If you can’t trust their word, it would be inadvisable to trust them about anything else.

But What About The Tradition?

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.

By David Liam Moran - Own work. Image renamed from Image:Ganymede serving Zeus.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2847602

Photo by David Liam Moran – Own work. Ganymede serving Zeus, CC BY-SA 3.0.

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.

Embodied Spirituality: Magical Tools

The other day, I saw a meme which said that you don’t need magical tools, initiation, or a Book of Shadows to be a Wiccan. Well, maybe you don’t need these things, but they are what people think of when they think of Wicca. They are among the things that get you recognised as being part of the Wiccan community, because they are symbols and experiences and ideas that we all share. They are also useful. You don’t need a knife and fork to eat your dinner, but it makes it a lot easier. You don’t need an address book to write your friends’ addresses in – but it makes it a lot easier to remember where they live and post them Yule cards.  And you don’t need a rite of passage to help you feel like an adult – but it makes it easier if a definite transition has been marked.

I would like there to be as broad an interpretation of the term “Wiccan” as possible, and an even broader interpretation of the term “witch”, because that is how they were originally intended to be used (the term Wiccan was not coined exclusively for the use of Gardnerian Wiccans, or even Alexandrian plus Gardnerian – it was intended to refer to all witches, as Ethan Doyle White has shown from his historical research). I am  okay with people identifying as Wiccan without initiation – but if you want to be part of the initiatory Wiccan community, or another initiatory community such as Feri, then you need initiation. Initiation is a powerful transformational ritual.

The purpose of a Book of Shadows is not to prescribe how you should do your rituals, but to record powerful rituals that you have done, and to transmit powerful rituals written by past Wiccans. Each witch’s book should be unique to them, although it will also contain the rituals that have been passed down to them. A Book of Shadows is a magical tool for recording and transmitting good rituals.

What about tools such as wands, athames, swords, chalices, and so on? There are several reasons why they are helpful. I do think that a good witch should be able to do a spell or ritual without any tools in an emergency – but I still use tools when they are available.

By Fer Doirich - Own work, CC0

Wiccan Altar, by Fer DoirichOwn work, CC0.

Humans are tool-using animals. One of the things that helps us to think and solve problems is our tool-using propensities. Look at other animals who use tools. We tend to think they are cleverer than animals who don’t use tools, because they can manipulate more of their environment.

According to Tool Use in Animals: Cognition and Ecology:

The last decade has witnessed remarkable discoveries and advances in our understanding of the tool using behaviour of animals. Wild populations of capuchin monkeys have been observed to crack open nuts with stone tools, similar to the skills of chimpanzees and humans. Corvids have been observed to use and make tools that rival in complexity the behaviours exhibited by the great apes. Excavations of the nut cracking sites of chimpanzees have been dated to around 4-5 thousand years ago.

Think about how we use physical tools such as screwdrivers, hammers, brooms, milk-frothers, egg-stiffeners, paint-stirrers, and so on, and how difficult life would be without those tools. Think about how chimpanzees have been seen getting ants out of ant-hills with a straw, or cracking nuts open with a rock. Frequently, tool use involves remembering that you saw a useful-looking rock, or a hollow blade of grass, going to fetch it, and bringing it to where the food is. So tool use involves the use of cognitive skills such as memory, comparison, and visualisation.

My partner Bob pointed out that it is much is easier to do a task (magical or mundane) without a tool when you have learnt to do it with a tool.

Tools are levers for affecting the world. You can’t tighten a screw without a screwdriver. You need a wooden spoon to stir a pan of soup or stew, otherwise you would burn your fingers.  You can cast a magical circle without a sword or a wand – but it feels like a better and more magical circle when it has been cast with the appropriate tool. The subtle energies involved in magic are affected by physical tools in much the same way as denser matter is affected by tools.

Magic is not all in the mind – the body is part of it too. The people who claim you don’t need tools also tend to claim that doing magic is a purely mental process. The conceptual separation of mind and body, spirit and matter, is a Western phenomenon which has been a disaster for our civilisation in so many ways, involving the denigration of sexuality and sensuality, the denial of the pleasures of the flesh, a dysfunctional relationship with food, and behaving as if the Earth, the other animals, birds, and plants with whom we share it are expendable. Using magical tools helps to remind us that magic is an embodied spirituality, and to involve our bodies in the process of creating magical energy. Indeed, some of the tools used in Wicca have specific uses for enhancing the sense of being in the body.

Tools are powerful symbols. Much of magic and ritual is about engaging with and awakening the poetic and symbolic aspects of the mind (the “right-brain” functions). The use of tools as symbols speaks to these aspects of the mind (sometimes referred to as “Younger Self”). Tools are part of a complex set of magical associations involving directions, elements, planets, deities, trees, and so on, all of which speak to the poetic, mystical, and symbolic side of our natures. They are part of a poetic language of witchcraft.  The process of getting into the twilight consciousness required for ritual is assisted and enhanced by the use of familiar words, tools, imagery, and physical movements, evoking muscle memory and awareness of space.

So, maybe you don’t need tools, but why would you want to do without them?

Witchcraft: the Middle Way

Over at AndersonFaery.org, Helix has written an excellent and fascinating article about the old way of being a witch and the new way of being a witch. I think it is a useful model to explain why there is conflict over many aspects of the Craft – how to teach it, who can benefit from it, and how witches should engage with the world. The “old way” and the “new way” that Helix describes are two poles at either end of a spectrum. I would say that very few people are purely “new way” or purely “old way”. For example, I started my Craft journey with a lot of the assumptions of the “new way”, but I am a member of a tradition that is in many respects “old way” and so my practice is a synthesis of the two. Nor do I think it is necessarily the case, as Helix says, that you must be either “old way” or “new way”. She writes:

What I earnestly ask you not to do is to hybridize these two ways without deep reflection. The truth is, the Old Way and the New Way are already all mixed up in modern witchcraft traditions, and the fact that they reflect two separate and largely incompatible ways of being has not been recognized. The results have often been destructive.

