Succeeding in an Outer Court
Seeking Traditional Wicca
Even after several lengthy email exchanges, phone calls, and numerous cups of coffee, it’s very unlikely that you’ll receive a direct offer of initiation. Too much is at stake to bring someone in so casually, as you’ve seen. With so many new people exploring Witchcraft every year and an always-growing variety of traditions and types emerging, it’s increasingly important for coven leaders to ensure that potential members are a good fit for the group. Individual covens may employ very different strategies for doing this, but most traditional groups rely on an outer court, sometimes called a training circle, a grove, or a Pagan group.
Outer court performs several key functions. At the most basic level, it creates an environment where coven members and seekers can build relationships, getting to know each other and building trust. It also provides a space for newcomers to the Craft (or, at least, to the Craft as it’s practiced by that coven) to begin to learn the ropes. Outer court is a proving ground where everyone has the opportunity to determine fit, both between the coven and the seeker and between the coven and the tradition itself. A newcomer may be a good match for one and a poor match for the other. Outer court also allows newcomers to learn the necessary skills of Witchcraft in an environment that entails less commitment and less magical intensity than a circle of initiates.
Outer court may take several forms. Usually, it is a ritual group all its own, with a liturgy that doesn’t require the swearing of oaths or the revealing of secret texts. Seekers may experience the bones of Wiccan practice without being prematurely exposed to its inner Mysteries. They may also learn magical techniques that will build a foundation for fluency in inner court. Some outer courts emphasize discussion and reading over formal ritual. Seekers may complete a more literary curriculum, reading assigned books, writing essays, and participating in academic conversations about topics related to Witchcraft and other occult traditions. You may encounter a combination of these things as well. Both models (and potentially others) allow coven leaders to measure the appropriateness of individual seekers and provide opportunities for growth.
Outer court represents a critical period in the Craft lives of most seekers. These are some of your most important years as a Witch (yes, years—more on that in a minute). As with all things in the Craft, your path is your own and your experiences will be unique, but there are absolutely steps that you can take to ensure that you succeed in outer court. The truth is that many seekers never make it beyond this phase, for a variety of reasons. Getting that first invitation is a momentous event worth celebrating, but the work is really only just beginning.
A Year and a Day … At Least
In eclectic Wiccan communities, there is a custom of studying the Craft for a year and a day before choosing to commit to a life of practice. Many beginner’s books are actually structured with this in mind, organizing lessons designed to walk students through a complete turn of the Wheel of the Year, at the end of which they may perform a personal dedication ritual. If you’ve spent much time in online Pagan communities, you may have heard people say things like, “I’m in the middle of my year and a day,” or “I’m going to start my year and a day next month,” or some such, as though this was some kind of perfunctory step that was just an inherent part of becoming a Witch. While this practice may be common, the custom of waiting a year and a day for initiation is not a universal Wiccan imperative. Many traditional groups have no such requirement (and you might even get a chuckle or two if you ask).
The timeframe of a year and a day has European cultural significance stemming from multiple sources. In certain occult fraternities—for example, Freemasonry—this really is a set length of time where an apprentice must wait for initiation. Dating from at least the mid-sixteenth century, English common law has maintained the “year and a day rule” in homicide cases, which states that death as the result of a wrongful act (for example, abuse or neglect) must occur within the period of a year and a day in order to be considered murder. Finally, there is religious weight to this timeframe thanks to its use in the retelling of certain European myths—for example, the story of the Witch Cerridwen, who must brew her famous wisdom-granting potion for a year and a day. Over time, in popular usage, this expression has also come to mean “forever,” or perhaps “as long as it takes,” in the same way that the number ten thousand is often used to mean “countless” or “infinity” in Chinese cultures. Regardless of where it comes from, with the circulation of popular books and the growth of the internet, the idea that neophyte Wiccans must spend a year and a day studying prior to initiation has become standardized.
