16th January 1987
Dear Tessa and Glyn,
So you both want to be witches? It is easy to understand why Tessa feels this way. Witchcraft offers women an opportunity to worship a female deity. It reveals a truth that women have waited too long to see vindicated: that divinity is female, as well as male.
It is less easy to see why men want to become witches, at first sight. But many do. The rewards are as great as for women, in the long run. There is freedom from old conflicts, for example, like that between sensuality and spirituality. The Horned God, the male deity of witches, does not present men with an image of immediate male superiority (or inferiority). Instead, the image is of natural wisdom and wildness. Powerful as a stag is powerful, or a tree; not as a dictator, or a nuclear missile. This demands a sacrifice of old ideas. The Horned God has no automatic upper hand, in worldly terms. But to be at one with the body and the spirit is a dream that men have not been able to fulfil for too long.
For both men and women, the experience of celebrating the eight festivals each year, and the Full Moon rites, is a complete joy. There is, too, the promise of a self-determined path, your only guides being life, and the information that it brings you, your own inner wisdom and the Goddess, together with the Horned God. No gurus, no authorities and no dogma.
Whatever your reasons for being interested, it seems you already feel drawn to witchcraft. I am convinced that hedge witchcraft, and all forms of modern Paganism, have an important part to play in this world. But do you know what it will do to your lives? This is not an easy path to tread and to enter upon it is a major undertaking for anyone. The same is true, of course, of any spiritual path. (And I know that most people would look askance at the word ’spiritual’ in connection with the word ’witch’.)
If you have been a witch before (and witches do accept the idea of reincarnation), then you will want to come back to it. Indeed, there is an old saying, ’Once a witch, always a witch,’ meaning you will be drawn back in life after life. If this idea fills you with panic, better not begin! But if it makes your heart lift, you are in good company. Many men and women have found the true essence of happiness as a witch, a priest or priestess of natural magic. Many have died for their faith, it meant so much to them, in the Burning Times (the great persecution by the Christian Church). Thank the Goddess, we do not face such a terrifying threat now, simply for believing as we do and practising the Craft. But socially, and sometimes in other ways, there can be problems. Centuries of bad propaganda have robbed the image of a female witch of strength and dignity, denying all her true aspirations and her magical, transcendent knowledge, as well as the vital part she once played in the life of her community as healer, midwife and counsellor. She has been reduced to a caricature of evil. The male witch, if admitted to exist at all, is generally thought to be an unusually gross kind of ’black’ magician. On being told that a real witch is standing in front of them, many people will assume that you must be a sinister person or you wouldn’t be practising such an extraordinary religion. Alternatively, they believe you can’t be a ’real’ witch, after all, because you are too nice. Be that as it may, a witch has his or her rewards (in this life, not only in the next!) because a witch can never be dead to meaning or to true magic.
To be fully alive is worth everything. Such open sensitivity can entail suffering, but joy is real. You know the blessing of the Sun, intensely. Likewise, you feel the cold of winter. You are alive to Moon and Earth and every magical vibration from a stone or flower, candle flame or pool of water. You feel the pain of others, as well as your own, in your heart or in your body. And the Earth’s pain, as she is drilled into, sprayed with pesticides, despoiled and stored with nuclear waste. To be a witch can be to tread a line between great joy and great despair or to move back and forth between these two. That is how it is to be completely alive in the world of now. And you will have responsibilities: to celebrate the changing seasons and phases of the Moon; to reconcile the conflicts in yourself, as well as between yourself and others; and to undertake certain rites for all life forms, on their behalf, so that someone will greet the newborn Sun, for instance, at the winter solstice — so that someone will invoke for fruitfulness and peace throughout the land. You will, along with other witches, eat the Bread of Life at Lammas (Lughnasadh) on behalf of all people. A witch works magically for life, as well as practically. (But a practical deed can carry magical significance.)
