Defining Traditional Wicca
Perhaps the most well-known and discussed (not to mention controversial) characteristic of traditional Wicca is its emphasis on initiation. Traditional Wicca is a priesthood that requires formal admission. You can’t just read a few books and declare yourself a member. You must seek out a traditional coven or teacher and be initiated. But what exactly does that mean? What does initiation entail? Does it really make you different from other kinds of Wiccans? Can you initiate yourself ? Is there a difference between initiation and dedication? Why is this such a hot-button issue in Wiccan communities?
What Is Initiation?
For the clearest understanding of what initiation is and how it works, it’s useful to consider the term as it applies more broadly, particularly in other cultural and religious contexts. Initiation isn’t a concept that’s unique to Wicca, after all! Let’s take a look at a technical, academic standpoint to get us started.
Contemporary understandings of initiation are closely tied to the work of three very important scholars of the twentieth century: Arnold van Gennep, Victor Turner, and Joseph Campbell. Arnold van Gennep (1873—1957) was a German-born, French-educated anthropologist and ethnographer, well known for his book Les rites de passage (1909). Based on his own ethnographic work (which means that he actually spent time with the people he was studying) and literary study of (primarily European) folklore, he argued that rites of passage have three fundamental stages: separation, transition, and incorporation.
Here’s an example of what he’s talking about:
For the Xhosa, a South African tribal group (with the distinction, by the way, of having had Nelson Mandela as a member), boys, usually in their late teens and early twenties, become men by undergoing circumcision. When they are deemed ready, they’re removed from their homes and families to live together in small, specially constructed houses outside the village. Their heads are shorn, their bodies are painted, and they participate in a number of rituals, culminating in circumcision. Afterwards, they must stay outside of their village for a period of several months. They observe special dietary restrictions, perform additional rituals, and wear special clothes. When this period is over, the boys wash the paint from their bodies, burn their ritually prepared houses, and return home, where they are reincorporated into daily life, now as men.6
This example embodies the three stages of a rite of passage as described by van Gennep really clearly. The boys are separated from their communities, undergo a transformation, and are then welcomed back into society, their change in station publically acknowledged in the village.
Another anthropologist named Victor Turner (1920—1983) later elaborated on this process in his own work on initiation and its application within a religious framework. Turner described van Gennep’s three-stage process in terms of “liminality,” which is the state of being in between two points. Initiation—what van Gennep might call “transformation”—represents the period of transition from one way of being to another, especially within a particular community. Joseph Campbell (1904—1987), our third scholar, was heavily influenced by Victor Turner when he was working on his own ideas about the hero’s journey. The hero’s journey is a narrative formula that Campbell initially detailed in his work The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949). Campbell posited that this archetypal story—which he called a “monomyth”—could be found throughout the world, uniting humanity through shared experience. Campbell incorporated Turner and van Gennep more broadly in his understanding of folklore. Thanks to these three thinkers, today’s anthropologists, religious studies scholars, and folklorists still consider initiation with an understanding that it is tied to both transformation and community.
Rites of passage help us collectively mark and process life changes. These are changes that we may go through anyway—like puberty, childbirth, or death—but they take on further meaning when we acknowledge them communally, through ritual. An initiation is distinct from other rites of passage because it involves the movement from one state of being to another, with a transitional (Turner would say “liminal”) stage in between. Additionally—according to the scholarly definition we’ve examined—that process is social. What ultimately changes is the individual’s place in the community.
In traditional Wicca, initiation marks the seeker’s transformation from outsider to insider. No longer a student in an outer court, they become a full-fledged priestess or priest, accepted as a Witch and full member of the coven. Further, they become a member of the tradition as a whole, with whatever rights and responsibilities that may entail.
The exact ritual of initiation may vary from tradition to tradition. Most covens are very secretive about this process. Partially, this secrecy is in place to lend power to the rite itself. Secrets feel powerful and can make the experience that much more profound. More simply, secrecy protects a coven’s privacy. There’s no reason for outsiders to know details because there is no context for the experience outside of the tradition itself. Finally, this secrecy helps to deepen the shared experience of members in the tradition. Knowing that they’ve all joined via the same rite creates a profound bond that unites members of a community. But whatever the specifics of the ritual or events leading up to the ritual, a Wiccan initiation is something that Arnold van Gennep, Victor Turner, and Joseph Campbell would all recognize.
Given that an initiation is a ritual recognition of a person’s change in social status, it’s easy to say that initiates are necessarily different from noninitiates (which includes other kinds of Wiccans). Initiation confers upon an individual new responsibility within the group, as well as certain privileges. It’s a social contract—an agreement in a community. And it’s the social nature of this agreement that brings us to another significant point: rites of passage (like initiations) do not necessarily transfer across group lines. An initiation into a tradition (or coven) does not automatically confer initiation into another.