As a new outer court student, however, this is the first bit of misinformation you’ll need to abandon. Because building trust is one of the central tasks of an outer court and because individual seekers come to the Craft with greater and lesser degrees of preparedness, the length of time prior to initiation often varies significantly from seeker to seeker. You may very well encounter a group that adheres to a year-and-a-day policy for potential members, but even in these cases this is usually understood to be a minimum, not a literal three hundred and sixty-six days. According to whatever criteria the coven sets, leaders may be able to make a decision about your fit in only a few weeks. If they are interested in your familiarity with certain esoteric subjects or your ability to work certain kinds of ritual effectively, then a particularly experienced seeker may only require a short experience in outer court. A total newbie may take several years.
Belonging to a coven is a major commitment, and it sometimes takes significant amounts of time to adjust. Some covens may send you away and tell you to come back when your life is more conducive to that commitment. Others may be very flexible and patient, allowing for a more gradual transition. I have personally met seekers whom I knew almost immediately belonged in our tradition and deserved a prompt initiation. I’ve met others who clearly weren’t ready but had so much potential that it was worth accommodating them and taking things slowly. My very first initiates spent almost two years in outer court simply because I was the one who needed to figure out if I was ready to be a high priestess. A number of considerations may be at work here.
Whatever the case, take this to heart: outer court takes as long as it takes. Lasting beyond a year doesn’t entitle you to initiation. You will not automatically be initiated simply for showing up over the course of a designated timeframe. It’s not time by itself that’s important, but the effort you put into that time and the growth that results. Some seekers come to outer court already primed for initiatory work. Others need the experience of celebrating a full turn of the Wheel of the Year. Still others must significantly restructure their lives, addressing long-term personal issues that affect Craft work. These seekers may stay in outer court for two or three years. It is very likely that you will experience impatience. It is very likely that a time will come when you won’t understand what’s taking so long. You may even watch as other students with less time under their belts move ahead of you. Many people have this experience, and it can be painful (it happens in inner court, too, so think of this as practice). Remind yourself: this takes as long as it takes. You’re not in competition with anyone (including yourself). At best, a year and a day is a guideline or perhaps even a minimum. Do not make the mistake of getting overly hung up on how long things take. You can’t rush, and there isn’t a cosmic time limit.
FROM THE CIRCLE
In my tradition, initiation is never offered. You must ask for it. That sometimes includes even asking to be initiated multiple times in order to test your fortitude. So after a number of years, I decided to request initiation. I was initiated into the Wicca very quickly after that since I had already been through what may be described as the “probationary period.” The coven was actually relived that I finally decided to ask for initiation, because they said they had been sitting on their hands just waiting for me to ask them the whole time! I haven’t looked back since!
—Thorn Nightwind, priest of the
Horsa and Sacred Pentagraph traditions
Beyond hierarchy, beyond the coven structure, and beyond initiation rituals, the fundamental difference between traditional Wicca and many other kinds of Paganism and Witchcraft is that this is a priesthood. When you commit to an outer court, what you’re really doing is exploring the calling to be a priest or priestess of the gods of the Wica. If you are only interested in learning to practice magic or just think it would be cool to call yourself a Witch, this is not the place for you. It’s okay to be curious. It’s okay to want to explore magic for magic’s sake. It’s okay to be concerned about self-improvement. It’s okay to want to learn coveted secrets and histories. Sometimes that’s how a calling begins—with something simpler. But the seekers who earn initiation—and who ultimately go on to serve their communities as coven leaders in their own right—come to understand that Wicca is more than a skill set. It’s not a bandage for a crumbling personal life or a distraction for when you’re bored. You’re not joining a sports team or signing up for a class at the local community center. This is not the place for the merely curious. If you’re asking to be part of a coven, those leaders are assuming that you’re knowingly preparing for a significant life change. That’s what a traditional Wiccan initiation is: a significant life change. Joining an outer court—no matter the tradition or personal style of the leaders—will require some life rearrangement of one kind or another. Your priorities will likely shift. Beginning a formal study of Wicca is thrilling. You start to see things differently and experience the world differently. It can also be somewhat traumatic, though, in that it represents a major change that will impact practically every arena of your life. That’s why the vetting process often begins with questions about your personal life; your personal life impacts your outer court training just as much if not more than your spiritual life.