Are you ready for all this? Or do you just want to learn a few spells, so that you can get a job, a house or something else you might want? If that is so, I wish you well, and nature magic can assist you certainly. But you cannot call yourself a witch; you will not have become a priest or priestess. You will not have taken on that responsibility or known those particular magical blessings.
We are approaching Imbolg or Candlemas, as the Christians have called their festival, which is held on the same day. (It is a pleasant and evocative name and many witches also use it.) It is the time of the first stirrings of spring, when, in the words of the modern witch, Diana Demdike, ’… the Goddess returns to Her people, once more virgin, once more bringing blessings’. And this festival, around 2nd February, used to be the traditional time for the initiation of new witches. Nowadays, any of the eight festivals (Sabbats) can be the right time, or any Full Moon. In the past, though, it was usual to let a whole year go by, during which the neophyte would probably have studied and communed with the great life forces, the principles of changing tides and cycles, and also received training in the basic skills of trancework. This gave time to consider the seriousness of full commitment. The year is said to have run from Imbolg to Imbolg and then initiation was given.
I cannot initiate you. Rather, I will not. I am a hedge witch, a solitary witch. I belong to no coven (although I have known other witches who do and who find that, for them, it is the best way). I cannot teach you about covens either, because I do not belong to one. I work with my magical partner, to whom I am lucky enough to be married. If I had no magical partner, I would always work alone. For me, friendship with other witches is good. We exchange ideas and we support each other. But I work at my own pace and in my own way, with Cole or by myself, because it suits my temperament and circumstances. For if you lack money or have children to consider, or if you have a demanding job (and I know that two of these things apply to each of you), then it is really not feasible to celebrate the Sabbats and Full Moons regularly, at someone else’s choice of hour in someone else’s house, some distance from your home.
For these and many other reasons, some witches prefer to be a lone priest or priestess of natural magic, open to requests for healing spells or for advice or divination from the people who live near them. Modern wisemen or wisewomen. And so they may take the name ’hedge witch’, being outside the mainstream of modern witchcraft, outside all covens. It is, in fact, a different archetype to that of coven witch. Both are witches, but the hedge witch is a solitary being. She or he works alone, from and often for a particular town or village. Such people have always existed.
Nowadays, our function as midwives and healers for the community has been usurped. Nevertheless, it is a rare witch who is not knowledgeable about the emotional and spiritual implications of a birth for mother, father and small infant. Most also know about dietary requirements and the more subtle foundations of good health — the psychological and psychic factors. Many can offer some kind of health counselling or even therapy. Any witch worth the name will also know when to refer a person to a trained therapist or doctor. But it is magical healing which was and is our particular province.
A word of caution. It is important to know when to say no to any request you may get for magical assistance. Not everyone is best helped by a spell, or even by counselling or divination. You are not there to be a crutch or prop to everyone. Nor could you be, for you are still human. Witches are not magically, or in any other way, omnipotent. (You may be surprised by how much other people both wish and fear that you are, however!)
Have I digressed? No, it is all relevant. You cannot take this step unless you know what it may bring. And it is much easier to start than it may be stop, once you are committed. This is not because anyone will make you do anything. There are no authorities in witchcraft, no ’King Witch’ who rules over the whole of witchdom. (From time to time, people have cropped up claiming this title for themselves, but no true witch would give them any credence.) In spirit, witchcraft is non-hierarchical. But inner causes, things that you yourself have stimulated, can have long-term effects, even into other lives. ’Once a witch, always a witch.’
Now I will say more about initiation. To a hedge witch, this is one’s own responsibility. Indeed, this must always be the case, even if someone else thinks they have initiated you. Such a change must always come down to inner experience and readiness, and is between you and the Goddess and God.
Do you want to go ahead? You, Glyn, were enthusiastic about Imbolg when I talked to you on the phone. You wanted to know more. And I know that you have been working simple spells for some time now. And, Tessa, when I saw you in the street, I felt that you were now fully decided.
Let me know what you think. We will take it further if you wish.