The two ways are already all mixed up in modern witchcraft traditions. Doesn’t that mean that a synthesis already exists, then? Which means that we don’t need to reinvent the wheel, but can follow the Middle Way. I suspect that a lot of what I am about to say will make more sense if you read Helix’s article first, but it might work as a standalone piece. It’s up to you.

Coast path near Bindon Cliffs The path (Axmouth Footpath 2) spends most of its time along this coast in woodland which has grown up on the jumble of broken land. A mysterious touch is added here by the luxuriant growth of harts-tongue fern and ivy below hazel trees. Creative Commons Licence [Some Rights Reserved] © Copyright Derek Harper and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Coast path near Bindon Cliffs
The path (Axmouth Footpath 2) spends most of its time along this coast in woodland which has grown up on the jumble of broken land. A mysterious touch is added here by the luxuriant growth of harts-tongue fern and ivy below hazel trees.
 © Copyright Derek Harper and
licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

The “old way” and the “new way”

Very broadly, Helix characterises the Old Way as embedded in community and locality, and being about relationships  with the land and one’s local community. It takes the view that politics (of the pressure-group and parliamentary kind) is ephemeral and transitory, and that everything is cyclical, and that we have seen all this before. It does not teach in large groups for money, because teaching is about relationship. It also takes the view that not everyone is called to be a witch, or has the necessary skills, aptitudes, and inclinations.

The New Way, on the other hand, while it acknowledges the cyclical nature of reality, says that we are at a crisis point and need to be politically engaged in order to transform the world. To this end, we need to train as many people as possible in the techniques of witchcraft, in order to bring about that transformation. It regards teaching in large groups as necessary in order to spread the message, and money as a means of energy exchange.

Helix has a great list of the differences between the two, which is well worth a read. I found myself agreeing with some of both approaches, though, which is why I think there is value in both ways, and that a synthesis or middle way is possible. In fact, Helix says as much:

“The Old Way” and “The New Way” are categories that I have created to help readers think about differences in approaches to the Craft. They are not meant to be definitive or 100% historically-based, and it is normal for an individual witch to have elements of both.

A “middle way”

The most famous usage of the term “Middle Way” is of course the Middle Way in Buddhism. The story goes that the Buddha first tried ascetic practices to reach enlightenment, and ended up very emaciated as a result. Then he tried hedonism as a way to enlightenment, and found that didn’t work either. So then he invented the Middle Way – moderation in all things. The middle way between the two positions articulated by Helix will be different from Middle Way Buddhism, of course, because it is not a middle way between asceticism and hedonism, but a middle way between two different poles, which we might characterise as local and global, or maybe even religion and spirituality, or embedded and networked.

Because the “old way” and the “new way” are complex and cohesive worldviews, it is difficult to come up with a shorthand term to describe them. I will try to articulate my suggested middle way by using the same headings as Helix, for ease of comparison.

Time and Justice

In the “middle way”, witches are aware that time is cyclical, but also that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice” (Martin Luther King, paraphrasing Theodore Parker).  We know that there is an ecological crisis, but feel that there is still hope of change. We know that capitalism sucks, but we also feel that there was a time in the past when it didn’t exist, and there will be a time in the future when it will become obsolete. Rather than our focus being entirely local or entirely global, we are aware of the interconnectedness of the global and the local, and that the one is a reflection of the other. “As above, so below.” The apocalypse is not at hand, but it isn’t business-as-usual either. So, in the manner of Odin at the Well of Mimir, we need one eye on the outer world, and one on the inner world. The role of the witch is to straddle the hedge, the liminal place, between inner and outer, light and dark, global and local, community and solitude.

Self, Community, and Training

In the “old way”, training appears to have been largely one-on-one. Trad Craft groups seem to envisage a witch training only one successor. In the “new way”, teaching is mostly in large groups, and can be done by distance learning. Surely the middle way (which, thankfully, already exists) is the coven? In a coven, you get the sense of community and individuality, and the intimacy of a small group. You get the individual development by having your corners rubbed off by the group, and avoid the lack of feedback that you would get in solitary practice and large impersonal classroom settings. You might also be aware of a network of other covens who have similar intimate training settings. It is not your duty to train everyone who asks you for training; but it probably is your duty to train those who have an aptitude, who will benefit from your training, and who will put in the commitment to the work. Luckily, when you get students who fulfil those criteria, this duty is actually a pleasure, and something that the teacher will also benefit from (which is why we never charge for coven training).

Secrecy and Silence

The middle way distinguishes between secrecy, confidentiality, privacy, and the mysteries.

Secrecy is necessary to protect the mysteries from the profane, and to protect the inexperienced from confronting the powerful nature of the mysteries without proper preparation. It should never be used to be excluding, or to assert power and privilege over others. Confidentiality is important for several reasons: because the Craft is so misunderstood by outsiders that we need to protect ourselves; because if someone confides something private to you, it is just that, private.

As KNicoll commented on a book review:

If you invited someone who worked as a food columnist over for family dinner, do you expect to hear about a article afterwards that reveals the menu, criticises what people were wearing, reveals intimate details about people’s lives from the before-dinner discussions, and includes the addresses of some of the guests? Of course not!

Not only are the details of someone’s personal life private, but also certain aspects of our rituals, which are unique and special to a particular covens, and only get shared with people we love and trust.