My personal experience has been that when seekers don’t make it through outer court training, it’s usually because they are unable to commit to the time requirements and to the rebalancing that traditional Wicca demands. What happens when your spouse doesn’t understand the amount of time you’re suddenly spending with your new coven (who may be total strangers, as far as your spouse is concerned)? Can you train in a coven without compromising your responsibilities as a parent? Will your job schedule be steady enough that you can attend regular coven events? What about your school schedule? How will you handle friends who don’t understand why you suddenly can’t share this part of your life with them as openly as you might like? These are very challenging concerns! Some will impact you more than others (and there are plenty more that I haven’t even included). It’s impossible to anticipate everything you’ll have to face, and every seeker’s experience is different. As you begin to move forward, one of the best things you can do for yourself is to strive to achieve some kind of balance between your mundane and magical lives.
It’s hard to say where the boundary between the ordinary and the magical lies. On the one hand, beginning a new life in the Craft is exciting and can feel delightfully overwhelming. It’s understandable to want to escape into more enchanted realms. It’s very easy to become consumed by your occult explorations. There’s so much to learn and so much to try! And when you’re surrounded by more experienced covenmates—Witches who may have decades, if not lifetimes, more practice than you—it’s easy to feel like you’ve got to catch up. You don’t. Because the other hand is this: your life has always been magical. That divide between magic and mundanity is constructed. Many of the skills and experiences that will best serve you as a new Witch are things that you’ve already acquired just by surviving in the world: creativity, patience, resourcefulness, perseverance, and balance. That last one is especially important. Your Craft life and your personal life are not distinct things. You can’t neglect one for the other. Likewise, when you nurture one, you feed the other.
As a new student in an outer court, part of what you’re responsible for is learning the histories and mechanics of a new tradition. There will be plenty to read and discuss and memorize and understand. But just as important—and potentially quite a bit more challenging—is figuring out where and how the Craft intermingles with and fuels the rest of your life. You can’t practice Witchcraft in a vacuum! If you’re like most people, you don’t have the luxury of infinite free time to devote however you choose. You go to work, go to school, run a household, are responsible for other family members, and have all kinds of social and professional obligations on top of all that. If you’re not careful, it’s easy for your spirituality to start feeling like a luxury item that sometimes you just can’t afford. Beyond learning the basics and getting to know your new group, finding this balance is one of the biggest hurdles faced by new outer court students.
One strategy is to take those things in your life—especially those things that you love, those things that make you who you are—and turn them into devotional acts. If you’re an athlete, a craftsperson, an artist, a soldier, a writer, a teacher, an organizer, a parent (and the list goes on), see if there’s a way you can bring elements of your new Craft into those realms. My own writing is very much an act of worship, connecting me to the gods I serve. The act of putting pen to paper, whether in a private journal or for the sake of a piece I intend to share with a large audience, is as magical as casting a circle or performing a spell. It is a spell. I may not be burning candles or wafting incense, but my writing is an act of Witchcraft. This very book is the result of intense magical work. I’ve always been a writer, but becoming a Witch taught me to make writing an act of both Will and devotion to the gods. That’s just me. For you, it might be your athletic training or the time you spend in your garden. Maybe it’s something simpler, like how you organize your planner at the beginning of each week or the conscious effort you put into cleaning your home.
Beyond enchanting the things I already did, my developing relationships with the gods led me to explore completely new activities. An increasingly intense series of encounters with the Horned God drew me to archery and, eventually, to traditional bowhunting. It occurred to me that, if I wanted to build a deeper connection with him, it made sense to try exploring his realm, meeting him on his own terms. For me, that meant learning to hunt and experiencing the relationship between life and death in a way that most urban Pagans do not. My physical abilities and local resources (I live in a place where deer hunting is both a rich cultural practice and critical to the local ecology) allowed me to pursue this calling to unusual ends—most devotees to gods of the hunt do not feel compelled to literally begin hunting, nor should we expect this. You will have your own encounters, in your own time. Begin listening. You may find yourself in some very surprising places.
Of course, it’s easier to find enchantment in those activities that already bring us pleasure and make us feel centered. Finding it in hard work, monotony, loneliness, and pain is significantly harder (and perhaps this isn’t something we should even aspire to do at all times). Honestly, this is something that never stops being a struggle. Being a Witch doesn’t mean your whole life becomes easy. You’ll still have to pay taxes, deal with coworkers you don’t like, manage illness and injury, wrangle an overloaded schedule, and figure out how you’re going to pay your car repair bill. That’s always going to be true. Life will continue to be hard, and frequently unfair.
