A Different Sort of Wicca
Meeting The Wicca
People come to traditional Wicca for a variety of reasons. Some are looking for a teacher within an established system that already has protocol and techniques for helping newcomers become effective magical practitioners. For some, it’s just easier to learn when you’ve got others in place to guide you. Others are interested in connecting with and becoming part of an established history. There’s something powerful about feeling like you’re part of something bigger and older than you. Many—because of their personalities or prior experience in similarly structured religions—enjoy a more hierarchical, ordered approach. Structures and expectations that may feel confining to some are actually beneficial to others. Finally, seekers to traditional Wicca may be mostly interested in the opportunity to work in a coven setting, which is an option that tends to be a little less available in other forms of Wicca.
Why Traditional Wicca?
There’s definitely something to be said for joining an established tradition, particularly one with a history that spans several decades. It’s a little like marrying into a big family. You’ll find that, in addition to your own coven, you’ll have connections to others. Sometimes this extended family network can be quite far-flung. There are Gardnerians, for example, all over the world. When I travel—particularly in the United States or Europe—I often check to see if I’ll have Craft family nearby. If I’m lucky, I’ll have the opportunity to visit, exchange stories, share meals, and otherwise enjoy the company of Witches who share core elements of practice, as well as a common history. It’s like having built-in friends everywhere you go! It’s an amazing feeling when you know that you’re connected to so many others whom you may not otherwise ever meet.
As a member of a tradition, you’ll also enjoy the benefits of knowing that Craft practice and lore doesn’t end with the people leading your own coven. You may find that your Craft education comes through other sources—maybe the Witches who trained your own leaders, texts left by Witches who have died, or through the contacts you’ll make in “sister” covens. When my own high priestess or high priest doesn’t have an answer to one of my questions, they can refer me to someone who does. That sort of communal access to lore is a rare and precious thing. To some extent, this is what others may be able to accomplish through reading books and conducting research, but the traditionalist has the advantage of more sources, and usually with considerably less legwork. In traditional Craft, your elders are there specifically to aid you. Solitary practitioners usually aren’t so lucky.
And, of course, this network of elders (and siblings and cousins …) isn’t just practical. It’s also magical! Your initiatory lineage represents a transfer of occult power that, at least in theory, gives you a magical advantage over other kinds of practitioners. Obviously, this cannot be taken as assured, nor is it meant to be a sweeping statement, but at the very least you become connected to a magical source that represents a kind of power (even if it’s purely emotional) beyond just what you could do alone. Your magical tools and techniques are reinforced by the power of earlier generations of Witches. Every circle you stand in connects you to every circle cast before. The weight of the power within your tradition goes beyond just yourself. Instead, you may tap into an egregore—a kind of magical group mind—that spans generations.
On a more practical level, some people simply learn and function more effectively in structured environments. Most of us learned to read and write within established school curricula, guided by an experienced teacher who had received particular training, supported by time-proven educational theory. This doesn’t work for everyone—the system isn’t perfect—but usually, you can’t simply leave a small child with books and expect that she’ll naturally become a fluent reader. She’ll need assistance from someone with a specific skill set.
Traditional Wicca operates under similar assumptions. Some people are perfectly happy to read books, surf the internet, and teach themselves through trial and error. But many others benefit from a learning environment that includes structure, modeling from more adept practitioners, and feedback from peers and teachers (which is probably how you learned to read and perform arithmetic). Even as a solitary, you’re still at least partially relying on similar strategies (with books as your teachers and feedback coming from friends or online contacts, for example). A traditional coven simply formalizes this process. Like in school, you may be asked to read particular books, complete set assignments, or perform particular tasks. If not that, you will at least be asked to learn through observation, discussion, and guided practice. This sort of facilitated learning ensures steady progress, more thorough understanding, and greater consistency in outcome (i.e., more effective magical practice, more qualified future coven leaders, etc.).
This analogy between traditional coven work and school should be understood loosely. Your experience probably won’t actually feel like school. Rather, I want to emphasize that their underlying structures are similar: there will be more experienced practitioners guiding less experienced practitioners according to pre-established ideas about what is important and most effective. Beyond that, individual covens (even in the same tradition) may vary dramatically. I know some covens that require essays and research papers and others that expect students to learn primarily through listening and observing. There is a spectrum of possibilities here.