The mysteries are so experiential and often non-verbal that it’s almost impossible to explain them to someone else; you just have to experience them. The only possible response to the mysteries is silence. They are that which (literally) cannot be spoken, cannot be communicated, only experienced directly or not at all. And the secrecy that is hedged about our rituals is to prevent the unwary and inexperienced from stumbling across the mysteries and being hurt by the encounter.

Money

In the “middle way”, you do not pay for coven training, but you might pay for classes and workshops where there is no ongoing relationship. The middle way distinguishes between the coven setting and other contexts. The coven setting is a tribal setting, where no-one counts the cost of what they do, everyone just does their best and knows that “what goes around comes around”. The wider community is more like a village, where we barter our skills for other people’s skills. And a large event or conference is like a city, where there is little or no ongoing relationship, so we trade our skills and knowledge for money. The middle way witch is quite happy to write a book, but will emphasise that book-learning must be complemented by coven learning, where you can have the experiential learning that is necessary for a full understanding of the Craft. The middle way witch tries to synthesise left-brain and right-brain approaches. “Middle way” witches likes to keep their feet on the ground by having a regular job, but also engage with wider issues, and might have a blog or write books, where they explain some of the techniques of witchcraft, and provide a means of entry to the Pagan worldview, ethos, and values.

Purpose

The purpose of witchcraft in the middle way is both individual development and community cohesion, and a recognition that you can’t have one without the other. The middle way witch recognises that the state of the world is not ideal, but also doesn’t think that the apocalypse is at hand, and hopes that the crisis can be averted by peaceful means. Middle way witches recognise that we are in relationship with all beings, and therefore wish to avoid violent revolution. If this all sounds hopelessly bourgeois, I am sorry, but transformation can be peaceful and yet still powerful. Look at the non-violent overthrow of many totalitarian systems, and the massive sea-change in attitudes towards homosexuality that has happened in a generation – in my lifetime, in fact.

Where next?

As Helix rightly points out, the  “old way” and the “new way” are primarily tools for thought – but they are also cohesive models which people do largely follow. I have noticed people who lean towards one or other of these poles regarding each other with complete mutual bafflement. However, I do think there is value and wisdom in both approaches, which is why I have tried to provide a synthesis, or third way, or middle way, between the two. We can’t afford not to engage with the current ecological crisis; but on the other hand, we don’t want to lose the ethos and values of the “old way”, which are part of the solution to the problems we face. Therefore, I would encourage people to read Helix’s article, look at the suggestions for a middle way that I have offered, and ponder where your own practice and values sit on the spectrum between the poles.

As the Queen of Elfland said to Thomas the Rhymer:

‘O see ye not yon narrow road,
So thick beset wi’ thorns and briers?
That is the Path of Righteousness,
Though after it but few inquires. ‘

And see ye not yon braid, braid road,
That lies across the lily leven?
That is the Path of Wickedness,
Though some call it the Road to Heaven. ‘

And see ye not yon bonny road
That winds about the fernie brae?
That is the Road to fair Elfland,
Where thou and I this night maun gae.

There is always a middle way, though it is increasingly becoming a “road less travelled”.

Teaching and Learning in a Coven

Every new generation of seekers has some obstacle put in their way. In the days before the internet, the obstacle was not enough information. Now the obstacle is too much information. There are loads of websites and would-be teachers out there offering you all kinds of advice.

Then one day, you decide to take the plunge and find a face-to-face teacher. This is generally a good thing, as in my experience, most humans learn better from personal interaction than they do from online interactions or books.

However, due to the prevalence of books and people claiming to be the ultimate authority, and the prevalence of the counter-claim that the only valid authority is the inner self, we have a situation where many people can neither learn nor teach because they are too convinced of their own rightness to actually consider new ideas from their teachers or their students.

The theory of learning and teaching that I use in a coven setting is derived from Lev Vygotsky, who theorised the existence of a zone of proximal development. Vygotsky was a social constructivist; that is, he believed that learning was mediated through social interaction, and that our understanding of the world is socially constructed.

The zone of proximal development is the idea that there are some things the learner can do unaided (that they already know how to do); some things that they can do with guidance; and some that they cannot do. It also suggests that you need to build up from the things you can do, master the skills that you can do with help, and that this will provide the building blocks to access the next level (this idea was further developed by Jerome Bruner, David Wood, and Gail Ross with the concept of scaffolding).

The teacher and the student build a bridge between them so they can exchange ideas and knowledge and skills. But it is important to note that the teacher can also learn from the student.

"Ponte Vasco da Gama 25" by F Mira from Lisbon, Portugal - Merging in the mistUploaded by JotaCartas. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ponte_Vasco_da_Gama_25.jpg#/media/File:Ponte_Vasco_da_Gama_25.jpg

Ponte Vasco da Gama 25” by F Mira from Lisbon, Portugal – Merging in the mist Uploaded by JotaCartas. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons.

This means that learning is a collaborative process between the teacher and the learner. It is not the case that the learner is an empty bucket that the teacher fills up with facts; rather, the teacher and the learner discover and elaborate the existing skills of the learner (and the learner may also be able to teach the teacher a thing or two). This is especially true of magical and ritual skills, which are often extensions of existing abilities.

So, if you are a seeker, find out from any potential teacher you meet what their methods are, and what they expect you to do. Do they expect you to ask questions? Do they welcome and celebrate your existing skills and knowledge? Do they recognise that you have a unique learning style? Do they invite you to bring prior experience to the table to enrich the learning process? Do they support students with dyslexia, dyspraxia, or other differences?

Many seekers seem to assume that all teachers are going to dictate a prescribed way of doing magic and ritual which will destroy the spontaneity and joy of it. Perhaps there are teachers out there who behave like that, but the majority are rather more flexible than that. If you do find a teacher who won’t allow you to ask questions, who belittles your existing skills and prior experience, or who insists on doing everything in a set way, then run a mile – but don’t assume that all teachers are like that.