Think back to van Gennep and the Xhosa. That was just one case of a rite of passage from boyhood to manhood. In other groups, the process looks very different. Jewish boys, as another example, become men in the eyes of their community by going through the ritual of Bar Mitzvah. Other groups have their own markers of manhood, only some of which may be celebrated ritually (having sex for the first time, making a first kill during a hunt, going to war, etc.). What’s important to understand is that the concept of “manhood” does not manifest in the same way in every case. It would be unreasonable to expect members of one group to unquestioningly accept the “men” of another given that the context is different. Similarly, a priest of one tradition of Wicca is not automatically a priest of another tradition. An initiation into my coven doesn’t grant you membership in another coven. Likewise, I don’t extend invitations and hand out secrets to other Witches just because they’ve been initiated into someone else’s coven. There are absolutely cases in which initiations are acknowledged across group and tradition lines, but this should not be assumed.
FROM THE CIRCLE
Initiation should never be taken on lightly. In our modern Pagan world it sometimes feels like folks collect initiations like college degrees in order to have the title, and that’s so not the right reason. I’m a Reclaiming Tradition initiate, a Gardnerian Wicca initiate, a Druid initiate, and self-initiated. These traditions and initiations are vastly different, some of them being (almost) on opposite ends of the initiation spectrum. My initiations were all a part of my personal spiritual development, folding in knowledge and faith from different vantage points. Each initiation has been woven into the complex tapestry that is me, and they all came at different points in my life.
—Phoenix LeFae, Wiccan priestess and Reclaiming Witch
So is it possible to initiate yourself into Wicca?
Since Wicca’s early days, this has been a point of contention, especially after so many publications became so readily available. As we’ve discussed, it didn’t take long for seekers to outnumber available space in established covens. Many turned to books (and to each other) for information on practicing without a coven. Many joined Pagan Way groups, outer courts, and other kinds of Witchcraft groups. Collectively, these groups designed their own rites and traditions, leading many to become accomplished Witches without ever receiving initiation into a traditional coven. There were even Wiccan elders who advocated these kinds of strategies in the absence of covens or initiated teachers, Doreen Valiente being one of the most notable.7 As time went on and more books and (later) online resources became more available, this process of self-teaching became even easier and more widespread. Eclectic styles of Wicca developed into their own traditions, and solitary practice became commonplace. Many claimed to have initiated themselves, and increasingly these Witches demanded the respect and acknowledgment of Wiccans who had been formally trained in traditional covens. Today, self-teaching and solitary practice are the norm, with these kinds of Witches outnumbering those in covens.8 Few of the most prominent Wiccan writers, teachers, and online personalities are initiates as was understood in the mid-twentieth century.
Reactions to this over the years have been mixed. Some early traditionalists accepted these self-taught practitioners as Wiccans in their own right, and even went on to advocate for this sort of learning. Gardnerian priest Ray Buckland, who was one of the people responsible for bringing traditional Wicca to the United States, famously split from his coven and published a variety of books designed to help solitaries and eclectics build their own traditions. He even founded his own form of Witchcraft: Seax-Wica. Others held to those stringent boundaries, arguing that Wicca is a priesthood that requires specific training, as well as the magical authority that is conferred upon initiation into a coven. All along, others have taken a kind of middle position, observing that, ultimately, Wicca is about devotion to the gods. It is they who choose their priests and priestesses. Who could possibly have more authority in matters of belonging and initiation?
Many have made compelling cases for all these perspectives as well as others I haven’t even mentioned. A lot of ink has been spilled over this issue. The role of initiation might be the most divisive controversy in Wicca’s history. In the 1990s and early 2000s, this argument became downright nasty, with the development of terms like “fluffy bunny,” which were flung around the internet to disparage this new Wiccan movement.9 Eclectic Wiccans responded with their own vitriol, and traditionalists developed a reputation for being judgmental, self-righteous, and stuck in the past.
So who’s right? Can you just initiate yourself ? And if not, then who can initiate you? The gods? A high priestess? What about a single high priest? Someone of the same gender? And why does everyone’s answer seem to be different?
I’ll go ahead and spoil the ending for you: I’m not going to give you a straight, perfectly satisfying answer to any of these questions. We’ll probably be fighting over this issue for generations to come. What I will do is explain the mechanics of initiation and lineage within traditional Wicca so that the value that traditionalists place on initiation at least makes sense to you. You may come to different conclusions (and you’ll have plenty of company, no matter what position you take), but at least these arguments will be clear.