But Wicca gives you one more tool in your toolbox. When you struggle, you may find comfort and reassurance in your connection to the gods and to your covenmates. To address practical matters you may employ magic. To address those things that seem too heavy to carry on your own, you may turn to a whole network of fellow practitioners to ask for support. Sometimes that’s all we need. Witches experience the ups and downs of life just the same as everyone else does, but our traditions provide us with emotional and spiritual resources that can smooth them. Wicca won’t automatically fix everything that’s gone wrong in your life—nothing can do that—but it can help to give some of those things further context and meaning and provide structure to process, heal, and grow.
FROM THE CIRCLE
My eight-year-old doesn’t know, but he periodically says he thinks I’m a Witch (which is adorable and disconcerting). I’m happy with him figuring things out on his own, and he knows he’s always welcome to my library. He knows he can ask me anything and I’ll give him an honest answer. I want him to find his own path in life, however, whatever that looks like. With my husband, it was trickier in the beginning. My husband was raised Catholic and became atheist/agnostic-ish in high school. When I first got consumed with learning about Wicca, he was understandably worried that I was going to be “some kind of born-again religious nut.” This wasn’t too far off in some ways … I really did feel born again, and a little nutty. It took a lot of frank conversations with him for me to balance things.
—Wren, first degree priestess
Meeting Your Shadow
All of this brings us to another important point. Traditional Wiccan training can bring out the best in you, but it will also reveal you at your worst. Craft practice requires an intense, ongoing examination of the self, and that means addressing those things that may be hurting us or preventing us from growing into the people we wish to become. Effective Witchcraft requires a deep understanding of your own character. Who are you? What experiences have made you who you are? What do you want out of your life? How do you relate to others? What are you afraid of ? What truly makes you happy? Are you doing what you can to take responsibility for your own life?
Some of these questions sound simple but in reality are quite profound. Most of us would like to think that we’re reflective, self-aware people, but the truth is that real self-examination is frequently a very painful process. In many New Age and Pagan communities, this kind of psychological, emotional exploration is called “shadow work,” in reference to the work of psychiatrist Carl Jung (1875—1961), who saw the “shadow” as those parts of the personality that are unconscious or hidden. Shadow work pushes us to confront those parts of ourselves that exist in darkness. These are things that we aren’t conscious of at all, things that we may be ashamed of, things that we keep secret, or things that we wish not to acknowledge.
Self-knowledge is one of the cornerstones of the Western Magical Tradition (really a group of traditions), which birthed Wicca. Preparation for initiation into the Mysteries demands that we confront our shadows. Whether you like it or not and whether or not it’s what you intend, beginning in outer court and preparing for initiation will dredge up those parts of your psyche that usually go unexamined. It may be sooner or it may be later, but eventually you will have to deal with your personal issues. Whatever those issues are—whether it’s your childhood trauma, your string of bad relationships, your unaddressed depression, or your tendency to gossip—they’re going to get in the way if they go ignored. Your covenmates aren’t licensed counselors (well, probably) and circle isn’t therapy, but just the process of engaging in the rites and working Wiccan magic in the presence of our gods has a way of bringing out all the components of who we are and making us look at them. This is one of the Mysteries, and it often begins in outer court. The experience is hard, but it’s also liberating. When you master the shadow (insofar as we ever can), it stops being terrifying, shameful, or confusing.
Traditional Wicca has many varieties and individual covens may be very different, but you know it’s real and right when it transforms you for the better. Really, it never stops transforming you. Each stage poses its own challenges. Many of the things I had to learn and deal with in outer court I still struggle with as a high priestess. You won’t necessarily slay your dragons, but you’re guaranteed at least to meet them.
