There is much talk in initiatory Wicca of things being “oathbound”. However, a piece of knowledge cannot be oathbound. Oaths and vows are binding on those who swear them, not on the things they swear to protect or keep secret. A person is oathbound, not an item of knowledge.
The night journey: witchcraft as transformation
When Gerald Gardner coined the term “the Wica” (originally spelt with one c), he seems to have intended it to refer to any and all witches. Subsequently, the term has come to be used by some people to mean only witches initiated into Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wicca, and has been used by others to mean anybody who identifies as Wiccan, and a whole spectrum of meanings in between those two terms. This can make it confusing for people to understand what is meant by any individual using the term Wicca.
[Estimated reading time: 10 minutes. Contains 2020 words]
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.
Table of contents
- Introduction: the inner work
Coming to the circle
- The Pagan worldview
- Creating sacred space
- Raising energy – synergy, resonance and polarity
- Magical names
- Archetypes and the inner work
- The Mysteries
- Evocation and Invocation
- Use of symbols in ritual
- Spell work
- Magical tools
- Relationships and Consent in Wicca
- “Ye shall be naked in your rites”
- The erotic and spirituality
- Inner aspects of the festivals
- Grounding and centering
- Making an altar
- The Hearth
- Food in ritual
- Labyrinths; Meditative walking; Pilgrimage
- Spirits of the land
- Meditation, Visualisation, Contemplation
- Poetry, Storytelling, and Reading
- Cultivating the virtues
Between the worlds
- Modes and types of ritual
- Sound and silence
- The Moon
- The witch’s journey
- Queer Witchcraft
- Witchcraft and the land
- Witchcraft as resistance
- Working with ancestors
- The Pact – relational polytheism
- Madness, shamanism, witchcraft
- The night journey
Bringing it all back home
- Inclusive Wicca
- Group dynamics
- Being a coven leader
- Teaching and learning in a coven
- Egregore, lineage, upline, downline
- Power and authority
- Rites of passage
- Challenging oppression
- Evaluating your Craft
- Brimful of Asha
- Model guidelines for group discussion
- Coming-out ritual
- Recommended reading
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.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.”
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!