The method that I use for teaching conceptual ideas is the sharing circle. This is fairly accessible for people with dyslexia, because it gives people time to formulate their thoughts. There is a set topic for each discussion (such as reincarnation, the nature of deities, the idea of the sacred, the four elements, etc) and we use a token to indicate who can speak at any one time. The token is passed around the circle, and everyone gets a chance to air their thoughts on the topic. Sometimes I use other tools such as mind mapping to enable people to tease out their ideas on a topic.

In the circle, when teaching magical techniques, I encourage people to try different techniques, in order to work out what feels right for them. Some people prefer one set of gestures for calling the quarters, cleansing the circle, and so on; others prefer a different set of gestures. These may stem from a different physical relationship with the energies, or from a different philosophical concept of what energies are and how we might relate to them. None of these different gestures and words is necessarily wrong. Obviously your tradition might have a specific way of doing these things, but my BoS offers a selection of different words and gestures for calling the quarters, casting the circle, and so on, and which ones you choose may be different, depending on different circumstances and choices.

I always encourage people to make a connection with the energy they are invoking or evoking first, and then to speak the words. After all, the energy is more important, surely? It can also be helpful to use analogies from physical experience in order to get people sensing subtle energies. I have also noticed that different people experience subtle energies differently – some people see them as colours; others experience them as heat, cold, or other physical sensations.

Another thing that I have noticed is that people are either overly reliant on books, and regard them as the ultimate authority on magical matters; or they dismiss books entirely, and want to totally rely on their instincts. Surely there has to be a happy medium between these two extremes? If something you read in a book doesn’t agree with your experience, then examine why that might be the case, and either adjust your world-view, or discard what the book says. If the book is wrong in this instance, that doesn’t invalidate either that book, or books in general. If the book happens to be right in this instance, that doesn’t invalidate all personal experiences.

As with pretty much anything, it’s all about finding the middle way between two extremes.

Wicca: History, Belief, and Community

Ethan Doyle White has recently published an important new book: Wicca: History, Belief, and Community in Modern Pagan Witchcraft, available on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com, and due for release on 1 November 2015. So I approached him for an interview. 

Wicca - by Ethan Doyle White [Cover image supplied by Ethan Doyle White]

Wicca, by Ethan Doyle White

DfD: Tell us about yourself, Ethan…

I am a trained archaeologist with a particular interest in the pre-Christian belief systems of Europe and the manner in which they have been reinterpreted and utilised in modern contexts, particularly within the contemporary Pagan movement. I am currently engaged in MPhil/PhD studies in Early Medieval archaeology at University College London (UCL), and run the Albion Calling blog on which I have interviewed such scholars as Ronald Hutton, Sabina Magliocco, and Graham Harvey.

DfD: What prompted you to start researching Wicca?

It was just down to personal interest, quite frankly. Growing up in suburban London, I was born and raised in what Professor Robert Mathiesen called an “esoteric family”, in that my parents were involved in various esoteric movements. In the case of my own household, that esotericism expressed itself as a syncretic blend of Spiritualism, the New Age movement, and (to a lesser extent) Christianity. I’m thus in a fairly unusual position of being an individual who was raised to believe in the fundamental normalness of esoteric ideas; I would come home from school to find séances, Tarot card reading, or reiki healing taking place in the living room, for instance. Quite a few friends and acquaintances have expressed jealousy of that fact.

As a tweenager and teenager I was very interested in religious studies. On a personal level, I experimented with the likes of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Sufism, and developed a great fascination with ritual and the materiality of religion ((of course, at the time I’d never heard of such jargon as the “materiality of religion”, which describes the way in which religiosity is expressed in “material culture”, or to put it more bluntly, it’s all about religious paraphernalia and other “stuff”!). I was also very much interested in mythology, folklore, and the pre-Christian societies of the European continent, in particular those of the North. As I would later find out, these are all common elements reported by those who subsequently convert to forms of contemporary Paganism, thus helping to generate the sensation of conversion being a “homecoming.”

Ethan Doyle White (photo supplied by EDW)

Ethan Doyle White

Pretty soon I came upon Wicca through an eclectic ‘Wicca 101’ book, and I found it absolutely fascinating. I certainly flirted with the ‘Teen Witchcraft’ movement, as so many others did at the time. However, within a few years my involvement with the Craft had moved from being that of a teenage spiritual seeker to quite firmly being an “outsider” with no particular desire for practical participation. As I grew into my late teens and early twenties I had lost my faith in many of the esoteric and religious ideas that I was raised with, becoming a great deal more sceptical about the existence of preternatural entities, magic, and all such ‘paranormal’ things which have not had their existence confirmed by scientific enquiry. These days I self-define as a secular humanist, although my strong fascination for religions like Wicca has remained and for that reason I have continued to research the subject and write on it in an academic capacity. I think that I’m quite well placed to do so, being an “outsider” to the religion who at the same time has an awful lot of respect for esoteric and Pagan schools of thought as a result of my own personal background. My work on the subject is therefore not un-critical, but is generally quite sympathetic and is certainly not hostile; I hope therefore that it will satisfy both devout practitioners and ardent critics of the Craft.

DfD: How long did the book take to write?

If I remember correctly, I started to write a book on the subject of Wicca – specifically the history of Wicca – when I was seventeen (so seven years ago now). At the time I had never read an article in a peer-reviewed journal and had absolutely no idea how to write academically. After entering the university system, as well as independently researching and publishing a variety of articles in peer-reviewed journals, I gained a much better grasp of how academic writing is done. For that reason, I largely scrapped my original manuscript and started again when I was nineteen, this time deciding to create a work that would cover all areas of Wicca – history, belief and practice, and sociological and cultural issues – which I felt was probably a lot more useful for people than a book purely dealing with the faith’s history.

