Some Guidance for The New Initiate
Seeking Traditional Wicca
Seeking is hard. Finding the right coven can take years—there’s no two ways about it. You’ll have false starts. You’ll hit walls. You’ll write beautiful introductory emails and hear crickets. You’ll have awkward coffee dates with strangers. You’ll go to terrible open rituals and public meetups that leave you feeling isolated and out of place. Believe me, those of us who’ve been at this for decades know how frustrating things can be. But diligence pays off. If you truly look, if you take risks, stay honest with yourself and with others, and if you’re patient, you will find your way to the edge of the circle. Maybe you picked up this book because you’re already in a traditional coven or a traditional outer court and you just wanted another perspective, or some additional insight into some aspect of your tradition. Perhaps you’ve been working through this guide all the way from square one, and you find yourself finally on the other side—a new initiate! In that case, congratulations! Initiation marks the culmination of a lot of hard work (and the beginning of much more) and is a truly remarkable achievement. This chapter is for you, though it will also apply to both outer court students and longtime initiates who may just need the reminder.
In magical communities, we speak often of the Four Powers of the Magus. If you’ve been hanging out in Wiccan spaces for long, you probably know them as the corners of the Witch’s Pyramid: to know, to dare, to will, and to be silent. These are the pillars of many Western magical systems, corresponding to the four elements and the four cardinal directions. When we lack one, our Work becomes weak. When in doubt or in need of direction, it’s useful to return to these basic tenets.
Acacia kneeled before the altar, holding her athame’s hilt against her chest. It was a big night for her. She was acting as high priestess for the evening and was responsible for her very first group ritual. All eyes were on her, and the time had come to consecrate the salt. Up until that point she’d done quite well. Lukaos and I stood with the other students, relinquishing our usual leadership roles to give Acacia the opportunity to practice her freshly acquired skills. She commanded the space well and had clearly worked hard to memorize the ritual. She was confident, handling the sword like she was born to it (because she was). But all of a sudden, the candlelight flickering across her face, she hesitated. A moment too many passed and her eyes snapped to mine, panicked, silently screaming. I could read her face instantly because I’d been exactly there a hundred times: Oh shit. What comes next?
“Take a breath. The words are in there,” I said in a low tone across the altar.
Another moment passed. She took a deep breath, but still nothing came. She looked at me again.
“You’re a Witch. Forget about the script. Consecrate the salt.”
Acacia took another breath—this one stern—and her face shifted. She relaxed visibly. The words that came next weren’t the ones on the page she’d spent so long trying to recall, but they were magical and right nonetheless. She forgot, yes, but she knew the essence of what she was doing, so the power wasn’t lost.
There are multiple ways to know things. In the heat of the moment, it’s easy to forget a memorized passage, and some people struggle more than others with this kind of rote learning. On the one hand, a rustling paper can be a distraction, taking away from the beauty and drama of ritual. On the other hand, the real power lies in the intention behind the words. If a Witch can generate that power while reading, then why shouldn’t she? Power exists in the text itself, yes, but not there alone. Through repetition and study—through years of performing the rites, building connections, and letting them settle into your bones—the text becomes a part of you. As an initiate, this is your most important task. It’s bigger than memorization. It takes repetition and intention. Learning the ins and outs of circle and the hows and whys of your traditional practice may begin with memorization, but it takes time and consistency to really internalize them. When your elders talk about knowing the rites, this is what they mean.
So know the rites. Read the material that’s passed to you. Read it repeatedly. Then do it. Make it a part of you. When you struggle with where to go and where to focus or when you don’t know what comes next, go back to your tradition’s Book of Shadows. Annotate it. Criticize it. Copy it. Build connections from piece to piece. Figure out where those pieces came from and who put them there. Try to determine why it is the way it is. Make it yours. In those moments when you forget the words while everyone is counting on you (because you will have those moments), your understanding of the material will transcend the script and you’ll be able to work your magic regardless. With that growing understanding, you may also find that your retention improves dramatically. Memorization is much easier when you know the purpose behind what you’re performing.