The crux of initiation—as we’ve discussed it so far—is that it’s social. Whether we’re talking about becoming a man or becoming a Wiccan, the whole point is that the individual transitions from one position in society to another. Rites of passage, according to the scholars we’ve considered, are communal events. They have meaning only in social contexts. For a traditional Wiccan, initiation is the acceptance of a new member into the tradition. Depending on the tradition, the initiate may receive special ritual tools, the secret names of deities, or other ritual-magical authority (and ability). But in any case, what she always receives is membership. For this reason, from this perspective, there can be no self-initiation. Another must bestow initiation upon you. You cannot simply declare yourself a member of a group whose mark for membership is a ritualized rite of passage.
In this sense, becoming a traditional Wiccan initiate is a little like becoming a doctor or becoming a Catholic priest. In the case of the former, I would have to go to medical school, survive a formal residency, and become licensed by a medical board to practice medicine, according to a set standard. Collectively, we’ve agreed (even tacitly) that this is what qualifies someone to be a doctor, and these are the people who we seek out when we need medical care. If we encounter someone who cannot provide these credentials, we become suspicious. They could write MD after their name all day long, but they’re never going to get hired in a hospital. Becoming a doctor is a process defined and enforced by a group. Further, it bears particular markers that we learn to look for and recognize: a degree, a license, references, fluency with a particular jargon (medical terms), and, of course, competence. Anyone could declare themselves to be a doctor, but it wouldn’t make it true.
Similarly, a Catholic priest becomes a Catholic priest by attending a particular kind of seminary, publically taking a particular set of vows, and undergoing a ritual passing of authority within the Catholic Church. He then goes on to work within the Church, in whatever capacity he is needed, as befits his calling. His priesthood is verifiable within his community and recognized in the same way that doctors are recognizable, according to a different set of earmarks. Someone could declare themselves to be a Catholic priest, but this declaration alone would not make it so.
Being a Wiccan and training in a coven isn’t like going to med school or seminary whole cloth, but it is similar in that all three of these positions—doctor, Catholic priest, traditional Wiccan—are acquired through a training process administered by other people. I can’t just read a lot of books and call myself a doctor. I can’t recite the ritual to become ordained as a Catholic priest in my bedroom and instantly become a Catholic priest. Even if I used the titles and learned the jargon, no one in medical or Catholic communities would support my claim. Likewise, I can’t pull a copy of a traditional Wiccan initiation ritual off the internet, perform it, and then expect the local Alexandrian coven to have me over for circle willy-nilly. Not only will they not greet me with open arms, I’ll likely become the butt of some jokes, having offended the community by disregarding their accepted protocol.
This position—that initiation is a social act conferring membership into a group—carries an underlying assumption that lends important clarity. We are assuming that initiation necessarily entails the passing of a skill set, particularly one that is unobtainable outside of the group. This makes traditional Wicca somewhat unique when compared to other spiritual traditions; part of being an initiate entails the cultivation of ability.10 You’re not just receiving membership; you’re receiving special knowledge. This is in keeping with our analogy about medical school. You don’t just magically get the right to be called doctor; you earn it through the demonstration of an elite skill set. This skill set is experiential (we’ll talk more about what that means in chapter 6) and complex enough that it requires significant input from teachers and a cohort of peers. Thus, the process of going to medical school is inherently different from only reading medical textbooks. Further, there is an oral component that cannot be replicated by simply reading.
Traditional Wicca is much the same. Initiation isn’t just about membership. It’s also about access to special knowledge and the ability to demonstrate some kind of proficiency in the more practical tasks that go along with Craft practice (such as organizing a group ritual, performing a particular piece of liturgy, or creating your own spells within the tradition). The specifics of both vary with tradition. Reading books or websites about traditional Wicca is not the equivalent of receiving the oral lore of a coven, or gaining practical experience in a Wiccan environment. For that reason, self-initiation isn’t usually feasible or acknowledged.
There are counterarguments, naturally. Many have been developed at length, especially by other kinds of Wiccans. There’s no two-ways about it: if we agree with the argument I’ve just presented, we necessarily include some people while excluding others. It makes for a Wicca that is not inherently open and welcoming. It is available to some and not to others, and sometimes for reasons that are totally beyond the control of the seeker. What if you are dedicated and sincere, but you simply don’t live near enough to a working coven? What if you work the night shift and the local coven only meets when you’re unavailable? What if you don’t own a car? Or don’t have the extra cash to pay for a babysitter?