This leads to another important point. Just like school, traditional covens tend to be hierarchical. This means that there are leaders in place to instruct less experienced members, who may or may not have much say in how the coven operates. Underneath these leaders (usually a high priestess, a high priest, or both) there may be other official roles that determine additional hierarchy. Often, this manifests in the form of a degree system, with levels of experience and ability marked by first, second, and third degree ranks. Depending on the coven, there may be additional positions (such as summoner or maiden). Even before you’re initiated, you will likely find yourself in a type of training group called an outer court, which allows you to explore the coven’s ritual structure, beliefs, and the unique personalities of coven members and leaders before formally committing to membership. As the most inexperienced in the tradition (if not in Witchcraft as a whole), these students may receive guidance from initiates at any degree level.
Hierarchy can make some people uncomfortable. Pagans in particular tend to be highly individualistic, especially if they come from religious backgrounds that have felt structurally oppressive or constraining. Many people are initially attracted to Wicca because of its apparent lack of boundaries. The idea that you might need to submit to the demands of a high priestess or some other grand poobah isn’t just unappealing, it’s downright offensive. This position is understandable, especially for people who’ve suffered under abusive power regimes. This is often a key factor in the decision of whether or not to pursue a traditional Wiccan path. In part 2 of this book, there’s a whole chapter on hierarchy in traditional Wicca and how and why it works, but this is an important issue so I want to address a few things right away:
The key difference is that coven hierarchy is not intended to be permanent, nor should it ever be arbitrary or abusive. The hierarchy exists to foster growth amongst members. Your high priest shouldn’t be collecting first degree initiates just to ensure that he always has someone to pick up his dry cleaning or scrub his bathroom. It’s the responsibility of more experienced members to assist less experienced members so that they, too, may one day become high priestesses and high priests in their own right. A schoolteacher has her class for a period of time, eventually passing her students to someone else once they’ve mastered her class content. At some point, those students should graduate and become adults (and some of them may then become teachers themselves). This is a type of purposeful hierarchy. Good teachers do not abuse their students, nor do they keep them forever. Similarly, good coven leaders teach their initiates to be effective as well as independent. First and second degrees follow the instructions of the leading third degree not because she’s arbitrarily the boss, but because she has wisdom and experience beyond their own. In turn, it is the third degree’s job to impart that wisdom and experience to those first and second degrees. This is necessarily an act of great trust, and it comes with a very heavy responsibility on the part of those leaders. Abuse can and does happen—just like it does in school systems and government—but this is not inherent. This is a failure on the part of those who set themselves up as leaders. It may be the result of a lack of training, or it may be the result of personality flaws. Being a Witch doesn’t mean someone is automatically a good person. Your common sense will serve you well in recognizing this sort of dysfunction. If something feels wrong, it probably is.
FROM THE CIRCLE
I know nothing about traditional Wicca. I thought I did until I met you and your coven. I thought it was patriarchal, that it was adverse to creative thinking and full of nonsensical dogma, because that is what I had been told. I had been told that Gardnerians were elitist jerks. And then I met a bunch of amazingly talented, kind people who only ever met my questions with genuineness. Seeing those kinds of people thrive in a Gardnerian system, it made me realize that many of those notions must be incorrect. You told me at one point that Wicca provides people with tools to connect with the divine and get things done. I want to learn how to do that in a reliable way. It turns out I know nothing. But now I want to know everything.
—Acacia, outer court member,
excerpted from an initial inquiry to Foxfire Coven
What Is Traditional Wicca?
So what exactly is traditional Wicca, and what distinguishes it from other kinds of Wicca and Witchcraft? These are deceptively complex questions. Whole academic texts have been devoted to discussions of the word “traditional” and many more on what constitutes Witchcraft and whether or not it is necessarily distinct from Wicca.
I wish to acknowledge the complexity of these conversations and emphasize that numerous perspectives exist, complete with vehement opponents. On the one hand, it can feel like a frustrating, petty obsession with semantics. Who cares what words we use as long as we understand the concepts that they represent? On the other hand, how we use words and how we assign them meaning has very real consequence in the world. Historically, who falls under the category of “Witch” has been a matter of life and death. Where matters of religion are at stake—and Witchcraft is a matter of religion for many—conversations tend to become particularly heated. Our words matter, and we should use them with care while at the same time understanding that words may carry multiple meanings and rarely belong to only one group of people.