Beyond memorizing rituals, every tradition has its own oral lore, protocol, and histories. As a new initiate, your best bet is often to shut your mouth and really focus on listening. A great deal of what you’ll learn won’t come from circling formally with your coven. Instead, it will happen at the dinner table before ritual, sitting around and laughing over a beer, trading stories and experiences while just hanging out, or during late-night phone conversations in between meetings. But you need to listen and watch carefully. Take advantage of the elders in your sphere. It won’t be long before no one is left alive to talk about Wicca’s heydays in the latter half of the twentieth century. These are our histories, and it’s our duty to preserve them. Ask questions, ask for stories, ask for other perspectives, and then listen attentively.
Finally, continue to read. We live in an age when information can be had in mere minutes with access to a computer or a public library. There’s no excuse not to have a basic grasp of Wiccan history, particularly where it concerns your own tradition and your own upline. Who were the major players? What controversies have arisen? What were the most influential movements, books, and events? There have been many times in recent history when materials relevant to the study of Witchcraft, religion, the gods, and magic were very difficult to come by. When Wicca was first taking shape and drawing public attention, there were only a few popularly available books from which to choose. There was no internet—no easy way to contact others and get information. Witches relied on the handful of small newsletters in print, letters through the mail, and contact with local communities (if they were lucky enough to have them). Today, there are literally thousands of titles and hundreds of thousands of websites to choose from. You can go to major chain booksellers and buy Pagan magazines. Libraries have metaphysical sections, and interlibrary loan allows you to acquire most titles for free, even if your local library doesn’t have what you need on hand. There are social media sites not just for traditional Wiccans as a whole (though there are plenty of those) but also for individual traditions and even individual states and towns. With so many resources available, there are very few legitimate excuses not to take advantage.
Not all Witches are scholars. As a new initiate, it’s not your job to become a researcher, a theologian, a social scientist, or a literary critic. While it’s true that, on the whole, contemporary Pagans and Witches of all types tend to be a bit more bookish than the general population, that’s not a requirement for becoming a priestess or priest of the Wica. You won’t read a certain number of books and then automatically become a magical adept with a direct channel to the divine. Reading is a tool like anything else. More central is the need to cultivate a sense of curiosity. As an initiate, continue to seek out what you don’t yet know. Never stop. Learn your history. Seek out unfamiliar magical techniques. Absorb lessons from the people who’ve been on this path longer than you. Write them down or do whatever else you need to do to remember them. Don’t just memorize—understand. Be modest about what you know, and humble about what you don’t know. As long as you’re curious, you’ll never be bored.
FROM THE CIRCLE
Many books on occult subjects and those that are deemed “occult classics” are today out of print or just not available. A practical solution to this challenge is easier than you think! Many bigger libraries run by counties or municipalities in the United States have a service available called interlibrary loan. Most of the older books that have been around for a while, especially the out-of-print ones, can be borrowed free of charge (at least at my local library) when your library is able to track down a copy for you. I frequently request books from my library and rarely are they unable to find it. My library only allows five books per person at a time, so I keep a list handy so that I may read at my own pace and time my requests.
—Thorn Nightwind, priest of the
Horsa and Sacred Pentagraph traditions
The popular refrain in many Wiccan and open Pagan spaces is that the Craft is “whatever makes you comfortable” or “whatever makes you happy.” We’re told over and over again to listen to our intuition, to modify rituals and spells to accommodate our personal preferences, to choose magical tools and ingredients according to what we feel, and to throw out those things that we simply don’t want to do or think about. We tell newcomers that there’s nothing to be afraid of—Witchcraft is about liberation, coming into your personal power, and being who you truly are.
Well, pardon me, but all of those things are pretty terrifying if you really stop and think about them. The process of becoming free—of learning who you are and living in accordance with that, unapologetically—is nothing short of miraculous. It forces you to cast off relationships that are toxic. Your professional and personal lives are radically altered. You will begin to walk outside of what is usually considered to be socially acceptable. You will offend people. This is what people mean when they insist that Witches are scary. Witches are many things throughout history, depending on whom you talk to and where you look, but they are almost always frightening, and it’s because they pose a threat to the status quo. Witchcraft is fundamentally transgressive. Witches are outsiders. Witches are boundary crossers. Sometimes they can be spotted, but other times they blend right in, which makes them that much scarier. They could be anyone. From both the inside and the outside, Witchcraft has the potential to be very, very unnerving. Realizing your own power, touching the gods and spirits, working magic, and moving through the world having glimpsed those things beyond what people normally see is at times frightening.