By this point, I had realised that while some excellent research on Wicca had been conducted – work by Ronald Hutton, Sabina Magliocco, and Helen Berger jumps to mind – there still wasn’t a single academic book that actually offered an introduction to this new religious movement. There were introductory works on contemporary Paganism as a whole by the likes of Graham Harvey and Margot Adler, and of course there were various ‘Wicca 101’ books authored by practitioners, but these weren’t ideal for the needs of a religious studies student or just a general interested reader who really wanted a good, scholarly, yet in-depth summary of Wicca. I’m not terribly business-minded, but quite simply I saw a gap in the market.

Thus, I would say that the book as it currently exists probably took me five years to write; of course, I had to juggle its production with my university studies, research articles, the Albion Calling blog, paid employment, and of course an all-important social life! So it has been a lengthy process, and a labour of love, but I do hope that it was worth it.

DfD: What was your research methodology? 

In this case there wasn’t a research methodology per se. I wasn’t in the position to conduct in-depth ethnographic research – and even if I did it would have been regionally constrained – but rather I wanted to produce a textbook that brought together other scholars’ work and synthesised it all in one place. Most of those with a scholarly interest in Wicca will be aware of the best known book-length academic studies of the subject, but in producing this volume I discovered that there was an awful lot more research on the subject than I had ever realised, with hundreds of academic articles having been published, often in comparatively obscure academic outlets like the World Leisure Journal and Cornish Studies. That’s why my book’s bibliography is 29 pages long!

However, as I was writing the work there were questions that really intrigued me, in particular regarding such issues as the etymology and changing usage of the word “Wicca” within the Pagan community, the origins of the Wiccan Rede, and the life and theology of the British Witch Robert Cochrane, so I undertook historical studies on those particular issues, resulting in articles for peer-reviewed academic journals like The Pomegranate, Correspondences, Folklore, and Magic, Ritual and Witchcraft. These were spin-offs from the book as it were, and helped to give me – as someone too young to possess either a doctorate or professional academic post – the scholarly credibility that I needed to ultimately gain an academic publisher for the volume.

Can you share any of your more surprising findings?

I think that my most surprising findings all arose from my research into the word “Wicca”, which resulted in my very first academic publication, ‘The Meaning of “Wicca”: A Study in Etymology, History and Pagan Politics’, in a 2010 issue of The Pomegranate. It seemed that most people with an interest in the Craft – including myself, initially – were under the impression that Gerald Gardner had either developed the term “Wicca” (based on the Old English wicca) or gained it from the New Forest coven. According to this story, Gardner used the term explicitly to describe his Gardnerian tradition, but in the 1970s and 1980s “eclectic” practitioners adopted it for themselves and stretched it into a far more inclusive term for all forms of contemporary Pagan Witchcraft.

Simply put, a methodical examination of the early texts of the movement showed that that wasn’t the case. Gardner never used the term “Wicca”. What he did use was the term “the Wica”, which contains only one c, not two. However, “the Wica” was not a name for this religion, or even his tradition specifically. Instead it referred to the community of Pagan Witches – a community that he of course believed (or at least, publicly appeared to believe) – represented isolated survivals of a pre-Christian Murrayite witch-cult with its origins in prehistory. Thus, in Gardner’s understanding of the term, “the Wica” comprised not only his own Gardnerians, but also members of the traditions propagated by other Witches like Charles Cardell and Victor Anderson, both of whom he was in contact with.

The historical data shows that the term “Wicca” – as a name for the religion itself – appears in Britain in the early 1960s, where it is use among the early Alexandrians. They don’t use it in an exclusive manner to refer solely to the Gardnerians and Alexandrians, but rather in a far wider, inclusive manner, to refer to all Pagan Witchcraft groups claiming to be the survivals of Murray’s witch-cult. If you read Stewart Farrar’s What Witches Do, an early Alexandrian work, you’ll see him talking of Gardnerian, Alexandrian, Traditional, and Hereditary “Wiccans”, not “Witches”.

Basically, what we see here is that the common conception of the etymology of “Wicca” – that it was originally very exclusive and only later transformed into a wide-ranging inclusive term – is completely wrong. The term was in fact very inclusive from the start, and instead it was practitioners of the Gardnerian-Alexandrian tradition operating in the U.S. who then tried to restrict its usage during the 1970s and 1980s, perhaps as a part of boundary policing at a time when they wished to distance themselves from the growth of the Dianic Wiccans, Feri Wiccans, and self-dedicants who had built their tradition on the published work of Lady Sheba, Paul Huson, Raymond Buckland and the like.

For those Wiccans, and scholars interested in Wicca, who have not necessarily been following all of the latest developments in the study of the subject over the past few years, or even decades, I think that my work will be a bit of an eye opener.

DfD: How do you think Wicca, which was born in the repressive 1950s, and grew up in the “permissive” 60s and 70s, fits in with contemporary culture?

Well, in many ways I think that Wicca is intrinsically counter-cultural – it’s hardly a widely accepted part of mainstream culture to call oneself a “Witch”, venerate a deity other than the Judaeo-Christian God, and proclaim the ability to work magic! It is also marginal in that it holds the adherence of only a very tiny proportion of the overall population in any given country. Thus, I think that – just like other esoteric and Pagan movements – it exists within the “cultic milieu” at the cultural margins of Western society, which is part of what makes it so interesting for me and probably for many of its own participants, but at the same time it is that which makes it vulnerable to prejudice and persecution. I’m personally sceptical regarding the idea that Wicca will ever truly break out of this marginal position and enter the cultural mainstream; to do so I think that you would need to see not only the “western rationalist” scientific establishment embrace the objective validity of magic but also Wicca become a dominant religion with a large minority or even majority of the population professing allegiance to it. I appreciate that there are Wiccans who do believe – or at least hope – that this might eventually happen, but if I’m honest I have to say that I’d very surprised if such a scenario ever came to fruition. Then again, stranger things have happened – how many people living in the Roman Empire during the first-century CE thought that Christianity would come to dominate not only Rome itself but the entirety of Europe ?

