It’s finally sunset.
Candles flicker in their holders, nestled amongst the damp leaves strewn at the edges of the circle. Up the lip of the embankment, through the poplars and oaks, you can still hear the city. Motors and sirens hum distantly, melding into a single tone, counterpoint to the chirruping insects and the fluttering bats, awakened with the darkness. This is only a wooded cluster, set between the asphalt and streetlamps and brick buildings of human industry. It is easy for the careless to overlook, despite its central location. Of the city, yet not. Betwixt and between.
A good place for magic.
The leaves have been carefully swept, revealing dark earth and twisted roots. There is a low, round altar positioned at the circle’s center, and twin candles cast shadows across mysterious objects. Coils of slender rope, like snakes. The glint of steel, like twinkling eyes. The reflective surface of a dish filled with water. Shadowy icons fashioned in clay that seem to swell with the flickering light, evoking a sense of timelessness. This is something both new and ancient. Alluring and frightening. Surprising and yet completely familiar and welcoming.
Robed figures move amongst the trees and then into the light of the circle, surrounding the altar. Several moments of silence pass between them as they feel the weight of this place and settle into its rhythms. Suddenly, with only a shared look, they allow the fabric to unfold and drop from their bodies. Glittering firelight trails across bare skin, warm despite the night chill. They begin to move in sync, and a low chant erupts, calling to the powers of this place. The sound vibrates an invocation to the gods of the Wica, reaching back in time across generations, a thread of shared power passed from circle to circle.
We’re finally home.
Me, Foxfire, and the Witch Cult
A lot can happen in twenty years. The Wicca I practice today isn’t the same Wicca I was studying when I picked up my first book, surfed to my first America Online chat room, or created my first profile on the Witches’ Voice.1 I was a young teenager, caught up in something that felt magical and true. It felt like something that could change my life, and it did, though that change was gradual and intermingled with all the other profound changes that go along with becoming an adult. At sixteen—having gorged myself on every book by Silver RavenWolf and Scott Cunningham—I felt like I knew everything about the Craft there was to know. I did what a lot of young people do and set myself up as a guide for others. I lectured other teenagers in online forums. I insisted that I must be an “old soul.” I handed out advice freely, whether it was solicited or not. Yeah, I was pretty arrogant (imagine a less reflective, more self-righteous first-year Hermione Granger). I even started writing a book, typing furiously on my dad’s old laptop. It was to be an introductory book on Wicca—my own self-important response to Silver RavenWolf’s Teen Witch, written by a teen. I worked hard and I wrote more than 20,000 words before college got in the way.
Of course, it was also around that time that I began to come slowly to the realization that, in fact, I did not know everything there was to know about Wicca. I discovered eBay and acquired my first copies of Gerald Gardner’s Witchcraft Today and The Meaning of Witchcraft. They were dense and convoluted and foreign. I didn’t recognize my Wicca here, though these books still felt important. This wasn’t just candles in my bedroom and a never-ending parade of lackluster drum circles and public rituals. This was a secret Witch cult. I also met other Wiccans for the first time—people who had been at this longer and did things differently from me. I read more and read books that hadn’t been available to me before. I no longer felt qualified to write that book or to solicit those questions from newbies online. It was uncomfortable, but also exciting. It’s easy to feel bored when you think you know everything.
I grew up slowly, reading and experimenting along the way. Eventually—once I knew for sure that there was more than what was in the books, which had started to feel like the same book over and over again—I sought out a teacher and a coven. That process wasn’t easy. There were a lot of false starts, a lot of disappointments, and a lot of late nights spent wondering what I was doing. But all that taught me so much more than what I could have imagined at sixteen, in my adolescent arrogance. Once I gave up the assumption that I already knew what Wicca was and what it had to offer, my real education began.
Today, I’m the high priestess of a coven in the Gardnerian tradition of Wicca. That coven, Foxfire, is the product of a lot of hard work—a lot of tears and a lot of magic. Most of my life revolves around my practice of the Craft: training students, organizing circles, practicing magic, conducting research into our history, exploring other kinds of Witchcraft, and, as always, writing. I’ve been blogging about my own involvement in Wicca for more than ten years. I finished a graduate degree in religious studies at a major university. I’ve presented my academic work on Witchcraft at national, scholarly conferences. I’ve published articles, made YouTube videos, taught workshops at Pagan festivals, and befriended all kinds of Witches and Pagans along the way. I learn best by observing others and listening to their stories, so I’ve tried to make my own available to whoever might benefit from them. That includes my failures, my mistakes, and my doubts, which have been just as important to me as my successes. In turn, I like to stay involved with a lot of different kinds of Witch communities, and I’ve seen a lot happen over the decades.