We’ll talk more about these and other practical issues in part 3, but for now, understand this: anytime you’re talking about something that has set rules for participation and membership, some people end up being excluded. This always has the potential to hurt feelings and create anger. Many of the counterarguments to the exclusivity of initiation find footing on these grounds. Dedication and sincerity must count for something, surely? While they may be rare, isn’t it possible that a very gifted mind could engage with the same medical textbooks and learn to heal? Isn’t it possible to perform medicine in an emergency and save lives, without the formality of schooling? What about alternative healing? Don’t we all learn at least a little bit about healthcare just by virtue of surviving in the world? And, further, aren’t some doctors just incompetent?
Yes. To all of these.
There are to-the-letter initiates in the world with no sense of commitment to either tradition or to the gods. There are Wiccan high priestesses and high priests who seem to have no magical proclivities at all, who may not be Witches by most definitions beyond title. There are self-taught, solitary, eclectic Wiccans who could outdo them—both in passion and ability—at every turn. There are Witches who should be brought in—who deserve it—but who simply haven’t had fair access or opportunity. And there are Witches who should never have been initiated at all, who bring shame to their covens and do disservice to their traditions. In my experience, initiation cannot be taken as the only indicator of merit or even the primary indicator. It is only a first step.
It’s not a perfect system. Many have argued that Craft proficiency can be developed outside of covens and formal initiations, so those who demonstrate this proficiency should be acknowledged as members. This may be reasonable for some traditions and in certain circumstances, but it really depends on what you think initiation is and what it does. If it conveys knowledge, then initiation may become moot if that knowledge can be acquired elsewhere. If it conveys social status within a group, then only the group can bestow it.
And what about the gods? Surely they play some part in all this.
In many traditions, it is at initiation that the Witch meets the gods. In these cases, the identity of the gods is a protected secret. Only members of the tradition know whom they worship.11 A formal introduction is necessary because that is the nature of those particular gods. Now, as we’ve already discussed, traditional Wicca tends to be orthopraxic rather than orthodoxic (and we’ll dissect these terms at some length in chapter 6). There is no simple, agreed-upon experience of the gods. Some Wiccans believe that the gods act in our lives whether we are initiated into a coven or not. Initiation may reveal a set of secret names or a special body of rituals, but the gods may manifest in other ways to other people. Theoretically, you could have access to them outside of the confines of any one coven’s experience of them. Other Wiccans believe that these gods are unique to their tradition and only respond to members of that tradition. In this case, formal introduction through initiation is essential. The gods do not reveal themselves to outsiders. Another perspective is that the gods are a manifestation of the egregore of the coven. When you’re initiated, you become part of this egregore and can access the gods from this unique standpoint.
All this is to say that whether or not you think the gods are ultimately the source of authority where initiation is concerned depends entirely on your beliefs about the nature of the gods! And there is so much variety within Wicca with regard to the nature of the gods that, no matter your position, you’ll have plenty of opponents. Many have claimed to be initiated by the gods, but what exactly does this mean? And what should we expect it to mean to other people? Again, we mostly find ourselves in a position where we can assert our belonging all day long, but it would be unreasonable to expect people with different beliefs and experiences to accept us into their groups unchallenged. Do the gods play a role in initiation? Absolutely. But what exactly that role is will depend on the tradition and the individual coven.
You may have had internal transformative experiences that you feel are initiatory—whether or not the gods were involved or whether or not you feel like you’ve attained mastery of some skill or other—and those are important. They propel your practice forward and represent personal milestones. Regardless of the type of Craft you practice, no one can take those away from you. Traditional Wiccan initiation is transformative but with the added dimension of belonging to a group.
As a precursor to initiation—or sometimes instead of it—many employ a ritual of dedication. Where initiation marks acceptance within a particular group and is bestowed by someone else upon the initiate, dedication is a commitment on the part of the individual. Whether it takes place in a formal group setting or is performed by a solitary practitioner, a dedication marks a conscious decision to commit time and energy to a particular deity, to a tradition, or just more generally to the study and practice of Witchcraft. Usually, this dedication is ritualized somehow. You may set aside some time and formally declare your intentions, perhaps directly to the gods, to witnesses in a group, or, at the very least, only to yourself. You may agree to a set course of study, to engage in a particular practice, or to adopt a particular lifestyle, usually for a set period of time. At the end of that time, you may reevaluate, either making different choices or committing to your path more permanently.