DfD: What do you think might be the future for Wicca – both the eclectic varieties and the initiatory traditions?

I think that the short term future – the next fifty years or so – looks quite bright. The established, initiatory traditions are in a fairly stable place right now, at least in the Anglophone Western nations. Even if they aren’t growing at the rapid pace that they once experienced, their membership isn’t in significant decline, they’ve shown their capability to develop good relations with their neighbours, and they’ve established legally-recognised organisations that have helped to provide Wicca with greater visibility and legal protection. While this process of routinization definitely brings benefits for some Wiccan groups, at the same time other practitioners have resisted all of this and retained a fairly anarchic, secretive structure that they are far more comfortable with. To me, this says that Wicca is remarkably flexible and adaptable, able to fit both its participants’ desires and society’s demands, and that will no doubt stand it in good stead, at least over the coming decades.

When it comes to the “eclectic” Wiccans, I think that we will also see things remaining fairly stable in the near future too, with no dramatic surges and no dramatic declines. I have little doubt that while the books of Scott Cunningham and Silver RavenWolf remain readily available, you will still see a trickle of practitioners brought into the fold through them. I’ve noticed that in the past year or so there appears to have been something of a miniature revival of pop culture interest in Wiccan(esque) witchcraft and magic: we have a remake of The Craft coming out, talk of a revival of Charmed, and the girl band Little Mix recently launched a music video that revolved around the idea of four schoolgirls discovering a magic book and using it to advance their own interests. Sound familiar? Furthermore, I’ve noticed a fascinating but rather unexpected interest in Wicca within the queer hip hop scene coming out from the States; an artist called Zebra Katz released a song called “Blk Wiccan”, while one of the most innovative rappers of recent years, Azealia Banks, has talked about Wicca in some widely publicised tweets. I suspect that all of this reflects an embodiment of 90s nostalgia – like myself, these are all individuals who were exposed to Sabrina, The Craft, Buffy, Charmed and the ‘Teen Witchcraft’ movement as they were growing up, and now that they are bursting onto the musical scene they are bringing those formative influences with them. However, it would not surprise me if these factors resulted in a second ‘Teen Witchcraft’ movement, emerging among those consuming this new media, even if this one is not as large or as significant as its late 90s/early 00s predecessor.

As for the longer term, by which I mean the next five hundred to a thousand years (and as an archaeologist I often find myself thinking in those terms), I’m really not sure what will happen to Wicca. I believe that the impulse that many Westerns have – to “revive” in one way or another pre-Christian spiritual systems – will undoubtedly survive and thus I think that modern Pagan religiosity will undoubtedly surface again and again, in either explicitly spiritual or simply artistic and aesthetic forms, just as it has done ever since the Renaissance. Wicca itself, however, has the potential to die out at some point in the far future. Both history and archaeology tell us that most religious groups do eventually succumb to extinction, either by being wiped out or by evolving into something else entirely. Since the 1950s, Wicca has been propelled in part by its counter-cultural chic and its rejection of dominant modes of monotheistic religiosity, but there could come a point where Wicca just feels like an out-of-date irrelevancy for people, and is unable to attract young blood to its cause. It could become an old folks’ religion on the brink of extinction, which is the fate that many (formerly powerful and influential) Christian groups in the West are facing right now. Equally, it could fall victim to serious persecution, or fall by the wayside as humanity is wracked by totalitarianism, epidemics, or war. I appreciate that that might not be a message that many Wiccans want to hear, but I don’t believe that practitioners of the faith should ever think that their religion is somehow immune to the forces of history that have wiped out many belief systems in the past, including those “paganisms” of the ancient world that inspire Wicca’s modern spiritual endeavours. However, even if this pessimistic outlook should be the case, I hope that texts such as my book will have helped to document the existence of this truly fascinating religious movement for posterity.

Thank you very much, Ethan!

You can find out more about Ethan Doyle White by following his blog, Albion Calling, or his work on Academia.edu.

Paganism for Beginners: Magical Names

Words and names have power. In many mythologies, the world came into being at the utterance of a particular word or sound. A magician who knows the true names of things has power over them. That is why, in A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin, everyone has a secret name, and a nickname by which they are usually known. It is why some Romani mothers give their children three names: a secret name whispered in the child’s ear on giving birth, and again when the child becomes an adult; a name which they are known by among their own tribe; and a name for use among the gadjo (non-Romani) – but see update below.

The Enchanted Garden of Messer Ansaldo by Marie Spartali Stillman

The Enchanted Garden of Messer Ansaldo by Marie Spartali Stillman (1899) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Why have a Pagan name?

Many people decide to have a Pagan name because they want to celebrate an aspect of Nature with their name. Hence people choose the names of plants, animals, or birds that they particularly like. Fortunately for me, the name Yvonne means “Yewtree” anyway. My last name is probably derived from the Anglo-Saxon for fortified town (burh) but it may just possibly be derived from the Anglo-Saxon for burial mound (beorh), though in that case my last name would probably be “Berrow”.

There are many reasons why someone might want a Pagan name: to feel more in touch with a particular deity, animal, bird, or tree; to emphasise a quality that you possess, or to which you aspire; to celebrate a connection with a particular animal, bird, plant, place, or being that you already feel.