There are many ways to be a Wiccan, and many more ways to be a Witch, but one thing that is consistently true is this: effective Witchcraft is uncomfortable. Your Craft should challenge you. It should push you to do things beyond what you already know you can do. It should break down barriers. It should change your thinking. It should change the way you walk in the world. If you insist on avoiding those things that force you to reconsider yourself and your world—if you only focus on those happy things that come easiest—then your Witchcraft will be impotent and ultimately meaningless.
If we only ever put ourselves in positions where we’re comfortable, we don’t give ourselves the opportunity to learn or experience anything new.
I’m not necessarily advocating completely tossing out personal boundaries, exposing ourselves to unhealthy or risky situations just for the sake of it, or going along with something that scares us because we’re worried that if we don’t we’re not “real Witches” or something equally absurd. We are each in charge of deciding where our own boundaries lie. You still get to be the final authority in what is and isn’t appropriate for you, and you can take things as slowly as you wish. But if you always turn away from those things that challenge you, how will you grow?
Traditional Wicca is not about sticking to “what makes you comfortable.” You don’t get to just change or throw out those things that you don’t like simply because they “don’t feel right.” If something doesn’t feel right, ask yourself why. Question what you’re being taught, certainly. Argue, explore, and figure out what works best for you. Experiment and figure out effective alternatives. Allow for the possibility that what “doesn’t feel right” might be the result of your own personal baggage or misguided thinking—things that you need to cast off. Whatever you decide in the end, do so with self-awareness and intention. But don’t let the aim be comfort. This is the Witch cult—marked by midnight sabbats, secret rituals, and communion with the spirits of the underworld—not a hotel vacation or an evening spent snuggling with your favorite blanket. If you feel safe and comfortable all the time, that’s a hint that something is going wrong.
Before we can begin processing our discomfort and growing our practice, we must first confront it. In my years of practice, I find that one of the scariest things for Witches trying something new is the prospect of getting things wrong. We put off rituals, magical projects, necessary conversations, and new explorations because … why? The timing isn’t right. We don’t have the space we want. We don’t have the supplies we think we need. We don’t have enough free time. We’re tired. It was a tough workweek. We feel weird doing it alone instead of with a group. We don’t feel right doing it in a group and would rather be alone. We’ve never done this before and we might get it wrong.
It’s easy to come up with reasons to not do things. Sometimes, those reasons are legitimate. Everyone is busy. I get it. I come home from work some days and I barely have the energy for much more than lying on my couch and binge-watching a favorite TV show. Sometimes, I really have to psych myself up for coven meetings. Work drains me. Spending ten minutes in front of my bedroom altar talking to my gods feels like one more chore that I just can’t handle. And the fact that I feel that way sometimes makes me feel even worse. Add kids, spouses, illnesses, and other responsibilities into the mix and things get even more challenging.
But a lot of the time we’re just making excuses, and we know it.
Things will never be ideal. The perfect moment isn’t coming. You may never have everything you need. You may never feel completely confident and assured of your success. So do whatever it is that you’re putting off regardless. Understand that it won’t be perfect. Part of being brave means knowing that you could fail—that things won’t go according to plan—and doing it anyway.
Witchcraft is many things to many people, but one thing it should always be is challenging. Don’t throw things out just because they’re hard. Don’t overlook important lessons just because they push you out of your comfort zone. Don’t succumb to fear or excuses.
