27th November 1987
Dear Tessa and Glyn,
You have both, at different times, asked questions about ’rites of passage’. How do witches mark the birth of a child, for instance? Is there a ’Paganing’ instead of a christening for witches’ children? Do witches have weddings? What about death — when we die, as witches or Pagans, what happens? Is there an equivalent to the Christian burial service? And what do witches believe about heaven, hell or reincarnation?
These questions seem appropriate to the time of year — between Samhain and the rebirth of the Sun at Yule — because they concern birth, sex and death. And then rebirth: regeneration. In answering them, I’ll begin with a quote from the witchcraft legend, ’The Descent of the Goddess’, because it does show the interconnectedness of these matters; how they are, in fact, a trinity, each implying the other two aspects.
For there be three great mysteries in the life of man, and magic controls them all. To fulfil love, you must return again at the same time and at the same place as the loved ones; and you must meet, and know, and remember, and love them again.
But to be reborn, you must die, and be made ready for a new body. And to die you must be born, and without love you may not be born. And our Goddess ever inclineth to love and mirth, and happiness; and she guardeth and cherisheth her hidden children in life, and in death she teacheth the way to her communion; and even in this world, she teacheth them the mystery of the Magic Circle, which is placed between the worlds of men and of the Gods.
[Gardner’s Book of Shadows]
By now, it should be obvious that birth, sex and death are central to witchcraft.
For a female witch, to give birth is to share consciously in the work of the Mother Goddess. For a male witch, to witness and empathize with the processes of pregnancy and birth is to perceive and commune with that aspect of the Goddess who gave birth to all the worlds. During birth, the Veil between the worlds is very thin. It is a magical event. Witch parents will welcome their child, or any child, as an incarnating spirit, acknowledging that this being may be older and wiser than they themselves. If the child is their own, it may not have the spirit of a present or future witch, for the child’s religious path may not be that of the parents.
The spiritual reasons for incarnation in a particular family are many and subtle, and often unknowable. There may be a past-life link and people are then able to ’meet, and know, and remember, and love them again’. When this happens it is a deeply fulfilling experience, but it does not imply that all the persons concerned are witches. We have special ties with our own kind, of course, but we would be a sadly isolated group if other witches were the only people we could love.
All these things must be considered before undertaking the task of performing the rite of Blessing for a Witch Child. For the child will not be ’Wiccaned’ in the same sense that a Christian child is christened. To try to commit any soul to a path which has not been freely chosen in full adult consciousness would be against all the laws and traditions of witchcraft. So the child may be blessed, and included with the parents on their path, but only until he or she is old enough to make a conscious choice. (In the past, this age of adult discretion would have been considerably younger than it is now. For in the Middle Ages, a boy was thought to be a man from about the age of twelve or thirteen, and girls could be married in their early teens.) The modern Blessing for a Witch Child, or Wiccaning, is meant to last until the child desires to move beyond it, or else further into it, whenever that might be.
When it comes to the planning of the ceremony, first choose the place. A baby may be blessed within a formal magic circle. With a small child, this would never work, because of the problems of keeping small small fingers away from athames and burning candles (and also of persuading a toddler to stay within a nine-foot circle!). Older children, too, may be happier outside. And if we cannot introduce them to the nature deities out of doors, away from any house, then there is something wrong!
Pick a sunny Full Moon day, or Sabbat, and then go into the garden, park or countryside, to somewhere where you think you can be free from interruption. There you can mark out a magic circle with cord or stones. Ask for the blessing and protection of the Guardian Spirits of all the elements, offering a feather at the east, some oil upon the ground at the south, a shell at the west and a stone or some salt at the north. Explain to the child about the life we share with every creature in the world, including those of the plant kingdom; life that has roots in the Earth, as a tree does, and is sustained by Air (wind), Water (rain) and Fire (the Sun), and is upheld by Spirit, the astral shape of the tree, its idea, what you might call the ’dream tree’. This is, of course, for older children.