In this book, I seek to be as inclusive as possible, allowing readers to interpret these categories as best suits them. I’ve tried to choose language that reflects common usage while acknowledging divergence where appropriate. I will fail sometimes, and I apologize in advance. In no case do I mean offense. I tend to see language as being more fluid than static, and the terms I’ve chosen (as well as how I’ve defined them) are designed to familiarize readers with wider trends, not to persuade them that my way is the only way. When in doubt, it’s always fair to simply ask someone what they mean.
I tend to use “Wicca” and “Witchcraft” interchangeably. I do this because “Wicca” literally means “Witch,” and the earliest forms of Wicca were understood to be a kind of Witchcraft. However, at no point in these early days (way back in the mid-twentieth century) was Wicca widely understood to be the only kind of Witchcraft, nor should it be now. There are many kinds of Witches in the world, and only some of them are Wiccan. Further, today there is a growing faction of Wiccans who do not consider themselves to be Witches, either because they do not feel that they are really practicing Witchcraft (which is usually defined as a particular kind of magic) or because they wish to divorce their practices from a term that has historically carried a lot of negativity. In either case, Wiccans tend to define themselves as practitioners of a particular religion, the characteristics of which we’ll discuss in detail shortly.
Witchcraft, more broadly, is frequently described as a “practice” rather than a religion in and of itself. This sort of distinction raises complex questions about what a “religion” is (again, more than a few academic texts have been produced across centuries wrestling with these issues), but generally we should know that while some Witches (and Wiccans especially) see their Witchcraft as necessarily tied to a spiritual practice, others see it as purely “craft,” which may be combined with religion or may be employed from a secular perspective. For this reason, the word “Witchcraft” may be capitalized or not, depending on who is doing the writing (in this book, I’ve chosen to capitalize to avoid the confusion of alternating cases depending on which kind of Craft I’m discussing). All of this is very much up to the individual Witch, and I usually recommend avoiding sweeping generalizations like, “All Witches believe …” or “All Wiccans practice X while all Witches practice Y.” There will always be someone standing by to prove you wrong.
My decision to use “Wicca” and “Witchcraft” interchangeably was largely a matter of convenience. Also, it reflects an attitude prevalent amongst traditional Wiccans that Wicca is fundamentally a kind of Witchcraft, and that all Wiccans are Witches. Other kinds of practitioners hold different opinions—and these may be worth considering—but historically and popularly, these terms have long been used in this way and still are in most traditional circles.
In order to define traditional Wicca and to distinguish it from the other kinds of Wicca and Witchcraft you’ve probably read about, we should begin by considering its origins. Wicca is a religious movement that developed in the mid-twentieth century thanks primarily to the efforts of British civil servant Gerald Brosseau Gardner. Gardner, who was heavily influenced by and interested in folklore, magic, and his own travels in Asia, was interested in reviving what he saw as the indigenous religion of Britain. Carefully (and sometimes not so carefully), he assembled the popular anthropology of the day, along with his own explorations and personal experience, into a coherent system that he believed was true to an ancient practice of religious Witchcraft. Drawing from his own background in Freemasonry and his wider studies in other Western magical traditions (including the work of magician Aleister Crowley), Gardner built the scaffolding necessary to support the development and spread of this new (ancient) religion. He didn’t do all of this by himself, of course. Gardner claimed to have been initiated into a survival of this ancient “Witch cult” (that was his term, which didn’t have the same connotations as today) and was only allowed to reveal it to the public so that it might survive. He built upon these fragments, creating the framework of a contemporary movement. Along the way, he had help assembling and further publishing about and promoting the Witchcraft tradition that would come to be called Wicca. An assortment of subsequent initiates—most prominently Doreen Valiente—contributed material of their own, whether original compositions or pieces from other works of literature and religious liturgy.
This early form of Wicca was initiatory, coven-based, and centered upon a central Mystery surrounding a moon goddess and a horned god of death and hunting. These two deities were variously understood to be universal Witch deities, gods specific to the British Isles, archetypal representations of any or all deities, or little gods of the local people and land.2
That’s quite a lot of variety! How can a pair of gods be understood so differently while still being part of a coherent tradition? Largely, this is because Gardner’s Wicca was experiential—everyone had their own experience of the gods. The tradition was—is—particularly concerned with practice over belief. Members are united by a set of ritual practices and a body of rituals, collected in the Book of Shadows (which is a single, specific book, not a personal journal like in other kinds of Wicca), rather than a dogmatic set of beliefs. The details of these rituals are secret, reserved only for initiates. They’re closely guarded, but their structure and implements will be familiar to anyone with any casual knowledge of Wicca: a quartered circle, an altar set with a particular assortment of tools, elemental representations, and symbols of the male and female aspects of the divine. The liturgical year fell according to four greater sabbats (with four more eventually added), which marked both the passage of seasons and stages in a repeating myth, in which the goddess and god are central.