FROM THE CIRCLE
When you have moments of fear and panic, consider them, weigh them, chew on them. Most of the time, when my gut has said run, I’ve run, and it’s been because I was in a dangerous situation, so it all worked out well. But sometimes my gut says, “Run—no—stay—no—I don’t know! Shit!” When this happens, it’s usually because I’m being challenged at a very fundamental level. Becoming Pagan and then seeking with a traditional coven fundamentally changed the direction of my life and the people in it, and it was a massive shift. It was not a thing lightly taken. No amount of divination was going to give me the “right” answer. No amount of consultation with my husband, friends, or high priestess and high priest was going to tell me what to do. I had to decide if the risk was worth the potential rewards and act on my own best judgment, knowing this would change my life and the lives of everyone I loved in a very real and significant way. Scary, right? That kind of soul-searching is the hardest part, but was among the most amazing and fruitful moments of my life, on par with marrying my husband and the birth of my son. It was that profound. And like those events, it has rippled out in an amazing and beautiful way into all aspects of my life.
—Wren, first degree priestess
There are an awful lot of things in life that are completely out of our control. Maybe most things. Where we’re born and how we grow up are out of our hands, yet they say a lot about the opportunities that we’ll have as adults. We also don’t get to choose our own bodies, and these limit us just as strictly. On top of all that, sometimes things just happen to us. With billions of people in the world just trying to get by, we’re bound to crash into each other from time to time, and sometimes these encounters leave us reeling. Many religions seek to explain or justify life’s many disparities. Humans have wrestled with the problems of evil and suffering throughout history and our solutions usually leave us wanting. Sadly, Wiccan solutions are usually no exception. The truth is Wicca tends to focus on the here and now rather than those larger, vexing questions that usually require more elaborate, dogmatic cosmologies. As a community, we’re not great at explaining why bad things happen to good people or what everything all means in the end. Those conversations are left to your more intimate coven communities, informed by your unique experiences and according to your own needs and circumstances. It takes a lot of hubris to say definitively to another person why it is that they suffer, and the prospect (I hope) makes most Wiccans uncomfortable. Individually, we may hold any number of different beliefs about those things beyond our power. They nonetheless remain beyond our power.
But there are many things that are within our control.
There are a lot of people in the world who don’t take responsibility for themselves and their actions, and then they wonder why life doesn’t go the way they want. They blame others when things go wrong, or they sit by and let opportunity pass them by because they’re afraid to pursue it.
As an initiate of the Wica, you are both a magician and a priest or priestess of the gods. Part of coming into your own as a Witch means learning to exercise your Will, capital W. This isn’t simply what you want (though that may be part of it); it’s what we might think of as our life’s purpose. It’s those things that are required of you to fulfill that purpose, those things that further you on your path to becoming what you’re supposed to be. Some ceremonial magicians and practitioners of other traditions within the Western mystery schools speak of “ascension” or “climbing the Tree of Life,” to use more Qabalistic terms. Some Wiccans believe that we reincarnate for the sake of learning lessons. Your Will is the intent behind those actions that move you forward, whatever terms you choose to use.
You may not be sure about your life’s purpose, or even believe that there is such a thing, but as a new initiate it’s time to really take control of those things that impact the sort of person you wish to become. This is way less esoteric than it usually sounds. Personally, I think of things this way: Am I doing everything I possibly can to live a good life?
A “good life” isn’t easy to define, either, but I find that we usually know when we’re getting it wrong. Are you making choices that are destructive? Are you hurting yourself by not addressing something you need to? Are you not doing something you should because you’re lazy or afraid? Do you really have control over your own life or do you allow others to make your decisions for you?
There’s plenty that’s beyond our control, but now’s the time to take charge of everything else. Take your self-care seriously. Cultivate self-awareness. Do good work. Be sincere. Be conscious of how you treat others. Develop foresight and move through the world thoughtfully. When you feel compelled to complain about something, consider what you can do to change things for the better. Be an instigator.
Initiates occupy a place of power and the position demands respect. You’re a priest and a Witch. Make sure you’re acting like it.