A meditative child might next be happy to sit with eyes closed while you lead a light trance in which he or she is encouraged to visualize the Mother Goddess and the Father God, and to feel at one with them, watched over and blessed.
Other children might prefer you simply to describe to them the Mother and Father of All, the ones who made the world, and to hear you ask for their presence in the circle.
The blessing itself can be spoken while you place your hands lightly on top of the child’s head. Say:
In the names of the Triple Goddess of the Circle of Rebirth, and of the Horned God, I now bless you and consecrate you, Pagan child of the Sun and Moon. I place you in the protection of the Guardian Spirits of witchdom. To them I commend you for safe-keeping, until such time as you are old enough to choose your own path freely. Blessed be!
Here, you should anoint the child with oil on the forehead.
Continue: I name you—[Give the magical name, which the child should have helped to choose, if old enough.] Greet the child with a kiss. Then add whatever prayer seems suitable. For example:
May the light of the Sun and the light of the Moon and stars shine on your path, that you may perceive the beauty of both the day and night. You are a child of the Mother and Father of All, beyond your human parents. Know that every end is a beginning and that the circle of creation has fulfilled itself in you. Know also that you stand within the sacred space between the worlds. Yet that same space lies always deep within you. Wherever you go now, may you find it, as you walk your path in love and wisdom. Pagan child you are, today, but that is not binding upon you. Be as your own being shall decree in future years, in joy and freedom.
You could then share bread and wine or fruit juice, in communion.
Later in life, the child may want to commit him or herself to nature magic, as a witch or some other kind of Pagan. He or she may turn to some other religion altogether, or to none. It is in the hands of the Goddess, for we all have lessons to learn one way or another, and the path of the witch is but one role, one way.
Concerning sex, or marriage, the Craft has this to say. In every happy union, the man finds the living incarnation of the Goddess in his partner, while the woman finds that the Horned God comes to her through the man. And they both enact the loving union of God and Goddess through their desire and its fulfilment. Sex is sacred. Marriage is entered into for love, when there is deep fulfilment mentally, spiritually and emotionally, as well as physically. But the physical aspect is celebrated, as a symbol of complete reconciliation and also because of the heightened consciousness that is attained in ecstasy.
Naturally, in a marriage between two witches, there should be no domination of the woman by the man (or of the man by the woman, come to that). A loving equal partnership is the pattern for handfasted witch couples. Handfasting is the witches’ word for marrying.
Coven witches would be handfasted by their High Priestess. But as solitary or hedge witches, a couple will not need anyone but the Guardian Spirits to witness their pledges and vows, no one but the Goddess to handfast them to each other.
If either of you should decide on a handfasting at any time in the future, pledge yourself for this life, or for all your lives, according to whether you sense that you are your partner’s true friend and lover for this life, or eternal partner, actual ’soul mate’.
Having cast the circle and invoked the Goddess and the God, you can make such promises as you have decided upon, … by Air and Fire and Water and Earth, and in the names of the Triple Goddess of the Circle of Rebirth and of the Horned God, Lord of Day and Night. You should call upon the Guardian Spirits to witness these vows. Then pass your linked hands through incense smoke and candle flames (swiftly) and through water, and then touch them to the pentacle or stone.
Tradition has something to say about handfasting. The couple should hold hands and then jump, together, over a broomstick which has been laid across the circle. If you should wish to end the rite by making love in the circle, so much the better. A communion should follow this.
A couple may choose to be handfasted outside. Then a full magic circle cannot always be cast, nor can you make love during the rite — or not unless you find somewhere unusually remote! But if you make vows in some special place, the Old Gods will certainly bless your union. You can include such magical customs as the drinking of a consecrated wine from the same chalice. What matters is that the vows should come from the heart and that the hands be linked while the union is seen to be real and binding, at least in this life, witnessed by the elemental spirits. (Their presence should have been requested, and invocations made to the Goddess and God.)