Like I said, a lot can change in twenty years!
How to Use This Book
I’m writing now because much of what I hear, read, and see in current conversations about Wicca—online, in new books, and out in Witchcraft communities—reminds me of my own teenaged assumptions. The heyday of solitary, eclectic, do-it-yourself Wicca seems to be over. Our Pagan communities aren’t just bigger; they’re also more diverse and complex. Wicca is often still the entry point for many new Pagans and Witches, but there’s so much more available and so much more easily accessed. People move on from Wicca sooner, or they never consider it to begin with. Sometimes, this is genuinely because they belong elsewhere—Wicca is not and has never been for everyone—but other times it’s because they assume that Wicca is fundamentally lacking: lacking depth, lacking longevity, lacking relevance, or lacking self-reflection. Had I stopped where I was as a teenager—assuming that I knew everything and had seen it all—I probably would have come to agree and left myself.
But in seeking a traditional Wiccan coven, I learned that the Wicca I’d studied in books wasn’t the full picture. Maybe it wasn’t part of the same picture at all. And the Wicca I came to love wasn’t even included in most treatments of Wicca or popular discussions. Everyone seemed to think the traditional covens were gone, or else they never knew about them to begin with. What had once been the dominant strain of contemporary Witchcraft seemed to be slowly disappearing. When other Witches and Pagans spoke about Wicca (especially when they spoke disparagingly), I didn’t recognize the Wicca they would describe. I heard a lot about how Wiccans are wishy-washy, just taking whatever gods they like from whatever culture without putting any care into it. I’m periodically lectured about how Wiccans often don’t practice magic and never practice baneful or defensive magic (news to me!). It’s even become trendy to insist that we’re not practicing Witchcraft at all—just a gentle blend of New Age healing techniques and feel-good self-therapy. Wiccans are shallow. Wicca only appeals to teen girls (and, hey, have you ever noticed how, as a culture, we’re so often dismissive of the things that young women love?). Wicca is “beginner” Paganism. Wicca isn’t relevant anymore. Wicca is Witchcraft declawed.
In conversations about “real” Witchcraft, I’ve increasingly found that Wiccans are no longer included. Partially, this is reflective of the need to make space for other voices and other traditions. It’s absolutely true that certain kinds of Wicca have dominated Pagan spaces, drowning out others. It’s true that many newcomers approach Witchcraft and assume that Wicca is all there is, so they misunderstand members of other traditions. It’s also true that some Wiccans are assholes. I think that’s true of some people in every group.
But the loudest, most circulated voices are not necessarily the most representative. The Wicca that you see on bookshelves, in internet memes, and at open circles isn’t all there is. And the sad state of things is that, because everyone already seems to think they know all there is, there are very few resources for those who are curious about traditional Wicca (at least, resources that are less than twenty years old). It’s hard to suss out other perspectives, hear real stories from contemporary practitioners, and learn how to become involved, if that’s something you aspire to do.
This book is not necessarily intended to sell you on traditional Wicca. I believe that sincere, dedicated seekers will still find their way, without the need for prodding or proselytizing. There’s also a whole world of incredible Witchcraft and Pagan traditions that are worth exploring. Rather, this book is designed as a resource for those who are already in the process of seeking. Seeking is tough, and most of the published guidance available is outdated. It can be hard to know where to turn. It may also benefit readers who are simply curious about older forms of Wicca or critics who may be wondering if Wicca has anything to offer beyond the popular forms detailed in the last twenty years of introductory books.
Here, you’ll find practical advice for seeking, both from me and from a number of other traditional Wiccans at various stages in their practice. Look for their input in the sections labeled “From the Circle.” You’ll learn how to recognize healthy, reputable covens and avoid the duds. You’ll learn how to navigate the process of asking for training and how to succeed in an outer court. You’ll also get advice on what to do if you can’t find a coven, aren’t yet old enough to be a seeker, or just can’t set aside the time for training at this time in your life. We’ll talk frankly about some of those controversial issues: initiation, hierarchy, nudity, sex, and cursing.
I want to invite you to consider that you know less about Wicca than you think you do. If your hunch is that Wicca is more than what you’ve been told—deeper than what you’ve read and more profound than what you may have experienced through open rituals or Pagan Pride Day festivities—then I’m here to confirm your suspicions. You’re right.
1. The Witches’ Voice, www.witchvox.com, has been around since 1997 and remains an important resource, though many have moved on to other web platforms.