An Outer Court Checklist
Beyond the intensity of spiritual development and your encounters with the inexplicable Mysteries, thriving in an outer court and ultimately earning a permanent place in a coven is a very practical matter. You have little to no control over whether or not you fit in with the group’s egregore—and that you’ll discover in time—but you have complete control over your personal comportment and the effort you put into the work before you. There are very tangible things that you can do or not do that will impact the likelihood of your being ultimately offered initiation and, more importantly, getting the most out of your time in outer court. Here are some general rules of thumb that will apply within most traditional covens:
1. Do what you say you’ll do.
It sounds clear enough, but this makes a huge statement about your character, and many fall short here. If you tell your high priestess, high priest, or covenmates that you’ll do something, do it. That means arriving to meetings on time, completing the tasks that you commit to, bringing what you say you’ll bring, and generally displaying your integrity. Part of the Witch’s power lies in her words. If yours are meaningless, then your Craft will be, too. If your potential coven’s leaders have cause to think you unreliable, your days in outer court are numbered. But beyond just that, you’ll be halting your own personal growth. Wicca’s emphasis on doing and experiencing, rather than belief, in and of itself means that you get out of it what you put in. You can’t develop as a Witch if you don’t practice and you don’t do your homework. This means exploring on your own as well as doing whatever tasks your Craft teachers ask of you. You may be required to read particular books, write a short paper on some magical topic, perform particular rituals or meditations, or potentially any number of other worthwhile activities. Do the work in order to reap the rewards.
FROM THE CIRCLE
I expect my outer court students to attend all agreed-upon classes and circles. I expect then to communicate if questions or concerns come up. I expect them to be independent enough to look for answers other than mine. I require a willingness to work at Craft. That may mean reading, writing, doing personal ritual, or meditation. I’m not usually looking for “freshmen.” I want “seniors” or “graduate students.”
—Deb Snavely, New Wiccan Church, International
2. Contribute to the group.
You’re not solitary anymore. As a member of an outer court, you’ve got a responsibility to other people, as well as additional responsibility to yourself. Pitch in to cover meals, perishable ritual supplies, and other material necessaries. There’s a very serious taboo in traditional Wicca against accepting money for training, but a cost is still incurred by coven leaders. Bottles of wine, extra toilet paper, pre- and postritual meals, candles, and incense are not free. It’s extremely unlikely that you’ll be asked for cash at any point in your training, but you’ll probably be expected to contribute to the stock of items required to run the group. Even if you’re never asked, it’s polite to always show up to circle with something in hand. There’s no need to put yourself out; small things are always welcome. Consider bringing a plate of cookies or cakes for ritual, a bottle of wine to share, a side dish for dinner, or an extra roll of paper towels. If you’re really short on cash one month, do something to help around the house. Take out the trash generated by the coven that evening, or wash the dishes after dinner. There are lots of ways to be helpful, and your efforts will be both noticed and appreciated.
Beyond those tangible things, it’s just as important that you contribute your voice! Share your thoughts and experiences. When the time comes to discuss a ritual, a book, or an idea, don’t sit there like a lump. Even if you’re not sure what you think, you’re still processing, or you want to wait until a more private moment away from the whole group, make sure you find a way to express yourself. You’re not an observer, just there to sit silently and absorb the efforts of other people. Be active. Bring your brain along with that pack of toilet paper.
3. Talk to your leaders.
Your new high priestess or high priest is not a mind reader. However magical they may be, they can’t simply look into your eyes once a month at circle and instantly know your deepest hopes and thoughts. They also can’t know your work schedule. You need to actually communicate with them. That’s your responsibility, not theirs. Very few high priestesses or high priests will go out of their way to track you down like a schoolteacher collecting homework. If you show up to circle but then vanish in between, your coven leaders will assume that you either lack serious interest or the time to commit to a working coven. Be sure you’re reaching out and keeping the people in charge informed when they need to be. This is practical—they need to know if you’re not going to be in attendance or if your job is suddenly eating your life—but also spiritual. Much of the learning you’ll do takes place outside of formal ritual, in one-on-one conversations with your high priest or priestess and other elders. So call them. Hang out with them. Be available. Share your life and build strong relationships.