Death is the third aspect of this trinity, for death leads on to rebirth. When our bodies are too old or ill to bring happiness, death gives rest and refreshment to the spirit. Death is an aspect of life, like birth and love.
A funeral almost always belongs to the Christian Church, if only in the sense that the body is usually laid in ground consecrated by Christian priests. The other mourners, in Britain, are more likely to be Christian than to be anything else, if anything, and therefore to be comforted by Christian rites. But we can hold our own farewell rituals at some date before or after the burial. This could be as simple as dropping a flower into a stream or river, with an invocation that as it is swept downstream towards the sea, the dead person may find peace.
The Summerlands is where witches believe that they go after death. It is a place of great happiness and beauty, like the Celtic paradise of ’Tír na nÓg’. Entry to the Summerlands may be preceded by stages of purification and learning. After leaving the Summerlands, we may also undergo preparation of some kind, before rebirth.
There are often times of great suffering on this Earth, when we feel that we are in hell and will never get out of it. This is quite enough. Neither I, nor any other witch I have ever met could possibly believe in the concept of eternal damnation. There is no everlasting torment awaiting those who are cruel or malicious, those who do not remember the rule of ’Harm none’. Instead, there is a threefold return of the suffering meted out, in this life or another. The purpose of this is not punishment, but enlightenment, if it can be said to have a purpose. It is actually an effect. To use a Christian phrase, you will reap as you sow. This is simply an inevitable law of life.
To return to possible rites for the dead. You will be able to ask for guidance on the nature of these rites, for each individual person. But a consecrated cord, symbolizing the astral cord that links the soul to the body, may need to be cut for anyone who seems unable to move on from this realm to what lies beyond. Those who remain in what psychics call ’the Grey Mists’.
Where there are no such problems, the lighting of a candle to the brightness of their spirit in all future lives, with a prayer for their guidance and protection and for blessings upon them, may be enough. To me, it would seem presumptuous to do much more than that for a non-witch friend. For another witch, you will want to mark their passage to the Summerlands with a full formal rite: commending them to the care of the Horned God, who is guide in the realm of death, and to the love of the gentle Goddess, who in time gives us rebirth, must form the substance of the rite.
Remember, ’You must meet, and know, and remember, and love them again.’ And yet grief is natural and a period of mourning necessary. For never in this world will that same person be seen again with the same face and hair and way of walking, same gestures and same voice.
One day, perhaps, we will all commune with the dead more easily. Our realm will be that much clearer and closer to the Summerlands itself. Meanwhile, I think of it as though they have gone on a long journey. They will be different when in another life, I next see them, and so shall I. Meanwhile, they are like travellers who are sometimes beyond the reach of post or telephone. But usually I can send my love towards them, with the psychic assurance that they still receive it.
Nature dies in the autumn, but she is reborn in spring. The Sun dies each Winter, as the days grow shorter and the light withdraws. At Yule, he is reborn. In life, projects end and ideas collapse, and then something is reborn from among the ruins. This is the universal pattern.
Birth and love and death. As the legend says, these are the three great mysteries, and magic controls them all.
Tessa, now that you have done the self-initiation rite, I greet you as my sister witch. Wise and blessed be. Glyn, I think your decision to wait is a wise one, in view of your plans to marry Laurel. At present, you say, her interest in witchcraft is academic, rather than heartfelt. In future, she may be sympathetic to your practice of the Craft or she may, herself, become more interested. If neither of these two things should happen, then you may have to choose between being a witch and being Laurel’s husband. Great resentment can build up when one partner is hostile to the other’s religious practice.
I shall risk a prophecy. I do not think that Laurel will remain indifferent, or become hostile. I think, rather, that she will become a witch. At present, I should say that her attitude is not merely over-rational, but healthily sceptical. Having met her, I believe she is a very honest person.
I will keep on sending the letters to both of you, as requested.