This earliest form of Wicca was originally just called the Witch cult, Witchcraft, or, later, “the Wica.” Eventually, it came to be called “Gardnerian,” after its founder (or promoter, depending on your perspective). The label was actually meant to be disparaging, applied by Robert Cochrane, another Witch who began writing after Gardner, making similar claims of belonging to a surviving Witchcraft tradition.3 But the name stuck, particularly since this increased openness about Witchcraft meant that other kinds of Witches could also be public. It didn’t take long for Gardner’s Wicca to split into or simply inspire other kinds of Wicca—both in Europe and in the United States—and, simultaneously, other kinds of Witchcraft also came to the fore. Some of these other kinds of Witchcraft shared similar language, ritual structure, and origins. Others were more specific to particular regions and held to different mythos. The term “Wicca” was used widely without much of today’s care for specific defining boundaries.
These boundaries became somewhat more codified with a boom in publishing and the circulation of information on Witchcraft, particularly in the United States after the 1970s. There were also more initiates, both within Gardnerian Wicca and other forms of Craft (notably Alexandrian and Cochrane’s own Clan of Tubal Cain). There were not enough, however, to accommodate the surplus of seekers, whose interest had been piqued by the widening circulation of books and newsletters pertaining to Witchcraft, psychic development, and the occult. Without the availability of coven training—or sometimes in spite of it—interested people began to practice on their own, assembling the rites as best they could, doing their own research into folklore and magic, and writing their own materials through trial and error.
By the end of the twentieth century, a number of prominent books existed to assist would-be Witches in becoming “solitary practitioners,” Witches who worked alone and learned primarily through reading. The most influential texts were Raymond Buckland’s Complete Book of Witchcraft (1986), Scott Cunningham’s Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner (1988), and an assortment of works from Stewart and Janet Farrar. Later, authors such as Silver RavenWolf would further popularize this new form of solitary, do-it-yourself Wicca, which had by now been codified under the moniker “eclectic Wicca” because practitioners could select and use techniques as they saw fit, without being beholden to a particular tradition or teacher.
The sudden availability of these kinds of books, combined with the development of the internet, led to the rise of a huge variety of styles within Wicca (and Witchcraft broadly). Aside from the increase in the number of solitary practitioners (who by now outnumbered Witches in initiatory covens), it became very common to find covens formed according to similar prerogatives. Anyone with desire and access to the right books could become a Wiccan and potentially start their own coven.
As you can imagine, this incredible growth (and variety) created a number of tensions. If Wicca was now available on the internet and at chain bookstores, did people still need formal training and initiation into a lineaged coven? Where would that leave the people still practicing according to Gardner’s model? And how much could be changed before this Wicca stopped being Wicca and became some other kind of Witchcraft or Pagan religion? What were the differences, anyway? Did it matter? Many of these newer eclectic covens had never even been exposed to these early forms of Wicca. They focused on different gods and myths, performed different rites, and held different beliefs, particularly emphasizing a moral code now widely called the Wiccan Rede, which was popularized (at least in what people now call “the long version”) in the late seventies and eighties thanks to the publication of Gwen Thompson’s poem “Rede of the Wiccae” in Green Egg Magazine in 1975.4 Given that there could be so much difference—not excluding what had previously been considered essential to Wiccan practice: an ecstatic passing of power through formal initiation into a supposedly ancient Witch cult—what exactly did it mean to be Wiccan?
There is still quite a lot of debate around this subject, as there invariably is whenever change and schism occur in any group of people. The purpose of this book is not to question the validity of any kind of Wicca, nor is it to assert the correctness of any one tradition or practice. I believe these to be hopeless tasks and would prefer to spend my time actually practicing my own Wicca, regardless of what others may think of it. Instead, I offer my own experience, having participated in a spectrum of Wiccan traditions in both coven and solitary environments. It is my intent here to provide guidance to those who feel called to pursue that older, more organized form of Wicca, now simply called traditional.