Usually, dedication represents an initial step on a new path. Many covens perform dedication rituals for new members of outer courts, or they encourage seekers to write and perform their own privately, before they’ve been accepted into any particular group. Formal dedication is a way to lend seriousness to practically any new pursuit, in the same way that signing up for a class is often more serious than reading about a subject casually. Usually, you would take some time to research and experiment on your own before dedicating to any religious or magical practice.
Many seekers write their own dedication rituals or find a meaningful way to improvise them in private. Most introductory Wiccan books contain ideas for what these might look like and even include rituals that you may modify for your own purposes. If dedication takes place in a group context, seekers may take on additional rank and responsibility in the group. For many outer courts and groves, this is the point at which the seeker officially becomes a student. Usually, this is a limited period during which both the student and the coven leaders evaluate each other for compatibility. The student may decide that either the tradition or the individual coven isn’t a good fit after all, and then he would be free to leave and seek elsewhere with no harm done. Likewise, the coven may decide that the student is a poor fit or otherwise unsuited for initiation.
Dedication is a serious step, but in many ways it’s a type of trial period. It’s not uncommon for seekers to move in other directions over the course of dedication. For this reason, dedication is usually nonbinding. In a coven setting, a ritual dedication almost never includes the passing of lineage, magical power, secrets, or core materials. In this way, dedication is fundamentally distinct from initiation. Initiation is a binding process. Even if an initiate someday leaves the tradition—and this absolutely happens—that rite of passage isn’t undone. You can’t un-know an experience any more than you can revert to childhood after becoming an adult. An effective initiatory experience causes fundamental change. You never completely return to your prior state, even if your path eventually leads elsewhere.
A powerful dedication may have a similar effect, but it does not carry the weight of a tradition. In some ways, dedication is a more personal experience. It can lead to profound personal change, though it is necessarily distinct from initiation.
Initiation in Wicca is a complex—and controversial—issue. There aren’t any clear answers that apply to every tradition and every coven. Generally, we seem to agree that initiation is important. It’s one of the earmarks of traditional Wicca, distinguishing it from other types. It’s a rite of passage marking a person as a member of a group. The specifics of that rite will vary from tradition to tradition, but that centrality of the group is the reason why self-initiation is rarely acknowledged in traditional communities. You can’t give yourself access to a closed community any more than you can walk uninvited into a stranger’s house and demand to be part of the family. Membership must be earned. Someone who is already inside the house must invite you in, and this is an act of profound trust. Every coven has its own standards, and every tradition has its own process.
Where initiation isn’t available or isn’t appropriate, a dedication ritual may be the best course of action. The decision to dedicate can be a very profound one, and it often takes place privately, in the seeker’s own time. It’s not the same as initiation, but it can have similar emotional effects. Both types of ritual represent significant rites of passage and mark forward progress in the Craft.
FROM THE CIRCLE
I performed a personal dedication in the woods behind my house about two months after I started devouring books on Witchcraft and Paganism. There was a point at which I decided this was a real thing for me, that I needed to announce to myself and the world in a formal way that I was committed to following this path, wherever it might take me. I wasn’t really talking about this with my husband at that point (I was very shy and a little embarrassed about it, actually), so I waited until my family was out of town for a few days. I took a small plate of cookies and a double shot of cinnamon whiskey into the woods. I spent a while grounding and centering. That alone still felt monumentally dedicating. I’d written out words I was going to speak, but ended up speaking extemporaneously, and I was bawling by the end, but just so happy, so excited. People say it feels like coming home … It really did. I left the cookies and whiskey in the woods for the gods and went back home and had more myself. It was a great day and I really did feel transformed.
—Wren, first degree priestess
6. Heather Montgomery, “A Comparative Perspective,” in Understanding Youth: Perspectives, Identities & Practices, ed. Mary Jane Kehily (London: Sage Publishing, 2007), 62—66.
7. Doreen Valiente, Witchcraft for Tomorrow (Custer, WA: Phoenix Publishing, 1978), 159—64.
8. Helen A. Berger, Evan A. Leach, and Leigh S. Shaffer, Voices from the Pagan Census: A National Survey of Witches and Neo-Pagans in the United States (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2003), 114—18.
9. One of the most prominent instigators was the anonymous author of the now-defunct website www.whywiccanssuck.com. You can still find leftover fragments preserved here: “Why Wiccans Suck,” OoCities, accessed January 4, 2018, http://www.oocities.org/whywiccansstillsuck/.
10. Which is not to say that every member must possess the same skills or the same level of proficiency at any given thing. You will have your own talents and interests!
11. In fact, one of the reasons Wiccans today have a reputation for worshipping a “generic” Lord and Lady is because traditional Wiccans used these titles in place of their names. Eclectic Wiccans, having never received these identities, plugged in others.