Choosing your own name is a powerful magical act. Sometimes a name is suggested to you by others; if it feels right, go for it. Sometimes the name only fits in a particular group or context. I am known by a particular nickname to a particular group of people, and it feels very odd indeed if anyone outside that group uses that nickname.

Using a pseudonym

When I wrote my first book, back in 1992, I considered using a pseudonym. Ironically enough, when it was published, some people apparently thought that Yvonne Aburrow actually was a pseudonym.

At that time, many Pagan authors used pseudonyms, because it was still legal to discriminate against Pagans at work in the UK, and everybody could still remember the “Satanic Panic” in which fundamentalist Christians tried to convince social workers that there was an epidemic of Satanism in the UK, and that Pagans were Satanists.

Fortunately, the 2003 legislation on religious discrimination in the workplace means that Pagans are protected by employment law. Pagans were explicitly mentioned in the ACAS guidelines on the Act, which have the same force as case law.

Employers should be aware that these Regulations extend beyond the more well known religions and faiths to include beliefs such as Paganism and Humanism. The Regulations also cover those without religious or similar beliefs.

It is not necessarily the case that Pagans are protected by law from discrimination in the workplace in other countries, however. So some Pagans may still feel the need to use a pseudonym.

When creating a pseudonym, it is always a good idea not to use the pseudonym to claim a living ethnicity that you do not possess. So don’t make up a fake Native American name, or a fake Celtic name. It’s tacky, and it’s cultural appropriation, and it’s potentially fraudulent. It’s fine to create a Latin pseudonym, because no current ethnic group uses Latin, so it is obviously not intended to be fraudulent.

Why have a magical name?

In initiatory Wicca, a witch-name or magical name is generally used only in circle, and known only to other initiates.  The candidate for initiation is invited to choose a name prior to first-degree initiation.

When a witch is in circle, and using a witch-name, it feels as though we have stepped into our magical persona or power. Now we are ready to do magic, and have entered sacred space and sacred time. The magical name can reflect qualities we aspire to, or beings to whom we feel connected.

I read a book by Alan Richardson once, in which he suggests the following for “taking off” your mundane name and “putting on” your magical name in circle. What you do is intone your mundane name, knocking off one letter at a time, like this:

YVONNE
YVONN
YVON
YVO
YV
Y

Then build up your magical name one letter at a time. Imagine that my magical name was Yewtree:

Y
YE
YEW
YEWT
YEWTR
YEWTRE
YEWTREE

Alternatively, you can just introduce yourself as your magical name once the circle is set up.

How to choose a name

Not many people know immediately what their magical name should be. I had been given a name as a sort of joke a couple of years before my initiation, and when I was invited to choose a name, that was the one that immediately came to mind. I considered a few others, but that name kept coming back to me, so I stuck with it. I have never regretted it.

That said, don’t just choose the first name that comes to mind, or that sounds cool. And I would advise against using an internet name generator – fun though they are to play around with. Patti Wiginton has some excellent advice on how to choose a name, including how to work out if it is a good fit by using numerology (though how to do numerology with the Latin alphabet is disputed, since numerology was invented for use with the Hebrew alphabet).

Some people get their names in a dream; others choose their names from mythology or from Nature. Using the name of a major deity is regarded as a bit hubristic, and somewhat risky in that you are taking on the whole of the archetype of that deity. Minor deities and spirits, human heroes, plants, birds, animals, and abstract qualities are generally regarded as a better source of names.

Meditate on what qualities or virtues you want to embody, or which you find yourself embodying a lot of the time, and think about what animal, bird, plant, or mythological person best represents that quality. That will probably be a good source of potential names.

Once you have found the right name, you will know, because it will just feel right.


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.  


UPDATE on Romani naming practices.

The information about Romani naming practices in the article was an oversimplification. And please note that I was in no way advocating that Pagans should appropriate Roma naming practice.

My source was a book by Jacques Prévert about the Romani of Eastern Europe. Here’s a better explanation of the practice, from a library of Roma culture at the University of Graz:

Gadžo names are the Christian (first/personal) names registered in official documents (on identification papers, in registry offices; on passports, etc.) In the past, it was very rare to find a Rom with a Gadžo name. Very few Roma called their children or each other by their Gadže (official) names. Some small children did not even know their Gadže names when they started school.

and

Roma use their Roma name when they speak to each other. In the past, there was not one Rom who would not have had a Roma name. Even today, it is hard to find even one.

When a child is first born, he is spoken of as “the little one”, “the tiny one”, because his character is not yet determined. Only when he has grown a bit does his Roma name usually reveal itself.

Relatives determine the Roma name for a child in various ways.

The name can reflect a personality trait or something about the appearance of the child: Kalo(Black), Cikňi (Little), Šuki (Slender), Papin (Silly), Pušomori (Little Flea).

and

An “other name” is a Roma name with a specific function. Many Roma have forgotten this function, but in Roma settlements around Snina and Zbudské Dlhé, Roma traditionally still have an “other name”.

An “other name” protects a child from illnesses and impure forces. Let’s say that a child is named Gejza, but his mother calls him Toňu. Gejza is often kept secret from other Roma. It can happen that some illness may appear, for example oja (epilepsy), and this illness wants to possess the child. It looks for a child named Toňu, the name by which his parents and the other Roma call him. But no such Toňu exists. Toňu is merely the “other name” for the child. The illness does not know that the child’s real name is Gejza because the name Gejza has been kept secret. Therefore, the illness does not find the child and cannot hurt him.

A similar explanation is offered on this less academic site, the Patrin Web Journal, which as far as I know was set up by an actual Romani person.