To Be Silent
After all the work that goes into outer court, it’s tempting to breathe a sigh of relief and forget that things are really only just beginning. Out in the wider community, even in spaces where most people are solitary practitioners, we often talk about initiates as though they’re automatically wiser, more qualified, or more magical than other kinds of Witches. Hopefully by now you understand that this isn’t actually the case, but the stereotype persists. Initiation is important in traditional Wicca, certainly, but all it means for sure is that the person has been accepted as a member. It doesn’t mean that person is automatically qualified to be a teacher, or that she’s an expert, or that her magic is more effective, or that she warrants more respect than someone from another tradition that does things a bit differently. Initiation is many things, but it’s never a guarantee of wisdom or experience.
As a new initiate, you are a beginner. It may not feel that way—you may have been practicing for years, busting your butt to get where you are—but you’re really only on the verge of something. Now is the time to study, to listen, to reflect, and to learn. If you’re talking, you’re not listening. If you’re on the internet running your mouth about things you don’t yet understand, you’re using up valuable time that you could be using to actually practice Witchcraft.
Every coven will have its own policy about interacting with wider communities.21 Your high priestess and high priest may ask their initiates to abstain completely from talking about Craft-related subjects in public places (particularly online). They may also ask that you not participate in open Pagan or magical communities, at least at first. These kinds of requests are not designed to confine you or stifle your explorations. They’re intended to encourage focus, to prevent confusion, and to protect coven or tradition secrets. Brand-new first degrees often have difficulty appreciating when to share and when to keep something private. A focused period of relative solitude is extremely beneficial. Initiation can be disorienting, and, further, it’s a challenge to keep those private things to yourself. You want people to know what’s changed for you. You want to share your excitement. You want to correct people who may have misconceptions about what you do. And there are certainly plenty of things you can share. There’s a lot you can talk about. But silence is often the better choice, particularly when dealing with strangers in public places.
Learn to be silent.
Learn to keep private thoughts private.
Keep other people’s business off the internet.
If you’re not sure if you should or shouldn’t share, err on the side of shouldn’t. You can always change your mind later, after you’ve gotten some feedback from others in your coven. If you’ve taken an oath of secrecy (and you probably have), remember that it can be just as revealing to deny something as it is to confirm it. Learn to leave the overly curious or the ignorant guessing. Telling them that you don’t do something or that something isn’t true can be just as compromising to your oath as sharing what you do. Negotiating this type of verbal sleight of hand requires a great deal of reserve and finesse. Begin practicing now.
FROM THE CIRCLE
Initiation was a challenge because there was a lot I couldn’t discuss with my spouse, so it was a leap of faith for both of us. He knew that I had discussed with my high priestess that my marriage was my first vow and that I wouldn’t do anything to violate it, but beyond that, he just had to trust me and my high priestess and high priest. I spend a lot of time checking in with him when working out schedules for circle and talking to him about my covenmates (and he’s met all of them and their spouses and children, who are mostly also non-Pagan). It’s an ongoing thing, but it’s been a whole new phase of our marriage. One that’s been really challenging, for sure, but it’s also made us stronger for it.
—Wren, first degree priestess
Too many of us are in too much of a hurry to be elders. Every stage of Craft practice comes with its own lessons and is valuable for exactly what it is. As a new initiate, your job is to learn your Craft, to build relationships with your covenmates, and to explore what it means to connect with the gods. Your job is not to correct strangers on the internet, to lord your new title over anyone else, or to teach would-be Witches because suddenly you feel so qualified. Do not try to rush through this. Bad first degrees make bad second degrees make bad third degrees. Be the best first degree you can. Be the best beginner you can. This is one of the most exciting periods in Craft training, and you’ll never have it again.
Use this time to absorb the experience of the people around you. When your high priestess tells stories about the people who make up your upline, pay attention. When your covenmates share their personal magical pursuits, their own difficulties, and their own revelations, pay attention. Shut your own mouth, put away the keyboard, and listen. It’s amazing what you’ll learn in these early days, and you’ll learn even more when you come to appreciate that you’re still a beginner.
Keep these four pillars in mind and enjoy the ride. Be diligent. Be curious. Be brave. Be discerning. This is a lifelong process, and there’s no endpoint. Welcome to the family!
21. And they should share this policy with you upfront; it shouldn’t be a surprise saved for the day after your initiation, leaving you feeling manipulated and cut off from communities that may be important to you.