Traditional Wicca, unlike eclectic Wicca, usually traces an initiatory lineage to one of those early Wiccan founders, particularly Gerald Gardner or Alex Sanders. Overwhelmingly, traditional Wicca emphasizes formal training within a coven setting, culminating in initiation and elevation through a degree system. Aside from a shared initiation experience, a shared body of rites or some other common core of practice further unites covens within a tradition. Usually, as in Gardnerian Wicca, this involves the passing of the Book of Shadows or some other body of liturgy or oral lore (and often plenty of both). Theoretically, two initiates from different covens could meet for the first time and find that they connect through this intimate, shared knowledge. This is a profound experience, and it is one of the reasons why seekers are initially attracted to work within an established tradition. Even when, as is common over the course of training, an individual Witch finds herself temporarily separated from her coven, she is still united in praxis. Thus, the traditional Wiccan may be a solitary practitioner without ever really being alone.
Traditional Wicca is also usually marked by higher levels of organization. This should not be taken to mean that traditional covens are stodgy, static, or perform their rites by rote. Rather, it means that particular structures are in place to encourage growth in individual members over time as well as continuity across the tradition as a whole. As in my earlier analogy about school, seekers are brought in and taught by elders, who are usually arranged in a hierarchy. This is not to discourage creativity or independence but rather to facilitate learning and steady, consistent growth. A good teacher need not be draconian. A hierarchy need not be oppressive.
In recent years, a number of eclectic Wiccan systems have organized and expanded to the extent that we might fairly call them traditions in and of themselves, though they may not possess a lineage in the same manner that, for example, Alexandrian or Gardnerian Wicca does. As the years pass and these new traditions continue to survive and grow, they may come to more closely resemble these older Wiccan traditions, but it is reasonable to expect quite a lot of variation in praxis, structure, and protocol. In addition to this general guide, it would be useful to consult any texts that specifically pertain to whatever individual tradition you may be seeking.
For the purposes of this book, I understand traditional Wicca to be:
Eclectic forms of Wicca may (and often do) include some of these elements. Likewise, individual covens within traditional Wicca may not emphasize all of these criteria equally (though they will usually possess them). We will explore all of these in turn. In part 2, I’ll detail each of these five characteristics in individual chapters. In part 3, we’ll get down to the practical business of finding and joining a coven, along with the pitfalls to avoid. We’ll also tackle some of the issues that arise in wider traditional Wiccan communities and that you’ll probably encounter at some point in the course of your seeking or training.
Finally—in one last consideration of semantics—I wish to acknowledge some of the problems that arise from the use of the term “eclectic” to describe systems of Wicca that stand in contrast to traditional Wicca. In Pagan and Witchcraft communities, the description “eclectic” arose in the nineties and early two thousands, popularized by solitary Wiccans and Pagans who had not been formally initiated into one of the established traditions of the day. It meant that these practitioners created, borrowed, or modified materials as needed, usually according to personal interest and through trial and error. It was not by itself a pejorative term, though it became one in many traditional communities.
Today, it is still common for solitary or otherwise self-taught Witches to refer to their practices as eclectic, though as covens and more established systems spring out of the work of these first eclectic practitioners, it becomes more common to see more specific descriptors. Some of these eclectic systems have been around for decades and are really only eclectic in name. They may be just as organized and regulated as any traditional coven from decades past. All this to say that “eclectic” sometimes simply means “not part of an older tradition” rather than that members pick and choose materials or otherwise don’t have an established system.
Similarly, “traditional” should not be taken to mean that practitioners never pull from outside sources, don’t experiment with new techniques, or don’t create their own liturgy. Historically, Wicca develops out of a number of sources and is influenced by a variety of people. Because of this, even the staunchest traditional Wiccan might be fairly described as eclectic.
Use these terms to guide your seeking and to communicate in the various situations you will no doubt find yourself. Do not try to obsessively put every Witch you meet into one category or the other. You’ll find yourself very frustrated! At some point, our narrow boxes stop being useful and just start hindering us. Use these terms only as starting points. When they stop being useful, find new ones.
2. Gerald Gardner, Witchcraft Today (New York: Citadel Press, 1954), 31.
3. Robert Cochrane and Evan John Jones, The Robert Cochrane Letters: An Insight into Modern Traditional Witchcraft, ed. Michael Howard (Somerset, UK: Capall Bann 2002), 23—24.
4. For a detailed analysis of Rede of the Wicca and additional historical insight, check out The Rede of the Wiccae: Adriana Porter, Gwen Thompson and the Birth of a Tradition of Witchcraft by Robert Mathiesen and Theitic (Olympian Press, 2005).