7 things I wish people knew about Wicca

John William Waterhouse - Tate Gallery, online database: entry N01572 Public Domain

The Magic Circle, John William Waterhouse [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

1. That Wiccan theology is diverse

This one applies equally to Wiccans, polytheists, and everyone really. In Wicca, you can be a pantheist, a polytheist, an atheist, a duotheist, a monist, a Neoplatonist monotheist, a polymorphist, or all of them at once, and hardly anyone minds.

Sable Aradia explains all about it in The Many Faces of Wiccan Divinity.

2. That there are many different types of Wicca and witchcraft, but not all witches are Wiccans

There are many different types of Wicca, some initiatory, some lineaged, some descended from Gerald Gardner, some not. They have a variety of practices and styles. In the UK, Gardnerians and Alexandrians will happily work in the same circle and there are many dual-heritage covens. In the UK and Europe, we believe that you don’t have to start a new tradition just because you changed something about your rituals. In the US, Gardnerian and Alexandrian covens are referred to as “British Traditional Wicca”.

There are also other types of witchcraft – Reclaiming, Feri, Cochrane Tradition, 1734 Tradition, and many others – which do not use the name Wicca to describe themselves.

Not all witches are Wiccans, but all Wiccans are witches.

3. How to ask for training and initiation

If you write to a coven and ask for training in Wicca, do expect that there will be travel involved, and face-to-face meetings and rituals. Most people don’t offer correspondence courses. Wicca is hands-on.

If you have already done a self-initiation ritual, that’s great, but please don’t be offended when the coven wants you to be initiated into their coven and lineage. Self-initiation can be a wonderful and meaningful experience and a genuine encounter with the Pagan deities, but it is different from an initiation into a lineaged coven.

When you get to the end of the training, you may be ready for first-degree initiation. It is up to you to ask for first degree initiation, as the coven will not want you to feel pressurised into it. It is not automatically the outcome of Wiccan training – the coven may decide that you are not a good fit for them, or that you are not ready for initiation. This will probably become apparent before the end of the training, both to you and to them, however.

After some time of being a first degree, you may feel that you are ready for second degree initiation. However, it is up to the coven to offer it to you, and not up to you to ask for it. This is the other way around from first degree.

Having said all that, different covens may feel differently about this, so it is a good idea to ask what their practice is.

4. Traditional Wicca does not cost money

We do not charge for face-to-face coven training. People might ask for financial contributions for temple sundries (candles, incense, etc) and for paper handouts. Every covener is expected to bring a contribution of food for the feast.

I do believe it is legitimate to charge for handfastings, baby-namings, Tarot readings, rune readings, workshops at events, and so on.

I have thought quite long and hard about Pagans’ relationship with money, and concluded that we need to talk about it more.

5. Wicca is a religion and a craft

Some seekers seem to be under the impression that Wicca is only a set of magical techniques, and that they will not need to engage with Pagan deities. Nope, Wicca is a Pagan religion, and that means we honour Pagan deities.

There are Christo-Pagans and Christo-Wiccans and Jewitches, who worship Yahweh and Asherah, or Yahweh and Shekhinah, or Jesus and Mary… but most Wiccans are Pagans.

There are also apparently some who believe that Wicca is not witchcraft. Yes it is. The name Wicca was used to refer to the Craft when it was difficult to use the word “witch” because people automatically associated it with devil-worship. But the vast majority of Wiccans regard ourselves as witches.

6. There is no such thing as “black witchcraft” and “white witchcraft”

One of the most annoying questions that witches get asked is “are you a black witch or a white witch?” There are so many things wrong with this question.

The categories of white and black witchcraft were created by the Church persecution of witches, as they believed that white witches conjured angels, and black witches conjured devils. They do not apply in a Pagan context, because Pagan cosmology and theology does not include angels and devils, or opposing cosmic principles of good and evil.

It is racist to associate “black” with evil. As I wrote in my essay “Is it meaningful to speak of queer spirituality?” [1]:

[Robin] Hawley-Gorsline suggests that darkness is generally seen as a negative cultural meme – dark sexuality, dark continents, dark people – and that Christian spirituality is focused on the light.   This negative view of darkness increases its power as a meme; darkness is equated with exotica, especially sexual difference.  Blacks and blackness are associated with sexuality and sensuality; and ‘deviant’ sexuality is kept hidden, in the dark.  An African American transgendered activist, Miss Lorrainne Sade Baskerville, said to Saadaya:

“Why is black the color of evil? Why is the color black bad and impure and why does white represent light, wisdom and purity? … Black is [a] mysterious color, a beautiful color! It represents mystery!”

Most Wiccans and other witches believe that our magic comes from energies inherent in Nature, and have very little to do with the supernatural. So, if someone asks me the question, my reply is usually, “I’m a green witch”.

The question also implies a black-and-white view of morality and ethics, whereas we tend to believe that morality is complex and contextual.

7. The Threefold Law doesn’t mean what you think it means

The Threefold Law is an injunction to return good threefold when you receive good. It is not a belief that if you do harm, there is some cosmic karmic law that causes you to receive threefold harm in return.


[1] Is it meaningful to speak of ”queer spirituality”? An examination of queer and LGBT imagery and themes in contemporary paganism and Christianity, chapter in Contemporary Christianity and LGBT Sexualities ed. Stephen Hunt, Ashgate Publishing, 2009.

Paganism for Beginners: Wicca

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.

"Wiccan altar (0)" by RaeVynn Sands, Flickr user cronewynd - originally uploaded to Flickr by RaeVynn Sands as Beltane Altar. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wiccan_altar_(0).png#/media/File:Wiccan_altar_(0).png

Wiccan altar (0)” by RaeVynn Sands, Flickr user cronewynd – originally uploaded to Flickr by RaeVynn Sands as Beltane Altar. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Initiation

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.

Sources

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.

Structure

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.

Festivals

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.

Magic

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.

Ethics

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.

Further reading

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.