4. Don’t compete.
There’s something about people that seems to just make us naturally competitive. We compete at work, at school, and in practically every other aspect of our lives. We strive to be wealthier, to be more attractive, to have more followers on social media, better sexual partners, better clothes, and more rigorous workout routines. We even compete in suffering (have you ever told someone about an illness or injury and then listened while they immediately responded with something even worse that happened to them?). Whether it’s something deep in our monkey brains, powered by evolution, or the result of the aggressive market environment that we live in, we often feel like we need to out-do the people around us. That extends to even our practice of the Craft. We show off on social media and at open rituals and festivals, competing to be the most authentic, the most established, the most knowledgeable, to have the most students, the most books, and whatever else. In some ways, being in a tradition with a degree system can make that competitive tendency particularly likely to show. It’s really, really easy to feel like you have to keep up with your coven siblings, or even to beat them, as though you were racing. And even if you’re genuinely only focusing on yourself, it’s easy to hold yourself to some impossible standard of where you should be and what you should know. This is still competitive thinking. This kind of attitude is great if you’re striving for valedictorian or to make partner at your firm, but it’s terrible for a coven student (and worse for an initiated priest or priestess).
You are not in competition with anyone.
You will learn at your own pace. You will process your experiences at your own pace. You will not become an effective Witch because you can out-read, out-speak, or out-buy another student. Though I admire diligence and academic rigor (I’m very bookish myself, so I can appreciate these qualities in others), as a coven leader, I’m not going to hold one student above another because they can read faster or write a better essay. I also don’t care if your athame cost more, if you can meditate twice as long, or you’ve been practicing since you were a kid while someone else didn’t start until they were in their fifties. I don’t have an initiation quota I have to meet, and neither do your own coven leaders. Take your time. Be yourself. Do what’s best for you. Your own progress is not a statement about anyone else, nor is their progress a statement about you.
5. Shut up.
There’s a time and a place for talking about your Craft and your work in your new outer court. It’s exciting, and it’s natural to want to share your excitement with others, but now is the time to begin practicing discernment and restraint. Every coven makes its own decision about how public they wish to make their Craft. Some groups maintain social media profiles and are very active in public Pagan communities. Others are extremely private, following the older tradition of not even revealing their legal names to covenmates and actively denying Craft involvement outside of ritual space. But on whichever end of the spectrum you may find yourself, it’s best to begin with discretion. The ability to remain silent is important in traditional Wiccan spaces, and your coven leaders need to be able to trust that you can keep sensitive experiences and information to yourself. If everything you learn in private ends up online or in the mouths of outsiders, your high priestess and high priest are going to decide that you aren’t fit for inner court. Always err on the side of silence. That doesn’t necessarily mean lying to your friends or denying your Craft. In time, you’ll learn to avoid compromising situations, to redirect nosey questions, and to answer outside curiosities in ways that are polite and satisfying without being overly revealing. This is a skill acquired in time and with practice, and initially the boundaries can be quite fuzzy. Talk to your teachers about what is and isn’t appropriate. When you’re unsure, shut your mouth.
Keep these relatively simple things in mind and always be honest with yourself and with your new group, and you will avoid most of the major pitfalls that get many seekers and first-time group members into trouble. Instead, you can focus on learning and answering those more fundamental questions: Is this the group for me? Is this the tradition where I belong? Am I getting something valuable out of this?
Remember, if you’re not enjoying yourself this early in the game, it’s okay to look for alternatives. Many seekers end up in very different places from where they started. As serious as this endeavor is, it should also be fun. A strong outer court will prepare you for the work of inner court. You’ll learn to work in a group (which can be quite challenging if you’ve always been solitary) and begin to build relationships with people who will come to feel like family. You’ll develop the magical and ritual skills that will create the foundation for initiatory work. You’ll come to know yourself more honestly and intimately. You’ll begin to have inklings of what it means to know the gods. You’ll probably struggle at some point. You’ll get frustrated. There will be tears. But outer court done well will make you a more capable, more self-aware (and therefore more powerful) Witch. Enjoy the work. Do it well.
FROM THE CIRCLE
Outer court is like one of those survival shows in which contestants start out with a fire, but then they have to move. So they create a smolder bundle to carry an ember to start a second fire at their next camp. In circle, you get that ember, and you have to take it home. You have to nurture it and build your own fire away from the covenstead. If you do nothing with it, it will die.
—Rayn, Gardnerian high priestess